The debate over the number of economic stimulus jobs created or saved by the $787-billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act will continue long after the recession is over, but the only apparent success so far is related to the infrastructure jobs fostered by the $130 billion earmarked in ARRA for that purpose. As the government coffers run dry, the only way to end the financial crisis is for Washington to start building real public confidence in the U.S. economy and help move massive amounts of private money off the sidelines and into productive parts of the economy. This amount is far more than the government could ever muster and will be allocated by more effective means.
No matter what the ARRA job count is, the number is far less than the 6.9 million jobs that the private sector has shed since the recession began in December 2007. Unfortunately, the stimulus law was heavily loaded with support for social programs that have little or no long-lasting impact on the economy. Only about 17% went for infrastructure.
Only the infrastructure portion of ARRA has the potential of delivering or preserving jobs with marketable skills in the private sector. One only has to remember the dreadful Comprehensive Employment and Training Act of 1973 (CETA) to see how little a federal employment program can produce. Conceived as an extension of the massive Works Progress Administration of the 1930s, CETA was designed to provide marketable skills to low-income people, but it became a make-work program that produced nothing at great expense. For example, how can giving people jobs clearing brush by hand from defunct rail lines prepare them for a real workplace?
So far, the federal government has not encouraged the kind of confidence in the economy that will cause its regeneration: Congress is locked in a bitter partisan battle and seemingly does not care about anything else; the Federal Reserve is acting in secret to bail out private-sector firms with many billions of dollars; the now-ended, mismanaged Cash for Clunkers program seemed to be aimed at the unwise federal ownership share of auto manufacturers; and the national debt now is a critical national problem.
Unless the private sector rises to the occasion and business activity picks up, the next economic catastrophe will be the collapse of the commercial real-estate sector, which already is teetering. Just as mortgage-backed securities and the derivatives they spawned crushed the housing market, an estimated $700 billion of commercial real-estate mortgage securities now is at risk as companies’ revenues decline and defaults and foreclosures rise. That activity also threatens $1.7 trillion of commercial mortgages and construction loans that banks hold.
Consumers hold the key. When they start spending, job losses will start ending.