What the jobs debate misses

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By Jack Markell
Friday, November 26, 2010

While President Obama was navigating the tides of global commerce this month, I was in a different part of Asia, making the case, one company at a time, for the economic opportunity my small state of Delaware has to offer.

Watching the hundreds of towering cranes building in China's Hunan province and touring the 12-year-old Tainan Science Park in southern Taiwan that already employs 50,000 in high-tech industries, it was hard to read that the debate back home was about whether America's "new normal" meant high unemployment.

The distance, and seeing firsthand the scope of growth outside our borders, made clear that the competitive sloganeering that passed for economic debate during the election season falls far short of actual solutions. Much of the debate over how to create more "jobs, jobs, jobs" has remained stuck on the points of greatest disagreement rather than areas that could achieve greater growth. For too many Democrats, it's a focus on reducing executive compensation. For too many Republicans, it's the fervent belief that government is taking over all private enterprise.

That framework focuses on false choices that distract from the real issues we must tackle to make the threat of this "new normal" an aberration. Neither line of thinking captures the essence of what we need to do to progress.

My perspectives on economic policy were shaped in the private sector; I earned an MBA from the University of Chicago, advised companies as a consultant at McKinsey, helped expand the company that became Nextel and served as an executive at Comcast. I can say with some certainty that those who argue that the "only" way to achieve economic growth is to "get government out of the way" are missing the larger picture.

They ought to listen to the successful executives at that technology park I visited, who credit their partnership with government in helping them create so many good jobs in the following ways: quick action on permits; low-interest loans, especially when the credit markets are difficult; planning the clustering of companies making up the supply chain; and investment in a high-quality transportation infrastructure.

They also ought to listen to the hundreds of American executives who have told me that critical ingredients for them to create long-term growth and long-term careers are highly responsive (not nonexistent) government, predictability of regulation (not lack of regulation), great (public) schools and excellent institutions of higher education (including vibrant state universities), reasonable taxes, a good workforce, a great quality of life and affordable (not unlimited) access to capital.

Increasingly, other nations are doing their best to offer executives those opportunities and policies at lower cost. How do we compete?

How we choose to answer that question is likely to determine our country's success for the next several generations. Those answers will not be found in the framework of our existing debate or be produced by it.

My fight for Delaware and the efforts of other governors to fight for our nation's shrinking middle class are more likely to be successful when our federal government takes at least the following steps:

l Ensure that all activities related to bolstering our competitive edge at innovation are taken seriously. That means fully funding our patent office and making it easier for foreign graduate students to stay in this country after receiving their degrees.

l Make regulatory and tax policy more predictable. Hundreds of billions of dollars are sitting on the sidelines in corporate balance sheets because executives are uncertain about the extension of various tax credits and the possibility of unpredictable regulations.

l Acknowledge that infrastructure is an investment that will pay dividends over decades and not an expense that only adds to the deficit in the first year. Begin catching up to significant transportation and other infrastructure investments that other countries have made in recent years.

l Continue to promote education improvement efforts such as enhanced science learning and Race to the Top, which has triggered a wave of enhancements across dozens of states.

China and Taiwan don't have to be isolated examples of accelerated job growth born from partnerships between government and business leaders. Washington can learn from these examples and build relationships that are cooperative and productive, not adversarial and paralyzing, between businesses looking to grow and public entities that want to support that growth.

Add our nation's extraordinary capacity for innovation to this new mix, and we can drive toward a future in which the debate over the "new normal" is not about how high an unemployment rate we should accept but how much higher we can set our expectations.

The writer is governor of Delaware and outgoing chairman of the Democratic Governors Association.


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