The Economy Today: It’s a Gas

Economic headlines from North Carolina, Michigan, and elsewhere

The major papers, including The Washington Post, report that nationwide retail sales rose 0.6 percent in June, but that’s no reason for optimism. Higher sales figures stemmed largely from higher gas prices, so “it’s not like consumers are getting any more for their money,” an economist tells the Post. The other source of the increase was a boost in auto sales, which the same economist dismissed as a “classic dead cat bounce.”

Meanwhile, The New York Times’s excellent economic columnist David Leonhardt reports that the economy isn’t as bad as the official numbers say: it’s worse. Official unemployment numbers don’t count people who have given up looking for work, or part-time workers who want to work full time. Add those people in, Leonhardt notes in a front-page piece, and the number of un- or underemployed tops 20 percent in several states. The federal stimulus package has helped less than it might have, because too much money has been directed to the upper Plains states, where the job market remains strong. “It’s a classic case of politics trumping economics,” Leonhardt writes.

The papers all report on President Obama’s visit to Michigan yesterday, where he announced a plan to invest $12 billion in community colleges, in an effort to prepare workers for a knowledge-based economy. “The hard truth is that some of the jobs that have been lost in the auto industry and elsewhere won’t be coming back. They are casualties of a changing economy,” Obama said, according to The Detroit News. An Associated Press piece, meanwhile, emphasizes Obama’s jab at critics, in a departure from his prepared remarks. “With four simple words — ‘Give it to me!’ — President Barack Obama took possession of the economy,” the AP declares.

The Detroit News also reports on the status of a bill in Congress that would stop the closings of more than 3,300 General Motors and Chrysler dealerships. While it’s written in an objective voice, the general tone of the piece is supportive of the dealer’s interests–understandable given the paper’s audience, but at odds with the broader sense that a smaller auto industry is inevitable.

Finally, The Charlotte Observer reports that North Carolina is looking for its share of federal stimulus funds to support better rail service. The state DOT is submitting a $4 billion request centered on express trains between Charlotte and Washington, along with improvements to other lines. “This is not a one-time shot of money,” said a DOT official. “This is a program trying very hard to get started.”

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.