A New Kind of Recession


December 20, 1991|By GARRY WILLS

CHICAGO — Chicago. - Not only are we in a recession; we are in the first economic downturn since the Great Depression that is eating its way up the job scale into the middle class. Hobart Rowen of the Washington Post adduces the figures that were compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. These show that in other recessions in recent years, white-collar unemployment actually went up while blue-collar workers were being laid off. Here are the numbers:

* In the 1975 recession that helped defeat Gerald Ford, 1.88 million blue-collar jobs were lost in the space of 15 months, but white-collar jobs went up in the same period by 630,000.

* In the 1981 recession, during Ronald Reagan's first year in office, 2.41 million blue-collar jobs were lost, but white-collar jobs again went up, this time by 766,000.

* In a comparable 15-month period, the current recession has so far deprived 1.08 million blue-collar workers of their jobs, but white-collar jobs, instead of going up, as in other cases, have followed the Great Depression's pattern. So far 15,000 such jobs have been lost overall. This was, of course, before the massive GM layoffs just announced, which involve many white-collar jobs.

This points to a systemic breakdown rather than a cyclical downturn. And no wonder. This is a new situation, in which the conventional remedies are not responsibly usable. The normal thing to do when trying to ignite a recovery is to lower taxes, or increase government costs, or both.

But the current deficit gives no resources for this remedy. By going deeper into debt, by drying up further the savings and investment parts of the economy, the long-term problems will just be aggravated. That would especially be true if the remedies were done on the only scale that seems to promise even short-term relief.

In short, drastic new steps are called for, the kind of solutions Franklin Roosevelt rallied the nation to in 1932. Mr. Bush's sock-buying spree looks pathetic in such a context. The whole economic structure needs altering -- to remedy the bloated defense establishment, the exposed (insurance-less) citizenry, the irresponsible (unregulated) banking and finance procedures, the stagnant public sector, the uncompetitive private sector.

Democrats have their work cut out for them.

Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.

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