Washington is the only city in America where housing values are going up. That may help explain why the political class is so divorced from the nation’s agonies. Sure, the entire nation celebrated the dispatch of Osama bin Laden, but when it comes to the economy, the Beltway is a world unto itself.
Two years from the official beginning of the “recovery,” America continues to suffer a deep and punishing jobs crisis. One in six Americans of working age is unemployed or underemployed. College students, laden with record levels of debt, are graduating into the worst jobs market since the Great Depression. Long-term unemployment is at unprecedented levels. At current rates of job growth, we won’t return to pre-recession employment levels until 2016. And the jobs that are being created — largely in the service industry — tend to have lower pay and benefits than the jobs that were lost.
Republicans won big in 2010 elections with now-House Speaker John Boehner bellowing coast to coast, “Where are the jobs?” But since coming to Washington, the Tea Party-dominated House has focused on everything but jobs — moving to repeal health-care reform, cripple financial reform, assail the Environmental Protection Agency, defund Planned Parenthood and NPR, and enact savage cuts in domestic spending.
Perhaps the reason is that the party is bereft of ideas on how to create jobs. Last week, Senate Republicans chose freshman Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) to roll out a seven-point “Senate Republican Jobs Plan.” Portman, the Office of Management and Budget director under George W. Bush, was a curious choice, since he contributed to the administration that ran up record deficits, and produced zero job growth and declining incomes while driving the economy off the cliff.
Turns out this wasn’t an accident, since much of the new Republican agenda is the old Bush agenda. The argument remains the same: The way to recover from the Great Recession is to go back to the policies that drove us into it — more top-end and corporate tax cuts, more deregulation, more corporate trade accords. Now those who brought us disaster would add deep and immediate spending cuts, including “entitlement reform” (read cutting Social Security and ending Medicare and Medicaid as we know them). And then they would lard on the hot-button conservative fixations du jour — repeal health-care reform, stop “card check” for unions, stop the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases, subsidizing nuclear power and “drill, baby, drill.”
Hard to take any of this seriously. Tax cuts would add to the cash that companies are sitting on, while they wait for customers to show up. Cuts in spending would add to government layoffs. Pushing deregulation two years after Wall Street excesses blew up the economy takes chutzpah, not common sense. The three Bush trade accords — Panama, Colombia and South Korea — will not make a measurable difference for jobs one way or another. Even Portman didn’t seem to be paying much attention; he rolled out the plan in front of an Ohio manufacturing plant that has been subsidized by the stimulus plan and alternative-energy subsidies that Republicans are committed to ending.
The next day, House Democrats unveiled their more ambitious “Make It in America” plan. This recognizes that the country can’t keep shipping jobs abroad while borrowing $2 billion a day from abroad to pay for what we import. The package contains its share of political malarkey — the Braley bill to ensure that all American flags are made in America, for example — but at its center is a serious strategy for revitalizing the country, one that deserves far more attention and debate than it’s getting. It tasks the president with creating a manufacturing strategy for the country. It would establish an infrastructure bank and invest in rebuilding America’s decrepit roads and bridges. A range of incentives are proposed for capturing a lead in the green industrial revolution that will sweep the world. The plan also would legislate buy-America procurement policies to help create markets at home while setting up a mechanism to challenge Chinese currency manipulation .
Yet even this plan slights present dangers of mass unemployment — failing to call for federal aid to the states and cities to avoid layoffs of police officers and teachers, and failing to provide public jobs for the young who are unable to find work under current conditions.
As Ezra Klein of The Washington Post noted, it is a measure of Washington’s remove from the country that the two plans were unveiled by the two bodies with the least power to make anything happen — the minority House Democrats and the minority Senate Republicans. Those who do have the power — the White House, the House Republican majority and the Senate Democratic majority — remain silent about jobs. Instead, they are locked in a macabre dance to the death on deficits — oblivious to the human casualties caused by mass unemployment.
This might be diversionary, at best, were America not in such dire straits. Home values are falling again. Wages aren’t keeping up with prices. States and cities are laying off more employees. The trade deficit is rising, despite the lower dollar. Masked by the statistic of 9 percent unemployment are 25 million people in need of full time work. Mass unemployment, particularly in a society like ours with such a limited safety net, is a tale of misery, one that resounds across the country and goes virtually unheard in our capital. Americans think Washington isn’t listening — and they are right.
Katrina vanden Heuvel is editor and publisher of The Nation . She writes a weekly online column for The Post.