A Jobs Bill Wrongly Ignored In Budget-Cut Mania

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At a time when the nation faces a lost decade of chronically high unemployment, you would think any serious proposal for putting people back to work would be discussed and dissected, with the best ideas getting the full weight of our advocacy. So why is it that legislation introduced in Congress last week that could put well over a million people back to work without adding to the federal deficit did not get so much as a mention in either the mainstream media or on any of the major blogs?

The legislation that got this silent treatment is the Humphrey-Hawkins 21st Century Full Employment and Training Act (H.R. 870), sponsored by Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich. The ultimate goal of the bill is full employment, defined as an unemployment rate of 4 percent, within 10 years. The bill sets annual targets toward that goal.

Under the bill, state and local governments would receive “employment opportunity grants.” These grants would be used initially for “fast-track job placements” that range from fixing up schools and other public facilities to staffing Head Start and emergency food programs. After a nine-month period, these grants could also be used for long-term infrastructure and green energy projects as well as youth jobs programs.

The grants would be allocated based on consultations with community organizations, local elected officials and labor groups, and would be for full-time, long-term jobs that pay prevailing wages.

The bill would also direct funds to Workforce Investment Act programs that offer such services as job training and coordination with employers.

The legislation deliberately evokes the spirit of the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act, the legislation that among other things mandates that the Federal Reserve take into account unemployment as well as inflation in managing monetary policy.

This effort would be paid for by a 0.25 percent transactions tax on stock trades. The tax is similar to legislation introduced in 2009 by Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., that was projected to raise $150 billion a year.

“High levels of unemployment are unacceptable and immoral in the wealthiest nation in the world. Thus, I believe it is critical that the federal government empower states, local governments, nonprofits, and small businesses to create jobs during an economic downturn,” Conyers wrote last week when he introduced the bill.

By having the federal government step in to bolster spending on community needs, the private sector benefits as “millions of new jobs are created through improvements in our nation’s aging and crumbling infrastructure. New orders for brick, concrete, steel, aluminum, and plastics mean new jobs in America’s plants and factories and a rebirth of American manufacturing.”

That makes eminently more sense than the path being pursued by congressional conservatives. They are pushing deep cuts in the very programs that would help local communities maintain public assets and services and would provide job training for the unemployed. They’ve been told that their cuts would actually hurt private sector job growth by slowing the economy. As for the conservatives’ preferred remedy, corporate tax cuts: Corporate tax payments as a share of gross national product are already at historic lows, but those lows have not spurred the domestic job creation that conservatives have promised.

The transactions tax in the Conyers bill would mean that a buyer would pay $2.50 on a $1,000 stock trade. Such a tax could be targeted at large traders and at speculators, particularly the computer-generated trading of millions of shares of stock in order to make profits on small stock moves.

The idea was shouted down by Wall Street—no surprise there—but that does not mean it should be left to die. The one sector of the economy that has fully rebounded from the Great Recession is Wall Street, bounding along virtually as if nothing has ever happened. Meanwhile, state governments are trying to close multibillion-dollar budget gaps and dozens of municipalities are flirting with bankruptcy.

This is a time for bold ideas about the jobs crisis. The debate should begin with the question, “What do we need to do to put people to work?” and not with “What are the limits of the inside-the-Beltway consensus?” This is a time in which the limits of the political consensus have to be exploded.

That, in fact, is the attitude of the conservatives who are driving the attack on Social Security and other programs designed to lift up dispossessed people and dispossessed communities. They boldly touch the “third rail” of Social Security and have no qualms about passing a budget that slashes such items as nutritional aid for mothers and their children.

Why do we not see a similar audaciousness about pushing for a substantive jobs program that calls upon Wall Street to help pay for a revival of Main Street?

Proposals such as the Conyers bill deserve more than the silent treatment. We need to discuss the best strategies for getting people back to work doing work that desperately needs to be done. We need to come up with the best arguments for rebutting the austerity mantra that has overtaken the Capitol. And we need to marshal a movement that can counter the conservative, corporate-driven policies that have contributed the decline of the middle class.

That’s why we need a “Summit on Jobs and America’s Future,” and why anyone who wants to see the jobs crisis treated like a real crisis needs to be there.

This post revised 10:30 a.m. with additional bill details.


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