Conservative Reformers Need a Jobs Plan

"Reform conservatives" are doing good work, but need to think about the ills of long-term unemployment.

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If you care about the Republican Party's plans to modernize, then you should know that there have been some positive developments on that front online. There is a growing community of "reform conservatives," and they are broadly unified by two big ideas: a willingness to recognize that the economic problems America faces are different from the problems President Reagan faced, and the understanding that the task most appropriate for the Republican Party to tackle is the economic health of America's middle class.

Many journalists and policy experts have done a lot of good work writing about these issues. Two of the the most significant posts have come from New York Times columnist Ross Douthat and Forbes contributor Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry. They have each written posts which lay out what the policy agenda for reform conservatives could be.

Here is a short summary of the policy planks of reform conservatism as described by Douthat:

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

  • Tax reform for working families, with a generous child tax credit and a reduced payroll tax.
  • Modifying Obamacare with a preference for universal catastrophic health insurance.
  • Medicare reform to ensure long-term sustainability through premium support.
  • Immigration reform that is centered around high-skilled immigration, with fuller adoption of E-Verify.
  • Making the Federal Reserve's mandate not be about unemployment or inflation, but instead be about consistent nominal growth of gross domestic product.
  • Attacking the power of entrenched interests in areas as diverse as banking to copyright law.
  • It is a very positive development to be able to lay out a coherent policy agenda like this. More can and should be added to this foundation (and some planks of the foundation may be harder to implement than others), but this is still a good accomplishment.

    In the interest of providing support for this project, I will be writing about additional planks for reform conservatives to consider adding to their manifesto. This week I will discuss the importance of tackling unemployment.

    [See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

    It is good that reform conservatives are focused on the difficulties that the middle class faces in America. Unfortunately, while their solutions deal tangentially with reducing unemployment, they don't name and identify the problem explicitly.

    The dangers of protracted high unemployment in the short term should alarm conservatives just as much as the decline in middle-class wages over the past few decades. Protracted unemployment reduces the ability for workers to gain skills and experience, which in turn increases the likelihood that government dependence may be necessary in the future.

    This isn't an abstract concern. We already are seeing more Americans use disability benefits simply because it is harder for workers with physical disabilities to find jobs that they can do in an environment of high unemployment. There is also a growing concern among economists that the long-term unemployed are simply dropping out of the labor market. (And growing evidence that it is very hard for the long-term unemployed to return to the job market.)

    Conservatives should also remind themselves that they are supposed to be on guard for forces that can create social instability, and protracted high unemployment is a prime candidate for that. (It is already causing instability in Europe.)

    [Read the U.S. News debate: Should the Medicare Eligibility Age Be Raised?]

    It is appropriate for reform conservatives to make reducing unemployment a goal. Many of the ways to do this would neatly line up with many reformist policies already. Complete payroll tax relief would be a massive supply-side stimulus for the economy. The American Enterprise Institute has suggested in the past that work-share programs could also be supported. It is also not inconceivable that there could be a role for infrastructure projects as well.

    The biggest benefit of this would be to give conservatives a focus that is appropriate for the immediate term. Deficit reduction and entitlement reform are serious problems, but those problems lack the immediacy of action that is required of unemployment. That would be a real reform in conservative and Republican priorities, but arguably a change closer to what is needed for the economy.

    • Read Kelly Riddell: If Background Checks are Good Enough for Guns, They're Good Enough for Jobs
    • Read Jamie Chandler: Snowden's Civil Disobedience
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