The tragedy of unemployment and why the next-term president won’t fix it.
American jobs and foreign competition will be important issues in the 2004 elections, say nine in 10 in a poll released Saturday that highlighted the increasing importance of jobs to the campaign.
– Salon.com, February 21, 2004
"The Labor Department report was as grim as faces on a bread line. Despite all the president's promises, the economy added just 21,000 jobs last month. No jobs were added by the private sector. The 21,000 additional jobs were all government hires."
– Bob Herbert, New York Times, March 8, 2004.
Jobs, Jobs, Jobs, I’m so sick of jobs!
Talk of jobs all I get, first from him, now from you!
Is that all you blighters can do?
- Liza Doolittle, My Fair Lady, Greatly revised
My birth certificate reads that my mother was a homemaker (I was the fifth child, the oldest ten years old), and that my father was a laborer for the W.P.A. One of my earliest memories is of my father climbing on to the back of a truck, shovel in hand, to travel to a worksite. The government of that day took responsibility for the jobs crisis by providing the able-bodied unemployed with real work. That was a generation unused to entitlements, but it was also a generation trained to expect very hard work. So the government provided it.
The New Deal was a socialistic program. For some it marked the beginning of the slippery, almost inevitable decline of the nation into welfare statism. One of these still represented our congressional district when I was in high school. He opposed not only the social security program as established, but also the very concept of social security. Someone like me, a direct beneficiary of the New Deal from birth, is bound to have a more favorable view of it.
For someone like me, then, to claim that "jobs" is a phony issue may seem peculiar. Certainly I do not minimize the tragic plight of the chronically unemployed.
"Jobs" is a phony campaign issue because politicians have put themselves in a box as far as the issue is concerned, Democrats as well as Republicans. In the job market the President has influence but no real power. The President is not, by himself, a job creator on a huge scale - so the promises of a candidate are no more than wishful thinking about an influence that may not be so influential.
The Republicans would do well to keep away from this issue, because of the public perception that the political fault is theirs. Candidate Bush blundered when he said that Kerry’s proposals to eliminate tax cuts for the very rich would be a job killer. Such a statement is almost like a "kick me" sign on the back of a junior high boy. "What jobs? So far the tax cuts haven’t created any jobs to speak of, so why should getting rid of the tax cuts kill jobs? Do you mean the 21,000 new government jobs created last month? Wouldn’t eliminating the tax cut actually help you meet that new payroll?"
President Kerry will wear his own "Kick me" sign if his own stimulus ideas do not work and he talks as if they have.
The Democrats see the phony issue as an opportunity, leading them to overpromise. Kerry cannot bring back jobs that are already gone. The best he can do, and at the expense of free trade, is curtail the export of jobs.
Bush hoped to re-motivate the economy with tax cuts. Kerry may have a better idea, but there is no inevitability as to its success. In a free market, no one is required to spend money or hire workers. Opportunities made available aren’t necessarily seized, and new enterprises don’t necessarily mean new jobs. In free enterprise, the idea is to make as much money as possible while paying as few employees as possible. Whatever your personal goals for your job, you may be sure that the boss and the stockholders have the goal of making your job redundant.
So the options, other than cheerleading (remember "Whip Inflation Now" and "Just Say No"), are none of them attractive. The candidates know this better than I do. That’s why this is a phony issue that will be backburnered after January 20 in the hope that the economy will recover itself.
As I see it, these unattractive options may be listed under one, two, or all of the headings below, seeing that "tax cuts" have failed except in Candidate Bush’s rhetoric.
1. Increase government purchasing, hence production, by starting a defensive war. It’s quite a trick to start a defensive war, but it’s been done. Nothing uses up products like a war. It hugely increases deficits, but it’s for the sake of national defense!
2. Increase government hiring, whether there is anything for the workers to do or not.
3. Bribe employers to hire people, whether there is anything for them to do or not. These jobs last for as long as the bribe lasts. The bribe is usually called a "stimulus package" or an "employment program" with a clever slogan to promote it and an expensive bureaucracy to operate it.
If the candidates come up with workable solutions pretty fast, this will cease to be a phony issue. But it’s been a phony issue for a long time. I remember Bobby Kennedy in Appalachia in the sixties, declaring (this is almost exact, as I recall): "Welfare isn’t the solution. It’s jobs," and after this pronouncement unemployment went down to zero percent in Appalachia, right?
More than anything, this phony issue reminds me of the biblical wisecrack about seeing a brother in need and declaring to him, "Go, be warmed and filled," without meeting his needs.