Demand A Full-Employment Agenda

Isaiah J. Poole

Conservatives are masters at manipulating public expectations for their ends, and they are doing it to particularly disastrous effect when it comes to what we should expect on jobs. The result is that we are being persuaded to accept the unacceptable.

That is the tide that Rep. John Conyers has decided to swim against, by renewing a fight he and members of the Congressional Black Caucus first waged more than 30 years ago to change “full employment” from a politically unthinkable fantasy to a tangible, and realistically achievable, government mandate.

Consider this. As you know, we have an unemployment rate hovering around 9 percent. In dozens of communities, unemployment rates are above 11 percent. For African American men, the rate is 17.5 percent; that’s more than one in six black men out of work, compared to fewer than one in 12 white men out of work. There are 3.6 million jobless adults over 25 who have a high school diploma but no college, and another 1,7 million jobless adults who don’t have a high school diploma.

This is an economic crisis by any standard, except at Monday’s Republican presidential debate in New Hampshire, where the outrage of the presidential candidates was directed toward corporate taxes (even though taxes paid by corporations and the wealthy are at historic lows) and regulations (notwithstanding how deregulation in the last decade gave us toxic toys and toxic derivatives).

Last week, an outfit called the McKinsey Global Institute released a little-noticed study that concluded that based on the mid-range of its projections of future economic growth, the nation will be able to see the unemployment rate drop to 7 percent — in 2020.

Think of what that means for communities and demographic groups experiencing unemployment two or three times the national average. They were not even mentioned in the Republican presidential debate, thus neither was the implication of having people without college degrees, African Americans, or people living in economically battered communities experience unemployment rates of between 15 percent and 30 percent for the remainder of the decade.

No wonder a fired-up Conyers has relaunched a fight that he hopes will get renewed attention now that the Progressive Caucus has launched a national "Speakout for Good Jobs Now" tour.

Conyers is pushing his "Humphrey-Hawkins 21st Century Full Employment and Training Bill," which picks up where the original Humphrey-Hawkins bill, passed in 1978, left off. That earlier bill requires the Federal Reserve to balance employment and inflation when managing monetary policy, but it does not mandate specific steps to create jobs during times of high unemployment, an objective of the original legislation that was compromised out of the final bill.

The legislation Conyers has introduced puts direct job creation back on the table. "It gives the federal government the right to hire in high-unemployment areas right on the spot, to rebuild these crumbling schools, beat-up highways, waterways and other kinds of public works," he explained in an interview. "And, [it] pays them good money to be retrained as well."

The jobs would be paid through a $150 billion trust fund funded through a modest tax on stock and bond transactions. (That is just a bit more than one-fourth of what President Obama is proposing to spend on the Defense Department in fiscal year 2012.) Conyers’ office estimates that the fund would create 4 million public service jobs, each for a maximum of 30 hours a week at an average wage of $12-$15 an hour. The spin-off economic activity would create an additional 1.6 million jobs, Conyers projects.

This legislation is a rejection of the "new normal" that is increasingly being promoted by Wall Street financial firms and right-wing economists. As a country, we are already anesthetized to levels of unemployment and economic despair that in some ways are far worse than the conditions that promoted an earlier generation of activists to create a Resurrection City in protest on the Mall in Washington. But as the Speakout For Good Jobs Now tour ramps up—its first stop is Minneapolis June 19, during the Netroots Nation conference—proposals such as the Conyers full employment bill can serve as rallying cries for how Washington and the nation should be responding to what is nothing less than a national tragedy.

"There is no reason why the richest country in civilization can’t put everybody to work, at good wages," Conyers told me. "We spent billions bailing out Wall Street, the bankers, the wealthy getting tax cuts, and now it’s time to bail out the working people that are on hard times."

And it is time for a mass movement to demand a full employment policy from Washington.

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