April 6, 2004 | The fit of ejaculatio praecox to which the commentariat abandoned itself when payroll job growth hit 308,000 last week was perhaps understandable, in view of the terrible frustrations it had suffered for so many, many months before. So many bright hopes and expectations. So many disappointments.
But what of the future? Do we now accept the conclusion, to which our national teenager President Bush immediately jumped, that "the economy is strong and getting stronger"?
Or can we perhaps take a minute to put matters into perspective?
The fact is, March 2004 was only one good month. How many more would we need just like it to get back to where we were four years ago?
Here's a quick and dirty calculation.
Assume population growth at its average rate since 1976. Set a target baseline payroll -- an employment-to-population ratio of 62 percent, the prosperous level that was exceeded almost continuously from June 1999 to August 2000. If we average 308,000 new payroll jobs every month from now on, how long will it take to break that June 1999 threshold once again?
Answer: Four more years. It wouldn't happen until March 2008.
And the first time payroll growth falls below 308,000 per month, then either some other month will have to make up the shortfall, or else the date will slip.
Not that 308,000 is such a large number. Want to know how many times monthly payroll employment gains hit the 300,000 mark under Clinton and Gore? Twenty-four. That's one month in every four. Numbers like that didn't make the front pages under Clinton.
But this is the first time it's happened under Bush. In fact, it's the first time payroll gains under Bush passed the 200,000 mark. The previous high under Bush? 159,000. So 308,000 is almost twice his personal best.
If you think this expansion is going to continue at this pace for four more years, in the face of what will soon enough be rising interest rates, huge deficits and the pressure to cut them, a deflating housing bubble and, most of all, the proven indifference of Team Bush to jobs policy, then frankly you haven't been paying attention. Four more months -- that I'd believe. But they haven't got a clue what to do after that.
All the March payroll numbers tell us, in a nutshell, is that the White House knows the date of the election.
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About the writer
James K. Galbraith is Salon's economics correspondent. He teaches at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, the University of Texas at Austin.