The New York Times
August 15th, 2011
A Jobs Agenda, Anyone?
In what can only be described as a triumph of bad policy and craven politics, Congress and the Obama administration have spent the year focused on budget cuts, as the economy has faltered and unemployment has worsened. Official unemployment is 9.1 percent, but it would be 16.1 percent, or 25.1 million people, if it included those who can only find part-time jobs and those who have given up looking for work. For the past two and a half years, there have been more than four unemployed workers for every job opening, a record high, by far. In a healthy market, the ratio would be about one to one.
By a large margin, Americans have told pollsters that job creation is more important than budget cuts. Yet Republican leaders are wedded to austerity and appear to think that high unemployment will hurt President Obama politically more than it will hurt them, so they will likely resist efforts to create jobs, no matter how great the need.
Without more jobs, both the economy and the budget will deteriorate further. It is past time for Mr. Obama to send a jobs plan to Congress that has popular appeal, one that he can use to try to shame Republicans. He will need cooperation from the Senate, which should bring one jobs-related bill after another to the floor, forcing its members to approve jobs initiatives or go on the record to show that they just don’t care.
Mr. Obama has begun to talk more about jobs, but his agenda is thin. Its main components — extending federal unemployment benefits and the payroll tax cut beyond their expiration at the end of this year — are vitally important, but their extension will only maintain the status quo. His idea for an infrastructure bank to finance large-scale building projects is also good, but would take time, and would not address the immediate need for jobs. Ditto his push for patent reform and trade agreements.
There are other ideas worth fighting for. Take, for example, Fix America’s Schools Today, or FAST, an idea that has been incorporated into a House proposal to be introduced this fall by Jan Schakowsky, Democrat of Illinois. Public school buildings in the United States are on average over 40 years old and in need of an estimated $500 billion in repairs and upgrades. A $50 billion school renovation program would employ 500,000 workers (1.5 million construction workers are currently unemployed) and could be easily scaled up. The money could be disbursed through existing federal formulas to all 16,000 public school districts. The initial cost could be largely offset over 10 years by ending tax breaks for fossil fuels, as called for in Mr. Obama’s 2012 budget.
Other programs in the Schakowsky bill could employ an estimated one million young people for projects in federal parks, community centers and on college campuses, as well as 350,000 laid-off teachers, police officers, firefighters and health care providers.
Washington, in thrall to austerity, has abandoned one of the most immediate and powerful tools for supporting growth and jobs, namely, borrowing at today’s low rates to provide direct fiscal aid to states. But Mr. Obama can and should make the case for targeted new jobs today, to be paid for over time by closing tax loopholes.
Republicans are sure to howl that new programs will undo the debt ceiling deal, but it is surely possible over a 10-year period to tackle near-term action on jobs and long-term action on deficit reduction. The alternative is even slower growth and higher unemployment.