To hear the media tell it, all eyes are on the fiscal cliff. Which side is compromising and which side isn't? Which side's numbers add up? How can votes in the House and the Senate be structured for maximum political gain? What will the deal ultimately be? And, most important, which side will win and which side will lose?
Is this great drama gripping the entire nation?
The horse race coverage of the election has been replaced by the horse race coverage of the fiscal cliff. And just as the real issues went largely unaddressed in the former, they're also being swept under the rug in the latter. To the extent that growth and jobs get mentioned at all, it's only as fodder for the political football game. "Democrats and Republicans seized on November's job numbers last Friday to press for a compromise on a deficit deal," Jonathan Weisman wrote in The New York Times. "The jobs report gave both sides a new talking point to press for compromise."
But these numbers, along with other economic indicators, provide a lot more than talking points. They provide a very dire picture of the economy -- and not just ours -- heading down a very steep cliff. It's a measure of just how long our economy has been stagnant and how low our expectations have become that the latest jobs numbers were somehow presented as something positive ("Jobless rate plunges to four-year low!").
Yes, the unemployment rate ticked down to 7.7 percent, and 146,000 jobs were added. But the drop in unemployment was largely the result of people leaving the workforce, as an estimated 350,000 of them stopped even looking for work, dropping the civilian labor force participation rate down to 63.6 percent, a near 30-year-low. In addition to the 12 million counted as unemployed, there are now nearly 4 million people who have left the workforce or who didn't even try to enter after graduating from school. Nearly 5 million people have been unemployed for six months or more, accounting for 40 percent of the unemployed.
As Dean Baker notes, with the previous two months being revised down by nearly 50,000 jobs, the average growth for the last three months is only 139,000. "At the current pace," he writes, "we would not see the economy returning to full employment for another decade."
So, far from being good news, the numbers are more a reflection of why, as the Washington Post's Neil Irwin put it, "The bottom is falling out of economic forecasters' expectations for U.S. economic growth in the final months of 2012." Macroeconomic Advisers revised their estimate downward to 0.8 percent from 1.4 percent. JPMorgan went from 2 percent to 1.5 percent. And RBC Capital Markets went from 1 percent to "slightly above zero at 0.2 percent."
Slightly above zero. If we were looking for a slogan for our times, it would be hard to pick a better one. Indeed, Slightly above zero might seem on the rosy side given what's already happening in Europe. From July through September, the EU actually shrank by 0.1 percent and the jobless rate stands at 11.7 percent, a record level. In the U.K., estimates are that the economy will have shrunk 0.1 percent for the entire year. Even in economic powerhouse Germany, "a fourth-quarter contraction" is "all but certain."
And yet, far from having a debate about growth, all we're currently talking about is how to avoid the latest self-imposed disaster. Right now, what's really being debated is how to preserve the status quo. And the status quo -- slightly above zero -- isn't very good. In fact, for millions it's an utter disaster.
So, yes, let's say President Obama, as seems likely, wins the current political tug-of-war. What's next? What's the plan for his second term? Jumping over a series of low bars set by the Republicans isn't enough. Avoiding the fiscal cliff is no small accomplishment and it's very important that we do, but it's not enough. Avoiding decline isn't the same thing as creating growth. And yet the ideal window for the president to make things happen is early in his second term, before the political jockeying related to the midterms takes over the discourse.
Getting our economy moving and turning around the decline of America's middle class will require a great national effort. But it will require a larger, bolder and more forward-looking conversation than the one we're currently locked into. If all we focus on is who wins political battles like the one over the fiscal cliff -- and, no doubt, there will be others -- we all lose.
(Arianna Huffington is president and editor-in-chief of Huffington Post Media Group. Her email address is email@example.com.)