Sunday, July 11, 2010

What David Brooks Didn't Say

This has been a good week for New York Times columnist David Brooks. For his July 6th op-ed, he skillfully casts doubt on the confident claims of the "Demand Siders" who insist that now is the time to spend more public money, not less. A fiscal conservative, Brooks argues convincingly this is a largely untested assertion. Also, this week he is profiled in New York Magazine as one of America's most brilliant pundits and for maintaining his popularity among both liberals and conservatives. Of course, he is hated by many in both groups, but it is surprising, as well, how much bipartisan support he continues to enjoy.

So it is with some hesitancy and trepidation that I take issue with Mr. Brooks' remarks, particularly given the dark forecast inserted into the New York Magazine piece that the U.S. is in danger of becoming Greece. In his column, Mr. Brooks concludes that while we must be fiscally cautious, it is foolish to save money, for instance, by curtailing unemployment insurance or depriving the states of much needed revenue to maintain basic services. I was glad to read that, but I don't think he goes far enough. Of course, if we're going to become Greece (and after all he has access to all these highly knowledgeable informants), then forget it, all bets are off. But, assuming reasonably enough that we are not going the way of the Hellenes, at least not any time soon, I want to make a couple of largely non-economic arguments for doing more than just extending unemployment insurance or helping the states balance their budgets with "race to the top" type competitions.

We desperately need an ambitious and comprehensive public jobs program. Bob Herbert has been talking about this for months, but I am appalled that his lone cries have been ignored. First, unemployment does terrible damage to people, to families, to communities, to individual and collective self-esteem. When the market economy is this troubled and shows so little sign of recovering any time soon, government must step in to make up the difference. God knows, there are sound economic reasons for doing this, but I think restoring the well being of people thrown out of work is the most important reason for doing something right away. It is the right thing to do and it will not only help the unemployed directly, it is very likely, too, to improve the overall economic picture as a whole.

But, here is the part that really bugs me. We could put millions back to work while also repairing our crumbling national infrastructure! All those bridges and roads and schools that are falling apart could be repaired and rebuilt by an army of government-employed workers. What a great way to use stimulus money! This is the capital formation we need. Like the WPA in the 1930s, such programs have a long-term and untold impact on the overall strength of the economy. We could put people back to work and help our long-term chances for ensuring economic growth.

So why aren't we doing this? I honestly believe that in addition to the usual political reasons, it stems from a lack of imagination. It is the inability to envision how much of a difference such a dramatic jobs program could make. But it does demand a leap of faith, the kind FDR became famous for. A massive jobs program is risky. It could fuel inflation and it could even make things worse long term. But the good that would be done in the short run for innocent people damaged by this terrible economy and the likelihood that in the long run great good would be accomplished, makes this our best bet for now. I urge President Obama and the Congress to take note. An ambitious jobs program targeting the faltering infrastructure will yield some immediate good, no matter what else happens. But the longer we wait to take action, the greater the damage done to everyday people. As in the darkest days of the New Deal, the same mantra applies: "We need action and we need it right now." Or, as Rahm Emanuel said during the presidential campaign, "you never want to let a national crisis go to waste." If action isn't taken soon, we will be doing just that.

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