Another OP-ED

Bob Herbert’s column appears regularly in the OP-ED pages of the New York Times, and in mid- January of this year (2009) he wrote:

“Another month, another half-million Americans out of work. The ranks of the unemployed have now stretched beyond 11 million, and millions more are underemployed – working part time, for example, because they can’t find full time jobs. As bad as this sounds, the reality confronting working men and women is actually significantly worse. Some 2.6 million jobs have been lost since December 2007, and as the Economic Policy Institute tells us:

“‘Just to keep up with the ever-expanding labor force, the economy would have needed to create 1.5 million jobs over the last 12 months. This means that the 2.6 million jobs lost leaves us over 4 million jobs short of what the economy required to provide employment for the American work force.’

“We’re in economic quicksand. The official unemployment rate (a notoriously rosy statistic) is 7.2 percent. But more than one in every eight workers in America is jobless or underemployed. That’s 21 million people. And it’s not even counting the so-called discouraged workers who have given up looking for a job …”

“This is an emergency. There is one overriding mission for the incoming Obama administration when it comes to dealing with the economy, and that’s putting Americans back to work. Forget the GOP’s mania for tax cuts. Forget for the time being (but not forever), the ballooning budget deficits. Forget the feel-good but doomed-to-fail effort to play nice-nice with the rabid politicians of the right who were the ones most responsible for ruining the economy in the first place.

“Put the people back to work!” [That’s what he wrote in mid-January of 2009.]

But he saw all this coming in mid-January of 2008 when he wrote:

“I think of the people running this country as the mad-dashers, a largely confused and inconsistent group lurching ineffectively from one enormous problem to another. They’ve made a hash of a war that never should have been launched. They can’t find bin Laden. They’ve been shocked by the subprime debacle. They’re lost in a maze of health care … They should stop, take a deep breath and acknowledge the obvious: the way to put money into the hands of working people is to make sure they have access to good jobs at good wages. That has long been known, but it hasn’t been the policy in this country for many years …”

In that column Mr. Herbert was referring to the so-called ‘Economic Stimulus Payments’ being offered to more than 130 million U.S. households. At an estimated $ 300 per person, this $ 160 billion package was enough to cover the cost of a few meals, but it certainly didn’t provide any jobs. Not a single one, as a matter of fact.

Bob Herbert reasoned, “Good jobs at good wages — lots of them, growing like spring flowers in an endlessly fertile field — is the absolutely essential basis for a thriving American economy and a broad-based rise in standard of living …”

“I’d start with a broad program to rebuild the American infrastructure. This would have the dual benefit of putting large numbers of people to work and answering a crying need …”

“The possibilities are limitless. We could create an entire generation of new jobs and build a bigger and fairer economy for the 21st century. If only we were serious,” he wrote.

We had to get serious, we said, because … “There’s no other option. An all-out effort must be made to devise a labor-intensive system so that ‘working people’ can be put to work. How else could one ‘put a few dollars into the hands of working people to stimulate an enfeebled economy’? By the government’s 2007 ‘Economic Stimulus’ program? What an incredibly stupid move!

“Buying power is what fuels an economic engine, and U.S. citizens now have limited amounts of that propellant. Inflation, unemployment and a limited amount of buying power translates into a hopeless future for Americans … unless they can be taught how to fish.

“Mr. Herbert mentioned a broad program to rebuild the American infrastructure. He was on the right track but didn’t get specific. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCCs), for example, was an attempt to provide work during the Great Depression, but it was a ‘make-work’ effort. Little was produced by this well-meaning attempt to shorten bread lines, and although some benefitted by the effort, today’s needs call for more productive steps. Today’s version of the CCCs, the inhuman ‘war that never should have been launched’, has made a shambles of everything here and abroad.

“What should be the purpose of a rebuilt ‘American infrastructure’? Should it be simply to revive a CCC-like program of NRA days? Unproductive ‘make-work’ programs aren’t the answer. The multi-billion dollar burden of a make-work warship building program is proof of that.

“Rebuilding the American infrastructure would be a must, provided that it supported worthwhile employment, but the construction of warships doesn’t constitute worthwhile employment. There’s no ROI (Return On Investment) when taxpayer money is spent on warships. On the other hand, there’s a considerable ROI when taxpayer money is spent on the construction … and ownership … of merchant ships. Especially container ships.

“Oh, but we can’t compete with overseas shipbuilders without subsidies! is the cry of the ignorant. Those overseas rulemakers be damned. We’re talking about desperate times … about Americans without jobs and without homes. In World War II, our last legitimate national emergency, very few people were without jobs, and fewer still were without homes, but we rose to the task and dealt with that national emergency. And we made up our own rules, too, because that’s what nations do in times of crisis. Well, we’re worse off now than we were then and desperate times call for desperate measures. It’s time to subsidize the construction of merchant ships rather than warships.

“As the French would say when things got tight, ‘Sauve qui peut’… Save yourself, if you can.”