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US must build bridges to a better economy

Posted: July 23, 2011 - 11:21pm

The following editorial first appeared in The Fresno Bee:

The haggling in Congress over whether to pay the credit card bill for money already spent reveals how at least one party has lost sense of any priorities.

We’re in the midst of a national jobs emergency, yet the president and Congress have lost months in the debt-ceiling sideshow. As former Intel CEO Andy Grove has been saying for some time, we need a “job-centric” economic theory and “job-centric” political leadership.

In June, more than 25 million workers were either unemployed or underemployed (including those who have given up looking and people who have had to settle for part-time work). More than 6 million have been unemployed for more than six months. More than 4 million have been jobless for more than a year.

This is a crisis.

The longer they are without jobs, the harder it is for people to retain skills and the dignity and self-sufficiency that come with work. Children suffer, too, when their parents are out of work. We also have more disconnected young people who can’t find jobs — and can’t afford or can’t get spaces in college or vocational schools.

Our national leaders need to get beyond ideological rigidity to address the plight of the unemployed with practical realism.

They might begin by walking over to the National Mall and reading a 1934 quote at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial: “No country, however rich, can afford the waste of its human resources. Demoralization caused by vast unemployment is our greatest extravagance. Morally, it is the greatest menace to our social order.”

One of Roosevelt’s remedies was “labor-creating, quick-acting, useful projects.” Our national leaders should embrace that ethic again.

Our cities still have visible legacies from the public works jobs of the 1930s. Was this worth the incredible expense at a time when the country was in the midst of the Great Depression? You bet.

The notion today that we can solve unemployment by having everyone reinvent themselves to become “knowledge workers” or Facebook-style startup entrepreneurs is wishful thinking.

We have crumbling infrastructure everywhere. We have construction workers out of work. A back-of-the-napkin cost to create one million jobs at $30,000 a year each would be $30 billion. We have to start looking for it.

There’s also a need for bipartisan support on a national infrastructure bank to leverage local, state and private investment in infrastructure with a capital base provided initially by the federal government. Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, introduced their BUILD Act in March.

Ironically, Congress has been willing to bail out banks, provide tax cuts to individuals and businesses, extend and re-extend unemployment checks — handouts over paychecks. Yet Congress has devoted relatively little to direct government investments in infrastructure.

The result: Economic output now is above pre-recession levels, but we still have 7 million fewer jobs than in 2007. What’s needed is a renewed job-creation focus.

Certainly, public works are not the only solution. But in this abnormal jobs emergency, government will have to do things it doesn’t normally do.

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