Labor Economics

February 14, 2017

The White House isn’t explaining what’s happening to jobs. I once taught labor economics, an issue close to my heart. To some extent, labor is like any other commodity and that’s the problem. Jobs go wherever business can find all the things it needs – the land, transportation, materials, markets, reliable legal relations, at the right prices. And it keeps changing.

We talk about the rust belt as if we did something wrong. Actually we had about a century-long run on the best factory jobs in the country – a ribbon through this state after New York’s government built the Erie Canal and made New York City gateway to the west, turning every city along the Hudson, Mohawk, Erie Canal, and then the great Grand Central Railway into a powerhouse. This area long dominated clothing, technology, science, heavy industry and spawned radio and television networks. Each industry provided resources for newer ones.

But New York’s advantages couldn’t be permanent. For bigger plants with newer methods, business looked for virgin land. Other governments built ports, the Interstates and St. Lawrence Canal, while the aging infrastructure of older cities led firms elsewhere. It couldn’t be permanent. Economic fundamentals inevitably dominate jawboning and presidential rhetoric.

Workers get cast aside unceremoniously. One of my law students was also a human resources specialist at GE, missing class whenever GE announced layoffs. They had long since let the weakest workers go. Now she had to fire the best and it hurt. But big corporations aren’t sentimental.

What’s a city or region supposed to do? The market doesn’t automatically find the next big thing and put it where former employees can get jobs like those they lost. The market didn’t build America automatically. Government changed British rules. Government built a banking system with resources to fund business, and smooth their cash flow – if you read or saw Hamilton, that’s what he was about, government providing what companies couldn’t. Government built ports, canals, highways, and had the railroads built. Government provided public health facilities, water, sanitation, disease control – which became crucial for business. Government invested in schools, and President Lincoln laid the foundation for the modern state university system. President Wilson sparked the country’s first broadcasting system for the war effort. Almost everything in your hands today has government fingerprints on it – the research and development in fundamental physics that led to the lasers, transistors and chips that run almost everything today.

Yes, governments make mistakes. You think private industry doesn’t? Most businesses fail. But only government can provide the fundamentals, the things that all the businesses in the country, region or route need. Only governments are motivated to look beyond individual companies and work for the region.

Governments have been investing in new forms of power. If governments in coal producing states had the sense to invest in emerging industries instead of dying ones, the coal miners might face a much better transition to good jobs than anything presidential jawboning can produce. But government cannot do it if it is afraid to fail.

Governments need to be thinking about what the emerging industries are, what resources will support growth. Not individual businesses that any group of investors could build on their own, but the underlying fundamentals that make broad development possible. And we may only know which ideas work when we try them.

If government thinks small, we all shrink.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, February 14, 2017.

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Against whom the rebellion?

November 8, 2016

This is my last chance to talk with you before the polls close.

Republicans have argued since the 19th century that the market solves all problems. Democrats by contrast solve economic problems by investing in the people and the infrastructure they need to get their work done – things business can’t partly because of competitive pressures and partly because they can’t reap the benefits of projects that help the general public.

Because getting things done requires both the president and Congress, split government favors the Republicans. Democrats need both branches and both houses of Congress to pass the laws  that make their economic programs possible. Looking back to 1994, there have been only four years in which Republicans did not control at least the Senate.

There is a well-justified need to rebel against the way the economy and the government have been treating you, and the Republicans should bear the brunt of that rebellion.

They insist that investors would use tax breaks to create new jobs in this country. In fact, tax- break beneficiaries can invest the money anywhere. So when Republicans give wealthy businessmen more money, we just get the risk. Their friends get tax breaks; workers get laid off. Their friends close factories; workers look for jobs. Their friends freeze wages; workers look for second and third jobs just to keep going. Their friends downsize for efficiency, leaving workers unemployed, unhappy, and looking for a way to earn a living.

The economy is organized for the guys on top. Dealing with it, making America truly great for all of us, takes more than the Republican nostrum of lowering taxes. Businesses invest where they find markets, workers, infrastructure, and where they’re attracted by the comfort or the cultural life for themselves and those they want to hire. Taxes have little to do with it.

That’s why Obama’s and Hillary’s investment in infrastructure and emerging industries is a better deal to create jobs and opportunities for everybody. There are many reasons to invest in America – unless we let it fall apart, let our infrastructure crumble, and don’t keep it up to date.

Whether Trump understands real estate, where he’s managed to lose lots of other people’s money, Trump clearly doesn’t understand the economy. The old trope about taxes won’t grow the economy. And his promises are cynical because people won’t invest in outdated, high cost, low return industries when there are better opportunities, no matter how much he yells about it.

Which gets back to something else Trump doesn’t understand. Government needs to work on shifting the risk, to make it easier for the vast majority of Americans to find new sources of income, if necessary to move where the jobs are, on more than a hope and prayer of avoiding homelessness. That’s not in the big generalities that so-and-so will fix things. That’s in the details. You work on those; you study those; the job isn’t all in the bluster.

We’ve had enough of Republicans blocking every effort to build the economy, protect its workers and take care of all the people. It’s time for a smart rebellion – not a wild swing with eyes closed.

So do vote if you haven’t already. It matters.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, Nov. 8, 2016.


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