The latest report from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics has made for happy headlines, trumpeting substantial job growth for three months running. It is "consistent with the view that, in spite of a horrendous first-quarter GDP result ... the economy is well underpinned," Joshua Shapiro, chief U.S. economist at MFR Inc., told The Wall Street Journal.
President Barack Obama welcomed Thursday's news. "It gives you a sense that the economy has built momentum," he told a group of high-tech workers in Washington, D.C. "We are making progress."
But, he added, more progress could be made with measures to increase purchasing power, such as a higher minimum wage, equal pay for women and more road projects.
The economy does seem to be picking up steam at last, 5½ years after Mr. Obama entered the White House.
But if you look at the data over a decade, comparing 2004 and 2014, including total employment numbers, jobless rates and labor-participation levels, the picture is much less encouraging.
At least seven million jobs less encouraging.
For example, the population has grown by 11 percent, 24.5 million, over that 10-year span. But the number of employed persons, which usually keeps pace with population increases, has grown roughly half as fast - 5.6 percent.
The ratio of the employed to total population, which was as high as 66 percent under President Bill Clinton, has fallen today to 59.4 percent. That means fewer workers are supporting more non-workers.
If that ratio were as high today as it was in 2004, the economy would have at least 7 million additional jobs.
The number of Americans not in the labor force has increased from 34 percent in 2004 to 37.2 percent, the equivalent of 8 million Americans. The number of discouraged job seekers, not counted as unemployed because they have given up looking for work, at 6.7 million is not much below the all-time high of 7.2 million reached in May 2013, and well above the 2004-2008 average of 4.9 million.
Add in underemployed workers and others counted in the broadest definition of unemployment, and the total for unemployed and under-employed Americans is more than 20 million people. This shortfall costs the American economy trillions of dollars.
Some of this ominous shift can be blamed on an aging population.
However, the ongoing "jobless" nature of the recovery also points to the broad failure of efforts like those touted Thursday by the president to raise output by government action, whether it be the 2009-10 federal stimulus splurge or the pump-priming efforts of the Federal Reserve.
Such activity hasn't worked as advertised, but its advocates doggedly keep on trying to sell more government stimulus.
And its failure is probably because the things holding back the economy are like the tiny but innumerable strings the Lilliputians used to bind Gulliver.
A column by Chicago University economist John Cochrane in Thursday's Wall Street Journal blames red tape, a dysfunctional tax system, social programs that create incentives not to work and continuing problems with education and immigration.
He also cited the rising complexity of government intervention in the economy and uncertainty about the next target of the federal bureaucracy.
A fundamental policy shift in Washington is needed to cut these strings and free the real economy to rise again.
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