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News Analysis

Published: October 8, 2011
David Leonhardt is The New York Times Washington bureau chief.

UNDERNEATH the misery of the Great Depression, the United States economy was quietly making enormous strides during the 1930s. Television and nylon stockings were invented. Refrigerators and washing machines turned into mass-market products. Railroads became faster and roads smoother and wider. As the economic historian Alexander J. Field has said, the 1930s constituted “the most technologically progressive decade of the century.”

Economists often distinguish between cyclical trends and secular trends — which is to say, between short-term fluctuations and long-term changes in the basic structure of the economy. No decade points to the difference quite like the 1930s: cyclically, the worst decade of the 20th century, and yet, secularly, one of the best.

It would clearly be nice if we could take some comfort from this bit of history. If anything, though, the lesson of the 1930s may be the opposite one. The most worrisome aspect about our current slump is that it combines obvious short-term problems — from the financial crisis — with less obvious long-term problems. Those long-term problems include a decade-long slowdown in new-business formation, the stagnation of educational gains and the rapid growth of industries with mixed blessings, including finance and health care.

Together, these problems raise the possibility that the United States is not merely suffering through a normal, if severe, downturn. Instead, it may have entered a phase in which high unemployment is the norm.

On Friday, the Labor Department reported that job growth was mediocre in September and that unemployment remained at 9.1 percent. In a recent survey by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, forecasters said the rate was not likely to fall below 7 percent until at least 2015. After that, they predicted, it would rarely fall below 6 percent, even in good times.

Not so long ago, 6 percent was considered a disappointingly high unemployment rate. From 1995 to 2007, the jobless rate exceeded 6 percent for only a single five-month period in 2003 — and it never topped 7 percent.

“We’ve got a double-whammy effect,” says John C. Haltiwanger, an economics professor at the University of Maryland. The cyclical crisis has come on top of the secular one, and the two are now feeding off each other.

In the most likely case, the United States has fallen into a period somewhat similar to the one that Europe has endured for parts of the last generation; it is rich but struggling. A high unemployment rate will feed fears of national decline. The political scene may be tumultuous, as it already is. Many people will find themselves shut out of the work force.

Almost 6.5 million people have been officially unemployed for at least six months, and another few million have dropped out of the labor force — that is, they are no longer looking for work — since 2008. These hard-core unemployed highlight the nexus between long-term and short-term economic problems. Most lost their jobs because of the recession. But many will remain without work long after the economy begins growing again.

Indeed, they will themselves become a force weighing on the economy. Fairly or not, employers will be reluctant to hire them. Many with borderline health problems will end up in the federal disability program, which has become a shadow welfare program that most beneficiaries never leave.

For now, the main cause of the economic funk remains the financial crisis. The bursting of a generation-long, debt-enabled consumer bubble has left households rebuilding their balance sheets and businesses wary of hiring until they are confident that consumer spending will pick up. Even now, sales of many big-ticket items — houses, cars, appliances, many services — remain far below their pre-crisis peaks.

Although the details of every financial crisis differ, the broad patterns are similar. The typical crisis leads to almost a decade of elevated unemployment, according to oft-cited academic research by Carmen M. Reinhart and Kenneth S. Rogoff. Ms. Reinhart and Mr. Rogoff date the recent crisis from the summer of 2007, which would mean our economy was not even halfway through its decade of high unemployment.

Of course, making dark forecasts about the American economy, especially after a recession, can be dangerous. In just the last 50 years, doomsayers claimed that the United States was falling behind the Soviet Union, Japan and Germany, only to be proved wrong each time.

This country continues to have advantages that no other country, including China, does: the world’s best venture-capital network, a well-established rule of law, a culture that celebrates risk taking, an unmatched appeal to immigrants. These strengths often give rise to the next great industry, even when the strengths are less salient than the country’s problems.

THAT’S part of what happened in the 1930s. It’s also happened in the 1990s, when many people were worrying about a jobless recovery and economic decline. At a 1992 conference Bill Clinton convened shortly after his election to talk about the economy, participants recall, no one mentioned the Internet.

Still, the reasons for concern today are serious. Even before the financial crisis began, the American economy was not healthy. Job growth was so weak during the economic expansion from 2001 to 2007 that employment failed to keep pace with the growing population, and the share of working adults declined. For the average person with a job, income growth barely exceeded inflation.

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