DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Federal Reserve policymakers are finishing up a two-day meeting this afternoon. They're trying to figure out when next to raise interest rates. The goal is to keep the economy on track. And this is not an easy thing. Members of the Fed's Open Market Committee track an array of sometimes conflicting data. Economists call this the Fed's dashboard. And for a look at what the dashboard is saying right now, we turn to NPR's Chris Arnold.
CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: Let's say instead of the U.S. economy, Janet Yellen is the captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise. And her starship faces a nebulous and perhaps perilous path forward.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STAR TREK")
MICHAEL DORN: (As Lieutenant Worf) Sensors show a large magnetic disturbance on the star's surface.
BRENT SPINER: (As Lieutenant Commander Data) It is a solar flare, Captain.
PATRICK STEWART: (As Captain Jean-Luc Picard) Shields.
DORN: (As Lieutenant Worf) Shields are up, but only at 23 percent.
ARNOLD: So on the Enterprise, there are these panels of blinking lights and readouts. Well, Princeton economist Alan Blinder says the Federal Reserve has sort of the same thing. And after Janet Yellen took the helm, people started calling it...
ALAN BLINDER: The Yellen Dashboard - it wasn't actually lights and bells, but a list of things that she and, of course, the whole Federal Reserve were looking at to monitor the economy.
ARNOLD: Blinder's a former vice chairman of the Federal Reserve. And he says, right now, one of the most important indicators on that dashboard is wages.
BLINDER: Hugely important - wages are the backbone of consumer spending, which is, in turn, the backbone of the economy.
ARNOLD: Over the long term, the past 30 years or so, wages for most Americans have been pretty stagnant when you adjust for inflation. So in an economy that's driven by consumer spending, that's been this ongoing train wreck basically.
BLINDER: Yeah. I mean, it's a slow-motion train wreck. It's a very big problem that we need to address.
ARNOLD: In the shorter term, though, over the past year, wages have been rising at least a bit faster than inflation. It's taken a long time for that to happen coming out of the recession. So Blinder says that that's a good sign. Another positive thing on the Fed's dashboard - the official unemployment rate is now 4.7 percent. Randall Kroszner is a former governor of Federal Reserve Board. He says, in some ways, we're better off than we were before the recession hit.
RANDALL KROSZNER: The number of jobs we have is higher than before the financial crisis. GDP is higher than it was before the financial crisis.
ARNOLD: Still, the last monthly jobs report from the Labor Department showed much weaker job growth than expected. And Kroszner says it's definitely not all happy green lights on Janet Yellen's dashboard.
KROSZNER: I think we have to worry about some asteroid fields that are out there.
ARNOLD: There's the whole Brexit thing and people in the U.K. voting to leave the European Union. That could cause big problems in financial markets. There's also a slowdown in China. And Blinder says that's not all.
BLINDER: Another thing the Fed is scratching its head about now is productivity.
ARNOLD: Rising productivity is the engine that creates wealth for an economy. It allows us to do more or make more with the same hour of labor from a U.S. worker. But that wealth-creation engine has been stalling.
BLINDER: Productivity growth has slowed to a crawl, to the lowest pace that we've seen almost in recorded history. And the productivity growth rate is the fundamental foundation of higher living standards.
ARNOLD: For some reason, companies are just not investing as much in better equipment and technology. That's probably part of what's going on there. And all this might sound like a lot of bad news. But Blinder says don't worry too much.
BLINDER: You hear a lot in the media that our economy's in terrible shape. It's not. If you stack the performance of the U.S. economy in terms of GDP growth, in terms of jobs, we look pretty good relative to almost every other country on the globe.
ARNOLD: Still, things are uncertain enough that the Fed is not expected to announce any move to raise interest rates just yet. Chris Arnold, NPR News.
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