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Why are We Afraid to Create the Jobs We Need?

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The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that as of February 2010, the unemployment rate stands at 9.7 percent, and the official jobless rate is 16.7 percent, which also counts those who have stopped looking for work and those who have been forced into part-time work. See Bureau of Labor Statistics

[An extended unemployment bill] "doesn't create new jobs. In fact, if anything, continuing to pay people unemployment compensation is a disincentive for them to seek new work...I'm sure most of them would like work and probably have tried to seek it, but you can't argue that it's a job enhancer. If anything, as I said, it's a disincentive. And the same thing with the COBRA extension and the other extensions here," Senator Jon Kyle, Arizona

Unemployment is the scourge of our nation. It causes death and disease. It eats away at family life. It erodes our sense of confidence and well being. And it's a profound insult to the richest country on Earth.

Yet it takes a minor miracle for the Senate just to extend our paltry u

nemployment benefits and COBRA health insurance premium subsidies for a month. Workers are waiting for real jobs, but our government no longer has the will to create them.

How can we allow millions to go without work while Wall Street bankers--the ones who caused people to lose their jobs in the first place-- "earn" record bonuses? Why are we putting up with this?

It's not rocket science to create decent and useful jobs, (although it does go beyond the current cranial capacity of the U.S. Senate). It's obvious that we desperately need to repair our infrastructure, increase our energy efficiency, generate more renewable energy, and invest in educating our young. We need millions of new workers to do all this work--right now. Our government has all the money and power (and yes, borrowing capacity) it needs to hire these workers directly or fund contractors and state governments to hire them. Either way, workers would get the jobs, and we would get safer bridges and roads, a greener environment, better schools, and a brighter future all around. So what are we waiting for?

Here's what I've heard:

1. The private sector will create enough jobs, if the government gets out of the way. Possibly, but when? Right now more than 2.7 percent of our entire population has been unemployed for more than 26 weeks -- an all time-record since the government began compiling that data in 1948. No one is predicting that the private sector is about to go on a hiring spree. In fact, many analysts think it'll take more than a decade for the labor market to fully recover. You can't tell the unemployed to wait ten years.

Counting on a private sector market miracle is an exercise in faith-based economics. There simply is no evidence that the private sector can create on its own the colossal number of jobs we need. If we wanted to go down to a real unemployment rate of 5% ("full employment"), we'd have to create about 22.4 million jobs. ( See Leo Hindery's excellent accounting.) We'd need over 100,000 new jobs every month just to keep up with population growth. It's not fair to the unemployed to pray for private sector jobs that might never come through.

2. We can't afford it. Funding public sector jobs will explode the deficit and the country will go broke: This argument always makes intuitive sense because most of us think of the federal budget as a giant version of our household budget - we've got to balance the books, right?

I'd suggest we leave that analogy behind. Governments just don't work the same way as families do. We have to look at the hard realities of unemployment, taxes and deficits.

For instance, every unemployed worker is someone who is not paying taxes. If we're not collecting taxes from the unemployed, then we've got to collect more taxes from everyone who is working. Either that, or we have to cut back on services. If we go with option one and raise taxes on middle and low income earners, they'll have less money to spend on goods and services. When demand goes down, businesses contract--meaning layoffs in the private sector. But if we go with option two and cut government services, we'll have to lay off public sector workers. Now we won't be collecting their taxes, and the downward cycle continues. Plus, we don't get the services.

Or, we could spend the money to create the jobs and just let the deficit rise a bit more. The very thought makes politicians and the public weak in the knees. But in fact this would start a virtuous cycle that would eventually reduce the deficit: Our newly reemployed people start paying taxes again. And with their increased income, they start buying more goods and services. This new demand leads to more hiring in the private sector. These freshly hired private sector workers start paying taxes too. The federal budget swells with new revenue, and the deficit drops.

But let's say you just can't stomach letting the deficit rise right now. You think the government is really out of money--or maybe you hate deficits in principle. There's an easy solution to your problem. Place a windfall profits tax on Wall Street bonuses. Impose a steep tax on people collecting $3 million or more. (Another way to do it is to tax the financial transactions involved in speculative investments by Wall Street and the super-rich.)

After all, those fat bonuses are unearned: The entire financial sector is still being bankrolled by the taxpayers, who just doled out $10 trillion (not billion) in loans and guarantees. Besides, taxing the super-rich doesn't put a dent in demand for goods and services the way taxing other people does. The rich can only buy so much. The rest goes into investment, much of it speculative. So a tax on the super rich reduces demand for the very casino type investments that got us into this mess.

3. Private sector jobs are better that public sector jobs.
Why is that? There is a widely shared perception that having a public job is like being on the dole, while having a private sector job is righteous. Maybe people sense that in the private sector you are competing to sell your goods and services in the rough and tumble of the marketplace--and so you must be producing items that buyers want and need. Government jobs are shielded from market forces.

But think about some of our greatest public employment efforts. Was there anything wrong with the government workers at NASA who landed us on the moon? Or with the public sector workers in the Manhattan project charged with winning World War II? Are teachers at public universities somehow less worthy than those in private universities? Let's be honest: a good job is one that contributes to the well-being of society and that provides a fair wage and benefits. During an employment crisis, those jobs might best come directly from federal employment or indirectly through federal contracts and grants to state governments.

This myth also includes the notion that the private sector is more efficient than the public sector. Sometimes it is, but mostly it isn't. Take health care, which accounts for nearly 17 percent of our entire economy. Medicare is a relative model of efficiency, with much lower administrative costs than private health insurers. The average private insurance company worker is far less productive and efficient than an equivalent federal employee working for Medicare. ( See study by Himmelstein, Woolhandler and Wolfe)

4. Big government suffocates our freedom. The smaller the central government, the better -- period, the end. This is the hardest argument to refute because it is about ideology not facts. Simply put, many Americans believe that the federal government is bad by definition. Some don't like any government at all. Others think power should reside mostly with state governments. This idea goes all the way back to the anti-federalists led by Thomas Jefferson, who feared that yeomen farmers would be ruled (and feasted upon) by far-away economic elites who controlled the nation's money and wealth.

In modern times this has turned into a fear of a totalitarian state with the power to tell us what to do and even deny us our most basic liberties. A government that creates millions of jobs could be seen as a government that's taking over the economy (like taking over GM). It just gets bigger and more intrusive. And more corrupt and pork-ridden. (There's no denying we've got some federal corruption, but again the private sector is hardly immune to the problem. In fact, it lobbies for the pork each and every day.)

It's probably impossible to convince anyone who hates big government to change their minds. But we need to consider what state governments can and cannot do to create jobs. Basically, their hands are tied precisely because they are not permitted by our federal constitution to run up debt. So when tax revenues plunge (as they still are doing) states have to cut back services and/or increase taxes. In effect, the states act as anti-stimulus programs. They are laying off workers and will continue to do so until either the private sector or the federal government creates many more jobs. Unlike the feds, states are in no position to regulate Wall Street. They're not big enough, not strong enough and can easily be played off against each other.

While many fear big government, I fear high unemployment even more. That's because the Petri dish for real totalitarianism is high unemployment -- not the relatively benign big government we've experienced in America. When people don't have jobs and see no prospect for finding them, they get desperate -- maybe desperate enough to follow leaders who whip up hatred and trample on people's rights in their quest for power. Violent oppression of minority groups often flows from high unemployment. So does war.

No thanks. I'll take a government that puts people to work even if it has to hire 10 million more workers itself. We don't have to sacrifice freedom to put people to work. We just have to muster the will to hire them.

Unfortunately, none of our political leaders have the nerve to declare an employment emergency and get busy creating millions of new jobs. Maybe it's because so many of them got elected with money from the financial industry, and Wall Street doesn't give a damn about jobs. The bankers are happy to continue their taxpayer-financed gambling spree, secure in the knowledge that they are still too big to fail. The Tea Party, instead of focusing its ire on these rapacious bankers, prefers to skewer big government and taxes, giving politicians one more reason to sit on their hands instead of creating jobs now.

Meanwhile, the unemployed are still out in the cold. Maybe the new Coffee Party will provide something more than warm drinks to those without jobs. But you heard it here first: We're going to have big trouble in this country if we don't create jobs for the unemployed in a hurry. They need them. They deserve them. We need to build a movement to demand them.

How about a Jobs Now Party?

Les Leopold is the author of The Looting of America: How Wall Street's Game of Fantasy Finance destroyed our Jobs, Pensions and Prosperity, and What We Can Do About It Chelsea Green Publishing, June 2009.