My friend Gregor and I often talk at length about the idea of “normalcy bias”. It describes our collective fondness for believing that All Things Economic will swing back to “normal”, given time and less screwing around by governments and others. It applies to everything from oil prices, to job creation.
It is, of course, right, up until it’s wrong. There is no law of nature that says things related to recent human economic activity need to return to their recent state, let alone that that state was in any sense normal. There is no normal; there are only transient equilibria, some of which last longer than others, but all of which we pattern-loving humans project forward into forever.
Bill Gross makes a similar point more politically in his latest PIMCO missive, which is worth reading in its entirety. Here, however, is a relevant excerpt:
It is clear, however, that neither party has an awareness of the why or the wherefores of how to put America back to work again. Few economic advisors from either party ever mention structural long-term disconnects in employment – a recognition that cyclical influences will no longer dominate the U.S. labor market. Manufacturing and goods exports have ceded enormous ground to China and other developing labor markets, as America’s reliance on services and high tech innovation has exposed gaping holes in an historically successful model. Almost any industry dominated or significantly connected to finance and financial leverage has hit the canvas and stayed down in the aftermath of Lehman 2008. Housing construction, real estate brokerage, banking and consumer retail employment will likely never come back to levels dominated by our prior decade’s excessive leverage and its abuse leading to overconsumption. Because of that focus, a “shovel-ready,” vigorous manufacturing sector is not there to pick up the slack.
Similarly, the high tech paragons of the 21st century – Apple, Microsoft, Google, Facebook et al. – never were employers of high school or B.A. college graduates in significant numbers. Production of hardware, to the extent that any was needed, quickly gravitated to foreign ports of call where workers were willing to produce an excellent product for 1/10th of the U.S. wage. The past several decades have witnessed an erosion of our manufacturing base in exchange for a reliance on wealth creation via financial assets. Now, as that road approaches a dead-end cul-de-sac via interest rates that can go no lower, we are left untrained, underinvested and overindebted relative to our global competitors. The precipitating cause of our structural employment break is both internal neglect and external competition. Blame us. Blame them. There’s plenty of blame to go around.
Solutions from policymakers on the right or left, however, seem focused almost exclusively on rectifying or reducing our budget deficit as a panacea. While Democrats favor tax increases and mild adjustments to entitlements, Republicans pound the table for trillions of dollars of spending cuts and an axing of Obamacare. Both, however, somewhat mystifyingly, believe that balancing the budget will magically produce 20 million jobs over the next 10 years.