TEXT OF COMMENTARY
Kai Ryssdal: Someday the recession is actually going to end. There won’t be any more talk of double dips and extending unemployment benefits, and then everything’s gonna be OK. Isn’t it?
Commentator Robert Reich worries that it ins’t.
Robert Reich: Most analysts are now predicting years of high unemployment. Even if the pace of job creation were suddenly to match the best years of the 1990s boom — and that would be nothing short of a miracle — we wouldn’t be back to pre-recession levels of employment until 2015. And because most families are dependent on two wage-earners, the insecurity is double.
One consequence of a prolonged jobs recession could be an even longer one. Families living with job losses or fear of them adapt by permanently reducing household budgets. This lowers the demand for goods and services overall, and firms respond by permanently reducing payrolls.
The second consequence is more subtle but at least as dangerous. Widespread and long-term economic insecurity fuels anger. You can already see it in the backlash against globalization. Polls show most Americans don’t want more trade, which is why the president can’t get Congress to ratify any new trade agreements. Many people are also angry about immigration. Some even propose denying citizenship to children born in the United States of parents here illegally.
The anger focuses on every major institution. According to polls, the public has a record low opinion of government, and also of big business and Wall Street. Incumbent politicians of both parties face strong primary challengers from the right and the left. The biggest grass-roots movement of all might be called “mad-as-hell” populism — fiercely anti-establishment and ready to believe the worst. Talk radio and the blogosphere have become cauldrons of rage.
Sometimes in American history, anger has led to changes long overdue — civil rights, for example, and more equal opportunity. But anger has also had the opposite effect: Creating fodder for demagogues who use it to blame people or groups who aren’t responsible, but are easy scapegoats.
In other words, the challenge ahead is not just to mend an economy that’s been badly injured by the Great Recession and its aftermath, but to mend a nation that’s become more fearful and polarized than at any time in a generation.
Ryssdal: Once upon a time Robert Reich was the Secretary of Labor for President Clinton. He’s now a professor of public policy at the University of California Berkeley. Next week in this spot, from the other side of the commentary aisle, Glen Hubbard.
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