Jonathan Cohn is a senior editor at The New Republic.
Did investors dump stocks on Monday because they'd lost faith in America's ability to pay its bills? Because they thought the federal government would cut spending further, slowing down the economy? Because they were adjusting to the latest news from Europe? The list of experts qualified to address those questions is long. And it does not include me.
But I don't need the stock market to tell me the American economy is sick. And you shouldn't either. More than 9 percent of Americans looking for work can't find it, according to official statistics, not including those who have stopped looking for work altogether. Almost 4.5 million have been out of work for more than a year, according to a new congressional report, with another 1.7 million out of work for between six months and a year.
As many of us have written before — Matt Yglesias has been consistently sharp on this point — this is a crisis. A real crisis. And a crisis partly, although not entirely, of our own making. We can't rewrite history to prevent the housing bubble, and we can't reach across the oceans to fix the financial troubles of Europe. But in the present day and in this country, we can put more spending money in the pockets of people who will spend it, by extending unemployment insurance and renewing a payroll tax holiday. We can put construction workers back on the job, by financing projects to fix up America's roads, public schools, and other common assets. We can provide assistance to the states, so that they'll stop adding people to the unemployment lines.
And on a day otherwise filled with gloom, I saw one sign that maybe we're about to have a real conversation about doing those sorts of things, if only in moderation.
It came during President Obama's mostly unremarkable remarks from the White House. He seemed a bit listless, to be honest, and he spent much of his time talking about deficit reduction, which has become distraction from (and perhaps impediment to) action to bolster employment. But then Obama said something else: "The good news here is that by coming together to deal with the long-term debt challenge, we would have more room to implement key proposals that can get the economy to grow faster."
At a few points during the debt ceiling debate, usually in response to progressive critics, Obama vowed that a deal would make it easier to put the deficit issue "to rest" and focus more intently on jobs. It hasn't exactly worked out that way, thanks to S&P and the formation of a super-commission that will suck up Washington's oxygen for the next few months. But Obama, happily, may be trying to shift the conversation anyway. The White House has scheduled a midwest bus tour for later this month and, in his Monday remarks, he went on to endorse most of the policies I listed above. Better still, he made an even more explicit pitch on infrastructure later in the day, at a fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee:
Well, the truth is now would be a great time for us to rebuild America. Interest rates are low. All these folks who worked in the housing bubble, construction workers and contractors, they're ready to work. They're willing to come on a job on time, under budget.
We could transform America right now, rebuilding our roads and our bridges and our airports and also rebuilding a new infrastructure for the 21st century — high-speed rail and a new generation of air traffic control that could actually save 15 percent of fuel costs and as a consequence reduce global warming. The problem is not that we can't do it. The problem is, is that we haven't shown the political will to do it.
I don't want to get carried away here. This White House isn't known for the kind of message discipline it would take to shift the political conversation over to an employment agenda — on Monday, for instance, the message was all too typically muddled. And even a relentless, focused campaign of persuasion might not be enough to enact a serious set of initiatives, given GOP resistance. As my colleague Jonathan Chait notes, Republicans have even turned against the payroll tax holiday – a tax cut! – for the very simple reason that Obama is now for it.
Still, if this is the beginning of a serious push — emphasis on the "if" — it's possible the Republicans would relent, putting in place the policies that could put substantial numbers of Americans back to work. And if not? Well, then, at least Americans would have a better sense of who has ideas for boosting employment – and who doesn't. Either way, we'd have taken a step towards fixing our real economic problems, of which the stock market collapse is most likely a lagging indicator.