A Wake Up Call on Jobs

President Obama has announced a White House Jobs Summit for next month. At least that's the beginning of recognition that the unemployment rate is unacceptable. The measured rate is now 10.2 percent, but if you count people who have given up or who are involuntarily working part time, the real rate is over 17 percent.

This spells political catastrophe for Democrats in the 2010 mid-term election, as foreshadowed by the recent losses in the New Jersey and Virginia governors' races. But Obama's top economic advisers, such as Larry Summers, don't seem to get it. They continue to resist the idea of a second stimulus package.

"I think we got the Recovery Act right," Summers recently told the Washington Post's Alec MacGillis, adding, "We always recognized that America's problems were not created in a week or a month or a year and that they were not going to be solved quickly. We designed the Recovery Act to ramp up over time, through 2010, and to make sure that the investments we made were important for the country's future."

And other senior Obama officials such as White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and Office of Management and Budget Chief Peter Orszag are more concerned with cutting the deficit than spending more money to reduce joblessness. According to the Wall Street Journal, Orszag is sympathetic to the idea of a commission to cap government spending and Emanuel is floating the idea of spending some of the money that has been repaid from TARP bank bailouts on deficit reduction.

But this is putting the cart before the horse. We need larger deficits now, in order to get a real recovery going, so that a healthy economy will allow us to pay down public debt later. Specifically, we need to focus on three big things:

State and Local Fiscal Relief. You often hear that outlays on public infrastructure are not a good source of stimulus because they take too long to plan. But emergency revenue sharing to states and localities takes effect almost instantly because it prevents cuts in existing programs and layoffs of existing workers. Today, states and localities are not only cutting back outlays because their constitutions require balanced budgets; they are raising taxes, usually regressive taxes. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the three year state fiscal gap 2010-2012, will be at least $470 billion. So more than half of the federal stimulus is undermined by state and local belt tightening.

Accelerated Spending on Public Works. The Roosevelt administration, in an era before computers, got a lot of public works spending going in less than a year. There are massive unmet needs in public infrastructure. The Obama administration needs a short term and a long term strategy. Projects such as school repair and expansion, which can get underway in a few months, should get fast-tracked funding commitments right away. Longer term needs, such as smart electrical grids and modernization of water and sewer systems, expanded mass transit, and green energy, should be targeted for funding in 2011, so that plans can get on the drawing boards now.

Wage Subsidies. It is fashionable among American conservatives to make fun of the "rigidity" of European labor markets. But Germany today has a flexible and creative program of wage subsidies. The result is that the German unemployment rate has pealed at around 8 percent while ours has crashed through 10 percent. German companies suffering a downturn because of recession can get wage subsidies for their workers. Workers can also be put on reduced working time (kurzarbeit) and the German unemployment office will make up most of the loss in their take-home pay. According to the German government, a worker cut to 40 percent of his or her normal hours will end up with about 85 percent of usual take-home pay. Today, some 1.4 million German workers have been able to keep their jobs and most of their earnings thanks to the kurzarbeit plan. German firms keep their workers connected to the company, workers hold on to their jobs, and there are also incentives for workers on reduced time to use their spare hours to get additional training.

All told, we need additional federal spending in the range of at least $500 billion. But won't this increase the deficit? Yes it will, and that is the whole point. We are in a classic downward spiral of reduced household income and wealth, and a weakened financial sector. Many businesses face reduced consumer demand, compounded by a reluctance of banks to advance to any but the most blue chip borrowers.

In this climate, GDP growth can turn positive but companies are reluctant to hire. Full recovery will not resume spontaneously based on household or business demand, and the only source of increased demand to break the cycle is the government.

One of the most widespread and mistaken assumptions is that this bleak future is just baked into the cake. Because of the legacy of the financial collapse, and the limits of deficit spending, supposedly, we are just stuck with it. You hear that in testimony from Federal Reserve Chairman Bernanke, and it is repeated mindlessly by the media.

This fatalism is just plain wrong, and history's great counter-example is World War II. In 1939, unemployment was stuck around 16 percent. GDP growth after 1933 was solid -- 6 to 10 percent a year with the exception of 1937 -- but the wounded economy was just not generating net jobs. Many expert commentators of that era concluded that there was something about the maturity of capitalism, or the replacement of human workers by machines, that consigned the economy to a chronic structurally high, rate of unemployment.

Then World War II broke out. The US government borrowed huge sums to recapitalize US industry and re-employ and retrain US worker in war production, to employ 12 million men and women in the armed forces, and to invest massively in science and technology to develop advanced weapons and substitutes for materials in short supply. The unemployment rate dropped to 2 percent by 1943. Deficits were enormous, as high as 29 percent of GDP in 1942 (this year they will be about 10 percent) but the economy grew at 12 percent a year for the four years of the war, and the high unemployment of the 1930s never returned.

The deficit hawks of that era worried that the very large national debt would be a millstone around the economy. At the end of 1945, the debt was 122 percent of GDP, compared to about 55 percent today, but of course the end of 1945 was the beginning of the 25 year postwar boom -- the longest sustained boom in US history. GDP grew at 3.8 percent a year. The average deficit was about 1.1 percent, and with the economy growing much faster than the debt, the debt to GDP ratio declined to about 30 percent by the 1970s. So, we can grow our way out of debt -- but we need to get a real recovery going first.

If past Obama White House Summits are any guide, this one will invite a broad cross section of people: trade unionists and deficit hawks, investment bankers and labor economists, industrialists and Republicans; and everyone will speak of the importance of their pet project for job creation. That's not good enough. This is not a moment for another White House gab fest. It's a time for progressive leadership.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect, a senior fellow at Demos, and author of Obama's Challenge.

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