Calvin Coolidge, in one of his homely aphorisms from the White House, once imparted this wisdom to his fellow citizens: "When people are out of work, unemployment results."
The intellectuals of the time laughed when old Cal said that. Seen from the perspective of the boom of the 1920s, which they were then enjoying, it was another example of Coolidge fatuousness. Within a few years, of course, the bubble burst. Unemployment was no longer a fit subject for jokes, however foolishly a president talked about it.
Nor is it now. Not in decades has joblessness become so urgent an issue for the country. Yet so far the response of the nation's political leadership has been strangely, if not shockingly, casual. That won't last. No matter what anyone in Washington thinks, this issue is certain to grow more serious.
Already, unemployment is the consuming topic in homes and shops along the main streets of America. Comparisons with the Great Depression are commonplace. People who never lived through those grim days are recalling stories their parents or grandparents told. The comparisons are understandable, given the economic difficulties many areas are experiencing. Soup lines now encircle downtown city blocks for the first time since the 1930s. The jobless rate has hit the highest mark since then.
Despite these signs of real personal hardships, worse surely than Washington seems to realize, the nation is not in the midst of Great Depression II. The paradox, and the real problem, lies elsewhere.
Today, the country is far stronger than it was during the '30s. Yet today, the solution to unemployment appears to be even more difficult than it was then.
The question during the Depression was not so much how to put people back to work. It was how to restart assembly lines in shuttered factories, how to ignite the stilled blast furnaces that fired the nation's heavy industries. Once that was achieved, the question of joblessness would take care of itself.
It wasn't easy. For all the efforts of the New Deal, not until World War II did American factories really begin humming again, thus solving the problem of unemployment.
But the basic idea was correct. Our major industries were sound. Once they resumed full production, the country and the work force were back on the path to prosperity.
That isn't the case today. The basic industries are no longer dominant. Steel mills and the mines that supply them with their raw materials do not occupy as secure a place in the national economy. Other countries have outproduced and outperformed us. They have captured our markets in such things as steel and rubber and machine tools. It is hard to see how the old pillars of U.S. industry ever will regain their lost positions. And as they padlock their gates around the country, or go on sharply reduced production shifts, something else shuts down with them, perhaps permanently.
It is quite possible that millions of blue-collar workers, those in the mills and mines and manufacturing operations nationwide, will never return to the work that sustained them and their families. That is the underlying fact of the present economic recession. It matters not that the problem has been a long time building. Now it is here, with a vengeance. The nation is not prepared to deal with it.
Several other hard facts demand attention now.
More and more companies, from multimillion- to billion-dollar concerns, are going to be swallowed in the merger-takeover process under way. In the process, fewer workers will return to the plants. Automation will accelerate the loss of permanent jobs further.
People most affected are those least prepared for the change. The blow falls hardest on the middle-aged workers who have worked the mills, built the cars and machinery, labored in the mines and know nothing else. They face the prospect of entering the class of the permanently unemployed, underemployed or early retired.
Either way, they are being removed from productive endeavors in their communities. Unless society finds something useful for them, and a way to train them for new roles, they will be lost.
These are not the welfare class, though that group also will suffer more in the changed economic environment. These are among the strongest, proudest, most independent people in the nation.
They may be Archie Bunkers, but the Archies of America have fought our wars, built our cities and contributed to our prosperity. Now, as one factory manager told this reporter during a current trip across the country, "They're going to be flushed out."
That isn't acceptable, in human, economic, social or political terms. Nor will these people accept it.
If politicians in Washington, from the president down, are wondering what the people are thinking during this fall election period, the quick answer is easy: jobs. But it's more complicated than that.
What one hears, traveling from region to region, are expressions of concern that go beyond immediate job status. People are upset about what appears to be a lack of thinking in Washington about their problems. As one worker put it, "They don't even have a plan in the hopper to deal with us."
A retraining bill sounds fine, but retrain for what, and how will it work? People don't know. What they really want is to have their problems addressed, and with the bark off.
They know the country is in trouble. They know their jobs are imperiled. They know they are going to have take less. They know many of them are not going to return to their old positions. But they don't have any idea what the future really holds for them, where they fit into the national plan.
Interestingly, for the first time one begins to hear talk about public works programs. Not the leaf-raking jobs scorned by generations of workers as boondoggles, but real work, so people can play a part in rebuilding the country.
For now, such talk comes only from them. They'd like to hear what Washington has to say. To them, that means hearing from the president.