The problem with jobs

Every time a new administration takes office, no matter what the economic climate, the focus is on “jobs.” I’m putting in in quotations because in many ways, it’s a vague concept more than a practical reality, even though all the political ads feature men in hard hats getting to work in some ambiguous factory. There’s been a consistent expectation that every new President and Congress want to create jobs, but as a topic, it’s one of the most divisive in the world.

 

In the Republican mind, the solution is simple: scale back regulations and taxes to entice rich people and large corporations to expand industry and take on large building projects. They forget that without the incentive of taxes and regulation, there’s really no reason for the top 1% to do anything other than sit on their wallets.

Democrats have their own delusions, to be sure. Part of the reason the party is still so dumbfounded by the 2016 election results is the fact that aside from Bernie Sanders, none of them grasped that globalization, when controlled by corporate trade deals and manipulated tax loopholes, has very real and tangible consequences. Steel and welding jobs in America have declined steadily for years, wage growth is stagnant, and while employment rates are relatively high, they fail to account for underemployment.

 

In many ways Democrats did overlook the heartland, and they have done so for years. Does it have anything to do with the massive amounts of money they take from transnational corporations? It seems almost laughable to have to ask the question. President Obama flogged the TPP endlessly, and yet couldn’t speak cogently about any specific aspects of it, and nor could Congressional leaders. Why? Because the corporate lobbyists writing the deal didn’t allow members of the government to take copies of the drafts out of a secure location where it was being drafted. That’s right–a bunch of corporations prevented the government tasked with controlling them from seeing the fine print of a document that would become official government policy, and Democrats for the most part were completely fine with this. Sure, it was begun by Republicans, but Democrats have gone along with it for the past several decades. Republicans won because Democrats have pretended that nothing is actually wrong with the economy, when in reality, they could have taken a moral  stand against bad trade deals and used it as a way to get a majority with a frustrated, populist-minded public.

 

Now, I do want to make it clear that as a journalist who covers policy for a living, I’m aware that to most economists, trade deals like NAFTA and the TPP have a “negligible” effect on the overall economy. But there is a striking difference between the results of studies done by industry insiders and by private scholars like Robert Reich, which conclude that the trade deals, written by massive corporations, are anything but beneficial to American consumers and workers.

 

So, when President Trump campaigns on a platform of restoring jobs that were lost in trade deals, we have to realize that job losses aren’t all from trade. There are certainly cases to be made that each trade deal cost some tens or even hundreds of thousands of job. However, the far greater impact, which has cost millions of jobs, is automation. That’s not something you can renegotiate, as it’s a simple market force.

 

The problem is that the focus is on industries which are gone or on the way out, instead of industries of the future. There simply aren’t as many jobs in coal or auto manufacturing as there were 50 years ago. That’s not because people in Mexico are making our cars: it’s because robots can do the work of several people in a shorter amount of time and at less cost.

 

The other major dynamic is that, as with so many things in politics, our leaders are concerned with symptoms and not underlying causes. Jobs are shipped overseas because companies can make their products more cheaply abroad, which gives them an edge in a consumerist market where buyers are really not concerned with much beyond getting the lowest price.

To get companies back, we promise cuts in regulations, both for the environment and for the workplace, in the name of getting prices down to a more competitive rate. But, those regulations are what keep our workers safe, what keeps our drinking water clean, and what sets us apart from developing countries.

 

No matter how much you try, you will not get prices on par with the developing world unless you roll back wage growth, safety and environmental regulations to match the countries where things are currently made more cheaply. I don’t think anyone, however cavalier, would want that.
No, the answer to the heart of the problem, I think, is that we have our work cut out for us to change public thinking around consumerism. We’re certainly going to keep buying things, that’s the hallmark of a capitalist society. The challenge is to get people to realize the benefits of paying more for American-made goods. They need to understand the benefits, whether it’s the fact that their neighbors are being given gainful employment, or the ethical understanding that the products they buy were made in a way that’s responsible to the environment and to the larger society. The answer will be to raise raise awareness without raising problems by cutting regulations. Now try to imagine that on a trucker cap. We have lots of work ahead of us.