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Christina Romer
Christina Romer, former chair of the Obama administration's Council on Economic Advisers. (Getty Images)

Cheerful to the extreme, Christina Romer's sunny disposition belied the message she delivered Tuesday to students and academics at Washington University.

The topic was the unemployment crisis that has stripped away more than 13 million jobs.

To hear some economists, 2013 will come and go before the unemployment rate levels off at a "new normal" now expected to settle somewhere in the range of 7 to 8 percent.

Others predict the jobs won't come back until 2016.

Romer told the Wash U forum she believes the crisis has the potential to last far beyond that date.

Romer, former chair of the Obama administration's Council on Economic Advisers, is unfortunately in a better position than most to evaluate the severity of the situation.

She was born in Alton and is currently an economics professor at the University of California, Berkeley. Romer spent Tuesday meeting with students, faculty and administrators on Wash U's Danforth campus.

The visit culminated in a two-hour forum to address "The Continuing Unemployment Crisis: Causes, Cures, and Questions for Further Study."

Romer was joined by a handful of professors and adjuncts representing the schools of business, law and social work at Wash U.

She posited.

They rebutted.

Sort of.

All agreed on the myriad causes of the crisis — a list that ran through the usual suspects of the housing bubble, runaway personal debt and lax regulations that allowed Wall Street to spin out of control.

But only one panelist, William Emmons, challenged Romer's position on job creation. Emmons is an economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis and an adjunct professor at the Olin Business School.

Simply put, Romer continues to argue that government spending is the solution to lower unemployment.

She unapologetically contends the $787 billion the U.S. spent to stimulate job growth in 2009-10 didn't go far enough.

"I firmly believe if it had been bigger, we could have done more," Romer said during a question-and-answer session at the conclusion of the symposium.

The other panelists, Emmons being the exception, were more than happy to join the chorus.

Law professor Marion Crain called on policymakers to introduce reforms that can empower the workforce and reinvigorate the labor movement.

And professor Michael Sherraden, director of the Center for Social Development at the George Warren Brown School of Social Work, advocated for the return of Depression-era public works projects to repair the country's crumbling infrastructure.

The resurrection of the Civilian Conservation Corps alone, he said, could restore employment for at least a million Americans.

There's nothing wrong with the free exchange of ideas.

And this isn't to insinuate that the panelists don't have the best interests of the country and an unemployed workforce of 13.5 million people at heart.

But reviving the Civilian Conservation Corps?

Policies that inject new life in a moribund labor movement?

Spending additional federal billions to stimulate job growth?

All this in a country that only last week came within a whisker of a government service shutdown over a $360 million allocation for Planned Parentood?


There's a better chance Tony La Russa will face the Los Angeles Dodgers this weekend with a Field of Dreams lineup that has Brock leading off, Schoendienst batting second and Pujols setting the table for Musial at cleanup.

Not coincidentally, the most pragmatic voice at Tuesday's forum was that of the only panelist who doesn't draw the bulk of his salary from an institution of higher learning.

Emmons opined that jobs will emerge incrementally from expansion in the health care sector, improvements in educational attainment and the tried and true warhorse of recovery — American entrepreneurial know-how.

At the end of her remarks, Romer replayed the Oval office scene on the evening the White House economic team learned that the loss of jobs at the end of 2009 was far lower than expected.

President Obama, she reported, hugged her four times, exemplifying "how hungry we, and obviously the American people, were for some sign that the national unemployment nightmare was finally ending."

Unfortunately, she pointed out, the jobs situation again worsened.

And the kind of high-minded but well-intentioned academic rhetoric that unfolded at Wash U this week notwithstanding, these days the conversation about jobs usually occurs only around the Friday at the beginning of each month when the government releases the latest employment figures.

Romer wishes it wasn't so.

"Unemployment," she said, "is a tragedy that should not be tolerated a minute longer."


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