Friday, January 31, 2014

State of the Union Speech Shows Obama’s Going Nowhere on Jobs

One annual Washington ritual took place Tuesday evening.  As usual, per George Will’s recent column, it was more of a pep rally than anything information-sharing, with the traditional rundown of actually and supposedly good things from Barack Obama’s fifth year in office, along with the usual list of what the president would like to see.

As for employment, Obama did of course pay lip service to it.  After bragging about “the more than 8 million new jobs our businesses have created over the past four years,” which readers of this blog know was only enough to cover the country’s adult population increase, and the “lowest unemployment rate in over five years,” almost completely due to people leaving the labor force, he spent a sentence, transcribed as its own paragraph, saying that the recent budget compromise should facilitate job creation.  After tipping his hat to the two greatest reasons why the employment crisis is permanent, automation and globalization, he pittered out into general statements about economic inequality and the red herring of more training and education.  His best idea of the speech, lowering taxes for employers of Americans, went out but went nowhere.  He got close to suggesting the WPA-style jobs project the country increasingly needs, but seemed to tie it to higher wages than would be workable.  His subsequent advocacy of manufacturing hubs and domestic energy jobs sounded good but also fell short, with recognition of neither the reasons why “entire industries… based on vaccines that stay ahead of drug-resistant bacteria or paper-thin material that’s stronger than steel” aren’t more prominent now nor of the roadblocks put up by environmentalists, whom he seemed to placate, repeatedly, in the next several minutes.  Then, off to job training programs (wrong), more unemployment benefits (right), more and more higher education with emphasis on career preparation (not the problem; just ask your local degreed, poorly employed millennial), conflicting sentences about women deserving “equal pay for equal work” (the law for 51 years) but their lower average pay being “wrong” and “an embarrassment,” and, consistent with his words of the past few weeks, a higher minimum wage.  By mentioning expanding the Earned Income Credit, Obama made an intriguing feint towards guaranteed income, which, except for a hope for “honest work” being “plentiful,” ended his words on jobs for the speech.

All told, we should expect very little on employment from the executive branch over the next three years.  Why?  Mainly because Obama’s problem is the same one many Republicans have had – he is just too beholden to others in his party and has not found the courage to break free from them.  If he wants to make jobs an overriding or even truly major priority, why is he pushing for a higher minimum wage?  If American energy positions are important to him, then why doesn’t he approve the Keystone pipeline?  If he sincerely wants to put Americans back to work, then why is he getting stuck with non-solutions such as training for jobs that don’t exist, and conflicting and peripheral issues like ending alleged overall sex discrimination?  What, if anything, will he give up to get what he wants?

Barack Obama is a very successful politician.  He knows it is important to give people the impression that he cares about them and their problems.  That is his job, and, indeed, there was something for everybody to agree with on Tuesday.  But that doesn’t mean we need to believe anything substantive about the issue of not enough employment, or anything else for that matter, is on the way. 

America is going nowhere on jobs.  Barring a collective Washington epiphany about the permanence of the crisis, that will not change for over 1,000 days.  Our next president may or may not be better.  Whether Republican, Democrat, or something else, he or she will have ample opportunity to address the largest personal prosperity-related crisis the country has faced since the Industrial Revolution.  However, to do that, as Obama’s comments underscored this week, neither party’s ideas alone will even come close, and our current president won’t either.  

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