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2:57 PM EDT, November 2, 2012
UPDATE AT 8:50 a.m. FRIDAY:
Obama and Romney will both have something to crow about in the monthly national jobs report, which shows 171,000 added positions in October and an uptick in the unemployment rate to 7.9 percent from 7.8 percent.
The change in the jobless rate is statistically insignificant, as it's based on a household survey with a margin for error of at least two tenths of a percentage point.
The jobs number, subject to heavy revisions, is based on a survey of employers and is more closely watched by economists and business analysts. It shows growing strength. With upward revisions to the September and August numbers, average monthly gains have been at 170,000 since August, enough to start bringing down the unemployment rate, though slowly.
Private-sector gains were 184,000 in October, another strong sign, and manufacturing hiring was up slightly up after showing some weakness in recent months. In the household survey, 410,000 more people said they're working and 170,000 more people said they're unemployed, which leaves the jobless total barely changed at 12.3 million. Importantly, the number who said they're working part-time but would rather work full-time fell by 269,000 after rising sharply in September.
As predicted below, the edge here goes to Obama, and with key states such as Ohio showing lower unemployment rates than the nation, his supporters will exaggerate the importance of today's report. See below for my broader thoughts on where this is going.
ORIGINAL REPORT, 1 a.m. Friday:
The last jobs report before the election comes in at 8:30 a.m. sharp on Friday, and on one thing, the left and right agree: Its importance will be exaggerated by one side or the other.
Economists surveyed by Thomson Reuters say the report will show the unemployment rate rose to 7.9 percent in October, from 7.8 percent, simply because the drop over the last two months was too large considering the state of hiring. In job creation, the consensus says 125,000 for the month, higher than last month's 114,000 but still only tepid.
I am guessing a hold-steady 7.8 percent and 160,000 added jobs, which would help Obama, but the difference means absolutely nothing, as former Labor Secretary Robert Reich pointed out in the Christian Science Monitor. And in the Wall Street Journal, columnist Spencer Jakab made a similar point -- any one month's figures are not very telling.
What we know without seeing the report is that the U.S. economy is improving, but too slowly to make much of a dent in the 12.1 million Americans who want work and can't find it, or the 8.6 million part-timers who want full-time jobs.
Looking past today's jobs report, Romney says the deficit is killing jobs, and that tax cuts would add jobs, but that's illogical on two fronts. A deficit only hurts the economy when it has to be paid for, either in inflation or rising interest rates or higher taxes or cuts in government payments and services. None of those things has happened yet. As for tax cuts, they can help by spurring spending by companies and consumers, but there's already a lot of cash sitting on the sidelines as it is now, so why would more cash spur more hiring?
The deficits are overwhelmingly the result of low tax collection rates in a slow economy, combined with spending to spur growth. Obama believes the old Keynesian practice -- boosting government spending on borrowed money -- can make up for private spending to support growth in downturns. Romney says that only spooks private investment by dousing long-term business confidence.
What's needed is an intelligent balance of public and private investment aimed laser-like at increasing productivity, and a national ethic -- not a government program, an ethic -- that shares the benefits of rising productivity more widely. That, unfortunately, would require a higher level of political discourse than the noise we'll hear Friday after the jobs report comes out, and over the next four days.
It's almost enough to make us wish for a crisis, maybe a storm, that would unite the nation to rebuild. We'd never hope for that much pain, of course, even if it did give us photos of Obama and Christie embracing.
Could unified rebuilding happen without a boatload of human suffering first? No, and that's why empires decline.
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