The Jobs Deficit: What Can Be Done Now

Terrance Heath

In his column concerning last month’s jobs number, George Will does a nearly "Noonan-eque" job of spreading disorientation and doubt about what government should do— if anything — about chronic unemployment, delivering a simple-but-subtle message: Nothing can be done. Of course, that’s true. There’s a lot that can and should be done, immediately, to address unemployment.

I have to admit, I was surprised. Until now, I thought that almost no conservative columnist alive could beat Peggy Noonan — who should henceforth be known as "Our Lady of the Blessed Dolphins" — for the kind of mind-numbing blather that causes the eyes to glaze over, and a reader to wonder why the writer isn’t on some kind of medication, instead of on the op-ed page. But Washington Post columnist George Will has emerged as a surprising contender.

Don’t get me wrong. Noonan still takes the cake. George Will hasn’t come with anything to match her lament of the end of "placeness" or her bitter j’accuse blaming "the Adam Lambert Problem" for all America’s woes. But his recent column about last month’s job numbers, is one that would do even Noonan proud.

In a column worthy of La’ Noonan herself, Will spirals from referencing Henry James and Lord Byron to the current conservative ethos on the economy, joblessness, and recovery — the problem is that people (the wrong people) have had it too good for too long, and they (and the economy along with them) will be only be better off when they’re worse off.

Dwindling Hopes

Of course, Will doesn’t say as much. He can’t, really. Instead he produces the kind of column someone writes when they have so little to say, and so much they can’t say, Will essentially makes the case that in the face of the economic crisis and joblessness government should do what he spends most of his column saying: nothing.

Today’s evidence suggesting sluggish job creation might give pause to a less confident person than Obama. But pauses are not in his repertoire of governance. Instead, yielding to what must be a metabolic urge toward statism, he says the Gulf of Mexico oil spill is yet another reason for yet another explosion of government’s control of economic life. The spill supposedly makes it urgent to adopt a large tax increase in the form of cap-and-trade energy legislation, which also is climate legislation, the primary purpose of which is, or once was, to combat global warming, such as it is.

They are uncertain about when interest rates will rise, and by how much. They do not know how badly the economy will be burdened by the expiration, approximately 200 days from now, of the Bush tax cuts for high earners — a.k.a. investors and employers. They know the costs of Obamacare will be higher than was advertised, but not how much higher. They do not know the potential costs of cap-and-trade and other energy policies. They do not know whether "card check" — abolition of the right of secret-ballot elections in unionization decisions — will pass, or how much the economy will be injured by making unions more muscular. They do not know how the functioning of the financial sector will be altered and impeded by the many new regulatory rules and agencies created by the financial reform legislation. The economy has become dependent on government stimulation of demand, and no one knows what will happen as the stimulus spending wanes.

Uncertainty is a consequence of hyperkinetic government, which is a consequence of the governmental confidence that is a consequence of progressivism. The premise of progressivism is that all will be well if enough power is concentrated in Washington, and enough Washington power is concentrated in the executive branch, and enough really clever experts are concentrated in the executive branch. This is why the government’s perceived impotence concerning the gulf oil spill is subversive of the Obama administration’s master narrative.

What Will gets wrong here is almost too easy to debunk. Joshua Holland does so effectively:

  • It’s ridiculous to base any argument in the world on a single jobs report
  • We needed stimulus because the private sector was shedding jobs fast; suggesting that the stimulus crowded out private investment and private sector job creation that wasn’t happening is insane.
  • The package wasn’t a model of progressive policy, but a centrist compromise crafted by the Congress.
  • Here’s overall job creation in the past 18 months:

    And here’s just private sector:

But that doesn’t mean Will is off his game. I’m beginning to suspect that the purpose of such ramblings, punctuated by references to the usual set of conservatism’s hoary old bogeymen, serves at least a couple of purposes: to disorient and to spread doubt. The disorientation sets in somewhere in the middle, when the reader begins to ask "What the heck is this guy talking about?" The reader may even return to the beginning and start reading again, hoping to "get it" this time — only to arrive at the same point, no more enlightened than before.

The sense of doubt, perhaps aided by the initial disorientation, sets in as the reader absorbs the message Will infers in his critique of even the moderate reforms passed by Democrats and that Republicans never attempted, to address problems that conservatives barely recognized as such. (Remember, this is a man who saw no problem in the government’s nearly non-existent response to Katrina.)

The message is this: Nothing can be done. Whether it’s because "we can’t afford to do it," or because it presents a "moral hazard," nothing can be done.

I've Worked All My Life

Of course, that’s not true. When it comes to jobs, there are plenty that can be done, and most of it will come at a fraction of the cost of bailing out Wall Street — to which the government has committed $12.2 trillion.

The Local Jobs For America Act. As I wrote weeks ago, the passing the Local Jobs For America Act would prevent and reduce unemployment by allowing state and local governments to avoid layoff and cuts in critical services, while boosting local economies in the bargain. According to an EPI analysis (PDF), the bill authorizes $100 billion over two years for the purposes above. According to my math that’s about 0.8% of the total committed to the bailout. Plus, EPI found that the total cost of the legislation would be offset by $39 billion, because it would keep taxpayers on payroll, and reduce spending on unemployment benefits, and other social services.

The House version was introduced by Rep. George Miller in March, and now Senators Sherrod Brown, Al Fraken, and Mark Begich have introduced the companion bill in the Senate. With bills now introduced in both chambers, Congress and the White House have a can act to create jobs, preserve jobs, prevent further unemployment, and boost the economies of America’s hometowns.

The White House may be starting to get the idea. President Obama has asked Congress to quickly approve $50 billion in state aid, to keep teachers, police officers, and firefighters in our communities. Spending just 0.5% of the total committed to the bailout. (For some perspective, it also amounts to just 6.3% of the $790 billion stimulus package, which itself was just 6.4% of the total committed to the bailout.)

The Jobs for Urban Sustainability Act. Earlier this month, I mentioned the Jobs For Urban Sustainability Act, which would direct $10 billion newly returned TARP money to cities with populations of 600,00 or more and unemployment rates of 10%or more, to spend on job training, public works and economic development. Not only is this a good way to use TARP returns, but my math says it’s a scant 0.08% of the total committed to the bailout.

Community Colleges. In Washington Monthly, Jamie Meristosis and Stan Jones outline a plan that would help community colleges revamp their one- and two-year degree programs — to emphasize timely graduation, job placement and tracking — and lift unemployment insurance restrictions that bar recipients from enrolling in college. This would be a huge help to the unemployed who have lost not just jobs but careers, as Meristosis and Jones describe it, and will need education and training to prepare them for the kind of jobs that are likely to be created in a recovery.

Last year, at the height of the recession, America’s unemployment rate hit 10.2 percent, slightly lower than the 10.8 percent peak of the previous major recession in the early 1980s. But the recent crisis is likely to prove far more unforgiving for the nearly 15 million Americans who are still out of work. After the economy began to turn around in late 1982, a substantial portion of the unemployed returned to their old jobs, or at least to jobs in their previous occupations. That’s less likely to happen this time around. The reason is that in recent years companies have learned to use economic slumps as opportunities to restructure—to close less-efficient facilities, drop less-profitable product lines, or extract themselves altogether from businesses that aren’t making money. What that means is that those who have become unemployed in this recession haven’t just lost their jobs; they’ve likely lost their careers. The skills that once earned them a living—assembling automobiles, processing mortgages, writing newspaper stories—are no longer much in demand in the marketplace. If these Americans hope to work again at anything approaching a middle-class wage, they’ll need to acquire new skills.

A lot of them are trying. We’ve seen a surge in enrollment at community colleges and for-profit colleges and trade schools since 2008, as unemployed adults and recent high school graduates unable to find work go back to school. In general, this is a good thing. As the current recovery picks up steam, new jobs will be created—slowly, perhaps, but surely—and economists already have a reasonably good fix on what those jobs will be and the skill levels they’ll require. Looking at federal government and other data, Anthony Carnevale and Jeff Strohl of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce forecast that about 47 million jobs will become available over the next decade, as workers in existing jobs retire and as newly created jobs come on line. About 30 million of these new positions will require a postsecondary education. Of those, 14 million will demand only a two-year associate’s degree, a one-year certificate, or some college training short of a bachelor’s degree. These "middle skill" occupations include jobs in information technology (network managers), business services (managing temp workers, running institutional food operations), and especially health care (nurses, nurse assistants, medical technicians). Starting salaries range from about $25,000 to more than $40,000 and can grow substantially from there. In fact, about 30 percent of people with one- and two-year college credentials earn more than people with bachelor’s degrees.

For a substantial portion of today’s unemployed, then, one- and two-year college credentials offer a viable route back to the American dream. There are a lot of obstacles, however, standing between a jobless adult and a college degree.

Not the least of these obstacles, besides the risk of losing unemployment insurance while enrolled, is cost. As Meristosis and Jones point out, even the cheapest college education costs money, something the unemployed don’t have. For-profit schools, which offer convenient and consistent scheduling, with a curriculum focused on training students for better jobs, are likely to cost even more; up to six times more than community colleges.

Jones and Merristosis offer a plan with $2 billion of "seed money," just 0.016% of the total committed to the bailout, tucked into the health care reform reconciliation bill, over which the White House has "considerable discretion," should the president opt to use it.

Building Star. According to the AFL-CIO, "Building Star" — which takes its name and focus from the White House’s "Home Star" program, and the EPA’s "Energy Star" program — could create 185,000 green jobs this year.

In the current recession, no sector has been harder hit than the construction industry, which has lost more than 2 million jobs. The unemployment rate in the construction industry is a staggering 27 percent, almost triple the overall unemployment rate.

You can help put building and construction trades workers back on the job by contacting your senators and representatives and urging them to support Building Star—H.R. 5476 and S. 3079. The legislation would provide building owners rebates and low-cost financing options for energy-efficient renovations in existing buildings.

…If acted on quickly, the bill could create as many as 185,000 jobs this year in construction, manufacturing and support jobs.

New Deal Solutions for the Gulf. As George Will began his meandering column with a reference to the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, it’s appropriate to end this post by linking to David Wollner’s suggestion of a a New Deal solution for the Gulf oil disaster.

For many years, of course, the New Deal — with its dam building and emphasis on the use of administrative expertise as opposed to judicial oversight in its approach to the environment — was seen as something of a blank space in the history of modern environmentalism. But in recent years this view has changed dramatically. Having recognized that in a world of limited natural resources human interaction with nature is inevitable, modern environmentalists, like FDR, have come to see the environment not as a realm set apart from humans, but as the field for human action, inextricably linked with the human community, economy, and system of values. For FDR then, restoring the environment and restoring the economy were part of the same process; a process that he began within days of assuming office. One of the hallmarks of this effort was the creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) on March 31, 1933, less than a month after his inauguration. This was followed shortly thereafter by the establishment of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), which represents the Roosevelt Administration’s first great effort in regional planning. The TVA took the unusual step of combining public power and conservation in an area comprised of nearly 300,000 acres of land in seven states. Its immediate purpose was to control flooding in the vast area of the Tennessee River and its tributaries through the construction of a series of dams and reservoirs; but it also improved river navigation, generated electricity, and sought to restore a vast watershed decimated by excessive timber cutting, irresponsible farming, and largely unregulated coal mining through soil conservation and reforestation. In the process it also provided jobs for thousands of workers, including 6,000 from the CCC alone.

This multipurpose approach to solving both an environmental and economic problem can be seen in the work of the CCC as well. Between 1933 and 1942, when the program ended, the CCC planted over 3 billion trees (including the vast shelterbelt from Texas to the Dakotas that brought the Dust Bowl to an end), constructed roughly 100,000 miles of road, restored 80 million acres of farmland, laid hundreds of miles of telephone lines, created nearly 800 state parks, and restored nearly 4,000 historic buildings. In total, it employed more than three million individuals (who enlisted in the program for a minimum of six months), mostly from blighted urban areas, who were required to send the majority of their pay ($25 out of the $30 they were paid monthly) back home to help support their families. In this way, the program became a means both to restore rural as well as urban America. The CCC built libraries for the camps and offered its workers classes (with a 90 percent enrollment rate), and taught more than 100,000 men how to read and write. It was also perhaps the most popular program of the New Deal (with an over 80 percent approval rating from the American public) and would help inspire later generations to establish such programs as the Peace Corps and Americorp.

… Our experience in the Gulf to date has proven that mere government oversight of a largely private sector effort to deal with this disaster will not be enough. Nor should we fall victim to the false view that such a catastrophe is the unfortunate but inevitable consequence of the paramount need for energy and economic development in a time of high unemployment. Franklin Roosevelt once said that those who allow or purposely destroy the natural resources of a region should also be seen as destroyers of “the liberty of the community … destroyers of his neighbor’s happiness [and] prosperity.” British Petroleum has destroyed the liberty of the Gulf Coast community, but to restore this region to its full health the federal government should take a lesson from the New Deal and act much more forcefully in the public interest. The American people understand this. They are ready and eager to do whatever it takes to make this region whole again and in all likelihood would support a comprehensive, multifaceted federally funded effort to clean up the Gulf coast along the lines of the CCC and TVA.

What Will leaves out is easily supplied. (I covered them at some length in "The Uh-Ohs", a look back at conservative failure during the Bush era; and "Not As They Do," a series about how conservatives helped create the deficit they’re now exploiting to derail economic recovery.) Conjuring visions of the worried wealthy wringing their hands over the expiration of the Bush tax cuts, worried that it might stop them making investments that might create jobs, Will seems to have forgotten that the Bush era was one of zero job creation. In fact, Bush had the worst track record on jobs of an president thus far. Manufacturing hit a 26-year low, by the end of his term.

The Bush tax cuts didn’t result in job-creating investments. In fact, the middle class paid more taxes. They didn’t create much wide-spread prosperity either. In fact, middle- and low-income households lost wealth they’d managed to gain since 1983. So, to suggest now that the expiration of those tax cuts could threaten job creation is perhaps Will’s most Noonan-eque stroke of mad genius.

Like many conservatives, Will doesn’t necessarily believe that "the government can’t do anything." He believes that the government shouldn’t do anything. (His reference "statism," is actually the most revealing bit in the column is as telling as was his derisive reference to "caring professions" in a post-Katrina column, aligning Will with the likes of Rand Paul and — as Dave Johnson pointed out earlier — Ayn Rand.)

George Will is as wrong as conservatives have been about the economy for decades. There is much that can be done, should be done, and must be done now to reduce the jobs deficit, which must be done if we’re to have any hope of addressing the deficit left to us by more than a decade of conservative failure.

Images via Renegade98 @ Flickr.