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Hunkered-Down America

Hunkered-Down America

By Robert Samuelson - June 13, 2011

WASHINGTON -- It's a cliche -- but true -- that a huge obstacle to a stronger economic recovery is the lack of confidence in a strong recovery. If consumers and businesses were more confident, they would be spending, hiring and lending more freely. Even a slight relaxation might do wonders for the subpar nature of the expansion, highlighted by May's meager 54,000 increase in payroll jobs. Instead, we're deluged with reports suggesting that, because the recession was so deep, it will take many years to regain anything like the pre-crisis prosperity.

Just last week, for example, the McKinsey Global Institute, the research arm of the consulting firm, released a study estimating that the country needs 21 million additional jobs by 2020 to reduce the unemployment rate to 5 percent. The study was skeptical that this would happen. Ugh. Pessimism and slow growth become a vicious cycle.

Battered confidence most obviously reflects the ferocity and shock of the financial collapse and the ensuing recession, including the devastating housing collapse. But there's another, less appreciated cause: disillusion with modern economics.

Probably without realizing it, most Americans had accepted the fundamental promises of contemporary economics. These were: first, we know enough to prevent another Great Depression; second, although we can't prevent every recession, we know enough to ensure sustained and, for the most part, strong recoveries. These propositions, endorsed by most economists, had worked themselves into society's belief structure.

Embracing them does not preclude economic disappointments, setbacks, worries or risks. But for most people most of the time, it does preclude economic calamity. People felt protected. If you stop believing them, then you act differently. You begin shielding yourself, as best you can, against circumstances and dangers that you can't foresee but that you fear are there.

You become more cautious. You hesitate more before making a big commitment -- buying a home or car, if you're a consumer; hiring workers, if you're an employer; starting a new business, if you're an entrepreneur; or making loans, if you're a banker. Almost everyone is hunkered down in some way.

Economic models, based on past relationships and assumptions, don't capture the shift, which embodies new assumptions and beliefs. Of course, most Americans have not consciously rejected the promises of modern economics. Neither did they consciously embrace them before. Judgments were seat-of-the-pants. People simply compared the promises against the evidence. Since the 1980s, recessions had been brief and mild; modern economics had ensured crude stability. Now, that no longer applies.

Attitudes and behavior change. One disturbing fact from the McKinsey report is this: The number of new businesses, a traditional source of jobs, was down 23 percent in 2010 from 2007; the level was the lowest since 1983, when America had about 75 million fewer people. Large corporations are standoffish. They have about $2 trillion of cash and securities on their balance sheets, which could be used for hiring and investing in new products. Meanwhile, the latest University of Michigan Survey of Consumers reports that "record numbers ... thought that their incomes would lag inflation over the next five years." Note: They didn't expect high inflation so much as low income growth.

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Copyright 2011, Washington Post Writers Group

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