WASHINGTON D.C. -- "Joblessness is here to stay. One current assessment rates the chances a laid-off worker will ever regain his or her income level as only one in four," said Edward Corcoran, a Senior Fellow on national security issues at GlobalSecurity.org.
I recently met with Corcoran for lunch at Kramerbooks, a bookstore/cafe combo within walking distance of the White House. (The location made it impossible to ignore President Barack Obama's stupefying tone deafness to the pervasive unemployment problems facing millions of Americans.) Corcoran studies joblessness in part because he views it as a national security threat. High unemployment rates, especially among young workers, have led to protests in countries as varied as Latvia, Chile, Greece, Bulgaria and Iceland, and have contributed to strikes in Britain and France.
Don Peck, writing in The Atlantic this month, shares Corcoran's concern:
The former [brief unemployment] is a necessary lubricant in any engine of economic growth. The latter [chronic unemployment] is a pestilence that slowly eats away at people, families, and, if it spreads widely enough, the fabric of society. Indeed history suggests that it is perhaps society's most noxious ill.
Over lunch, Corcoran reminded me that in primitive societies everyone works because they must, to provide essentials for survival. As societies become more industrially complex, fewer people are needed to produce essentials, so they produce luxuries designed to enrich everyone's lives. In America the need for a chicken in every pot has been superseded by the desire for a big-screen TV in every bedroom.
Corcoran believes the discrepancy between essential and non-essential services has become untenable in the United States. Agriculture now occupies only about one percent of the U.S. working population. Manufacturing and construction -- combined -- now occupy only about 10 percent.
What is everyone else doing? In my neighborhood, it seems they're all going into the nail care business. But many non-essential services like this are the first to go during a recession. Here's Corcoran on the can of worms created by replacing a manufacturing economy with a service economy:
Business services: The recent downsizing of white collar workers by many large corporations vividly demonstrated how flexible the concept of "essential" management is.
Financial services: Some of these workers are necessary for the functioning of the economy, but others helped undermine the economy. Many of the financial jobs lost this decade were not only nonessential but counterproductive.
Computer and information services: These services are the essential skeleton of a modern economy, for they control manufacturing lines and greatly increase the efficiency of office operations. However, many of these services are nonessential and even trivial -- such as teenage text messaging and computer games.
Hospitality services: These workers support business travel, personal vacations, and simple pleasures such as dining out, but the recession starkly demonstrated how nonessential many of these services really are.
Religious and cultural services: They enrich our lives, but many of these services are nonessential and even frivolous.
The recent recession forced corporations and households to reevaluate what is essential, causing many to conclude they can get by with less. This has left the U.S. with millions of extra workers, qualified people who cannot find work. Will their jobs ever come back? Corcoran is skeptical:
Jobs lost to globalization will probably never come back, and the shift of any significant number of manufacturing jobs back to the United States in the near term seems unlikely. Stricter regulation of financial services means many of these jobs will not come back either.
To ease the situation temporarily, President Obama could create more government jobs. In The Atlantic Peck argued that we are "living through a slow-motion social catastrophe, one that could strain our culture and weaken our nation for many, many years to come. We have a civic -- and indeed a moral -- responsibility to do everything in our power to stop it now before it gets even worse."
Obama appears to be waiting and seeing -- hoping for new industries to create new jobs. Ironically it is China, not the U.S., that is leading the global race to design and manufacture innovative clean energy equipment -- "a competition based less on cheap labor and shoddy goods, but on sharp minds and long-term perspective," said Corcoran, who predicts U.S. joblessness is here to stay for at least a decade.
New York Times columnist Paul Krugman also fears a lost decade. In a lecture at the London School of Economics last summer, Krugman said he has "no idea" how the economy could quickly return to strong, sustainable growth. Corcoran agrees and expects to see further deterioration in the job market. "Just over 70 percent of American workers hold jobs for which there is decreasing demand, increasing supply, or both." If he is right, there is more pain headed our way, and the U.S. is already in a hole more than 10 million jobs deep.
Economist Heidi Shierholz, who works at the Economic Policy Institute, told Peck:
We haven't seen anything like this before: a really deep recession combined with a really extended period, maybe as much as eight years, all told, of highly elevated unemployment. We're about to see a big national experiment on stress."
In Harper's magazine this month, Alan Tonelson argued the only way out is a resurgence of American manufacturing. You can read Tonelson's essay here.
Arianna weighed in on the state of the American middle class -- "It's crumbling!" -- during an appearance on "Real Time With Bill Maher." You can watch her segment here.
Playwright Jeffrey Essmann described what it feels like to be "slouching toward social services" here.
UPDATE 10.8.10: The economy sheds 95,000 more jobs. The jobless rate has now topped 9.5 percent for 14 straight months, the longest stretch since the 1930s.