With the elections behind us, no one band of the political spectrum has been given a clear mandate from the voters. In the heat of the campaign, it appeared necessary to point the finger and find villains who were "totally" responsible for a national calamity -- the highest rate of unemployment since the Great Depression.
The nation's decision-makers have a choice. They can continue to point the finger at each other and wind up with two years of frustrating stalemate, or they can reach a compromise that will reduce unemployment. As indicated by the broad coalition formed on the 1982 tax bill, it is possible to form such a constructive compromise.
However, it is necessary to own up to the seriousness of current unemployment levels instead of explaining them away by esoteric statistical techniques. "Demographic factors" has been repeatedly used as a code phrase by analysts who hesitate to blame unemployment on women and youngsters.
Presumably, the myth persists that women are in the labor market for pin money, and their periods of unemployment are either voluntary or do not matter very much since there is someone to support them. The fact that some 7 million women head families with children and many more are supporting themselves or pulling their families out of destitution is ignored.
Another refrain that is heard contends that unemployment is not as serious as some claim because even with full employment there would still be 6.5 percent unemployment. Such figures about the level of full employment are pulled out of thin air. Stripped of the technical jargon, this analysis asserts that we shouldn't count the first 7.2 million unemployed, because theirs is "natural" unemployment. This leaves, on the basis of the latest data, "only" 4.4 million unemployed persons. And these numbers exclude the 6.6 million working about half-time, although they either wanted to or had worked full-time but could not secure full- time jobs, and the 1.6 million persons who have given up looking for work.
Little is heard from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the guardian of our employment and unemployment numbers, about the fact that one of every four workers earned in 1981 less than the minimum wage would have yielded them had they not been forced into periods of unemployment or working part-time. In addition, the safety nets have been eroding. As a result, 8 percent of all workers lived in poverty last year compared to 6.9 percent six years earlier. In real life, this means that the number of working poor has been rising in the United States and that, increasingly, full-time workers cannot escape poverty.
Political stalemate would place millions of workers in jeopardy. The economy will have to generate at least 3 million jobs in 1983 just to keep the current level of unemployment from growing. Like Alice in Wonderland, the economy will have to run twice as fast just in order to remain in the same place.
The lame-duck 97th Congress can start without delay to correct the present critical situation. The question is not whether we can afford to create jobs, but whether we can afford not to do so? Every one percent rise in unemployment generates forces that raise the federal deficit by some $25 billion. With this in mind, the following proposals could help ameliorate the problem:
* Both administration and congressional leaders should exert whatever pressures they can muster to assure that the Federal Reserve Board will "stay the course" on which it embarked during the past month or two, which has included a modest and healthy expansion of the money supply combined with lower interest rates. There is no need to open the floodgates or run the printing presses full speed. However, the previous starvation diet is no solution.
* Tax incentives that encourage employers to make productive investments and generate new jobs should be retained and enhanced. The construction industry might be a prime target for such a program. Just because the more doctrinaire supply-siders are wrong, this does not mean that all of these fiscal programs should be rejected.
* While the private sector has an important role to play, Congress also should embark on a program of funding some 400,000 to 500,000 public service jobs. State and local governments and the private sector have not made up for the 1981 federal budget cuts. As a result, many public health, education, welfare and related services are deteriorating.
* The lame-duck session should finance public works projects that would require few skills and little overhead. As a starter, these projects could include the filling of millions of potholes that fill our roads. Projects that require a longer time lag should be left to a general policy for improving the infrastructure and not as part of an immediate countercyclical policy. Of course, the financing of simple public works projects would stimulate the private sector by preventing many bankruptcies of small construction companies that are now facing extinction. Also one out of every five construction workers is unemployed.
* Meanwhile, the lame-duck Congress could improve on what it did earlier this year in passing the Job Training Partnership Act, an extension of the old CETA. While the new legislation, as did the old, stresses the training needs of the unskilled and deficiently educated, it is necessary to expand training for displaced workers and provide them stipends. It is unrealistic to expect unemployed workers to undertake a training course without means of support. While some of the unemployed need training, all of them need food and shelter. A great part of the expanded training can be taken over by the private sector with government subsidizing on-the-job training.
* Congress could undertake some measures that would encourage work sharing using unemployment insurance funds to finance the program. Work sharing plans have been operated successfully during periods of recession in European countries and might be adopted for our own purposes.
This program would do as a starter. It would not come cheaply, and would require at least a $10 billion appropriation. But it should not be delayed. It will take the next Congress months to get organized. President Reagan has favored a lame-duck session, and there is nothing more urgent that the expiring 97th Congress could do than initiate actions that will reduce unemployment.