Time for a New Consensus
One thing is becoming painfully obvious: the way we, as Americans, view economic opportunity is out of step with the way the world operates today. It is time that we recognize this and address it in a positive manner, without the political fire-bombing that is hurled daily on both the left and the right.
The left is stuck with an early 20th century Keyensian view of economics. I’d argue that particular view didn’t really work then and won’t work today. Massive infusions of government capital during the 1930’s into public works projects did build some marvelous edifices, such as the Hoover Dam, but did not absolutely nothing to end the Great Depression. America didn’t return to full employment until the advent of World War 2 – the result of increased war production and more than 10 million men entering military service. Once the war ended, the economy again returned to near-Depression era levels of unemployment. What finally proved the cure for the economic ills of the 1st half of the 20th century was that in the post-war period, only the US remained capable of providing the goods and services needed by the world. It was an export economy, fueled by international demand, which put America back to work.
The right seems permanently wed to supply-side economics. Strict adherence to that model might have worked, but we’ll never know. While government receipts during the supply-side era (1981-2008) outpaced inflation by (See fig. 1), government spending at all levels increased at an even more dramatic pace, leaving us with unsustainable levels of debt and continuing government deficits – and a seemingly insatiable public demand for services that we cannot afford.
The current model being followed is a strange amalgam of the two diametrically opposed economic philosophies, with government interventions and expanded spending coupled with “targeted” tax breaks. In one sense, this new model has worked: businesses are sitting on a virtual mountain of cash. But in a much larger sense, these haven’t worked to stoke the economy – and for one simple reason, the demand needed by businesses to invest that capital doesn’t exist now. Employment data continues to remain bleak, representative of the fact that businesses are not investing in human capital. Part of the reason is undoubtedly tied to regulatory uncertainty, since anyone running a business needs to properly plan and account for the funds allocated for human resources. But that uncertainty alone cannot account for the downward pressure July’s economic data displayed on employment.
What is needed is recognition by both those on the right and the left that a new demand model is required for our current age. Modern technologies have made many labor-intensive occupations of the late 20th century redundant. Cloud computing and SaaS technology reduce the need for office and technical staffing, closing off two of the high-growth industries of the past 30 years. Manufacturing tasks that once required dozens of people can now be fully automated, with only one operator required. (Just last night I watched a documentary on Zippo lighters – the entire assembly line only needs 5 people to run it; a perfect example). Even many low-wage jobs have been replaced – the other day I went food shopping. No cashiers were available; the entire checkout line was self-service with two people running 20 checkout lanes.
In other words, there are two possibilities now facing the country:
- Current unemployment levels are now the “new normal” and a return to sub-5% unemployment is unlikely. In this event, the current social services are inadequate and need serious revamping. Unemployment insurance as currently exists needs to be discarded, replaced by a system that is more proactive in returning the unemployable to the workforce while ensuring that people are not discarded like yesterdays news. Such a program needs to be structured so that chronic unemployment and other abuses are not permitted. In short, in such a world, unemployment services should not be a state duty, they should very much be a federal-corporate symbiosis. It is impossible – and against a state’s interests – to train somebody for employment opportunities in another state, but it is in a company’s best interest to do so.
- Current unemployment levels are an aberration; a temporary result of career displacement due to a technology upheaval. Such upheavals have occurred before and the nation weathered those storms, most recently in the late-1970’s as the nation shifted from a manufacturing base to a services based economy. In this case, the government needn’t do much of anything, except make career retraining available and mandatory, in order to continue receiving unemployment insurance payments. Once, that is, the new employment needs are identified.
I’m not going to pretend I’m smart enough to know which of the two scenarios is correct. What I do know is that until we begin to honestly discuss them, no action can be planned or undertaken. But as I mentioned at the top of this post, neither side seems ready to abandon decades-old dogma. I doubt either will over the next 90 days, as we begin a new national election cycle and both sides seem to only care about scoring political points by feeding raw meat to their adherents.
It’s up to the American people to put aside our natural inclination to fear in uncertain times and force our political leaders to engage in an honest discussion of the situation. And if they won’t?
Then it’s up to us to replace them this November with people who will.