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Tell The Story Right: The Jobs Plan We Need, Part 1

After seeing the economy bleed jobs for so long, it was hard to watch without ambivalence as President Obama finally rose on Thursday to call for a transfusion of public funds for job creation. I felt some measure of relief: at last, our national leaders are paying attention to the suffering caused by economic policies that have polarized wealth, exported jobs, and made people afraid to spend money. But after all this time, my doubts remain strong: Is it too late to save the body politic? Is the remedy commensurate with the problem? Or is it merely the 2012 campaign gearing up, a gesture toward recovery rather than a cure?

Or, as Paul Krugman put it, “the plan would be a lot better than nothing.” Krugman is sure the Republicans will block the president’s program, but in this moment, he and I glimpse the same silver lining:

The good news in all this is that by going bigger and bolder than expected, Mr. Obama may finally have set the stage for a political debate about job creation. For, in the end, nothing will be done until the American people demand action.

As I listened to the president’s speech, I noticed that despite decades as an advocate of public service employment, I’ve been uncharacteristically quiet on the subject these last few months. I began to feel drowsy when it appeared that despite epic, aching unemployment, a Democratic administration was not going to advocate for the one essential ingredient of any real recovery: significant public investment in jobs. Sure, I’ve continued writing about economic policy and unemployment figures, but more with a sense of documenting the problem than focusing adequate attention on solutions.

It’s time to wake myself up. Despite right-wing opposition, the action we need to demand is much bigger, deeper, and more transformative than Mr. Obama’s proposal. It is a hard challenge to go on wanting all that is right and necessary when many voices are telling you to settle for whatever they say you can get. But right now, it is the only worthy challenge.

“We need to create jobs” is a more or less universal rallying cry, like calling for “a chicken in every pot.” Words are cheap, especially in Washington. When language is vague enough, people easily read what they want into it. But a meaningful debate about job creation needs to be grounded in concrete, specific descriptions of both the problems and the remedies. How we tell the story matters.

The more stories the better: tackle it any way you like (and please, send me your thoughts). As for me, I’m going to look at how official thinking on the employment question has held us back. Then, I’ll describe the way we should approach creating jobs. I hope to make some small contribution to a debate that yields an employment plan we can believe in and make real.

The essential—and often overlooked—point about job creation is that all jobs drive prosperity to the extent that every person who has money to spend on rent, groceries, goods, services, and life’s pleasures initializes a flow that ripples through the economy. When people have adequate income and feel secure in spending some of it, their spending creates jobs for those who supply their needs.

This effect exists regardless of the nature of the jobs created: the rent, food, and other purchases made by a teacher, police officer, construction worker, or community artist all have the same economic impact.

But when the public sector intervenes to create jobs, there is a double benefit. Funds can be invested where they have the most impact in advancing public goals, serving the public interest while they enable members of the public to survive and prosper.

What are our public goals? What do we stand for? What do we care about? If you deduce the answers from the way we spend our commonwealth, they are terrifying. We are spending massive amounts of public money (both through direct expenditure and indirect subsidy such as tax credits) on war, punishment, and big oil-based energy. Alan Grayson, a remarkably courageous and outspoken former representative who is once again running for Congress in Florida, adds up the numbers and finds a bottom line so clear a 10 year-old can’t mistake it.

Infrastructure is the buzzword when jobs are discussed these days. Mostly, it’s meant in the physical sense: roads, parks, bridges—this country’s material infrastructure is urgently in need of repair. Getting it done is clearly a public sector responsibility. Who else’s should it be?

It is solid and comforting and pretty near uncontroversial to imagine ranks of workers operating shovels and steamrollers, a present-day equivalent of 1930s New Deal programs. In every part of the country, we can still see the physical legacy of public investment in public works jobs during Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. (For example, check out this map of California projects, compiled by the Living New Deal project, and imagine it extended across the nation, into every community touched by the New Deal.) Mr. Obama implicitly alluded to that legacy when early in his speech proposing the American Jobs Act, he listed “unemployed construction workers” first in his litany of job-holders.

Unfortunately, he seems to think he can put them back to work by cutting payroll taxes. We already know that despite record-breaking profits and a tax structure tilted steeply in their favor, corporations are not investing their profits in job creation. They’ve gone right on exporting jobs to cheaper labor markets, doubling executive pay and bonuses, and cutting back on reinvestment. Does the president really believe that rewarding their bad faith by giving them more special favors will create jobs? I think he is smarter than that, and this approach is (once again) driven more by the desire to placate critics than by the will and courage it will take to address these problems.

In contrast to FDR, President Obama sees government’s role in addressing unemployment primarily as stimulating private-sector hiring. He stressed small businesses as the engine of job creation, positioning his tax cuts as benefiting them. Following Mr. Obama’s speech, business leaders themselves said the incentives won’t spur more hiring. We also have yet to see how “small business” is to be defined (if indeed the Act is worded that way); often, large businesses reap most of the benefits. On Wednesday, small business advocate Lloyd Chapman explained how focusing on expenditures like supporting construction firms’ work on physical infrastructure tends to favor larger corporations by default.

So yes, taken at face value, there are very real questions about whether much of the administration’s approach will actually produce the desired results. I don’t dispute the contention that this proposal is far better than nothing. And it marks a notable crossroads in this (finally, finally!) emerging debate that, within the limited framework of the conventional unemployment discourse, even moderate Republicans like David Brooks are willing to give it a try.

But that framework is devastatingly inadequate.

Infrastructure has another meaning, too. Cultural infrastructure, social infrastructure: these describe the institutions, customs, ways of communicating, expressions of caring, celebrations, ceremonies, and public spaces that enable people to feel seen and to know they are welcome in their own communities. Cultural infrastructure is the aggregate of innumerable public and private actions, of many threads weaving the social fabric we share. When it becomes badly frayed—when foreclosures, homelessness, long-term joblessness are epidemic, when countless families are forced to relocate to find work, when bleeding-edge gentrification become commonplace, when scapegoating rises and ordinary Americans are unable or unwilling to cross lines of color or class—when the social fabric is as shredded as it has become after decades of me-first corporate-driven politics, mending it is clearly a public sector responsibility. Who else’s should it be?

Three-quarters of a century ago, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal drove public-sector interventions that helped to pull us out of the Great Depression. Roads and bridges, parks and ampitheatres were built, to be sure. But the largest single New Deal intervention was Federal One, comprising five massive cultural programs that put jobless Americans to work. They made plays that helped us face the issues we had to resolve and images that reminded people of a history of struggle and cooperation that built their communities. They created enterprises that brought exciting innovative design into the public sphere; taught children to make music so that access to beauty and meaning did not become an attribute of privilege, but was recognized as a human right; and preserved living history as a reservoir of resilience we could draw on to face the future.

FDR understood that shoring up physical infrastructure wouldn’t save us without comparable investment in cultural infrastructure. People wouldn’t have faith in the future, they wouldn’t be willing to spend their hard-earned dollars, they wouldn’t be aligned with national goals for recovery, unless they had meaningful, personal connections to our collective story. Unless they felt connected and saw their own actions as helping. Demonstrably, he was right.

Today, we need alignment with green energy goals that treat climate change seriously, that spur all of us to do our part in reversing decades of harm from fossil fuels and industrial wastes. That isn’t going to happen unless people feel as well as think it is urgent and imperative, unless we tell the energy story right. Today, we need alignment with a vision of democracy that recognizes and includes every community member, balancing the vicious scapegoating of racial and sexual minorities that has lubricated the rise of the Tea Party right in recent years. Today, we need alignment with a vision of healing as a human right, extending decent care to every person in need; and with an understanding that meaningful work sustains individual, family, and community life. When we tell the story of job creation now, it has to be told right: as a way to put people to work, certainly, but equally to advance the public good at the same time, to repair our social fabric, and to anchor our commonwealth with equal opportunity and equal justice.

When President Obama talked to the nation on Thursday about job creation, he was careful to repeat every few minutes that none of the interventions he proposes is original. He was careful to give as much attention to the truly grotesque idea that new tax cuts are needed as to his advocacy of an extension of unemployment benefits and of tax credits for hiring the long-term unemployed. This is the fatal flaw of the president’s proposal: he is so keen to satisfy his critics on the right that he has prioritized this type of pandering over truly meaningful job creation that speaks to both physical and cultural infrastructure. Many of the ideas in Mr. Obama’s plan have promise: surely it will help to extend unemployment benefits and subsidize teaching and first-responder jobs. But not enough. I hope to be wrong, but it is very likely that big business will take advantage of these new concessions and rewards, as they have every prior initiative, without taking comparable steps in the public interest.

Any meaningful response to the economy and unemployment must include major investment in public-sector jobs. Attempting to stimulate private hiring can never be enough. For now, I’ll give you a taste of what we could be doing, through two essays I wrote when President Obama was first elected. At the time, a raft of proposals for public-sector job creation were floating through the Zeitgeist, carried on a wave of optimism at the election of a president who then sounded like a worthy heir to the legacy of FDR. Even before Mr. Obama was inaugurated, for instance, I began to write a series of essays on public service jobs for artists, published on the (sadly now defunct) Community Arts Network. Check out “The New New Deal 2009: Public Service Jobs for Artists?” from December 2008 and “The New New Deal, Part 2 – A New WPA for Artists: How and Why,” published a month later. In the second essay, I laid out a national program that could use $800 million to demonstrate what is possible when creative workers deploy their gifts in service of the public good. The program could be scaled up for optimal impact: multiply it by 100 and we’ve still spent less than a third of what the administration is proposing to invest in tax cuts alone.

This is a new world. We hear a lot these days about the information economy, the creative economy: people are recognizing that flexibility, improvisation, and innovation—the qualities that are core to artists’ work—are the skills most essential to a sustainable future. In the next part of this essay, I will explore what full employment would look like if we faced the problem fearlessly, without tailoring solutions to the most obdurate critics’ taste; if we invested our commonwealth in a truly creative economy, instead of war, punishment, and pollution.

A little inspiration from Alice Russell: Mirror, Mirror on The Wolf.” (Here’s a live performance; the sound’s not as good, but it’s worth watching.

Hush the winds are listening
Something don’t feel right
In some the secret’s missing
Feel it, feel it, feel it, feel it,

Tell it, now tell it, tell it, now tell it
Now tell the story right, the story right