Unemployment will almost certainly be in double-digits next year -- and may remain there for some time. And for every person who shows up as unemployed in the Bureau of Labor Statistics' household survey, you can bet there's another either too discouraged to look for work or working part-time who'd rather have a full-time job or else taking home less pay than before (I'm in the last category, now that the University of California has instituted pay cuts). And there's yet another person who's more fearful that he or she will be next to lose a job.
In other words, 10 percent unemployment really means 20 percent underemployment or anxious employment. All of which translates directly into late payments on mortgages, credit cards, auto and student loans, and loss of health insurance. It also means sleeplessness for tens of millions of Americans. And, of course, fewer purchases (more on this in a moment).
Unemployment of this magnitude and duration also translates into ugly politics, because fear and anxiety are fertile grounds for demagogues wielding the politics of resentment against immigrants, blacks, the poor, government leaders, business leaders, Jews and other easy targets. It's already started. Next year is a midterm election. Be prepared for worse.
So why is unemployment and underemployment so high, and why is it likely to remain high for some time? Because, as noted, people who are worried about their jobs or have no jobs, and who are also trying to get out from under a pile of debt, are not going to do a lot of shopping. And businesses that don't have customers aren't going to do a lot of new investing. And foreign nations also suffering high unemployment aren't going to buy a lot of our goods and services.
And without customers, companies won't hire. They'll cut payrolls instead.
Which brings us to the obvious question: Who's going to buy the stuff we make or the services we provide, and therefore bring jobs back? There's only one buyer left: the government.
Let me say this as clearly and forcefully as I can: The federal government should be spending even more than it already is on roads and bridges and schools and parks and everything else we need. It should make up for cutbacks at the state level, and then some. This is the only way to put Americans back to work. We did it during the Depression. It was called the WPA.
Yes, I know. Our government is already deep in debt. But let me tell you something: When one out of six Americans is unemployed or underemployed, this is no time to worry about the debt.
When I was a small boy my father told me that I and my kids and my grandkids would be paying down the debt created by Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Depression and World War II. I didn't even know what a debt was, but it kept me up at night.
My father was right about a lot of things, but he was wrong about this. America paid down FDR's debt in the 1950s, when Americans went back to work, when the economy was growing again, and when our incomes grew, too. We paid taxes, and in a few years that FDR debt had shrunk to almost nothing.
You see? The most important thing right now is getting the jobs back, and getting the economy growing again.
People who now obsess about government debt have it backward. The problem isn't the debt. The problem is just the opposite. It's that at a time like this, when consumers and businesses and exports can't do it, government has to spend more to get Americans back to work and recharge the economy. Then -- after people are working and the economy is growing -- we can pay down that debt.
But if government doesn't spend more right now and get Americans back to work, we could be out of work for years. And the debt will be with us even longer. And politics could get much uglier.
Update: This morning's job numbers are bad enough -- 263,000 more jobs lost in September, and unemployment now at 9.8 percent -- but look behind them and the news is even grimmer. The only reason the numbers don't look worse is that 571,000 workers dropped out of the labor force. Remember, too, that the economy needs about 125,000 new jobs every month just to keep up with a growing population. So we're even further behind.
The numbers would be even worse but for the stimulus package. According to an analysis by the Economic Policy Institute, the stimulus is saving or creating between 200,000 and 250,000 jobs a month. Without it, job losses in September would have been nearly twice what they actually were.
State governments, meanwhile, continue to shed employees. Here's one of the most depressing statistics I've seen (if you need any additional ones): Some 15,600 teachers didn't return to work in September. They were laid off. So our classrooms are bigger, we have fewer teachers, and our students are presumably learning less -- at the very time when they need to be learning more than ever.