Jerry Walker of Denver, Colorado, searches the job posting board at a local employment center. (Photo: Matthew Staver / Bloomberg News)
Senator McCain and his friends no doubt still believe that the economy's fundamentals are strong, but Friday's jobs numbers clearly show how bad things have gotten. The 6.1 percent unemployment rate reported for August is almost as high as the worst levels from the last recession. A broader measure of labor market weakness, that includes people who can only find part-time work or who have given up looking for jobs, is higher than at any point in the last recession.
When the labor market weakens, workers have less bargaining power with their employers. As a result, wages are trailing more than 2 percentage points behind inflation over the last year.
Wages are virtually the entire income for most workers. If the purchasing power of their wages falls by 2 percent, this is the equivalent of a 2 percentage point increase in their tax rate.
This is worth thinking about. Most workers in the country have just seen the equivalent of a 2 percentage point increase in their tax rate, and it has gotten almost no attention. By contrast, Senator McCain is claiming that the economy will collapse if we increase the tax rate by 3.6 percentage points for people who can't remember how many homes they own.
It is easy to understand how a typical family experiences real hardship when their wages don't keep up with the price of food, gas, and heating oil. It's a bit harder to understand how the folks who can't keep track of their homes will suffer by restoring tax rates to the Clinton-era levels.
This brings us to the other important point about the Friday jobs numbers. The economy is in bad shape and getting worse. This disaster is happening while we are experimenting with the tax policies advocated by Senator McCain. We have an economy that is now shedding jobs at the rate of almost 100,000 a month. There is no prospect of turnaround in sight. We could have half a million fewer jobs by the time the next president is sworn into office than we do today.
This is the Bush-McCain economy. Senator McCain may have forgotten, but President Bush already tried his economic policies and the results are not good. We have just been through a business cycle in which the wage of the typical worker and the typical working family fell. This is the first time that has ever happened.
As bad as the situation is, it will surely get worse as the recession deepens. Wages and incomes will fall further behind inflation as the unemployment rate continues to rise. By contrast, the Clinton-era tax rates were associated with the most prosperous period since the early seventies.
As I have written many times, Clinton's policies do not deserve all the credit for the prosperity of the late 90s, and President Bush's polices do not deserve all the blame for the economy's poor performance in the current decade.
However, it strains credulity to argue that the Clinton-era tax rates are a recipe for stagnation, while the Bush-McCain tax cuts for the rich are the road to prosperity. When he pushes his tax cuts as a remedy for the economy's ills, Senator McCain is effectively imitating Groucho Marx's famous line: "what are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?"
At this point, McCain should be embarrassed to even say that tax cuts for the rich help the economy. Tax cuts for the rich help the rich, they don't help the economy. It's that simple.
This economic catastrophe was many years in the making. There is no painless way to recover from the collapse of the housing bubble and the correction from an over-valued dollar. We do know that Senator McCain's plan to keep giving the rich more money is not a road to prosperity because that is exactly what we have been doing.
We can't know exactly how Senator Obama will address the economy's problems if he takes office in January in part because we don't know exactly where the economy will be. However, a plan that focuses on supporting ordinary workers and promoting clean technologies, is likely to produce much better results than policies that are focused on redistributing even more income to the wealthy.