The Great Jobs Debate

Who's at fault, and who will pay

Back Commentary Oct 1, 2011 By Tony Quinn

“We intend — on our own as the majority party — to do all that we can to put people back to work.”  So says Senate Majority Leader Darrell Steinberg. Well, that certainly is good news. The only problem is that nothing Steinberg or his fellow politicians have done over the past half dozen years has made much of a dent in our state’s unemployment rate, now hovering around a historically high 12 percent.

Job creation is certainly the top concern for voters as we move toward the 2012 elections, and politicians of both parties are full of jobs rhetoric. The tough nut, however, is translating good intentions into good jobs.

For Democrats good jobs mean enhancing the state’s ability to grow green jobs, and Democrats are convinced that legislation such as the AB 32 cap-and-trade scheme for fighting global warming will be a jobs creator in the end. Republicans almost uniformly believe the problem is a highly regulated business climate, state taxes that are too high, especially on business entrepreneurs, and an out-of-control state budget that absorbs too many dollars.
These economic policy divisions are mirrored at the national level. Republicans are convinced huge budget deficits are the primary contributors to economic malaise; they will not raise taxes under any circumstance and argue for fewer government controls on the economy. Democrats, of course, disagree and want more stimulus spending to create jobs.

Both parties talk beyond each other, probably because the reality is that neither party can fix the economy. The lingering California recession is tied directly to the national recession. And the United States’ national economy is, perhaps for the first time in our history, dependent not on our own productivity but on global economic activity.

For a quarter century, Japan’s economy, once the most vibrant in the world, has been in the doldrums. China may be slowing down; they can only produce so many gadgets for sale to Americans who have declining disposable incomes. And then there is Europe.

The U.S. stock market is keyed to such oddities as the sovereign debt crisis in Greece and other Euro-zone countries and seems to tank every time a Euro-zone economy teeters on the brink of default. Growing concern about places like Greece, Ireland, Spain and Portugal keeps jittery American companies from making major investments because European defaults could ruin the international banking system. No investments, no jobs.

Worries about the world’s trillion-dollar economies make job-creating efforts at the state level seem pretty miniscule. Gov. Jerry Brown appointed a jobs czar in August to propose “a series of things” to improve our sorry economy. But former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had his own jobs czar who proposed “a series of things,” and none of them had an impact on California’s jobs picture. For all the jawboning about “green jobs,” very few jobs have been created by the focus on so-called green technology.

At the national level, neither the Bush-era tax cuts nor the 2009 Obama stimulus seems to have had much economic impact. If the Obama Administration could do it over, it is likely they would have pushed for major infrastructure spending in 2009, a New Deal-style “put people to work” program of shovel-ready projects. But the $900 billion stimulus came and went, and there is little to show for it economically.

There is a lot to show for these efforts politically. In 2010, Democrats suffered their worst drubbing in the House of Representatives in 80 years. Polling in 2011 suggests a tough time for President Obama when he faces the voters next year.

But that does not mean the nation is any happier with Republicans. The GOP-controlled House is far less popular than Obama, and GOP congressional leaders are much less popular than Democratic leaders. The Republican prescription of deficit reduction seems no more popular than the Obama stimulus spending — voters are saying “a pox on both your houses; neither of you are helping me get a job.”

It is likely few Americans followed the parliamentary elections in Ireland, Portugal or Spain this spring or the periodic German state elections. But American politicians should pay attention because the uniform message of all European elections in 2011 has been “off with their heads and out with the incumbents.”

No matter whether it was the conservative governments in Ireland and Germany or the left-wing governments in Portugal or Spain, angry electorates simply turned out the incumbent parties regardless of ideology as their one way of expressing unhappiness with the whole political class and its response to the worldwide economic disasters.

Could we be facing the same phenomenon in the United States and California? It’s not out of the question. Last fall, angry electorates across this country threw out Democratic governors and legislators by the bushel. This did not happen in California, but current national polling does suggest voters of all stripes are mad, and they may well dispatch incumbents next year regardless of party.

The Democrats now are fully in charge in California, so the focus, rhetorically at least, from Democrats this fall has been on jobs creation. Government is divided in Washington, but both parties are likely to sing the jobs song as we approach 2012. Folks are mad out there, and when they’re mad, it’s politicians who lose their jobs.

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