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“You Cannot Be Serious”
“You cannot be serious.” —Tennis star John McEnroe to an umpire at Wimbledon, 1981
THE WAY POLITICIANS talk about job creation in America should elicit outbursts of disbelief. The way the media fail to cover political promises or boasts should as well. Here’s what our two major candidates in the 2016 presidential campaign are saying:
“Manufacturing is coming back . . . My job as your president will be to do everything I can to create more good-paying jobs, to get wages rising again for American workers and families.” —Hillary Clinton
“I’m going to bring back jobs from China, Mexico, Japan, Vietnam. They are taking our jobs. They are taking our wealth.” —Donald Trump
Well, certainly not Trump’s or the top 1 percent’s wealth. But when such statements are tossed at audiences, often to roaring applause, most media outlets, except a few high-minded but low-circulation publications, ignore the questions they should be asking: How many jobs do you think you can help create or get to come marching home? How many will be enough to make a significant difference in our economy? What kinds of jobs will they be, and who will provide them? How did the job situation become what it is today?
Clinton’s husband, the former president, gave a pithy answer to the fourth question: “80 percent of the American people are still living on what they were living on the day before the (2008) crash,” he said. “And about half of the American people are living on what they were living on the last day I was president, fifteen years ago. So that’s what’s the matter.”
He’s got it right, but doesn’t tell us why wages, which doubled between 1945 and 1973, have fallen in most years since then. (2015 may become an exception and turning point, according to the September 13 New York Times, “U.S. Incomes Surged in 2015 at Fastest Rate in Decades.”)
While international competition and the trade deficits the U.S. incurred from it contributed to the dwindling share of domestic manufacturing jobs -- which dropped from 28 percent of American jobs in 1962 to 9 percent in 2002 -- the sources of our manufacturing decline are primarily domestic, contrary to the anti-foreigner blame-game played by Trump. During the golden age of manufacturing, Americans started spending more on travel, entertainment, health, and education than on manufactured goods, which were made cheaper by advanced technologies. As a result, according to Paul Krugman and Robert Lawrence, writing in Scientific American, “The manufacturing sector has become a smaller part of the economy, but international trade is not the main cause of that shrinkage. The growth of real income has slowed almost entirely for domestic reasons. And -- contrary to what even most economists have believed -- recent analyses indicate that growing international trade does not bear significant responsibility even for the declining real wages of less educated U.S. workers.”
Things grew even worse for manufacturing in the 21st century, with 5.6 million manufacturing jobs lost between 2002 and 2012 alone. How many jobs, therefore, would it take to return to the post-World War II golden age of U.S. manufacturing, which barreled along as competitive European economies smoldered in the rubble of war? “To get the factory work force back to the relative weight it had in 1955, we’d have to add 31 million factory jobs,” wrote Frank Stricker, professor emeritus at California State University, in Counterpunch. “That’s not going to happen,” he added glumly.
Of course not. Even the addition of two million factory jobs would be a stunning achievement for America’s blue-collar workers, particularly if these jobs would offer better-than-average salaries, benefits and protection of workers’ rights by unions. But how could that happen? Stricker has an answer:
They will have to be created directly by the federal government in the public and private sector. We can start with the physical infrastructure, which is in D+ condition, and the social infrastructure, where we can expand affordable child care, cut class size in public schools, and much more. . . . Neither candidate has made a major commitment in these areas.
To go there would require another mindset in the Oval Office, one akin to the one of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, traitor to his class. And that is the class that has won the war, so far, against the middle class and blue-collar class and the poor.
WHO COULD CONVINCE corporations and financial institutions, interested primarily in quick and large profits achieved by reducing the workforce, to engage in such a national project with benefits going not just to their institutions or clients? Certainly not the kinds of economic advisers who have inhabited White House and Congressional councils, a Wall Street crowd of such luminaries for greed as Rubin, Greenspan, Geithner and Summers.
Nor a political system in which both sides are dependent on Wall Street and corporate money for their elections and positions and engage in warfare with each other, fighting for Washington turf like two Mafia families battled for control of sections in Chicago — and in which the Supreme Court enshrined the privilege of the rich and powerful to buy government in Citizens United.
To talk of jobs in America in a meaningful way requires also talking about the whole business “ecosystem,” including compensation and incentives for executives, the central role of the financial sector in determining business goals and strategies, and the social contract that must be made explicit between government and American citizens to “promote the general Welfare,” as the preamble to our Constitution proposes.
Simply citing numbers of jobs that may somehow appear or return will not do. That’s as useless as NPR’s “let’s do the numbers” on “Marketplace,” which never connects the economic indicators to the roles they play in the daily lives of people.
And so we must seek another “traitor to his class.” I suggest that he or she read the words by Nobel-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz:
The top 1 percent have the best houses, the best education, the best doctors, and the best lifestyles, but there is one thing that money does not seem to have bought: an understanding that their fate is bound up with how the other 99 percent live. Throughout history, this is something that the top 1 percent eventually do learn. Too late.