America Still Needs Jobs

It was back in late September that I launched my "America Needs Jobs" series for The Huffington Post.

Then as now, no issue seemed of more importance to this country -- politically, economically and morally -- than jobs.

Just that week, President Barack Obama had provided this excuse for his do-almost-nothing approach to the crisis: "We are willing to look at any idea that's out there that we think will help," he said at a CNBC town hall on the economy. "But we've got to do so in a responsible way. We've got to make sure that whatever it is that we're proposing gives us the best bang for the buck. A lot of ideas that look good on paper, when you start digging into them it turns out that they're more complicated and they may end up not working the way they're supposed to."

I could think of at least 10 ideas that would help off the top of my head, and I knew it wouldn't be hard to find 10 more. I decided to call attention to serious, substantive measures available to Washington policymakers -- if they were really interested.

The series kickoff was headlined: 20 Ways To Put America Back To Work Again.

But I only made it to 14.

The final installment ran on Nov. 5. It's not that I'd run out of ideas. It's just that there was no more denying the fact that the nation's midterm voters, outraged as they were about the lack of jobs, had actually put in control of the House the one group of people even less willing to do anything about it than the ones that were there before.

A day earlier, I had written about all sorts of ways Obama could still pursue a muscular agenda without Congress. There were many, starting with getting tougher on banks. But none of them actually created jobs.

That tends to take money, and legislation.

The Republicans, of course, talk about their devotion to job creation. They would have you believe that their agenda of reducing the deficit and repealing regulations will create jobs. But any straight-shooting conservative economist would admit that if those things do have a positive effect on job-creation, it will, at best, be in the long run.

The one thing we know for sure about cutting government spending is that it will have a dramatic effect on jobs in the short run: It will eliminate a lot of them, including many in the private sector. It's not just the crazy hippie Keynesians who believe that, it's anyone who's being honest.

But you do have to give the Republicans credit for at least recognizing how important jobs are to American voters. They cared enough to craft a false narrative.

Rather than expose it, however, the Democratic leaders are acting like they agree. The only argument is over whose cuts make more sense.

And since the Democrats know better, there's not even a good story they can tell when it comes to job creation. This is just a moral, economic and political loser.

So back to my America Needs Jobs series. Of the 14 proposals, only one -- the first -- was adopted, and that only partially. Obama's December tax deal with Republicans included a small temporary reduction -- from 6.2 percent to 4.2 percent -- in the employee portion of the Social Security payroll tax.

What I had written about, however, was the possibility of suspending the entire 12.4 percent contribution from both sides. That would have left employees getting a significantly bigger paycheck even as employers paid out significantly less. The dinkier reduction, unfortunately, has had negligible effects as a stimulus.

Many of the other ideas in my series involved precisely the kind of bold, forward-looking, major investments in the future that had been a longshot before the midterms, and now seemed a cold hard impossibility. Think: infrastructure spending, bailing out the states, a new Civilian Conservation Corps and WPA, lowering the retirement age, and a green energy and energy conservation push.

One of the not-too-expensive ideas was job sharing. But that's a better tool for mitigating the effect of layoffs than accelerating a recovery. And besides, let's be real, it has something of a French feel to it.

Some of the proposals didn't necessarily cost a lot of money, but never really had a constituency in either party. Consider the idea of creating an industrial policy, or getting seriously tough with China, or letting the dollar drop. All three are opposed by the plutocracy that owns most of those dollars, likes the current system just fine, and gives a lot of money to both Republicans and Democrats.

The same goes with perhaps my favorite idea, forcing the fat cat bankers to spend the mounds of money they're sitting on by slapping a tax on their grotesquely swollen excess cash reserves.

(The idea of doing something -- anything -- to pry cash from the super-wealthy and put it where it could do some good was at the heart of the one new job-creating proposal I've written about since I abandoned the series: Budget expert Isabel Sawhill's proposal to temporarily double the tax deduction for charitable giving. Ideally, that would serve as a powerful incentive for the rich to significantly increase -- or at least accelerate -- their contributions to nonprofit organizations. But in his FY 2012 budget, Obama is actually proposing to cap those deductions, not double them.)

The last article in my series, in deference to the new House majority, was a job-creation tax credit. But since it's backed by Obama, the Republicans are suspicious.

If I had kept going, my next installment was going to be about how a carbon tax wouldn't just reduce emissions, it would fundamentally change the incentives in the nation's economy, discouraging the use of resources in favor of encouraging work. (See "Engage People, Retire Things" by Get America Working founder Bill Drayton.)

But I just didn't have the heart to write it anymore. A carbon tax couldn't even move forward last session, when energy-industry supported climate-change deniers didn't run the House.

The article I most regret not getting around to was about the idea of buying local, and banking local. Or buying from small businesses or individuals.

After all, that's something we can each do on our own. And I think the idea is really powerful, both in principal and in effect, because it keeps our money where it's getting spent -- rather than where it's getting socked away, or getting invested overseas, or being used to place bets on obscure financial instruments that end up destroying the economy.

Forget the chain stores and restaurants and big banks; think Mom and Pop. Buy union. Buy used.

Yeah, I should have written that one. Maybe I still will.

It's just that it was hard to be optimistic anymore.

But now -- and here's why I'm writing this -- there is at least some cause for hope. A mighty collection of brainpower and passion and populist energy is assembling in Washington on Thursday for a Summit on Jobs and America's Future, organized by Robert Borosage and Roger Hickey and their Campaign for America's Future.

Even though jobs are at best a talking point inside the Beltway bubble, in the rest of the nation, the jobs crisis is still ravaging the middle and lower classes. Friday's encouraging job numbers are enough to make Washington even more complacent, but not enough to make a serious dent in anything.

It seems to me that jobs, along with the war in Afghanistan, are the two issues where public sentiment is so overwhelming -- and so out of sync with what's going on inside official Washington -- that if it were somehow unbound, unfurled, let loose to fully express itself, well, the world really could move.

We have, after all, seen stranger things lately, in faraway lands. And not entirely dissimilar things, not so very far away at all.

The jobs issue has the power to change our politics. Maybe that process will start on Thursday.


Dan Froomkin is senior Washington correspondent for the Huffington Post. You can send him an e-mail, bookmark his page; subscribe to his RSS feed, follow him on Twitter, friend him on Facebook, and/or become a fan and get e-mail alerts when he writes.