Unemployment and airplane crashes

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A man in Florida sends what may be the ideal example of reader mail, combining as it does aerodynamic theory, politics, economics, and presidential rhetoric. If only there were a China- or beer-related angle...  Seriously, his critique of how the Obama team has explained the continuing collapse of the U.S. employment base is insightful. Although it is obviously too late to adjust the rhetoric with which the Administration launched its economic recovery plans, arguments like this reader's could help shape the ongoing discussion.

"I'm really confused by how the Obama administration has handled the narrative and voter expectations for this recession. I clearly understand that they had to carefully balance early 2009 dire warnings against economic pessimism, while making a case for the stimulus package, etc. But once the stimulus was passed, I believe that they should have boldly stated how bad things really were, how their economic policies were the correct choices (even acknowledging Krugman's critiques of "too little"), and emphasizing that even the best possible management of the 2008 economic trainwreck would see significantly increasing unemployment as a lagging indicator.

"One analogy I've thought of often, aligned with your interests, is an economic analogy of an aerodynamic stall. When commerical credit froze and consumers reduced spending, the prevailing economic "lift" was gone. Stall! Conservative knee-jerk reactions for tax cuts were the equivalent of "pulling up" on the stick- intuitive but deadly. Obama's expert advice was to gain speed by spending (diving), even at the cost of altitude (deficit/debt). High unemployment was destined from the moment the stall occurred. Only when sufficient airspeed/angle of attack (spending) had been reached could the economy begin to pull up, and the unemployment would be analogous to the altitude lost even after the decision to finaly "pull up" had been made. Passenger relief (consumer confidence) would follow long after the immediate recovery (i.e., GDP), and no one would be "satisfied" until the plane came in for a (economic) "soft landing."

"There are probably numerous logical errors with this analogy [JF note: seems pretty good to me], but the simple point is this: If "Joe six-pack" clearly understands that Obama saved his economic life, while Conservatives would have driven the plane into the ground, he's more likely to appreciate and reward the unpalatable choices that Obama made. His appreciation would be enhanced if he understood all along that the pilot had no choice but to lose altitude, and the pilot explained that altitude (jobs) would take a long time to regain. This administration sorely needs a narrative that citizens can grasp and accept, otherwise the cynical partisan naysayers will continue to fill the void....

"I came across this, published online by Irwin M. Stelzer on 12/19/2008 in the Weekly Standard (hardly a liberal apologist):
'Bush knows that Obama is inheriting a very difficult economic situation indeed. So does the president-elect. Economists with whom I have spoken--and these are the people listened to at the highest levels in both parties and at Ben Bernanke's Federal Reserve Board--believe that the unemployment rate, now at 6.7 percent, will hit double digits sometime in 2009, and stay there well into 2010. They expect house prices to drop another 15 percent and share prices at least another 10 percent before finding a bottom.Worse still, they are predicting an extraordinarily sluggish recovery. Since unemployment is what economists call a lagging indicator--job creation doesn't start until a recovery is well under way--the unemployment rate might remain high well into 2011.'
"None of this is news to you. But if the Weekly Standard could articulate this in late 2008, why hasn't the Obama administration made sure that average Americans understand the "pre-destination" involved with unemployment?"

As an answer to the final question, my guess is that a combined message of uplift and caution is among the most difficult for leaders to convey. Obama and his economic team had to keep sounding optimistic, since so much of a recovery is affected by "animal spirits." But they also needed to acknowledge that for a long time ahead more people would be losing than gaining jobs. The dual message is not impossible, but it's tricky, and as the reader suggests the proper balance has not yet come across.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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