Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Big Picture: Jobs Baby Jobs!

I largely share the Strike's assessment of President Obama's economic address recently, as four key elements were very impressive. Politically, the striking contrast between Obama's serious approach and the clownish behavior of the Republican Party, past and present, is predictable but still startling. And substantively, it was refreshing - beyond refreshing, really - to listen to the President of the United States demonstrate a deep and comprehensive understanding of the current crises, its root causes, and an alternative vision for a better future.

It's worth stepping back and appreciating just how much of an improvement this is from the politics of not just the past few years, but of the past several decades. While I definitely do not approve of a number of the actions and priorities of the "centrist Establishment" during the mid-twentieth century, at least this center delivered the most important thing for the majority of Americans: steadily increasing, broadly shared prosperity. The center of American politics actually invested in America, in physical and social and intellectual infrastructure; and as a result there was not only broadly shared prosperity, but unprecedented levels of economic opportunity and economic security. By the late 1960s, the average American man could support a wife and two kids on his salary, and was confident that his children's economic prospects would be brighter than his own. In contrast, over the previous several decades, the center of American politics de-emphasized investing in the future, prosperity has been concentrated at the very top, opportunity and security have eroded, and Americans are far more anxious about our future. Among voters, the media, and consequently opportunistic politicians, the consensus prioritization of broadly shared prosperity, opportunity, and security through sound investments deteriorated. In its place, the "Lost Period" prioritized instant gratification for the elites, and distractions and mirages for everyone else, and largely failed to make sound investments and formulate a wise long-term plan for sustaining prosperity, opportunity, and security. Barack Obama, with concrete proposals for "change" from this Lost Period, won a solid election victory and polls indicate he has the support of 2/3 of the American people. His election and huge political capital is an absolutely necessary step for getting America out of the hole the Lost Period dug for our future.

But while Obama's vision for where we need to go commendably represents a sharp break from our recent past, I am concerned that his plan for how to get us there doesn't measure up to the demands of the moment, both substantively and politically. I fear that even as Obama promises to move us beyond a Wall Street bubble-and-bust economy, his current plan is too caught up in the conventional wisdom, expresses far too much faith in a "fix Wall Street first" trickle-down mentality. One of the biggest flaws of the Lost Period was the de-emphasis on good solid jobs for everyone who is willing to work hard, jobs that provide prosperity, opportunity, and security to each and every American family. That should be our top priority as a nation. Finance and housing will only be in good shape when we have good solid jobs; deficits and safety-net shortfalls can only be solved by good jobs that bring in tax dollars and prevent people from needing unaffordable levels of assistance. Not only should "jobs, baby, jobs" be our nation's top priority, it actually is by far people's top priority according to every poll and the preponderance of anecdotes. As this excellent article in The Nation discusses, the central fact of the recession is not any market trouble, but 24 million - 24 million! - missing jobs. Obama's top priority has to be a massive jobs program.

"The right way to earn our way back to long-term prosperity is through stimulus efforts that will help develop, broadly deploy, fairly compensate and, especially, fully employ our human capital, which will always be our greatest source of national wealth. Only then will we have refired the commercial engines needed to recover from this dismal recession. And only then will we have addressed Americans' belief that unemployment is by far, with no close second, the most important economic issue facing the country.

We need an all-encompassing strategy on the massive scale we used at Normandy to win the war in Europe and that we later had behind the sweeping Marshall Plan to help rebuild Europe's broken economies. This time, however, our big-thinking strategy must be about creating the 24 million jobs that are missing so that American workers will be nearly fully employed."

This is not to say that Obama needs to abandon his long-term budget priorities of health care, energy, and education. Investments in those fields will provide the good jobs of the future. But I would suggest two changes, one more substantive, the other more political. Substantively, he needs to follow the lead of the economists and policy analysts who aren't caught up in the conventional wisdom and instead are prioritizing putting 24 million people back to good full-time work. This is personal for me, because so many of my friends - smart college graduates who are actively seeking employment - are stymied in their job hunt, even though they have so much to contribute to society. Think of how much worse off as a society we are that, even as there is so much work to be done, we have tens of millions sitting idle. That is a gigantic problem, and it requires an overwhelming, World War II-esque government response.
Politically, he needs to listen a lot less (or not at all) to the Larry Summers crowd of elite insiders, and a lot more to David Axelrod. More, he needs to remember his own lessons from organizing in the South Side, and his lessons from losing the Ohio and Pennsylvania primaries to Hillary Clinton. In other words, he needs to be very wary of his tendency to speak too academically and dispassionately about people's most pressing, deeply felt needs and insecurities. Over the long haul, the average American will only listen to wise lectures on the importance of long-term investments if he understands that that vision means a good job for him. I'm sure that part of what is holding Obama back is an understandable reticence to be perceived as overreaching, making government too big. But we can't afford to be held hostage to this ideological Lost Period conventional wisdom any longer. The perfect issue to break them is jobs. For the average American who doesn't have a job, whose husband or wife or father or mother or son or daughter needs a job, are they really going to care whether that job comes from the private sector or the government? In a time of economic plenty, maybe. But in a time of economic crisis, only ideologues and extremists would refuse a job to them, their family, or their community because it's paid for by the federal government. The best place to not only substantively move beyond the Lost Period, but to leave its ideology behind as well, is on the issue of jobs. Jobs, Baby, Jobs.

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