Jobs Crisis: Forget Ideology. Get People Working

Jobs Crisis: Forget Ideology. Get People Working

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Friday’s calamitous jobs report, prefigured by private-sector numbers earlier in the week, brings the Obama administration and Congress to a truth-or-consequences moment. The president has been groping for many months, in perfectly evident frustration, for credible job-creation policies. The Republican-controlled Congress wants to talk about deficit reductions and nothing more. As of today, this kind of paralysis seems no longer an option: Either Washington addresses the jobs question forthrightly or the U.S. slides into exactly the kind of double-dip recession we have it within our power to avoid. In short, there’s no more standing still. 

The markets are shaky, and they should be. We’re now starting to read forecasts of another financial collapse beginning as early as this month. If these sorts of predictions prove even approximately true, Friday’s job figures probably mark our descent into the kind of trouble we’re already watching in Britain and elsewhere in Europe. Unemployment in Spain, where severe austerity rules, is now running at 21 percent; nobody’s talking about jobs there, either.

It is not quite clear why so many of America’s leaders cannot connect a couple of elementary dots. Our economy is about 70 percent dependent on consumption as opposed to investment. This drastic imbalance is an historical legacy in need of redress, but for now it is as it is. If we are reliant to this extent on how much we spend, Obama’s frustrated focus on jobs—and therefore demand—is the logical immediate-term strategy for a recovery.

“The key question,” the Associated Press reported Friday morning, “is whether the meager 54,000 jobs added last month mark a temporary setback or are evidence of a more chronic problem.” I consider the latter the strongest likelihood.

There is a lot of ideology in play on the questions of jobs and stimulus, and we’ll now have to face this, too, given that stimulus measures now in place will soon expire unless Congress votes to renew them. But what drives many of the legislators voting on our economic policies, especially since the swing to hard-line conservatism in last autumn’s elections, isn’t the desire to fix deficits, jobs, or anything else in front of us—it’s a fixed persuasion that government has no place in America’s economic affairs no matter what the conditions.

“The role of the state” is a dry phrase ordinarily confined to scholarly conversation. But in very short order we’ll have to resolve this—or agree, at least, to put it aside for now. When you break down the Friday jobs report and other recent employment news, it’s clear that public-sector employment, notably at the state level, is absorbing a disproportionate share of overall job cuts. More broadly, now is not the time to argue that Washington has no business revisiting New Deal-style stimulus programs aimed at putting people to work. They are precisely what we now need urgently.     
The growing chorus of political figures such as Mitt Romney are blaming Obama’s economic policies for what now has to be declared a jobs crisis are playing an indecently disingenuous game. Conservative ideological fervor forced a fervently jobs-minded president into an inadequate stimulus plan from the get-go. It hardly serves now to turn and call the White House’s course a failure.

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Patrick Smith, a correspondent abroad for many years, is a columnist essayist, critic, and lecturer. His most recent book is Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century. Follow him @psmith7600 or on his web site,