Time for action, not talk

A combination of the calendar and perhaps unwarranted optimism provides our only good economic news: If this quarter is, as many economists predict, the worst of the recession, at least we’re almost halfway through it.

Otherwise, the weekend ended with some truly dreadful jobless numbers. The economy shed 598,000 jobs last month, the worst one-month performance, since 1974, bringing the number of jobs lost since December 2007 to 3.6 million. Even a contracting economy creates some jobs, but, still, the net loss is 2.9 million and the cumulative total of Americans without work stands at 11.6 million.

The unemployment rate last month was 7.6 percent, up 0.4 percent from December and the highest since 1992. Employers are not only cutting jobs, they’re cutting hours, and the average workweek now is 33.3 hours. Taking into account the underemployed — those working part time and those so discouraged they’ve quit looking — the unemployment rate would be 13.9 percent, the highest since that figure has been collected.

Even if the economy begins to turn around, employment will still be slow to recover because employers will be ultra-cautious about rebuilding their payrolls.

President Obama has reacted in frustration: "These numbers demand action. It is inexcusable and irresponsible for any of us to get bogged down in distraction, delay or politics as usual while millions of Americans are being put out of work. Now is the time for Congress to act."

For motives worthy and unworthy, Congress has been unable to agree on a stimulus bill. The House has passed an $820 billion recovery plan. The Senate is considering a $937 billion bill, although that number seems to change hourly. And there is still the process of reconciling the two measures.

One solution to the impasse, especially given the jobless figures, would be to strip out only those provisions that directly create jobs, such as the $43 billion for infrastructure construction and those that directly protect the jobless, such as extended unemployment benefits, increased food stamps, health care assistance — and fast track those to passage.

Then Congress can go back to fighting over the rest of the stimulus bill. As the president said, "These numbers demand action."