In his new book The Coming Job War, Jim Clifton, Chairman and CEO of the polling firm The Gallup Organization, argues that we are at beginning stages of a worldwide war for jobs:
“A global jobs war is coming, and there's no time to waste. Cities are crumbling for lack of good jobs. Nations are in revolt because their people can't get good jobs. If countries fail at creating jobs, their societies will fall apart. Countries, and more specifically cities, will experience suffering, instability, chaos, and eventually revolution. This is the new world that leaders will confront.”We all know things aren’t OK and haven’t been OK for a long time. Yes, I’ve seen the “good times are back” stories on TV and in print but most rely on the statistical fluke resulting from increasing number of workers not even bothering to look for work. We get this story every few months. The mainstream media fulfils its role as our economy’s cheerleader hoping that increased consumer confidence will return things to normal.
“An increasing number of people in America are hopeless, suffering, and becoming dangerously unhappy because they don’t have a job. …an increasing number of people in the world are becoming dangerously unhappy because they don’t have an almighty good job—and in most cases, no hope of getting one.”
The old world of employment doesn’t work anymore and there isn’t a new one, at least not yet.
Clifton paints a very bleak picture of the future of American, and global, jobs. Indeed, the economic aftereffects of the Great Recession are still with us and will be for some time to come. Even prior to the 2008 meltdown, the prospects of workers had already been declining for over forty years. Wages had stagnated and then fell for most. Once a job was lost a return to the workforce took longer and longer. Increasingly, workers were stranded outside the workforce permanently.
Is this the future of American jobs? Left to the economic powers-that-be who have been making the rules so far, some version of Clifton’s dreary vision is bound to occur. In fact, it’s already occurring. This diary is about a new, more hopeful, vision for the future of American jobs.
Clifton’s solutions to the jobs crisis are a repeat of the failed strategies of the past: entrepreneurship, investment, and above all, more “free enterprise.” For decades presidential speeches about the economy—by both Democrats and Republicans—have relentlessly hammered home these themes. A mythology about our economy has been created—and perpetuated by the mainstream media—that financial capital investment and technological innovation will win the day. Americans have been conditioned to believe this is the only alternative open to workers and that we might as well resign themselves to going along with the plan.
These ideas have not been enough. This mythology has worked for the few but not the many. Some in the big cities but not many living on the outside. When the poor and minorities were the only ones being hurt, most Americans were willing to look away. But now huge numbers of people are hurting, including the middle class. Now everyone’s worried. Even the top tenth percent income earners should be worried but for a different reason. Whenever wealth is so unevenly distributed the entire society is in danger. Clifton’s certainly right about that.
Where I believe he is mistaken is his prescription for what ails us. In this diary I present a mix of potential solutions to our national predicament about jobs and, indirectly, about our declining quality of life, especially outside the big cities. Some of these ideas are new. Some are not but have never really been tried long enough to see if they work. What they have in common is that each solution does not accept the status quo as the only means of going forward. Each solution also shares a need for national political action to become a reality. Not just action by the elites--they won’t help workers as they sometimes have in the past--but by everyone. We know what we’ve been doing has not been working. Let’s begin to discuss something new.
Our present system of work is centered on large, dynamic companies at the core of our economy. That’s the world Clifton is writing about. Tens, if not hundreds of thousands, of people work in each of these companies which generally offer higher-than-average wages and good health benefits. They are mostly located near large cities and are integrated into global transportation networks linking similar companies. The U.S. economy is oriented around the needs of this high-energy, high capital investment core. As the largest and most influential corporations, they are political heavyweights with enormous clout in Washington D.C.
Outside this core, the hierarchy ranges down to smaller enterprises employing hundreds to just a few workers. Down the pecking order the wages are lower and benefits vanish. Many are located in smaller cities, towns, and rural areas. Outside the core, firms and their workers struggle. These less dynamic areas, and their residents, have long been neglected in national power politics. This diary is about those smaller companies, their workers, and the communities that support them.
Usually, left-leaning writers either describe what has already gone wrong (high unemployment, for example) or react to how it might get worse (House Republicans could propose doing away with what’s left of our safety net). This diary is different because it proposes new ideas for creating working-class jobs and reinvigorating our communities. Not by re-chanting mantras about massive new capital investment in high-tech industries or college degrees for everybody but by proposing strategies that could actually work in the real world. There’s nothing inevitable about the decline of the working class but we cannot go on as we have in the past. Change is necessary and this diary is about that change.
This is a full-blown essay, not a short dairy. Please be patient. Read some then come back for more. Read it all but the Action Strategies are new thinking about the future of American work. I would really like your comments on this.
TWO ROADS DIVERGED…
The working class sees things much differently than the upper class. Most workers work to make a decent living for themselves and their families. Increasingly, stability is more significant to them than dreams of financial glory. Most just want to make a good living and they see their jobs as a means of achieving that end. They would rather spend time with their families and other personal pursuits. That’s what freedom really means to most Americans. Workers don’t want to play in a high-powered economy that amounts to a playground for the rich and favored. There’s room for entrepreneurs, too, but it’s not all about them. This is a democracy and workers count too.
The way we relate to our work is fundamental to how we lead our lives. The shortcomings of our current system of work—stagnant or declining wages, being financially locked into jobs that are bad for them and their families, long-term unemployment, poverty—stem from a lack of clear alternatives to our current system. Let’s begin to think seriously about them.
The rich see America as a high-powered economy energized at the core by entrepreneurs and capitalists and backed by legions of white-collar professionals including lawyers, physicians, accountants, and engineers. Most workers do not want to work in a rapidly changing complex technologically-driven economic environment. Neither do all of us want to work in a highly competitive workplace. The rich want everyone, even rank-and-file workers, to see things their way even if such a life is practically unobtainable absent a big lottery win. Some people do. Let them. But some people don’t. We should create working arrangements that allow them to make a decent living, too.
Robert Frost’s poem The Road Not Taken can be used to frame the choice about the future of jobs that we as Americans have at this point in our history:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—One road continues in the direction most have been traveling—working in a frenetic, high-performance economy that by its very nature creates winners and losers. An economy that slowly terrorizes many workers with insecurities about their jobs and losing their independence to big corporations. This is a harsh society with little room for error and severe penalties for losing. Some people thrive on this kind of life. Others don’t.
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
The other road, the one less traveled, moves us at a slower pace but makes allowances for the less work obsessed. Those content to make a decent living—adequate housing, adequate health care, good transportation, good food and clothing, and a good education—should be able to by working hard for five days a week, eight hours a day. Beyond that, workers should be free to spend more than time with their families if they choose, have time for their own personal pursuits, and work with others to improve their communities. Sounds wimpy to some but for many of us these are the best things in life.
Sound unachievable? Not really. Some people do these things every day of their lives. It’s not easy though. They are the exception, not the rule. Who makes the rules is exactly what we’re talking about. We need more jobs in the economy that are outside of the high-powered, corporate-centered Wall Street economy. Jobs that are closer to our communities and are more focused on satisfying local needs, not the needs of huge multinational corporations. Our communities are not a “trickle-down” afterthought of the high-powered economy but are where we live.
We, as Americans, have some stark choices to make about the world we want to live in. If we choose to not make these choices then they will be made for us. For years, we have let others—the economic and political governing elites--make these choices for us. They, and our cooperate-driven entertainment media, have defined the kind of life the “ideal” American should want to live. Now we have a once-in–a-lifetime opportunity to take our lives in our own hands. The Great Recession and the current dissatisfaction with our economic system have given us this opportunity. A democratic president can help too. We must seize this opportunity now or live with the consequences for the rest of our, and our children’s, lives.
THE BREAKDOWN OF AMERICA’S SOCIAL CONTRACT
The failure of today’s economy to generate and sustain decent jobs can be traced to the breakdown in the post-World War II social contract between the owners of industries and American workers that supported simultaneous growth in productivity and wages. The alignment of productivity growth and wages from the late 1940s through the mid-1970s resulted from two main factors: first, owners needed skilled workers in the factories that made this country the world’s producer and, secondly, equitable wage levels were supported by government policies and reinforced through collective bargaining between labor and management. The days that George Meany of the AFL-CIO labor union would have his cigar lit by Senators on the Capitol floor are long gone now. Many factors led to this: the rise of financial capital over industrial capital, technological change and accompanying productivity improvements which squeezed labor, financial and other deregulation, globalization, and a passive government unsupportive of worker needs.
The end of the last century turned out to be an important inflection point in American economic history. CHART 1 shows that individual money income (not stocks, bonds, or other financial instruments) shifted decisively downward late in the Clinton administration. Prior to that time American workers had slowly but steadily been increasing their individual money incomes but after 1998 income began to fall. The opposite trend line slopes in CHART 1 (in red) vividly show the stark reversal between increasing and decreasing income that has turned the tables on workers. Things decisively changed for the worse.
It was during this time of massive reorganization of our financial system that American workers lost their grip on hopes for a better life, at not least without a fight. The process that had begun during the Reagan administration—the change from manufacturing to services, a change from industrial might to financial power and deregulation—finally matured. The George Bush administration—through tax cuts paid for by massive government borrowing—shifted vast sums to the private sector greatly increasing income inequality which had always been a feature of the American economy but now reached a fevered extreme. Soon after, in 2008, the wheels came off Wall Street’s bus from being driven too fast and workers have paid most of the price since. It will be difficult to reverse this alarming trend. The question is how we will deal with an economic dynamic driven by shifting global circumstances and productivity improvements from technological innovation. Wall Street has pushed for lower wages and lower living standards. Workers should not only push back but offer alternative futures.
The national and global economic conditions that prevailed after World War II will not return. We should not expect them to. But that does not necessarily mean that we have to accept a low quality of life. To the contrary, now is one of those turning points in history that feasibly allows us to make our own decisions about the way we live.
CHART 2 shows the distribution of national income among Americans. What is most striking is the disproportionately large number of lower income people. That huge majority-sized lump of people in the lower income range on the left of CHART 2 (the red bars) is most of us! Clearly shown is the fact that majority of Americans don’t make much money: 55% earn less than $30,000 and an amazing 40% earn less than $20,000 a year. Too little in fact to adequately provide for themselves and their families, especially considering the sky-high cost of housing and health care. (Household incomes are somewhat higher of course but not by that much.) I don’t know about you but CHART 2 really pisses me off. Fingerprints at the scene of the crime. In the land of plenty how did so many Americans wind up with so little? With so many making so little even modest increases in income can really make a difference. Given the political insignificance of low-wage earners, the question is how the national conversation about wealth can be turned to the less well-off. An important starting point would be to understand how to help these people play a more productive role in the world of work.
THE PRIVATE SECTOR FAILURE TO PROVIDE AMERICAN WORKERS WITH JOBS
The past four years have been witness to a massive failure of the private sector to supply the jobs America’s workers need. Prior to that, good jobs have been in increasingly short supply since the 1970s. In a private economy where are the jobs to come from if not private businesses? If the government had performed so miserably we would never hear the end of it.
It’s ironic that any move the government makes to soften the impact of the Great Recession such as extended unemployment insurance benefits is met with strident criticism from conservatives and business groups. In fact, the government’s social safety net, meager as it is, has been the only stopgap American workers have been able to depend upon. Still, the fevered criticism of the government continues unabated from the right and, thanks to Fox News and the mainstream “liberal” news media, now permeates and distorts the national conversation we should be having about what to do about jobs.
Big Business doesn’t want to create the huge number of jobs necessary to employ all Americans who want to work. Their bottom line is profitability; not furnishing jobs to American workers. We shouldn’t expect them to. That’s capitalism. With some success, Big Business has led a national media campaign blamin the government for the short-comings of the private sector. Instead, we should be having a discussion about the failure of the private sector to provide enough jobs and what we should be doing about it. Instead we get misleading arguments about the role of government.
National political leadership fails because its assumptions about the way the world works are wrong-headed. Our core thinking about jobs is fatally flawed because of a failure of vision. The President emphasizes that we can recapture past manufacturing glory because he really has no idea where to go in the future other than where we have been in the past. It’s not that our problems are insurmountable. We just don’t work on them because to do so would threaten the existing powers-that-be. Our problems are large but our politics are small.
A NEW SOCIAL CONTRACT
Like it or not we are now in a period of transition between the old and a new social contract. So far this has been a one-sided negotiation with the interests of workers on the short end. Unlike the period after World War II we cannot rely on the participation or support of the economic elites. The Rockefeller Republicans are all dead and the days that industries looked out after their employee’s interests are long gone, if they ever existed. We need to speak up for ourselves because no one else will. There is a reasonable expectation that workers deserve to make a decent living. A new social contract should address the following at a minimum: employment & wages, adequate housing, health care, and universal education.
The guiding precept of a new social contract might be “Our economy should be run to serve the needs of people, not the other way around.” The basis of any social contract should be the assurance that anyone willing to work should be able to support themselves at a decent standard of living. Two adults working together should be able to support a family.
Our challenge is to build institutions capable of devising and implementing alternative working arrangements to our current high-cost system. As a practical matter, this new social contract should not unduly threaten the elites but should receive their support as a way to defuse existential threats to the stability of the country. The question now is how we get this done.
WORKER AND COMMUNITY-FRIENDLY ECONOMIC INVESTMENT STRATEGIES
Some explanation of why we should shift some of our nation’s resources from a Wall Street-driven conception of our economy based on global competition to a more worker-friendly, community-centered approach is in order here. However, if it gets a bit thick here then by all means skip to the next section on the Action Strategies which can help get us there. Come back later and pick up the why though. It’s important that we understand why.
The Economics of Demand-Led Growth
Demand-led economic growth is the opposite of trickle-down (how has that been working?). The idea behind demand-led growth is simple: people with money in their pockets buy stuff. Put money into local hands where it will be spent and re-spent quickly and you’ll see an economy start coming to life. Perhaps not to the levels experienced with Bush’s massive tax cuts and out-of-control borrowing on two wars but to a more sustainable level that we can live with.
Once local economic activity begins to pick up it can become self-sustaining as money is re-spent over and over again. The idea behind demand-led growth has often been used during a recession to put money back into the hands of people across income spectrum but particularly at the lower end where money is promptly spent and destructive cycle of downward spiraling demand can be stopped.
“Trickle-up” spending starts in local communities with some of it eventually winding up in the hands of the wealthy so they can reinvest where they please. Send money back down to communities where the public can spend it and reinvigorate their economy. Once spent in a local economy, money will continue to re-circulate until, eventually, it will leak out but in the mean time many will benefit. Each successive round of spending in the local economy creates more jobs. The workers in these jobs spend their wages mostly in the local economy creating a virtuous cycle of spending and re-spending. Everybody wins.
Recent Experience With Demand-Led Growth
In 2008, the Great Recession began with the collapse housing and credit markets which started a downward spiral in the American economy that spread like a contagion. As millions of workers lost their jobs the demand for goods and services diminished leading to more layoffs and firings leading to even less demand for goods and services and so on. Our slow recovery, to the degree there has been one, has been painful because it is so difficult to reignite demand once extinguished.
Things were bad but could have been even worse were it not for the much-criticized stimulus to the economy from the Obama administration. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) found that Obama’s stimulus policies had the following effects in the first quarter of calendar year 2011:
• They raised real (inflation-adjusted) gross domestic product (GDP) by between 1.1 percent and 3.1 percent,Contrary to Republican “wisdom” and what you may have heard standing next to the office watercooler the stimulus worked and worked well. The CBO analysis of the effects of stimulus spending clearly shows that top-down investment spending by the rich on the high-energy economy driven does not work as well as bottoms-up spending by people in our local economies. That’s a simple fact the wealthy do not want to admit.
• Lowered the unemployment rate by between 0.6 percentage points and 1.8 percentage points,
• Increased the number of people employed by between 1.2 million and 3.3 million, and
• Increased the number of full-time-equivalent jobs by 1.6 million to 4.6 million compared with what would have occurred otherwise.
Why did the Obama stimulus strategies work as well as they did? The Bush tax cuts that added $2.6 trillion dollars to the public debt led directly to the 2008 economic meltdown and the Great Recession. The Obama stimulus, only $0.78 trillion, less than a third as large as the Bush tax cuts, produced the stunning results summarized above. Why didn’t the stimulus totally revive the U.S. economy? One reason was that in a $15.0 trillion dollar economy the $0.78 trillion stimulus worked but was just not big enough to pull us completely out of the ditch Bush has driven us into. It’s scary borrowing that much money against our children’s future earnings. That’s understandable. But we didn’t worry when we let Bush push his much larger borrowed tax cuts just a few years earlier. The point is that stimulus spending worked in the emergency circumstances of the Great Recession and it can work again to revitalize our communities and local job markets.
Lessons Learned From Stimulus Demand-led Growth
The largest category of stimulus spending went to keep state and local government workers on the payrolls. These are people who live, work, and spend in our local economies. The CBO determined that this spending was four times more efficiently spent than the tax cuts for high income individuals embedded in the stimulus, the blood price for Republican cooperation on passing the stimulus. Bottom line: the stimulus worked because it put money in people’s pockets instead of the Bush and Obama tax cuts which have sat unused in the investment accounts of the rich. This is the big lesson to be learned from the success of Obama’s stimulus.
What the stimulus proved was that local spending can provide a tremendous boost to local economies. This is a well-known effect that has cushioned the blows from the twelve recessions the U.S. had since World War II. Government spending has often been used to make up for a lack of private sector spending when consumer and business demand shrinks during a recession. Until recently there was bi-partisan consensus about this so-called “counter-cyclical” spending but now ideological extremist thinking in the Republican Party has fanned fears of spending during bad economic times. Of course, that’s just when it’s needed the most. Our politics have nearly doomed us and unfortunately has led to a dreadfully slow recovery.
The Rich Have Fought Back to Discredit Demand-led Growth
Republicans trash talk stimulus spending because they know it works. What if clear word got out that tax cuts took the air out of our economy and that the right kind of government spending could work wonders? They couldn’t let that happen could they?
Republicans have done all they can to criticize demand-led growth policies such as stimulus spending. It’s not that they don’t want local communities to thrive. It’s more about serving the interests of their real political constituents, the rich investor class. Despite what you hear on TV and in print, it’s not a question of spending. It’s about who spends it: the wealthy or the middle and working classes. With money from the rich, Republicans can buy the media advertising to woo the votes they otherwise could not attract on the basis of their economic policies alone.
To their credit, the mainstream news media initially told an accurate story about the success of the stimulus and the relative failure of the tax cut part of the stimulus. Working Americans should have been in the streets demanding more stimulus to provide jobs and reinvigorate our communities but after the 2008 economic meltdown, the public came to distrust everyone. We got something that worked—local simulative polices—but conservatives were able to shout down the real story and eventually the media went into a full “fair and balanced” reporting mode where disinformation reigned, letting Republicans set the confused terms of national discussion.
Often in U.S. history the private sector has shown that it will not help workers when the chips are down. Why should they? It’s profit-making, not providing a good living for Americans that is their primary goal. It’s no secret--the goal of corporations is to make as much money for their stockholder-owners as possible. That’s the way the capitalism works.
After World War II, American workers comprised the largest domestic market in the world. Manufacturing was king and the nation’s staid banks made low-risk loans to build new factories and to workers so they could buy their homes. Now, fifty years later, manufacturing has been outsourced to low-wage workers in offshore factories and casino finance dominates. America is no longer particularly important to our multinational corporations. We should no longer expect the private sector to have the good of the American people as their prime concern.
Like it or not, we’re on our own. The question now is what we do about it.
Some of the action strategies presented here involve national planning and street-level pressure (by Occupy Wall Street, for example) and others require careful local planning (community initiatives). These action strategies can be mutually reinforcing. Action at the national level can support local action for community-centered economics that provides jobs for workers and rebuilds our communities. Working in concert, these actions can pave the way for a new future for American workers and their families.
Some ideas presented here we already been tried—like local stimulus spending—but were discontinued because they disfavored powerful economic groups. Other ideas have never been introduced into national discussion. All recognize the close connection between jobs, our families, and our communities.
NATIONAL ACTION: More Government Stimulus
Even after several years of nay-saying by Republicans it’s still not too late for more stimulus spending. Not more stimulus-supplied tax cuts which the CBO showed did not work efficiently but money into hands of people who will spend it locally. There’s certainly a need for it. A renewed stimulus would put money in the hands of rank-and-file workers, not the wealthy who would invest it wherever it brought the biggest profit such as in emerging nations a world away. Those countries are important too but first things first.
Late last year the President’s $447 billion Jobs Bill was narrowed to provide $35 billion in grants-in-aid to state and local governments to prevent layoffs of teachers, police officers and firefighters but even that wasn’t enough for Republicans who stalled the initiative. It’s not that the spending was unnecessary; the House just did not want to give the President a victory. More stimulus spending would encourage current employment in part by shoring up state and local governments at a time they are under continuing stress from the economic disruptions stemming from the Great Recession. More stimulus, especially for new and repaired infrastructure, would contribute to long-term economic development and the future of American jobs.
NATIONAL ACTION: Real Financial Sector Reform
If the damage caused by our run-amuck financial sector had been caused by a foreign country we would have declared war on them. Without going into too much detail here, as a start we should repeal the Gramm–Leach–Bliley Act of 1999 and reinstate the Glass–Steagall Act which since 1933 had erected a firewall between the previously distinct worlds of commercial and investment banking. Both Republicans and Democrats backed financial deregulation which was the immediate cause of the meltdown on Wall Street. Wrong is wrong even when it’s been made legal by the corruption of our political system.
Real financial Sector reform would stabilize the future of American workers and their communities by making sure the economic elites are never again allowed to step in it as deep as they did in 2008 when they destroyed the American economy taking with it tens of millions of jobs.
NATIONAL ACTION: Repeal and Reverse the Bush Tax Cuts
The 2003 Bush cuts directed trillions of dollars to the top 1% and the top tenth causing demand to dry up as money was looted from the pockets of workers and wound up in useless speculation and the enormous destruction of national wealth.
The Bush cuts should be rescinded and revised as tax cuts for middle class. Repealing and reversing the Bush tax cuts would move billions from the pockets of America’s rich to the middle class and help shift the economic tide in favor of America’s working and middle class, providing more jobs today and in the future.
NATIONAL ACTION: A National Living Wage
Most jobs in our economy—waitresses and waiters, retail counter help, cashiers--require only a high school education, if that. That’s not going to change because those jobs need to get done somehow and they have to be done locally, where we live. The jobs in highest demand in our economy are not the high-skill, high- wage jobs that we hear so much about on the mainstream media of but occupations considered by some to be menial.
Since the market-determined wage is too low for even a two-wage family to make a decent living, a living wage, in the range of $9 to $12 per hour, is the only answer for millions of workers. Anything else will relegate these worker and their families to lives of borderline existence on the bottom rungs of society. No longer can we abandon large swaths of the black, Hispanic, and other communities so that we can eat cheap hamburgers.
A national living wage would put spending money in the hands of workers as no other policy can. Increased wages would be re-spent many times over in our local communities. Despite warnings from business people for years that any rise in the minimum wage would be disastrous for our economy and lead to mass firings of too-expensive low-wage workers, studies have consistently shown that this does not happen. A national living wage would also avoid the trap of a state-by-state race to avoid paying it.
National minimum wage legislation would force all employers to pay more so increased labor costs would be spread over all goods and services, not just those of certain industries. Contrary to some reports, minimum wage earners are not all young workers living with their parents. Plenty of adult workers would benefit and, indirectly, others workers earning above the minimum wage.
A national living wage would free millions of Americans from an unrelenting struggle with paying the bills and contribute to the long-term future of American jobs by making sure work actually pays.
NATIONAL AND LOCAL ACTION: Buy Local and Buy American
There’s a profound economic impact that comes from keeping the money we spend on goods and services circulating in our local communities. At the most basic level, when you buy local more money stays in the community to be re-spent over-and-over until it eventually “leaks out” into other areas. The more money re-circulates locally the more local jobs are created. Economists call this the “multiplier effect.” The point is not that communities should be totally self-sufficient in all ways but rather to shift the balance back to local stores and their employees. Can a community produce more locally? Of course it can, especially if the raw materials are there and the raw materials are often human beings.
What about the higher cost of local goods compared to Big-Box stores? The difference vanishes once you consider the increase in local employment as well as the relationships that grow when people buy from people they know. The balance between cheap “stuff” and better communities to live must be re-struck. We must become conscious of the power of our purchasing decisions and the quality of life they buy.
The size of the benefit from buying local depends on the type of business. Restaurants and service providers generate a large effect because they are labor-intensive and, therefore, much of the money goes to local payroll with their local jobs. Once you start adding jobs in a local economy then more jobs are created to supply those workers with the goods and services they need. So, another job at the local hardware store goes to create a new job, or at least part of one, at the local grocery store.
As the nation limps through the recession, many towns and cities are hurting. "Buy-local" campaigns can help local economies withstand the downturn. For communities, this is a hopeful message in a recession because it’s not about how much money you've got, but how much you can keep circulating locally without letting it leak out. Also, locally-owned independent businesses re-spend a greater portion of their revenue within the region compared to absentee-owned businesses (or most locally-owned franchises).
The same principles operating behind Buy Local can be scaled up the national level with Buy American campaigns. The national labor unions often feature blue-collar workers in their advertising asking that people Buy American so money and the jobs money creates jobs can be kept within this country rather than “leaking out” to foreign nations. Recently, legislation has been introduced in Congress that would ensure that taxpayer’s dollars are used to buy American-made goods and that American iron and steel be used for manufacturing. Unfortunately, these measures are being stonewalled in the Republican-dominated House by Speaker Boehner and stand little chance of being signed into law unless we take action to let national leadership know that American jobs take precedence over other considerations.
The success of Buy Local initiatives depends critically on community knowledge of the specific purchasing alternatives open to consumers. For example, community volunteers could publicize the names of businesses that pledge to Buy Local and disseminate that information over a locally-run internet website. Locally owned and operated businesses would similarly be made known. Citizens could take their economy into their own hands instead of being at the mercy of nationally-circulated advertising that directs spending to national chains that whisk their profits out-of-state and even out-of-country instantaneously, never to recirculate within the local economy. Keeps spending, and money, local so that more jobs can be created and our communities can prosper. That’s smart money in motion.
LOCAL ACTION: Revitalizing Our Communities
Local governments do many things but they can’t do everything especially when pressure on public spending is so intense. All of us can see many things in our communities that need doing but somehow just don’t get done. Here are a few:
• Turn foreclosed and abandoned properties into affordable housingSome things are not so easy to see but still need doing:
• Demolition of abandoned buildings to improve public safety and property values
• Community greenspace, playground, and urban farming projects
• Repair schools when property taxes are not enough
• Community parks and gardens
• Beautification projects
• Cultural and historical projectsHow could these projects get done?
• Weatherization and property improvement projects
• Disaster assistance for local residents
• Senior citizen and emergency transportation beyond what private and public sectors can supply
• Neighborhood service exchanges would be a flexible way to match skills and resources by maintaining a directory of goods and services to let the community know what is offered.
• Raise cash and in-kind contributions for special community projects
• Assistance to needy small businesses including accounting, advertising, general management
• Community promotion projects
One way would be to create Reinvestment Communities; non-profit organizations initiated by citizens making a deliberate and voluntary decision to “take the bull by the horns” to revitalize their communities by doing the work on the local level that has been neglected for many years. Working together, the long-term resurgence of our communities would produce more jobs than single entrepreneurs pursuing short-term profits.
Different than traditional Community Development Organizations (CDOs) run by professionals who raise capital to develop both commercial and residential properties, a Reinvestment Community non-profit run by dedicated volunteers would fill a distinctly different role by focusing on small to medium-sized labor-intensive projects that need doing within the community.
Where would funding for these projects come from? Initially, the Reinvestment Community could be seeded by national and state government funds but once up and running funding would become self-sustaining with no need continuing funds from outside. Funds for specific projects could be raised from within a community on a project-by-project basis. Funds from the outside could be raised with grants from federal and states sources as well as private donors.
The glut of bank-owned properties in urban, suburban and exurban areas resulting from the Great Recession is huge and will take years to work out of our system. In the mean time these properties drag down nearby property values and depress entire communities. Everyone—homeowners, business people, civic and community groups, school systems--has an interest in addressing this terrible legacy of a financial system gone wild. By partnering with traditional CDOs, Reinvestment Community volunteers could keep entire neighborhoods of vacant housing from being torn down and in the process create affordable housing for families staggering under the high cost of housing. Doing so would not only generate grass-roots employment but lay the groundwork for future economic development resulting from a better community and by catalyzing local employment.
Revitalizing our communities would employ current and future American workers by giving them jobs while they help build better places for them and their neighbors to live. Over time, this virtuous cycle would revitalize our communities while providing jobs and attracting new residents and economic growth.
LOCAL ACTION: Building Caring Communities
Throughout the next twenty years unprecedented numbers of Baby Boomers will retire. During the Great Recession many of the Boomers lost their retirement savings which were inadequate to begin with. Most will not have saved enough for retirement, not even close. For many, the equity value of their homes which many had planned to dip into if the time came has evaporated leaving many underwater. For awhile many Boomers will attempt to work beyond retirement age, blocking many young workers from the labor market, but there’s a natural limit to how far that can go. This is a major time bomb waiting to explode.
Prior tol the past few years retirees have had it good: they remained in their homes on savings, investment earnings, and reverse mortgages if necessary. Many had health insurance from their old jobs while they were waiting for Medicare to kick in. But the social contract with America’s elderly is rapidly changing just like for workers. All bets are off now.
What will happen as millions of Boomers can’t work any longer and can no longer afford their monthly mortgage payments much less other living expenses? Social Security was never intended to be the sole support for the elderly. Some will have support from their families but most will not. Churches cannot deal with the scale of the problem especially considering so many congregations are heavy with old people.
For years conservatives have warned that young workers will be excessively burdened by supporting so many old people. That’s putting it mildly. Will we take the libertarian path and simply throw them out on the street? Or, more likely, hide them away so the active workers don’t have to look at them every day. We’ve done that in the past with other groups but that is a doubtful outcome for the people that are our mothers and fathers.
Among the other social schisms America has never dealt with, this struggle will be particularly intense. Tremendous political pressures will force us rethink how this huge segment of our population will live. To put it mildly, “retirees” must live differently in the future than they have in the past, a wrenching experience for them. Solutions that in the past seemed too radical will suddenly be considered.
We have not even begun to think seriously about how this challenge might be met. Cost pressures resulting from huge numbers of retirees will force a thorough reconsideration of our current system of elderly housing and health care. We’ll need radical change in their living arrangements to contain the cost.
One approach would be to fund massive private sector investment in a new “old age” infrastructure including huge retirement villages to “warehouse” the elderly and huge new medical complexes to care for the frequent care frail old people need. Private construction firms would only be too glad to take from the government till (remember public housing) and the economy in some areas would temporarily benefit from an “old people bubble.” After the Baby Boom generation had passed it would be someone else’s job to figure out to do with the then-useless facilities.
Here’s a lot cheaper thought: find places in our communities to house and care for the elderly. There are many opportunities for cost savings with this approach. For example, retirees could be efficiently matched with each other to share overhead and other expenses. Owners struggling to remain in their homes would be able to share with retirees. The matches could be made by mostly community-level volunteer organizations expressly dedicated to matching to those in need. Computers and their databases would vastly simplify the task. A local “Building Caring Communities” organization could efficiently connect persons in need. They could partner with Community Development Organizations and Reinvestment Communities (see above) to refurbish foreclosed properties instead of demolishing them. This kind of solution would not only provide jobs but also help the country through the decades-long aftershocks of the Great Recession’s overbuilding mania.
There’s another dimension to the problems of the Baby Boomers that the private sector would be blind to. Many old people will live out their last years in a lonely existence, often as widows and without the support of a nuclear family as in the past when American family life was not so fragmented by a mobile workforce and an alienating popular culture.
If our elderly were supported by a “Building Caring Communities” network it would be possible to restore this missing human element in so many people’s lives. A real return to community. Rather than warehousing the elderly in impersonal nursing homes or “assisted living facilities” at tens of thousands of dollars annually, help them care for each other by arranging them to partner with each other, checking in on each other (phone, text, email, even visits) daily or even more frequently. Not as good as 24-hour a day nursing home care? That’s arguable for all but the extremely frail but it’s certainly a lot cheaper and with the proper training the care it might even be better. Good program design and implementation would be everything here. The housing and health care disaster that awaits us with the challenge of the Baby Boomers can be finessed by shifting our thinking from private profits to local responsibility. So much is possible if we can get beyond the limits of private sector thinking.
Over the twenty-year Baby Boomer demographic bulge, the total amount spent will be well over $10 trillion dollars! How would we pay for all this? That’s easy: the Social Security Trust fund. You think it will be empty as conservatives now warn? Not a chance. What today’s conservatives don’t seem to see is that once the elderly get really pissed off as they will be if their reasonable needs are not met, they will be in full riot mode. Buses full of 70-somethings will storm north and take the Capitol if necessary.
And explode they will despite today’s conservative calls for cuts in Social Security and Medicare spending. Even if conservatives get the programmatic changes they want now, when the panic comes all will be forgotten and the elderly will forcefully demand their due. The ground will shift so radically from under conservative’s feet that they will quickly come to see clearly the situation they tried to ignore for so long. Suddenly, that Social Security lock box that was looted by a money-hungry Congress years ago when we were not looking will be not so empty. The program default that conservatives say is inevitable will suddenly be avoided with a tweak to the payroll tax and a suddenly-reasonable cap on withdrawals from upper income Americans.
Shifting the inevitably huge expenditures for the coming surge in retirees away from “warehousing” private construction and nursing home corporations and toward our communities will breathe new life into them. The efficiency gains from distributed volunteer services as compared to centralized corporate facilities will have a strong positive impact on employment and the “neighbors caring for neighbors” aspect of Building Caring Communities will make life much more bearable for those nearing the end of their lives. That’s real compassion in action.
Listen carefully Mr. & Ms. Business Elite. Without the silver-haired Tea Party and small town conservatives there would not be enough voters to elect a Republican dog catcher. The “don’t let government touch my Social Security/Medicare” voters will turn on you in a second if their economic well-being is seriously threatened. If you’re smart you will learn how to meet the needs of the Baby Boomers in a way that least burdens the U.S. economic system. Work for, not against, creative solutions to this problem before it’s too late.
Building Caring Communities would creatively address one of the great challenges facing the American people in a way that would not only show national, local, and individual kindness but would also stimulate local employment and, in many ways, make for a positive future for American jobs and communities.
LOCAL ACTION: “People Appropriate” Economies
Here are several new ideas but they all share a goal of building sustainable communities by producing more good jobs at the local level. These are grass-roots strategies that can be implemented locally, away from the control of the Wall Street elites that have brought so many of us so low. “People Appropriate” economies would provide another dimension along which cities and counties could specialize and grow. These ideas may not work everywhere but they are feasible in enough places to make a difference. National power is less concerned with our many small local communities. So much the better.
America is a diverse country. Each level of our geographic hierarchy—states, regions, counties, towns and cities—has its own distinct identity. That can be hard to see though.
Here’s a challenge. Get a map of the U.S. and pick out a town or county. Go to their website and look closely. Look also at the websites of nearby towns and counties, too. In any one area, the websites of thousands of city and county governments reveal a disappointing sameness. How can our many small towns and rural counties distinguish themselves when they have much the same things to offer: a run-down “Main Street” area with perhaps a make-over to spruce up the small stores? Or a local lake or mountain that looks much like the others in the next county. Many towns, in both the North and the South, are economically (and socially) depressed because a large founding industry left for greener pastures. These residents are “left behind” in the worst sense.
Here’s an idea that would give communities a distinctive identity and an opportunity to attract new residents and jobs. An identity that does not depend on the local geography but on the residents themselves. Some communities have spontaneously attracted a unique population. The many interesting small towns north of San Francisco are one example. However, other areas are not as intrinsically interesting, a least to non-residents. How can this be remedied in a way that each community can have its own identity? The key is to look at the residents, who can change, not the geography which does not change.
The human dimensions of distinctive identity are numerous: life cycle, education, gender, sexual orientation, race, and ethnicity among them.
Economically struggling towns and counties can make a deliberate decision to re-make and market themselves in such as way as to attract a distinctive demographic segment of the population. Everybody wins. The existing residents win because they get the positive economic and social effects of an influx of new residents (and their money). By design, the new residents they’re trying to attract are people they have deliberately decided they want to live with. The new residents win by living with other “birds of a feather” and living with people who they know made the decision to attract them. The same thing sometimes happens spontaneously now but not to the same degree and not in as many areas and not involving as many people.
Don’t like the idea that such a homogeneous grouping of people would work against diversity? OK, many others probably feel like you. There’s a town for that. Ones in New Jersey and Oregon and even Idaho. Some people value similarities and some value differences. Simply live with people who value the same things you do. But by all means get away from the notion that we will live wherever our job takes us. Or where we were born. Get away from the mentality that frustrates so many people living in places they really don’t like and, for whatever reason, cannot bring themselves to leave. Life is too short for that.
Previously, people have had to rely on word-of-mouth to find out where they’d most like to live. But with the internet that process can be made much more efficient and reliable. Here’s an economic development strategy than can bring new blood (and money and jobs) into old communities. In the past it has been large cities that offer the anonymity that can permit diversity. But now, “birds-of-a-feather” communities can spring up all over, breathing new life and new economic opportunities.
Local Communities and Building Workforce Ecosystems
Factories have always seen themselves as teams, with team members a part of something larger than themselves working alone. A factory is, in a sense, an eco-system of teams which come together to build something. Whether it’s a car, a refrigerator, or an airplane, people work together to get something done. In these industrial communities which spring up as a collective effort, knowledge is born and wealth is created. Similarly, the workforce of a town or city is a type of eco-system with complementary roles connecting everyone. The goal is to work together to get done everything the town needs doing.
Independent of a particular factory, it is possible to build a community of workers based, in part, on the recognition of different skills people have. The goal would be to see that a complete set of job skills was present in a community so if a job needed doing it would be possible to fill that need from within the town. Of course, no small town would have its own neurosurgeon but common skills would be readily at hand. If a needed skill was missing then the community could advertise and bring in (not hire but help them move) someone from the outside that needed work in that occupation.
A community that can draw from its own residents to get local work done is a more self-sufficient community that succeeds in “Buying Local” not just goods but labor itself. As already noted, the economic multiplier effects that result as wages re-circulate in the local economy creates more jobs and provides a firmer foundation for future jobs and economic development.
“Alternative” Regional Economies
The previous sections on Buying Local, Revitalizing Our Communities, Building Caring Communities, Birds-of-a-Feather Communities, and Building Workforce Ecosystems, all share several things in common: a focus on rebuilding our local economies, rebuilding our local labor forces, and rebuilding community itself. Here is where the future of American jobs and the future of our communities come together. Both are inextricably linked and no attempt should be made to consider each separately as we have a tendency to do. All too often we try to stimulate local employment without considering the effects on our communities. Such is the common way of American thinking which ranks economic concerns over social concerns.
Each of these jobs and community strategies finds fertile ground for growth in our regional, not national, economies. Regions and their cities and towns are America in miniature. Depending on how you define a region, they’re nothing huge or out of proportion to human experience but something comprehensible to almost everyone. Rather than outward or “export” focused areas which focus on selling goods and services to sophisticated markets all over the globe, inward-looking regions can thrive from within.
Communities comprised of dynamic industries and people have much different economies than comparatively static communities with their slower pace of economic activity. No problem here, we just have to recognize that the diversity of land and people leads to differences in the quality and quantity of economic activity. Our current one-size-fits-all economic template does not recognize these differences.
Silicon Valley in the south Bay area of San Francisco is a prime example of a dynamic economy. Silicon Valley companies make sophisticated goods and services for export to the entire world. The area hosts world-class competitors exchanging high-priced goods and services with each other and similar companies around the globe.
But every region, or even every nation, cannot be a Silicon Valley. The economies of these areas must necessarily be much different. Not necessarily any harm in that as long as our national economy, and its rules and regulations, are not biased against them. These alternate economies do not make the same variety of “hot” goods and services as the more dynamic areas. Alternate economies are more inward-looking than the dynamic export areas. Our national economic norms do not work as well for these areas or the people that choose to live in them.
Simply put, an “alternative” regional economy would permit workers to make choices that would allow them to opt-out of a high-consumption lifestyle by deliberately taking a different economic road. Let the two systems, and many shades of difference, co-exist. The point is that “one size does not fit all” or anything close to it. No longer should we have to accept the dictates of a ruling economic class telling us how we must live, especially since they seem to have thrown the American worker and their families to the wolves.
For fifty years, strong economic growth has been the mantra of the affluent and has set the tone for what we have come to value as a people. In the 1960s, American living standards began to grow well beyond what was necessary to sustain the “good life.” Mass advertising pressured Americans to consume more and more to the point that almost our entire lives were spent working to buy things we no longer had time to enjoy. The definition of enjoying life changed from spending good times with friends and family to higher and higher levels of raw consumption. Older people miss the life of the 1950s when “life was simpler” but they don’t know what to do about it. Younger people miss what they never directly experienced. Their life choices are more limited than they like to admit. Alternative regional economies, based on the ideas presented in this section, are a beginning. Many other local economic and human development strategies are possible if we refuse to drift along the economic mainstream imposed on us by the forces of Wall Street and the big corporations.
THINKING THE UNTHINKABLE: GOVERNMENT AS THE EMPLOYER OF LAST RESORT
Here’s one final candidate for national and local action.
The private sector won’t work on the problem of persistently high unemployment because they can’t make a profit on it. This type of unemployment is in the “too hard” pile; a type of “wicked” social problem we task the public sector to solve. OK, if the private sector can’t or won’t provide employment then let the government do it. Let the government function as an employer of last resort.
We have some history here. Enacted in 1973 to train workers and provide them with jobs in the public service, the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) was signed into law by Republican(!) President Richard Nixon. Not known for his altruism to the unemployed and poor, why did Nixon allow CETA to be passed into law? Nixon, assisted by Democratic Sen. Pat Moynihan, initially tried for full employment as a reaction to the urban riots of the 1960s but then gave up and sidelined millions onto welfare. Unfortunately, the turn to welfare as a solution to large numbers of unemployed meant an end to any serious attempt to provide a job for anyone willing to work.
Many CETA participants performed useful work: from asbestos removal in old buildings to assisting in schools and libraries and senior citizen centers (see Revitalizing Our Communities and Making Caring Communities above). These were jobs that needed doing then and still need doing now. (I’m not talking about making school kids clean toilets. Sorry Newt.) Unfortunately, the CETA program design limited participation to hard-to-employ so workers who could not hold jobs even in a good economy while the short-term victims of the economic hard times of the late 1970s were often left out, a problem aggravated by limited funds for the program. Also, due to political cronyism some did not do useful work. Conservative critics of CETA had a valid point when they charged the program was inefficiently run and sometimes served as a sop for democratic political interests. The voters did not want make-work and the unions did not want real work so CETA lost support and was eventually scuttled.
So, in the not-so-distant past, this nation has demonstrated a willingness to bring the unemployed and the poor into the ranks of workers. What changed? What made making the government the employer of last resort—when the private sector could offer no solution—so unthinkable that Americans less than fifty years of age have no memory of such a time?
One of Ronald Reagan’s first acts in office was to replace CETA with the Jobs Training Partnership Act (JTPA). The JTPA was an insincere effort led by the private sector to offer job training as a substitute for actual jobs. A version of the JTPA, the Workforce Investment Act (WIA), is still on the books today. The program cream-skims the best job trainees and ignores the rest offering them “Life Skills” training, a thinly disguised patriarchic attempt to at least claim something is being done to help the millions of young people needing a real chance to enter the job market. WIA on-the-job training (OJT) offers employers cut rate workers (wages subsidized by the government) which are often fired without cause after the six-month “training” period. What a deal for employers! But not so for most workers.
Beyond this, though, was a decision to relegate millions of Americans to a “reserve army of the unemployed” which have been used to set an artificially low “anchor” wage which has the effect of pulling down wages for all workers. Since Reagan’s election, the business sector has firmly been in charge of the nation’s jobs agenda and they certainly have called the tune to the point that no prominent Democrat will raise a serious challenge.
But the problem of widespread unemployment has never gone away. Our new problems are really old ones most of us have forgotten about. It’s just that the Great Recession has brought them into more prominent view by the general public.
What form might a strategy of once again putting the government into the role of the employer of last resort? A well-managed program similar to CETA would be a good start. One thing for sure: if public jobs once again re-entered our employment picture it would be absolutely necessary to make sure the program was run fairly and efficiently. Not as a competitor to jobs in the private sector but to do much-needed jobs the private sector can’t make a buck on.
As proposed in the previous section of this diary, there are many tasks in our local communities that need doing that are currently either not being done or not at the level necessary to make a difference in our collective quality of life. We can have more jobs, better and safer communities and schools, tighter and more caring networks of social relationships and a better quality of life. Isn’t that an important part of what government is for? It’s not all about national defense or an interstate system of four-lane super slabs. We badly need a renewed national discussion about government as an employer of last resort. The private sector would undoubtedly give plenty of blowback but they are simply not getting the whole job done.
DISPELLING PRIVATE SECTOR RESISTANCE I
Undoubtedly there would be great resistance to the idea of the government as the employer of last resort. Deeply embedded in the American psyche is the notion of personal responsibility. Each of us should make our own way in the world including earning what we need to survive. In the past this very functional idea has animated American industriousness with the promise that, if we work hard, the rewards we be there for us. This expectation is the basis for the unstated, informal social contract that Americans have had with their government. If fact, this social contract, not the Constitution and its many interpreters, is the bedrock for our government’s very legitimacy. Now, this social contract is in the process of being revoked by America’s economic and political elites.
Few things irritate a conservative more than the idea that someone who wants something for nothing. Shirkers are disrespected, relegated to low social status, and are viewed with outright contempt. Even liberals know that fairness demands we each contribute to our own well-being and the quality of our lives. Those fit enough should make their own living. Anything else is not only unfair to others who might be asked to carry their burden but also dysfunctional for the person who unnecessarily depends on others to make their way.
Work calls us out of our interior shells into the wider world so that we might be challenged and improved by the experience of working with others. We are forced to evolve; ultimately an act of societal kindness to those who, for whatever reason, might withdraw from the world.
Conservative resistance can be overcome by a new social contract that explicitly requires, and provides the means, for each of us to make every possible effort to provide for ourselves and our families.
DISPELLING PRIVATE SECTOR RESISTANCE II
All the post-social movement presidents—Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, and Obama—have delivered essentially the same message: that investment and hard work will produce a thriving economy for everyone. Same as it ever was. Not since the CETA jobs program has national leadership seriously addressed the problem of the nation’s unemployed, or our poor for that matter. We saw what happened to Jimmy Carter. He was mercilessly hounded by the corporate media while in office (it wasn’t primarily about the Iran hostage crisis; that was just an excuse). Then Corporate America replaced him with a much more business-friendly politician--that old actor that we elected king.
The alarming income inequality of today can be traced to that time forty years ago when we installed Ronald Reagan in the Oval Office and the financial sector began its ascendency over manufacturing which previously had supported blue-collar livelihoods. Who wins from inequality? Obviously the rich do in a limited sense but even their incomes are hurt because economic output drops. So why does this go on? The rich fear that if they make concessions that result in less inequality there will be more demands for them to relinquish power which may lead to more radical redistribution of wealth. If some redistribution works well why not more? They don’t want this process to even begin because it may lurch out of their control. Is their concern warranted? I don’t know but it is vital that a socially progressive political movement learn to work constructively with existing political and social elites. Not mere co-optation but as full partners in making a better country.
Would a full employment economy be less efficient? Perhaps, but that’s the price of letting everyone play. Would there be less productive output to go around? Maybe, but more will be drawn into the economy which should compensate for efficiency losses. If not, then that’s a small price to pay for national dignity and being a truly good people.
A NEW GREAT SOCIETY
There are few subjects that enrage conservatives more than Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. At first appearances it seems no one would object to aspiring to live in a Great Society but the very concept implies removing personal ambition from the center of American life and an end to class inequality. That’s what really pisses them off. Be all you can be should not be just an ironic Army recruitment slogan but should be a call to arms for making this country truly the greatest--not just militarily the strongest or economically the most powerful--country on earth. Conservatives have encouraged us to focus on more limited goals instead of what we can do at our best so we have fallen well short of what we could be as a country. The fact that tax rates have been central to our national political dialog for over thirty years is reflective of how limited our horizons have become. Small ideas make for a small people who do little to solve problems.
A society that places the common man at the center of American life is what I would call a Great Society. Not the rich business person or Hollywood “star” but ordinary people who find dignity in the way they conduct themselves in the course of their lives. People like that deserve a supportive government and institutional framework ready to work with them to reach their dreams. We have to make a choice about national priorities and that choice is fundamentally one of values.
It’s difficult for many liberals to admit but the outburst of liberal democracy of the 1960s was in large part catalyzed by the assassination of President John Kennedy. The remarkable gains in civil rights were forced down the throat of an unwilling public by an unlikely national leader, President Lyndon Johnson who, after the assassination of Kennedy, was looking for a way to distinguish himself in history by overcoming his own racist past. LBJ became the focal point of efforts that led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Great Society’s short-lived programs (welfare as we know it today was not among them). The Vietnam War quickly derailed the Great Society by draining the national budget and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity was lost.
The terrible assassination of a president will not again provide the energy for a way forward. Sometimes we have to make our own mojo. At times, history has a way of unexpectedly thrusting a nation into new situations in which opportunities that were previously unthinkable are suddenly feasible. Arguably, we are in such a time now brought on by a jobs crisis that refuses to go away..
During the social disruptions of the late 1960s, U.S. elites were afraid of losing their grip on power and that is precisely when they were the most open to change. Perhaps, as Jim Clifton argues in The Coming Job War, disruptive times will return. Even if not. social progressives should be ready with practical ideas for a new way forward for workers. A new social contract in which national stability is earned by elite concessions to workers which guarantee reasonable wage norms, stable employment, and a decent standard of living. Tumultuous times can be avoided if the economic and social elites see the light soon enough and proactively make real changes in our economy. I hope they do.
So what are we as a nation doing to work on new solutions to the problem of middle class decline and persistently high unemployment? To best of my knowledge the answer to this question is that no one is seriously working on community-level solutions. There’s no left-thinking organization comparable in scope to the Cato Institute or even the more policy-oriented Heritage Foundation. There are a number of excellent left-oriented oppositional research organizations which effectively critique present policies but none are tightly focused on designing alternatives to what we have now.
Many good people—some politicians, community organizers, educators, churches, volunteers—work on what is essentially making the best of a bad situation but that’s not enough. Mainstream thinking has most often been closely tied to the ideas we have had all along: reaping big profits with technological innovation in the hopes that trickle-down economics will eventually employ everyone (that didn’t work as advertised), devising smarter investment strategies (trillions in tax cuts already wasted) or essentially working better, harder, longer, faster (enough already).
Somehow we must find the resources and people to do new, creative work to solve this problem. Here is where innovative solutions can really pay off for the majority of Americans who cannot directly benefit from high-tech, high-education, high-energy economy jobs.
Our problems are large but our politics are small. That’s needs to change.
Two very important things to remember: first “There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come.” and “There’s nothing as politically potent as people willing to kick up a ruckus.”