Who among the contenders for the White House has a policy to fix this catastrophe? There were good things in President Obama's belated American Jobs Act that the Republicans had themselves advocated. But they balked. Maybe with better leadership from the president there could have been action instead of deadlock. Clearly, there is no hope of getting anywhere in this dysfunctional Congress until after 2012, and a longer-term series of priorities is imperative. Here's one to-do list:
1. Arrest and reverse the decline in American education that has left a workforce less able to compete in the new world. Skills, not muscle, are the only reliable path to high-wage jobs in an era when technology and globalization allow companies to make new investments in regions where labor is cheap and the newly emerging middle classes are eager for their products.
We have let the education of our young people slide. America's university graduation rates have slipped from near the top of the world to the middle.
2. Visas. Approve many more H-1B visas to permit highly educated graduate students in the hard sciences to work in engineering and technology. Contrary to popular perception of immigrants, these are people who would create more jobs rather than cost jobs. And make it easier, too, for tourists to get visas, as these are people who increase consumer spending here in the United States. In theory, skilled workers in America should benefit from globalization, given their skills and what they produce. But as countries like China rapidly upgrade their workforces through education, we find workers competing with those who get much lower pay.
3. Rationalize the stumbling process of certifying patents, which could and would unleash thousands of start-ups, the single greatest source of new employment.
4. The elimination of a negative impact of policy uncertainty would also help the economy. A metric devised by economists at Stanford University and the University of Chicago shows that policy uncertainty accounts for about 2.5 million jobs lost. For example, they assert there is a widespread view in business that the healthcare bill makes it burdensome to hire and underscores how political uncertainty has made it much more difficult to plan ahead, a key need for every business. The National Federation of Independent Business asked small businesses their biggest problem. Sixteen percent of small businesses cited "government requirements and red tape."
5. Invest in a national infrastructure bank. Investing in overdue maintenance and repairs would create jobs in the short term and raise the efficiency of our private sector economy. Some infrastructure projects could be tolled so that the users would ultimately pay for them, and the projects should be chosen based on merit rather than on patronage. We ought to undertake new projects of the kind that built America. But we are not even keeping up with repairs, which means it will cost much more when our bridges, roads, dams, schools, and sewage and water systems collapse.
The American Society of Civil Engineers has spelled out the need in convincing detail, but investment is now called that dirty word "spending." So while millions sit idle and interest rates are historically low, the air is filled not with the sound of men at work but with fatuous slogans. We look askance at the Europeans fiddling while Rome burns, and maybe Madrid and Paris next, but Washington is the graveyard of American dreams.