To break the inside-the-Beltway consensus that a robust, government-led effort to lower the unemployment rate this year should not be on the table for legislative debate, the Campaign for America’s Future this week announced that it is convening a “Summit on Jobs and America’s Future” on March 10 in Washington.
This summit is based on the proposition that it is both economically and politically insane for there not be an alternative to the conservative agenda, misnamed “cut and grow,” which would have the federal government fold its arms and back away as the job market continues to stagnate. Absent a bold, galvanizing jobs plan from either the White House or the Democratic leaders in Congress, it is up to the progressive movement itself to raise up such a plan and use it to change the limits of the unemployment debate.
The jobs summit is intended to be a place where progressive members of Congress, together with activists and the movement’s best thinkers, can forge the elements of political movement for sustainable economic growth, dynamic job creation, and a revival of the American economy. (To register for the day-long conference, which is free, click here.)
President Obama actually helped set the framework for this in his State of the Union address. His call for a “winning the future” agenda that would include bolstering education, repairing and expanding our transportation networks, supporting universal availability of high-speed broadband and boosting research and development efforts can, done correctly, move us toward a new, greener and more sustainable economy of broadly shared prosperity.
In contrast, conservatives are doubling down on their blind faith, discredited by the slow decline of the middle class during the past decade and the climactic crash of the economy in 2007 and 2008, that cutting taxes and regulations alone will create an overflowing fountain of jobs from the private sector. Add to this the deficit mania that is fueling Republican plans to go beyond President Obama’s unprecedented pledge of a five-year freeze on federal spending to call for cuts of as much as $100 billion in domestic discretionary spending.
Of course, the conservative agenda is couched as being faithful to the message voters sent in the 2010 elections: focus on jobs and take actions that will reduce the federal deficit. But these cuts would truly be job-killing, not job-creating. On the chopping block would be a variety of aid programs that help fund state and local governments, which would force the layoffs of hundreds of thousands of public workers. More layoffs in private and nonprofit agencies would result from cuts in a broad swath of other services. Right-wing rejection of plans to build high-speed rail and bolster the rest of our transportation network has already killed thousands of jobs in the New York City area, and hundreds of thousands more jobs will be stillborn if the rejection is allowed to prevail.
The budget plans currently being embraced by congressional Republicans will deprive the nation of the basic building blocks the private sector needs to fuel long-term job growth: an educated workforce, a transportation network that moves people and goods effectively, a universally accessible Internet that is a platform for innovation and efficiency, research that can lead to the creation of the industries of tomorrow.
These policies are guaranteed to prevail, with disastrous consequences to our short-term and long-term economic future, if the only choices on the table are conservative and a “conservative lite” that accepts the basic premise that working-class Americans have to accept an era of austerity that includes unemployment above 8 percent for years into the future (while increasing shares of wealth continue to flow to the top) but is willing to offer an aspirin to dull the pain.
One way progressives must counter this is with an economic program that spends federal dollars today to put people to work today on the jobs that must be done today. That is a program that we should rally behind regardless of whether the political establishment deems it practical. The truth is, it is the right thing to do. It makes no sense that while we have close to 15 million people unemployed—6.4 million out of work for more than six months—we’re not funding jobs that would support the needs of thousands of communities. That would be especially true in the eight states—California, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Oregon, Rhode Island and South Carolina—where unemployment last month exceeded 10 percent.
Progressives must also frame a long-term jobs agenda that adds meaningful substance to President Obama’s vision of “winning the future” through investment in education, research and infrastructure. The president’s past speeches have made the case that we cannot afford to drift into a re-creation of the old economy, with its cycles of bubbles and bursts, its stagnant middle-class income growth and its decaying public assets. And yet, yielding to the austerity crowd threatens to lead us down that very road. The result will be a nonexistent recovery for a broad swath of American workers and no progress on addressing the federal deficit. We can, and must, make the case that public investment in the essentials of economic growth now is the only way we can make progress toward bringing our budget deficit down to a sustainable level.
Getting this message into the center of the political discussion will require taking a page from the Tea Party playbook. On the right, a group of renegades embraced a platform based on a narrative that blamed the nation’s economic woes on the size of government—and mobilized voters in ways that shook the Republican political apparatus. If the Tea Party can do that with a fundamentally flawed analysis of our economic ills and the role of government, imagine what progressives can do with a sound analysis of where America is, where America must be and policies that can get us there that will revive hope and confidence in the future.