You can’t argue that illegal immigrants are stealing Americans’ jobs. The unemployment rate is too low for that.
You can’t argue that gas prices are too high. There’s too much travel going on.
You can’t argue that inflation is too high. That’s especially true in areas where the rate has been below the Fed’s 2% target for at least three months.
And you can’t even argue that high interest rates will trigger recession, something textbooks teach and very accomplished people preach. We’ve probably only got one more rate hike to go before they start to fall.
Wow. Our biggest economic problem is that we’ve run out of things to complain about the economy.
You won’t be able to tell that from listening to politicians and the media.
The politicos never play it straight, of course. Those in the majority, Democrats, nationally, overemphasize positive developments in the economy. Those in the minority, Republicans, nationally, focus on the pain from before.
And journalists always see the glass as half empty. Being wrong is a crime in a newsroom. But it’s a misdemeanor to be overly negative and wrong about something, while it’s a felony to be overly positive and wrong.
A few journalists are sticking their necks out though. Heather Long, one of the Washington Post’s economics-focused columnists, in December forecast a painful recession for 2023. But last month, she was one of the first to capture the nation’s changing mood.
“This summer could end up marking the end of the ‘vibe-cession,’ the term that has taken hold to explain why so many Americans give the economy a failing grade despite a half-century low in unemployment,” Long wrote.
After this month’s jobs and inflation data, it’s time to stop using conditional words like “could” and “might.”
The U.S. economy is doing well, even though our workforce remains smaller than it was before the pandemic. Consumer confidence is the highest in two years.
There are plenty of economic drags out there — like the war in Ukraine, stalled growth in China and drought in the U.S.
But as the probability of U.S. recession started to wane, economists and other analysts began seeking explanations.
The most reasonable is that the rapid swings in economic demand — an abrupt drop at the start of the pandemic and equally abrupt recovery as vaccines proliferated — moderated and so did the supply shocks associated with them. In short, the availability of goods and services at last caught up with demand for them.
The federal government’s stimulus helped when demand plunged. The interest rate hikes of the Fed, along with similar moves in other countries, helped cool things when the recovery grew heated.
But another factor that’s kept unemployment from rising as expected is one of the most basic: demographics.
The baby boomers who exited into retirement during this moment of economic uncertainty behaved differently than retirees did during past downturns. They stayed out of the workforce, making room for millions of people to move up from lower-paying jobs into career-type ones and for new people to get into the workplace.
“A lot of those retiree households have quite a bit of wealth relative to their disposable income, so they don’t see it as necessary to come back into the labor force,” James Bullard, then-president of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, said during a visit to Minneapolis in May. Bullard stepped down this week to lead Purdue University’s new business school.
Another poorly-understood contributor in the demand for workers is the energy transition. Whatever you think about climate change, the rise of alternatives to fossil fuels is sparking innovation and competition for capital, muscle and brainpower.
Two weeks ago, during one of the forums at Farmfest near Redwood Falls, Minn., some oft-heard worries came up about weather, government trade policies and commodity prices — with corn now the lowest it’s been in three years.
But then a farmer stood up, started talking about biofuels and declared, “I have never seen a better opportunity for farmers than we have today.”
“Exactly right,” Robert Bonnie, a USDA under secretary, said in response. “There’s enormous opportunity.”
There is always something in the economy that could be better. The price increases of the past three years won’t reverse. The opportunity gaps for some workers will still take time to diminish. Nonprofits still need workers.
However, the signal inside the noise right now is that the economy is humming.