Interview With Claudia Goldin
To get a handle on what’s going on in the economy today, The Daily Beast spoke with Harvard economist Claudia Goldin, an expert on economic history, and author of The Defining Moment: The Great Depression and the American Economy in the Twentieth Century, among other works. Goldin says that our focus on the economic downturn may distract us from more pressing concerns and recommends increasing our attention on providing training for those communities hit the worst by the recession—young men, particularly African Americans, who live in cities.
What’s the big picture here?
There are bigger fish to fry than this downturn no matter how serious it is. Climate change is perhaps a much bigger thing. In many ways we are perhaps being misled into believing that this is the big thing. It is sort of like standing around and worrying about your food supply and then having a meteorite come crashing down on your head.
There are bigger fish to fry than this downturn no matter how serious it is. Climate change is perhaps a much bigger thing.
You’ve studied labor history. How high is unemployment seen in a larger, historical perspective?
It's a relatively high rate. It's not as high as it as been, but the rate among 16-19 year-olds, males, and African Americans in cities is phenomenally high. It is not a good thing for their future and for the future of their children. We know that historically it is not a good thing.
What would you recommend we do?
During the Great Depression, when men young men couldn't find jobs, they stayed in high school. That was actually very good. That was a great silver lining in that cloud. We saw that in the industrial states… We saw attendance and graduation rates soar, particularly among males… On the other hand, fast forward to today, today’s disemployed—the same types of people—are not necessarily staying in high school longer. They would do well to take post-secondary courses.
Now in the Great Depression, if you stayed in high school, it didn't cost you anything. Your opportunity cost was close to zero. High school is free, and college is not. If there were a policy that can help these disemployed kids in the inner city, it would be getting them into training—work that could be vocational. It could be community-college training, and we should fund it far, far more than we do today.
They don’t have jobs, money; tuition in these places has actually risen, and student loans are not doing that well either. So it’s a perfect storm.
Anything we can do outside of government to help?
I just destroyed two bathrooms of mine to employ members of the construction industry… I went out today to a tile place and am placing a very large order in the beleaguered home-investment industry.
Economists recently surveyed are enthusiastic about the job Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke is doing. Do you think he should serve another term?
It will depend upon the counterfactual—who is the other person. I don’t see any reason not to express confidence in Bernanke, but that doesn't mean I want him to continue.
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Samuel P. Jacobs has written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.