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No wonder the rest of the world is so worried about our future. Sadly, other regions won't be able to help us out, as happened in 2008. Europe is in the middle of its own debt crisis. And emerging markets like China, which helped sustain American companies by buying everything from our heavy machinery to our luxury goods during the recession, are now slamming on the growth brakes. Why? They're worried about inflation, which is partly a result of the Fed's policy of increasing the money supply, known as quantitative easing. Much of that money ended up in stock markets, enriching the upper quarter of the population while the majority has been digging coins out from under couch cushions. Investor money also chased oil prices way up (which hurts the poor most of all) and created bubbles in emerging economies. Now these things are coming back to bite us.
All this sounds complicated, and it is. But it's important to understand that our economy has changed over the past several decades in important and profound ways that politicians at both ends of the spectrum still don't get. There are half a billion middle-class people living abroad who can do our jobs. At the same time, technology has allowed companies to weather the recession almost entirely through job cuts. While Democrats may be downplaying the bad news, Republicans, obsessed with the sideshow that is the debt-ceiling debate, haven't offered a more cohesive explanation for the problems or any real solutions. Rather, both sides continue to push myths about what's happening and how the economy will or won't recover. Here are five of the most destructive myths and why we need to figure out a different path to growth.
Myth No. 1: This is a temporary blip, and then it's full steam ahead
True, only 12.2% of economists surveyed in the past few days by the Philadelphia Fed believe that the current backsliding will develop into a double-dip recession (though that percentage is up significantly from the start of the year). Avoiding a double dip is not the same as creating growth that's strong enough to revive the job market. In fact, there's an unfortunate snowball effect with growth and employment when they are weak. It used to take roughly six months for the U.S. to get back to a normal employment picture after a recession; the McKinsey Global Institute estimates it will take five years this time around. That lingering unemployment cuts GDP growth by reducing consumer demand, which in turn makes it harder to create jobs. We would need to create 187,000 jobs a month, growing at a rate of 3.3%, to get to a healthy 5% unemployment rate by 2020. At the current rate of growth and job creation, we would maybe get halfway there by that time.
Myth No. 2: We can buy our way out of all this
While a third round of stimulus shouldn't be off the table in an emergency (Obama has already indicated it's a possibility if things get much worse), the risk-reward ratio isn't good. For starters, our creditors the largest of which is China would squawk about the debt implications of doling out more money, not to mention the risk of creating hot-money bubbles in their economies. That's almost beside the point, though, because the stimulus which has taken the form of Fed purchases of T-bills designed to reduce long-term interest rates and make homeowner refinancing easier isn't much help if homeowners don't have jobs that allow them to make any payments at all. Although foreclosures are declining, the supply of foreclosed homes for sale is undermining the real estate market, which is dampening consumer spending and sentiment. "It's time to move beyond financial Band-Aids," says Mohamed El-Erian, CEO of Pimco, the world's largest bond trader. "It's clear that the stimulus-induced recovery hasn't overcome the structural challenges to large-scale job creation."
Myth No. 3: The private sector will make it all better
There is a fundamental disconnect between the fortunes of American companies, which are doing quite well, and American workers, most of whom are earning a lower hourly wage now than they did during the recession. The thing is, companies make plenty of money; they just don't spend it on workers here.