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Enormous, Humongous August Trade Deficit Prompts Trade Deficit Bill

Tuesday, October 11th, 2016

dave.johnsonThe U.S. Census Bureau reported Wednesday that the August trade deficit rose 3 percent to $40.73 billion from July’s $39.5 (slightly revised). Both exports and imports rose, with imports rising more than exports. August exports were $187.9 billion up $1.5 billion from July. August imports were $228.6 billion up $2.6 billion.

The goods deficit was $60.3 billion, offset by a services surplus of $19.6 billion.

Imports from China increased 9.5 percent.

Is Increased “Trade” Good If It Really Means Increased Trade Deficits?

“Trade” is generally considered a good thing. But consider this: closing an American factory and firing its workers (not to mention the managers, supply chain, truck drivers, etc affected) and instead producing the same goods in a country with low wages and few environmental protections, then bringing the same goods back to sell in the same stores increases “trade” because now those goods cross a border. This is how “trade” results in a structural trade deficit. Goods once made here are made there, the economic gains move from here to there.

Offshoring production can be a good thing, but only in a full-employment economy. This is because with everyone employed companies can’t find people to do things that need to be done. Meanwhile workers in other countries need the jobs. The people there can afford things made here, and trade balances. Everyone benefits.

But since the 1970s the US has used “trade” and other policies to intentionally drive unemployment up and wages down, to the benefit of “investors” (Wall Street) and executives, who then pocket the wage differential. This pushes the economy’s gains to a few at the top, increasing inequality, which increases the power of plutocrats to further influence policy in their favor.

The US has run a trade deficit since the 1970s. Coincidentally, see this chart:

The stagnation of wages for working people just happens to correspond with the introduction of the intentional “trade” deficit. Again, “trade” in this case means deindustrialization: closing factories here, opening them there and bringing the same goods across a border to sell in the same stores.

Trade Deficit Reduction Act

This week Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY) introduced a bill designed to identify and reduce our enormous, humongous trade deficits. RochesterFirst.com has the story, in Slaughter introduces legislation to reduce trade deficits,

On Monday, Congresswoman Louise Slaughter unveiled the Trade Deficit Reduction Act, which calls for a change in how we approach international trade in order to benefit our workers.

The legislation would put a government-wide focus on addressing the most significant trade deficits that exist between the United States and other countries. The U.S. has run trade deficits since the 1970s.

… “The last thing our community needs as we work to reignite our manufacturing base with advanced technologies like optics and photonics is to undo this progress by enacting another NAFTA-style trade deal. We need a whole new direction in our trade policy, which is why I am standing with workers from PGM Corp. today to unveil the Trade Deficit Reduction Act. This legislation will change how we approach international trade and make it benefit our workers and manufacturers,” said Slaughter.

The bill would require the administration to identify the countries with which the U.S. has the worst trade deficits.

The bill also directs the administration to develop plans of action to address the trade deficits with those countries, with strict deadlines and oversight from Congress.

The intentional trade deficit and other policies to drive up unemployment and drive down wages greatly enrich a few, but history tells us the consequences are dangerous to society. For example, the rising support for Trump and other far-right populists like him around the world.

This post originally appeared on ourfuture.org on October 6, 2016. Reprinted with Permission.

Dave Johnson has more than 20 years of technology industry experience. His earlier career included technical positions, including video game design at Atari and Imagic. He was a pioneer in design and development of productivity and educational applications of personal computers. More recently he helped co-found a company developing desktop systems to validate carbon trading in the US.

Will Artificial Intelligence Mean Massive Job Loss?

Friday, September 30th, 2016

arthurmacewan_cla_fall2012_hb_bioIn the late 1970s, my early years at the University of Massachusetts Boston (UMB), the Department of Economics had two secretaries. When I retired, in 2008, the number of faculty members and students in the department had increased, but there was only one secretary. All the faculty members had their own computers, with which they did much of the work that secretaries had previously done.

I would guess that over those thirty years, the number of departmental secretaries and other secretaries in the university declined by as many as 100, replaced by information technology—what has now become the foundation of artificial intelligence. As I started writing this column, however, I looked on the university’s web site and counted about 100 people with jobs in various parts of the Information Technology Department. Neither this department nor those jobs existed in my early years at UMB. The advance in technology that eliminated so many secretaries also created as many jobs as it eliminated—perhaps more.

My little example parallels the larger and more widely cited changes on U.S. farms in the 20th century—a century when the diesel engine, artificial fertilizers, and other products of industry reduced the percentage of the labor force working on farms from 40% to 2%. No massive unemployment resulted (though a lot of horses, mules, and oxen did lose their jobs). The great expansion of urban industrial production along with the growth of the service sector created employment that balanced the displacement of workers on the farms.

Other cases are cited in debates over the impact of artificial intelligence, examples ranging from handloom weavers’ resistance to new machinery in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution to a widespread concern about “automation” in the 1960s. Generally, however, the new technologies, while displacing workers in some realms of production, also raised productivity and economic growth. There has, as a result, been increased demand for old products and demand for new products, creating more and different jobs.

Historically, it seems, each time prophecies foretold massive unemployment resulting from major technological innovations, they turned out to be wrong. Indeed, often the same forces that threatened existing jobs created new jobs. The transitions were traumatic and harmful for the people losing their jobs, but massive unemployment was not the consequence.

Is This Time Different?

Today, as we move further into the 21st century, many people are arguing that artificial intelligence—sophisticated robotics—is different from past technological shifts, will replace human labor of virtually all types, and could generate massive unemployment. Are things really different this time? Just because someone, once again, walks around with a sign saying, “The world is about end,” doesn’t mean the world really isn’t about to end!

In much of modern history, the substitution of machines for people has involved physical labor. That was the case with handloom weavers in the early 19th century and is a phenomenon we all take for granted when we observe heavy machinery, instead of hand labor, on construction sites. Even as robotics entered industry, as on automobile assembly lines, the robots were doing tasks that had previously been done with human physical labor.

“Robotics” today, however, involves much more than the operation of traditional robots, the machines that simulate human physical labor. Robots now are rapidly approaching the ability, if they do not already have it, to learn from experience, respond to changes in situations, compare, compute, read, hear, smell, and make extremely rapid adjustments (“decisions”) in their actions—which can include everything from moving boxes to parsing data. In part, these capabilities are results of the extreme progress in the speed and memory capacity of computers.

They are also the result of the emergence of “Cloud Robotics” and “Deep Learning.” In Cloud Robotics, each robot gathers information and experiences from other robots via “the cloud” and thus learns more and does so more quickly. Deep Learning involves a set of software that is designed to simulate the human neocortex, the part of the brain where thinking takes place. The software (also often cloud-based) recognizes patterns—sounds, images, and other data—and, in effect, learns.

While individual robots—like traditional machines—are often designed for special tasks, the basic robot capabilities are applicable to a broad variety of activities. Thus, as they are developed to the point of practical application, they can be brought into a wide variety of activities during the same period. Moreover, according to those who believe “this time is different,” that period of transition is close at hand and could be very short. The disruption of human labor across the economy would happen virtually all at once, so adjustments would be difficult—thus, the specter of massive unemployment.


People under thirty may take much of what is happening with information technology (including artificial intelligence) for granted, but those of us who are older find the changes awe-inspiring. Nonetheless, I am persuaded by historical experience and remain skeptical about the likelihood of massive unemployment. Moreover, although big changes are coming rapidly in the laboratories, their practical applications across multiple industries will take time.

While the adoption of artificial technology may not take place as rapidly and widely as the doomsday forecasters tell us, I expect that over the next few decades many, many jobs will be replaced. But as with historical experience, the expansion of productivity and the increase of average income will tend to generate rising demand, which will be met with both new products and more of the old ones; new jobs will open up and absorb the labor force. (But hang on to that phrase “average income.”)

Real Problems

Even if my skepticism is warranted, the advent of the era of artificial intelligence will create real problems, perhaps worse than in earlier eras. Most obvious, even when society in general (on average) gains, there are always losers from economic change. Workers who get replaced by robots may not be the ones who find jobs in new or expanding activity elsewhere. And, as has been the case for workers who lost their jobs in the Great Recession, those who succeed in finding new jobs often do so only with lower wages.

Beyond the wage issue, the introduction of new machinery—traditional machines or robots—often affects the nature and, importantly, the speed of work. The mechanized assembly line is the classic example, but computers—and, we can assume, robotics more generally—allow for more thorough monitoring and control of the activity of human workers. The handloom weavers who opposed the introduction of machines in the early 19th century were resisting the speed-up brought by the machines as well as the elimination of jobs. (The Luddite movement of Northwest England, while derided for incidents of smashing machines, was a reaction to real threats to their lives.)

More broadly, there is the question of how artificial intelligence will affect the distribution of income. However intelligent robots may be, they are still machines which, like slaves, have owners (whether owners of physical hardware, patents on the machines, or copyrights on the software). Will the owners be able to reap the lion’s share of the gains that come with the rising productivity of this major innovation? In the context of the extremely high degree of inequality that now exists as artificial intelligence is coming online, there is good reason for concern.

As has been the case with the information technology innovations that have already taken place—Microsoft, Apple, Google, and Facebook leap to mind—highly educated or specially skilled (or just lucky) workers are likely to share some of the gains from artificial intelligence. But with the great inequalities that exist in the U.S. educational system, the gains of a small group of elite workers would be unlikely to dampen the trend toward greater income inequality.

Income inequality in the United States has been increasing for the past 40 years, and labor’s share of total income has fallen since the middle of the last century—from 72% in 1947 to 63% in 2014. The rise of artificial intelligence, as it is now taking place, is likely to contribute to the continuation of these trends. This has broad implications for people’s well-being, but also for the continuation of economic growth. Even as average income is rising, if it is increasingly concentrated among a small group at the top, aggregate demand may be insufficient to absorb the rising output. The result would be slow growth at best and possibly severe crisis. (See “Are We Stuck in an Extended Period of Economic Stagnation?” D&S, July/August 2016.)

Over the long run, technological improvements that generate greater productivity have yielded some widely shared benefits. In the United States and other high-income countries, workers’ real incomes have risen substantially since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Moreover, a significant part of the gains for workers has come in the form of an increase in leisure time. Rising productivity from artificial intelligence holds out the possibility, in spite of the trends of recent decades, for a shift away from consumerism towards a resumption of the long-term trend toward more leisure—and, I would venture, more pleasant lives.

Yet, even as economic growth over the past 200 years has meant absolute gains for working people, some groups have fared much better than others. Moreover, even with absolute gains, relative gains have been limited. With some periods of exception, great inequalities have persisted, and those inequalities weigh heavily against the absolute rises in real wages and leisure. (And in some parts of the last two centuries—the last few decades in particular—gains for working people have followed from rising productivity and economic growth.)

So even though I’m skeptical that artificial intelligence will generate massive unemployment, I fear that it may reinforce, and perhaps increase, economic inequality.

This article originally appeared at dollarsandsense.org on September 29, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

 is professor emeritus of economics at UMass-Boston and a Dollars & Sense Associate.

Trying to Teach Old Dogs New Tricks

Monday, September 26th, 2016

Last December, after a long period of keeping the Fed funds rate near zero, the FOMC voted unanimouslyto raise the Fed funds rate by one-quarter to one-half points. It was anticipated that would be the first in a series of increases of similar small amounts. But, over the course of this year, the economy has run rather flat. Employment in the areas sensitive to interest rates like construction and manufacturing, after employment gains during 2015, ran flat. Durable goods manufacturing, which had been declining during 2015, continued to fall. In 2015, the unemployment rate fell from 5.7% in January to 5.0% in October. It has since remained stuck at about that level.

Ideally, when the Federal Reserve gets things right, the economy runs neither too hot or too cold. Eight months of flat unemployment rates and tepid GDP growth would suggest the Fed has clearly succeeded in finding a landing that, so far hasn’t meant crashing the economy. At least, on Wednesday, the evidence from modest GDP growth, flat unemployment and very low inflation convinced the six Board of Governors and the president of the New York Federal Reserve Regional Bank to hold steady; a tribute to Janet Yellen’s leadership to stay focused on the data and the real economy.

But, the other three regional bank presidents, Esther George of Kansas City, Loretta Mester of Cleveland and Eric Rosengren of Boston, all voted to raise the rate now. Another point of context is understanding the global economy is growing slower. The other major world economies, Europe, Japan and China, are struggling with slow growth. Their central banks are operating with either zero or negative interest rates. America’s modest growth looks very good next to their anemic performance. So this is making the dollar very strong. And that helps to explain the weakness of U.S. manufacturing because a strong dollar hurts U.S. exports. So even modest increases in U.S. interest rates are big by global standards and could further disadvantage U.S. manufacturing.

A second context is that the excess level of savings, globally, is chasing down projections of interest rate levels. Currently, the consensus at the Fed is that in the midterm, the Fed funds rate is likely to be around 1.9% at the end of 2018, and in the long run the normal rate is expected to be about 2.9%. On the eve of the Great Recession, the Fed funds rate was 5.25%. Compared to 2.9%, a raise to between one-half and three-quarters is not small. It isn’t like when the “normal” rate was above 5%.

The current tension in the FOMC between the Board of Governors and the regional bank presidents continues the controversy whether banks have too much say. Independence of the Fed from the political process is important. But, so too is Fed independence from the banks they need to regulate and oversee to make sure we have economic stability. The vote from Wall Street was positive. The stock market gains show a consensus the Fed is doing it right.

This blog originally appeared in aflcio.org on September 23, 2016.  Reprinted with permission.

William E. Spriggs serves as Chief Economist to the AFL-CIO, and is a professor in, and former Chair of, the Department of Economics at Howard University. Follow Spriggs on Twitter: @WSpriggs.

Jobs Report: Change Still Needed

Friday, July 8th, 2016

The June jobs report – a cheery 287,000 new jobs, with unemployment ticking up to 4.9 percent – is cause for both relief and concern.

The relief is that jobs creation picked up after the slowdown of April (revised upward to 144,000) and May (revised downward to 11,000). Even subtracting the 35,000 jobs “created” by striking Verizon workers returning to work, the June report suggests an economy that is continuing to grow and generate jobs.

The continuing concern is the pace of that growth. Jobs creation is slowing, down from a monthly average of 229,000 last year, to 196,000 in the first quarter, and now to 147,000 in the second quarter. Yet over 15 million people are still in need of full-time work. The percentage of Americans of working age who are employed or looking for work is at 62.7 percent, still below pre-Great Recession levels. Average hourly wages ticked up by 2 cents in June, and wage growth remains slow – 2.6 percent over the past year – far below the levels associated with previous recoveries.

This is the last jobs report before the political conventions formally kick off the presidential campaign (which already feels like a recurring and unending nightmare). For Clinton and Democrats, the report provides some relief that the economy isn’t slowing dramatically. For Donald Trump and the Republicans, it provides continued evidence that the economy isn’t soaring. Working families are likely to continue to wonder when they will begin to share in the recovery.

For Democrat Hillary Clinton, these conditions pose particular perils. President Obama will want Democrats to tout his success – record months of private sector jobs growth, over 14 million jobs created since 2010, seven years of economic growth, unemployment down by more than half since the Great Recession he inherited, the strongest economy in the industrial world.

But most Americans aren’t sharing in the rewards. Median family incomes haven’t recovered to pre-recession levels. The wealthiest 1 percent captured a staggering 52 percent of the rewards of growth from 2009 to 2015. And now a weaker Europe post-Brexit and a stronger dollar suggest that our trade deficits will worsen, putting more pressure on jobs and wages.

Americans are looking for change, not for more of the same. Trump will be spouting that message, with a mix of bluster and preposterous policy to support it (build the wall, slash trillions in taxes, renegotiate the debt, and so on). Clinton and Democrats need to make a clear case on how they will change this economy to work for the many – generating more good jobs, higher wages, and a better deal for working people. More of the same offers no way out.

This blog originally appeared in ourfuture.org on July 8, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Robert Borosage is a board member of both the Blue Green Alliance and Working America.  He earned a BA in political science from Michigan State University in 1966, a master’s degree in international affairs from George Washington University in 1968, and a JD from Yale Law School in 1971. Borosage then practiced law until 1974, at which time he founded the Center for National Security Studies.

Scott Walker Implements Backdoor Way To Drug Test People For Unemployment Benefits

Monday, May 9th, 2016

Bryce CovertUnder current law, states aren’t allowed to institute drug tests for unemployment benefits. But that hasn’t kept Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) from trying.

In July, Walker approved legislation that would implement drug tests for both unemployment benefits and food stamps, neither of which are currently permissible. To get his way, he’s suing the government to allow him to move forward with implementation, arguing that these programs are “welfare” just the same as the welfare cash assistance program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, that does in fact allow states to implement drug tests.

But in the meantime, he took steps this week to do as much as he can under his limited authority. On Wednesday he authorized new rules that allow employers to voluntarily submit information about drug tests they made people take as a condition of employment. If any of those employees end up seeking unemployment benefits but failed the employers’ drug tests or declined to take one, they can be denied benefits unless they agree to get taxpayer-funded drug treatment.

“This new rule brings us one step closer to moving Wisconsinites from government dependence to true independence,” Walker said. “We frequently hear from employers that they have good paying jobs, but they need their workers to be drug-free. This rule is a common-sense reform which strengthens our workforce by helping people find and keep a family supporting job.”

But past experience from states that drug test welfare recipients shows they are anything but common sense. The positive test result rates are far lower than the drug use rate for the American population as a whole — last year, some states didn’t turn up any positive tests at all. Meanwhile, they are quite costly: states collectively spent nearly $2 million administering the programs over the last two years.

Walker’s plans to spread drug tests to other programs are mostly on hold. In the meantime, beyond suing the government, he’s asking Congress to give him permission. He’s reached at least one sympathetic ear in Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL), who chairs the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee that administers food stamps. He’s put forward a measure that would allowing testing for that program.

This blog originally appeared at Thinkprogress.org on May 6, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Bryce Covert is the Economic Policy Editor for ThinkProgress. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, The New York Daily News, New York Magazine, Slate, The New Republic, and others. She has appeared on ABC, CBS, MSNBC, and other outlets.


The Economy Adds 242,000 Jobs in February, and Unemployment Remains Unchanged at 4.9%

Monday, March 7th, 2016
Kenneth Quinnell

The U.S. economy added 242,000 jobs in February and unemployment was 4.9%, unchanged from January, according to figures released this morning by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This continues the record string of months with job growth.

In response to the February jobs numbers, AFL-CIO Chief Economist William Spriggs tweeted the following:




Last month’s biggest job gains were in health care and social assistance (57,000), retail trade (55,000), food services and drinking places (40,000), private educational services (28,000) and construction (19,000). The mining industry continued to see losses. According to BLS, other major industries, including manufacturing, wholesale trade, transportation and warehousing, financial activities, professional and business services, and government, showed little change over the month.

Among the major worker groups, the unemployment rate for adult men (4.5%), adult women (4.5%), teenagers (15.6%), whites (4.3%), blacks (8.8%), Asians (3.8%) and Latinos (5.4%) showed little or no change.

The number of long-term unemployed (those jobless for 27 weeks or more) was essentially unchanged at 2.2 million in January and accounted for 27.7% of the unemployed.

This blog originally appeared in aflcio.org on March 4, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Kenneth Quinnell is a long time blogger, campaign staffer, and political activist.  Prior to joining AFL-CIO in 2012, he worked as a labor reporter for the blog Crooks and Liars.  He was the past Communications Director for Darcy Burner and New Media Director for Kendrick Meek.  He has over ten years as a college instructor teaching political science and American history.

This week in the war on workers: Chicago teachers protest planned cuts and layoffs

Tuesday, February 9th, 2016

Chicago schools and teachers are once again under serious attack from Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, and once again, the Chicago Teachers Union is showing that it is a powerful force. Thousands of teachers and supporters rallied Thursday, with 16 people arrested, protesting massive proposed cuts and layoffs:

Officials with Chicago Public Schools said Tuesday they’re ready to cut $100 million from school budgets and force teachers to pay more pension costs after their union rejected the latest contract offer, ratcheting up the tone of contentious negotiations that have lasted over a year. […]

The latest flare-up followed an offer a CTU bargaining team rejected Monday, after both sides had deemed it “serious.” The proposal included pay raises and job security, but union officials said it didn’t address school conditions or a lack of services.

The teachers have authorized a strike, though that wouldn’t happen until spring if it happens at all.

? Weeks after the West Virginia Senate passed an anti-union bill, the state House followed suit. A PPP poll conducted for the state AFL-CIO found high support for unions and opposition to laws weakening them.

? A union has filed a National Labor Relations Board petition to represent New York Uber drivers.

? Speaking of which, New York Uber drivers are pissed, with good reason.

A crowd of 600 drivers gathered outside the Uber office in Long Island City, Queens, to protest a 15 percent reduction in fares last month, which also means 15 percent lower wages. That pay cut is on top of Uber’s 20 percent slashing of fares in 2014. All things being equal, drivers who began less than two years ago have seen their pay tumble a whopping 35 percent.

Actually, it’s not just New York.

Last September, Dallas-area drivers for UberBlack, the company’s high-end car service, received an email informing them that they would be expected to start picking up passengers on UberX, its low-cost option.

The next day, when the policy was scheduled to go into effect, dozens of drivers caravaned to Uber’s office in downtown Dallas and planted themselves outside until company officials met with them.

? Indiana repealed prevailing wage protections to let them lower wages on public construction projects … and costs have gone up since then.

Not your typical Alabama labor story:

The state’s largest employer – the University of Alabama at Birmingham and UAB Medicine – plans to raise employees’ minimum wage to $11 an hour beginning in March.

UAB employs more than 23,000 faculty and staff. The institution currently pays $8.24 an hour, about a dollar higher than the federally mandated minimum wage.

? For union members: seven steps to opening up bargaining.


This blog originally appeared in dailykos.com on February 6, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006 and Labor editor since 2011.

Economists React to October Jobs Report

Monday, November 16th, 2015

Jackie TortoraOctober provided good news for the economy. The economy added 271,000 jobs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, a big increase over September’s number of 137,000 jobs. The unemployment rate also fell fractionally from 5% to 5.1%.

Average hourly private-sector earnings were up 9 cents, which, if sustained, will finally start producing real wage gains for ordinary working Americans.

In response to the October jobs report, AFL-CIO Chief Economist William E. Spriggs said:

While this month’s numbers are good, job growth has yet to deliver sustained wage gains that working people need to lead better lives. This means we face the deeper challenge of fashioning policy changes to create the institutional structure for shared prosperity; aggressive, progressive solutions, not corporate driven trade deals. Unfortunately, while our economy remains fragile, the now public TPP text proves our fears of just how damaging it could be to our economy. The fight for full employment and rising wages starts with rejecting this bad deal and embracing economic policies that put people and families first.

 AFL-CIO Senior Economic Policy Adviser Thomas Palley added:

This report is strong, which is good news. But the report also reveals the contradictions in our economy. Good news for Main Street is interpreted as bad news by Wall Street. The challenge for the Federal Reserve, and the standard by which it will be judged, is to ensure this type of news becomes ‘normal’ and not a one month exception that is used to justify hitting the brakes.

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on November 10, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jackie Tortora is the blog editor and social media manager at the AFL-CIO.

Jobs Report: Conservative Economic Illusions Are Unmasked

Friday, October 2nd, 2015

Isaiah J. PooleThe surprisingly disappointing September unemployment report – 142,000 new jobs created compared to an expectation of more than 200,000 – should break once and for all two illusions about our ability to sustain a robust economy.

The first illusion is that there is no penalty for the continuing lack of public investment in the fundamentals of the real economy – from the schools that develop the skills and creativity of our future workforce to the transportation networks that enable us to move goods and people through our communities.

Years ago we should have had a place a major plan to bring all of our common assets – from schools to roads to water systems to our energy grid – into the 21st century. Not only would this have created millions of jobs, but it would have set the nation up for sustainable, more ecologically responsible, long-term growth. We should have taken advantage of the near-zero borrowing costs and the willingness of the markets – notwithstanding the sky-is-falling bleating of the chattering class – to allow the United States to take on more debt as long as it was wisely used to build for the future.

Labor Secretary Thomas Perez said in an interview on Bloomberg today that the federal spending constraints imposed by the Republican Congress – the “sequester caps” – mean the economy is producing 500,000 fewer jobs a year than it would if those constraints were lifted. Those jobs would range from construction workers to teachers to health care workers.

The second illusion is that we can continue down the road of corporate-driven so-called “free trade” – which has given us month after month of “enormous, humongous” trade deficits – and have a strong Main Street economy. Earlier this year, the White House Council of Economic Advisors issued a report that noted that during the second quarter of the year, “net exports subtracted nearly 2 full percentage points from quarterly GDP growth.” Of course it would: every month of trade deficits running between $40 billion and $50 billion represents that much less economic activity that would benefit American workers and the American economy. Plus, our strong dollar makes our exports more expensive and thus less attractive to potential foreign customers. It is no wonder, then, that this month’s jobs report reflects continued weakness in our manufacturing sector, which would be a source of good=paying jobs if it were stronger.

Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen has warned repeatedly that there was a limit to what the Fed’s zero-interest-rate policy could accomplish without a pro-growth and pro-people fiscal policy to complement it. That was clear even with the sunnier initial summer jobs reports. Now that those reports have been revised to show that we’ve been averaging only an additional 167,000 jobs a month in this past three months – just enough to tread water – the truth of what Yellen has been saying is in even sharper relief.

How the Obama administration and Congress should respond is clear: End the senseless budget sequester caps, get a long-term transportation bill passed this month and don’t approve a Trans-Pacific Partnership trade bill that continues the pattern of chronic trade deficits and outsourced jobs. The political machinery in Washington seems almost hopelessly constipated, but we should still seize the professed shock of this month’s employment news to change the political conversation in a way that could lead to long-term change.

This blog was originally posted on Our Future on October 2, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Isaiah J. Poole has been the editor of OurFuture.org since 2007. Previously he worked for 25 years in mainstream media, most recently at Congressional Quarterly, where he covered congressional leadership and tracked major bills through Congress. Most of his journalism experience has been in Washington as both a reporter and an editor on topics ranging from presidential politics to pop culture. His work has put him at the front lines of ideological battles between progressives and conservatives. He also served as a founding member of the Washington Association of Black Journalists and the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association.

Why the Fed Isn't Close to Achieving Full Employment and Shouldn’t Be Discussing Raising Interest Rates—the Case of Black Workers

Thursday, August 27th, 2015

William SpriggsThe recently released minutes of the last meeting of the Federal Reserve Board’s Open Market Committee revealed there was serious discussion of the fact the labor market still showed signs of weakness. A primary issue was the lack of evidence of strong wage growth, which would be a clear signal the labor market was tightening. This has unleashed the Wall Street bettors, who want a jump on the Fed’s changing monetary policy, giving them more active play on the bond market, where interest rate movements can fuel their gambling addiction. The voices being raised to have the Fed raise interest rates march out lots of theory to predict uncontrolled inflation, despite a global slowdown, falling oil and natural resource prices, and flat real wages. We must hope that the Fed makes policy based on what is good for the economy, not what is good for the reckless gamblers on Wall Street.

The current directive to the Fed comes from the Humphrey-Hawkins Act, which in 1978 established that the nation’s primary economic policy is to achieve full employment, within reason—not by creating unsustainable budget deficits or igniting uncontrollable inflation. Unfortunately, many have twisted the legislation’s purpose to their own ends, changing the act’s intent to balance budgets and maintain low inflation in hopes those policies don’t increase unemployment. The act does not place full employment on equal footing with fighting inflation; it merely constrains full-employment policy to a measure of prudence.

With that in mind, the Fed should understand it is not at full employment. In addition to wages rising with productivity, a main tenant of evidence of full employment, the Fed needs to embrace some additional senses of full employment. One is that discrimination would disappear, since it would become prohibitively costly in a full-employment economy.

A problem for the Fed is that there is little diversity in its staffing, which reflects the low level of diversity among economists. Economists have convinced themselves there is little to explain about the persistence of the disparity in black and white unemployment rates, the ratio of which remains stubbornly at 2-to-1. It is enough to assume there are lower skill levels among African Americans and societal structural issues that permanently disadvantage African Americans, and that these circumstances will persist no matter what the level of unemployment.

Of course, many economists do appreciate that this pat answer is hard to reconcile with the great sensitivity that the black unemployment rate has to the economy—a tightening labor market brings down the black unemployment rate at twice the rate for whites. That makes the structural argument difficult to maintain.

There is another key element. The unemployment rate gaps between blacks and whites are stubborn at every education level, and the gaps are glaring. In fact, what the unemployment rate gaps for blacks suggest is the old adage that blacks must be twice as good to compete in the labor market with whites. The unemployment rate for blacks with more education is similar to that of whites with less education. This is true for blacks at all education levels, from college graduates to associate degree holders to high school graduates. And it is very difficult to argue that those huge gaps do not reflect discrimination.

When the labor market tanks, and the number of unemployed workers per job opening goes up, the gaps faced by better educated blacks to less educated whites get wider. Black college graduates find themselves with unemployment rates closer to white high school graduates, and blacks with associate degrees find themselves with unemployment rates worse than white high school dropouts.

When the labor market tightens, unemployment rates for blacks with more education improve such that they are better than those of less educated whites, though still off the mark compared with equally educated whites. When employers are faced with two unemployed working people for each job opening, many stop seeing color and start seeing qualifications. Employers faced with a growing economy and smaller applicant pools find it would now cost to discriminate by passing over the qualified African American applicant. We don’t know what would happen if the nation maintained its commitment to full employment, because just as the black unemployment rates near parity with whites, our economic policy switches all reverse to slow the economy, increase unemployment and push blacks off the path to equality.

The Fed needs to see that its policies are part of that problem. Slowing the economy before we reach full employment means employers never have to raise wages nor understand the costs of their discriminatory practices.

This blog originally appeared in AFL-CIO on August 21 ,2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: William E. Spriggs is the Chief Economist for AFL-CIO. His is also a Professor at Howard University. Follow Spriggs on Twitter: @WSpriggs.

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