Are the jobs REALLY gone?
There’s been a lot of talk lately, from both the left and the right, that most of the jobs lost in the current recession are lost forever. Robert Reich is a well-respected former Labor Secretary for President Clinton. In his article The Future of American Jobs, he contends that American jobs were permanently lost to a pair of factors: technology and outsourcing. Technology allows companies to increase employee efficiency (more employee productivity at lower labor costs); outsourcing is enabled by technology that enables foreign workers to remain competitive with Americans and can be closely monitored using new technologies. Although philosophically opposed to Reich, James Sherk of the Heritage Foundation reaches the same many of the same conclusions in Reduced Investment and Job Creation to Blame for High Unemployment. The only difference in these two articles is that Reich focuses on job losses, while Sherk focuses on job creation. But in both articles, the authors contend that both near- and long-term unemployment will remain at or near 8%. ( I wrote about the disappearing jobs phenomenon earlier this month)
There are many causes for this, of course, beginning with the fact that United States (and most of the developed world) began moving earnestly away from labor-intensive manufacturing economies towards knowledge-based service economies in the late 1970’s. Although well aware of this, nobody did much to prepare the citizenry for this fundamental economic change. Much as the US experienced a dramatic cultural and demographic shift in the late 19th century as we moved from an agrarian economy to a manufacturing economy, we are experiencing the same now. Policies over the past 30 years at both the federal and state level, rather than focusing on restructuring education and employment policies, were largely concentrated on sparing the status quo. Although the days of a high-school dropout being able to get a well-paying job for life at the local manufacturing plant ended a generation ago, we’ve continued to subsidize both the labor unions (who rely on perpetuating this myth) and the educational systems (whose labor unions and administrators have been resistant to changing the formulas they’ve worked under for 6 generations). As a result, we have a large segment of the population that is ill-suited for the type of work the modern economy provides.
Both liberals and conservatives in this country (and other Western nations) are calling for a return to 20th century economies. Liberals believe that the US can return to a manufacturing-based economy, if only certain policies are enacted. Some of these include: engaging in protectionist trade policy (apply punitive tariffs on goods produced in low-age countries); requiring a percentage of all goods sold in the US to be produced in American factories and tightening labor and banking regulations to “protect” the American worker. Conservatives are championing reduced immigration, business credits and lower taxes as the way to spur manufacturing growth. Both of these approaches – or any combination thereof – is wrong, immoral and ill-conceived. They are intended primarily to appease the 60% of Americans whose jobs will disappear or have disappeared in the past three decades.
First of all, thanks to technologies that were not even conceived a century ago, the modern world is more tightly interwoven than at any time in history. When combined with the fact that the days of imperialism ended with WWII, it is now impossible for any nation that relies on exports for economic vitality to successfully engage in protectionist trade policies. Imposing excessive tariffs or limiting imports in any way will, in the end, prove counter-productive as other nations reciprocate the move. Many persons in what we often derisively refer to as the “developing world” consider the steady income provided by manufacturing economies as a vast improvement in their situations. Despite wages that are considered substandard in the west, the mere fact that workers have a steady source of income – and therefore, food and shelter – provides a sense of security previously unknown. This was, by the way, the same attitude that drove many former tenant farmers to migrate to cities during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in the US and Europe. This was despite the advance knowledge that most would work in conditions that we find abhorrent and for wages that we can’t countenance today. Combined with the interactive nature of modern economies, no nation can afford to block goods coming from these nations.These types of policies were tried during the heights of the Great Depression – the result was over 50 million human beings killed in the greatest conflagration in history. Secondly, imposing inane limits on immigration will rob the US of a tremendous source of energy and vigor, both of which are priceless commodities in the new economy (and I suspect that very vitality is what many are afraid of). Finally, any restructuring of tax and revenue policies that ignore the modern economic realities in favor of a long passed age robs the emerging job market of strength and future generations of Americans of a sorely needed simplified tax code.
So, if the modern economy in the West will not be based on manufacturing, what will we do in the future? Where will the jobs come from? Well, first of all, not all manufacturing will be permanently off-shored. For several reasons (including national defense), there will always be some sort of manufacturing in the US. However, the reality is that as a percentage of employment and average compensation, American manufacturing will never return to the halcyon days of the 1960’s and 70’s. The new economy will be services based and requires a more educated and more flexible workforce than the one that currently exists. I realize that when I say “services” many people conjure visions of hotel maids and McDonald’s cashiers. Those type of jobs have always existed and will always exist, but nobody should think we’ll become a nation of gas station attendants. What I’m referring to by services are the types of positions that require more brain power than brawn power; fields like medicine, technology, research, aerospace, education and banking are all services. All are creating jobs right now. The problem is, their growth is restricted by a lack of skilled workers. It’s a fact that none of your politicians want to talk about, because they know in large part they’re directly responsible for this fact.
The answers about what to do for the next generation of Americans is pretty obvious and I applaud President Obama for starting education initiatives that may prove fruitful. (I’m no fan of the President, but you have to give credit where it’s due). However, there are 2 generations of Americans now in the workforce and a third about to enter, whose citizens are ill-prepared for the current economy. The big question is what do we do about restoring some semblance of full employment, and at tolerable wages now? The first thing is for the labor unions to understand that the world has changed and they need to get with the times. Once, the antagonistic approach between organized labor and business in the US led to a system that worked well, in the contained system that was the US. Once the US was no longer the dominant player in manufacturing, though, the unions failed to keep up with pace of global economics. It is long past time for them to seriously engage foreign governments and labor markets -by working to raise living standards oversees, they can reinforce those standards back home. Secondly, our own politicians need to work in ways that remove the yoke of debt from our collective shoulders. The projected national debt for 2020 equates to $150,000 for every family in the US – or more than 3x the anticipated per family income for that year. That level of debt is unsustainable and is largely driven by “entitlement” spending – Social Security and the new Health Care package. It is past time to revisit how these programs are funded before they drive the entire nation into bankruptcy. Until debt projections are reduced, funding for projects needed to revitalize the economy cannot be pursued. In the same vein, the political class needs to be honest about the limits of government intervention in economic policy – aside from fiscal and tax policy, there really isn’t anything they can do for immediate and sustainable growth. At the moment, fiscal policy is stagnated -interest rates are at zero. That leaves tax policy – which will not unfreeze capital markets. However, by implementing a strategic tax policy in coordination with a debt reduction plan, lawmakers can relax market tensions by demonstrating long-term fiscal sense.
However, even if the various entrenched factions were to begin immediately putting these ideas in action, the near-term effect would be negligible. We would still need high spending on unemployment compensation and other safety net program to prevent our society from devolving into absolute chaos. I would like to add a caveat to this spending, though. One thing obvious to anyone who’s driven any road in Pennsylvania or watched a manhole explode in New York City knows our infrastructure is aging badly. I would offer those receiving government assistance the option of either attending training in a new field or showing up for manual labor repairing our bridges, schools and the like. This recreation of the WPA would at least prevent the nation from just throwing money down a rat-hole.