[I haven’t been posting my radio commentaries for while, for no particular reason. Here’s one from yesterday’s show. Audio soon to follow….]
rituals of compulsory patriotism
I’ll get to the May employment report in a moment, but first I wanted to say something about the Chris Hayes controversy from Memorial Day weekend. On his MSNBC show on the Sunday of that weekend, Hayes filed some objections to the use of the word “heroes” to refer to our soldiers, saying among other things that the designation was a way to sell unpopular wars. For this he was fried by the usual idiots, which is to be expected. [For a review, see here.] But then in a disappointing move on Monday, Hayes walked it back, as they say in DC, basically apologizing for having told the truth.
Hayes told me that no one asked him to do this. But this is one of those things that you don’t have to be asked to do—it’s how hegemony works. If you want to keep your TV show, you can’t be seen as criticizing the military in any way. Several times over the years, I’ve had the wonderful feminist scholar Cynthia Enloe on this show (e.g.: July 1, 2010) to talk about the military, one of her major topics of interest. I tried to get her on this week, but couldn’t get hold of her. So I’ll do the next best thing and channel her: there is no other country that calls itself a democracy, Israel excepted, that has so militarized daily life. There’s also no other putative democracy that has so many and frequent compulsory rituals of patriotism. Why do we sing the national anthem at sporting events? Why are we expected to pledge allegiance to the flag? There is no other democracy that has a pledge of allegiance like ours. And back in the 1950s, Eisenhower turned May Day into Law Day and Loyalty Day, thereby turning what was originally an American holiday to celebrate the working class and its radical potential into formal professions of obedience.
I am very sad that Chris Hayes felt like he had to apolgize. But this isn’t about him. In fact, he’s a good guy, admirable in many ways. It’s about our curious notions of freedom, which require constant genuflection to flag, army, and church. With this kind of ingrained deference, who needs fascism?
saggy job market in May
And now onto the May U.S. employment report. It was another saggy report, and revisions to the previous two months data make recent history even saggier than we initially thought. For a while it looked like some weather mischief was distorting the figures—activity normally undertaken in spring could have been brought forward into January and February, which came in stronger than anticipated. But that interpretation longer looks supportable: there’s a real slowdown underway—and the question is now whether we’ve reached the dangerous stage of “stall speed,” on which more in a moment.
Employers added just 69,000 to their payrolls in May, less than a third the long-term monthly average. That’s the lowest gain in a year. The average gain for the last three months is just 96,000, compared with 252,000 for the previous three. Just three sectors—transportation & warehousing, health care, and wholesale trade—together accounted for more than the entire private sector gain, since many other sectors were flat or down. Manufacturing wsa up decently. But construction was down hard, and the once-strong leisure and hospitality sector was also off. Government employment continues its long decline—a real anomaly for a recovery period by historical standards. For all the moaning by the right, government spending and employment has been a drag on recovery, not the usual stimulus. If getting government out of the way was the way to economic health, we’d be bounding about now instead of scraping along the bottom.
The length of the average workweek fell, and average hourly earnings were barely changed. As a result, the total number of hours worked throughout the economy fell, as did the total earnings of the mass of workers. It is impossible to sustain an economy on trends like these over the longer term.
The figures I’ve been quoting come from a survey of 300,000 employers. The simultaneous survey of about 60,000 households looked somewhat better, but not all that much. The share of the adult population working rose by 0.2 point, but that only reversed the decline of the previous two months. And while the household measure of employment showed good gains, they were more than entirely accounted for by gains in part-time employment (much of it among people who’d prefer full-time work). The number of full-time employed fell by over quarter of a million.
The unemployment rate rose a tenth of a point, as an uncommonly large number of people entered a workforce that was unable to accommodate them. But the problem of long-term unemployment, which had gotten a little better for a few months, got worse again in May. The average unemployed person has been out for work for nearly 40 weeks, one of the longest spells on record. And that’s almost three years into an economic recovery.
While this report hardly qualifies as a disaster, it does confirm that there’s a real slowdown underway, and not just some weather-related quirks. The question now is is this just a return to the post-financial crisis norm of weak gains, or a stall-speed transition to something worse? There’s good historical evidence that the U.S. economy just can’t live with slow growth. (And yes, before anyone emails me, I know that growth is not ecologically sound. But until we underake some serious structural reforms, it’s the only game in town.) So if growth gets much slower than it is now, we’re quite likely to fall back into recession. Add the worsening Eurotroubles, and it’s looking to us like the Federal Reserve will begin dusting off the Extraordinary Measures playbook very soon. Because god knows that neither the president nor Congress will do anything of the sort.