Sandy dampened retail sales in October and pushed applications for unemployment benefits last week to the highest level in 18 months, according to government reports released this week.Still, consumers may have also cut back on retail spending last month because of anxiety over the fiscal cliff. Consumer spending drives roughly 70 percent of economic activity. Many economists say the economy is growing in the current October-December quarter at a weak annual rate below 2 percent. There have been hopeful signs that the job market is improving. Employers added 171,000 jobs in October and hiring in August and September was stronger than first estimated. The economy has gained an average of 173,000 jobs a month since July. That's up from an average of 67,000 a month in April through June. The economy appears to have grown faster over the summer than first thought, based on a handful of positive September reports on inventory growth and trade released this month. Many economists now predict growth at an annual rate of roughly 3 percent in the July-September quarter, up from the initial estimate of 2 percent reported last month. The government releases its second estimate for third-quarter growth on Nov. 29.