Friday, April 2, 2010

A Mixed Bag on Good Friday

I remember being baffled, when I was growing up, as to why the day that Jesus was crucified was called Good Friday.

I don't recall that anyone ever really explained it to me, but it gradually became clear that the word "good" did not refer to what had happened — because, obviously, the act of killing someone is not a good thing — but rather what Jesus' death meant to Christians.

Today, there are some Christians who question whether Jesus had to die, but many insist that it was necessary for him to die (and then rise from the dead) to seal the deal for the redemption of mankind. That is the "good news" that Christians talk about.

Of course, if you speak to a non–Christian, you're apt to be told that today is an ordinary Friday.

Well, however one feels about Good Friday, there is some good news on this particular Friday — at least on the surface.

I'm talking about today's jobs report from the Labor Department — 162,000 jobs were added to the economy in March.

"The pace of job growth in March was the best in three years," writes Javier Hernandez in the New York Times, "bolstering hopes that the still–sputtering recovery was gaining traction."

To be sure, that number is encouraging. And, considering the fact that the recession began in December 2007 and this is really the first time in the interminable duration of this economic downturn that an apparently significant number of jobs has been added to the workforce, it is perhaps not surprising that the focus of many is on that number.

But that number doesn't tell the whole story.

As Frank Ahrens writes in the Washington Post, the unemployment rate remained unchanged, even with the jobs that were added. That wasn't really a surprise.

Forecasters expected it, Ahrens writes. "On Thursday, the number of new jobless claims filed last week dipped slightly, down 6,000 to 439,000. It's tough for this economy to start creating a meaningful number of new jobs until the weekly new jobless claims number gets down into the low 400s and stays there."

And, while it is undoubtedly good news that jobs were added, Ahrens points out that fewer jobs were added than expected. "Most forecasters were expecting about 200,000 new jobs to be created last month," Ahrens writes, "and the shortfall underlines the wobbly nature of this recovery."

Making it wobblier still is the fact that nearly one–third of those jobs (48,000) were temporary jobs compiling Census information. In a way, though, that is good news by itself. Economists were expecting 100,000 Census jobs to be filled, which would have accounted for half of their anticipated gains.

Still, when you consider that job gains fell short of expectations, the total of non–Census jobs (which includes another 40,000 temporary jobs in health services) was only marginally higher than expected.

And Ahrens makes an important point in his article. If you've been watching the economic news more closely than ever — and most people probably have — we've been told repeatedly in recent months that the recession was over or ending, even though unemployment numbers didn't reflect that.

As unpleasant as that is, this is typical. That doesn't prevent it from being disappointing for the unemployed, though, and that poses a serious problem for Democrats who, fresh from their health care triumph, seem to be flexing their legislative muscle for the first time since one of their own was elected president.

"The unemployment rate has stayed high for months, if not quarters, following the end of each previous modern recession," Ahrens writes. And he is correct. In fact, it was a double–edged sword for a couple of presidents — Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton — who were elected in large part because of joblessness and then suffered electoral setbacks two years later when voters did not perceive any improvement.

"The nation's high unemployment rate has become a political issue for the Democratic Party, in charge of the White House and Congress," Ahrens writes. "The party faces pressure to create new jobs without incurring further wrath from Republicans and other deficit hawks, worried that additional government–subsidized stimulus and jobs bills will add dangerously to the budget deficit and national debt."

Of course, the picture could change — for better or worse — between now and November. But the truth, whether the Democrats acknowledge it or not, is that the economy needs to add a lot more jobs every month indefinitely to get back to where it was in December 2007 — and the experts don't think that is in the cards.

"Economists and forecasters expect the rate to hover near 10 percent for at least the remainder of the year," Ahrens observes.

But they've been wrong before.

No comments: