Early last week, it was impossible not to notice the outrage. The accusations were heated. And yet, the predominant national mood seemed one of frustrated resignation -- that things weren't going to change that much, anyway.
We're referring to the reaction to the Fed's QE2 program to pump money into banks. There was also apparently an election of some sort.
From the tone of the commentary, QE2 suggested that Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke could play three roles should they do a remake of "The Wizard of Oz." For those who found QE2 too small, he, like the lion, lacked courage. For those who wanted a faster end to the recession's suffering, he had the Tin Man's cardiac cavity. And for those who didn't care for QE2 at all, he shared the Scarecrow's brainpower.
Yet, Friday morning, after all but Alaska's write-in votes had been counted, all of the economic debate shifted when a single statistic was reported. Put simply, America is going back to work. Not in huge numbers, and for many, no doubt, for less money than they previously earned. But good news, nonetheless.
The Department of Labor reported that private employers hired 159,000 workers in October. With some government layoffs, it meant the economy generated 151,000 net new jobs.
That was cause to celebrate. It was the first monthly gain since May. To put it another way: The last time the Department of Labor reported the economy added jobs, Democrats controlled the House. That was back in May.
The average workweek is also getting longer, which, like a lot economic trends, is good news up to a point.
This week, we'll get fresh evidence with which to decide if October's jobs report was a trend or a lark. Specifically, a report on the trade deficit should let us know if the weak dollar is spurring exports, which might create some jobs here at home. We'll also get weekly unemployment claims, to gauge if October's gains will likely continue. And as retailers debate holiday hiring needs, a University of Michigan consumer sentiment survey should give us the mood of shoppers.
Have we entered the "virtuous cycle'' that Alan Greenspan referred to in the 1990s? In which job creation begets spending, which begets more hiring, which begets more spending?
The evidence says probably not. We may -- or may not -- be on the yellow brick road to recovery. But it's way too soon to sing "Over the Rainbow."
The U.S. economy has added about 900,000 jobs this year, true. But that's after losing 8 million in the previous two years. Put another way: With nearly 15 million unemployed people, it would take roughly 100 months to absorb them at current rates. In fact, with population growth, we're still just barely holding our own: The unemployment rate remains stuck at 9.6 percent.
By week's end, even the debate about Bernanke had shifted tone. Yes, he lacks Greenspan's aura. And no one knows if QE2 will ultimately anoint him a wizard of awes -- or leave him looking like the man behind the curtain. What's clear is that, right or wrong, he's not a guy of munchkin-size ideas.