First, Do No Harm--But Please Do Something

The issue of jobs, which dominates the concerns of voters, cries out for a variety of responses from Congress. It requires attention both to triage--the short-term need to deal with the desperate problem of the unemployed who have little prospect in the foreseeable future of finding decent jobs--and to the longer-term need to make sure that good jobs exist in a tough and competitive global environment.

As for the short term, Paul Krugman in his Monday column took apart the argument made by the head of the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank that businesses have lots of jobs available but can't find appropriately trained workers to fill them. As Krugman notes, there is little evidence that there are labor shortages, with businesses actively seeking to fill positions but unable to do so. Krugman, who writes a column for the New York Times, points out that job openings have plummeted in every sector and that surveys of employers do not find signs that labor quality is a big issue.

We do have a long-term challenge to employment that requires thinking about long-term responses.

Krugman is right that today's economy, with a downturn precipitated by financial crisis, has other drivers behind the persistently high unemployment and that it can be a cop-out to simply say that the problem is structural--which implies that immediate steps such as public service jobs are unnecessary or ultimately wasteful.

But I also believe we do have a long-term challenge to employment that requires thinking about long-term responses. If we are going to maintain quality jobs in a technology-driven era, we need to maintain what has helped keep America so strong in the world economy: our edge in science research and information know-how, combined with the creativity generated by our market system.

The first goal is to do no harm to that long-term need. That means making sure that we do not do mindless things in the name of faux fiscal discipline, such as freezing all discretionary spending. A freeze--easy to propose, and a way to avoid making or articulating tough choices--would probably mean cutting back on programs that are the backbone of basic research and would have a depressing effect on science spending in NASA, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the National Science Foundation, and other agencies that help the U.S. retain its primacy in science and technology, not to mention cutting back more broadly on science and engineering education.

We also want to avoid doing something equally destructive, such as freezing government employment, an idea that Max Stier, head of the Partnership for Public Service, filleted in the Washington Post as a formula for eroding public safety.

Besides avoiding bad ideas, Congress needs to tackle some good ones. To deal with the immediate problem, one is an idea I have touted before that I first heard from my American Enterprise Institute economist colleague Kevin Hassett. He suggested adopting a version of the German job-sharing program that requires generous subsidies to employers to encourage them not to lay off people. Add to the list a payroll tax holiday and more public service jobs.

Policymakers also should move as expeditiously as possible to the provision of universal high-speed and wireless broadband. In the coming decades, any American who does not have that access will be unable to function effectively in society or to compete for good jobs, nearly all of which will require adeptness at using information technology.

A wired citizenry, combined with our advantages in research, development and creativity, will build a base for a prosperous economy in the future. Universal broadband is a key goal of the Obama administration, and money was provided to move in that direction in the stimulus package and in other venues. But there is an ongoing danger that the funding will be cut and that the spectrum needed to make sure that the U.S. can be a global technology leader with a workforce adept at using modern and cutting-edge information resources will not be provided.

The move to universal access to broadband is not just a federal responsibility. In many communities around the country, such as Fort Wayne, Ind., public-private partnerships have had a huge impact, boosting local economies in many ways. But to facilitate those partnerships requires a massive investment in laying fiber-optic cable to handle the heavy load required to be cutting edge, and that in turn requires looking for ways to make the investments easier and less costly.

One simple and cheap idea has been offered by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), a "dig once" bill that would require every federally supported transportation project to include underground broadband conduit. Klobuchar has noted that 90 percent of the current cost of broadband installation comes from digging up and repairing roads; "dig once" would both eliminate those added excavation costs and reduce disruptions for motorists.

At the suggestion of Graham Richard, the former mayor of Fort Wayne, I would take this idea a step further: more than $1 billion has been allocated in the stimulus plan for sewer modernization around the country, including 1,000 new rural sewer and water systems. Fiber-optic cable should also be laid via the sewer connections.

I would love to see "dig once" enacted now. But since Congress' ability to tackle anything these days is like the Detroit Lions' ability to tackle Adrian Peterson, I know that at best the bill will have to wait for the lame-duck session.

If Congress wants to get serious about the jobs challenge ahead, the sooner we pass it, the better.

Norman J. Ornstein is a resident scholar at AEI.

Photo Credit: iStockphoto/Rob Friedman

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