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Monday, April 12, 2010

Both More and Less to Work than That

Garrison Keillor stumbles upon one truth, only to lose sight of another.

In an interesting bit of linguistic legerdemain, Garrison Keillor claims a conservative mantle and wonders where are the Obama administration's make-work projects. He apparently missed the memo that the president's first step in focusing his proverbial laser on jobs and the economy was to force through a medical insurance reform package that is as efficacious as the firing squad that stood in a circle.
It's the conservative in me that wishes we had an old-fashioned government jobs program, such as FDR's Works Progress Administration, which hired unemployed people to work to build roads, libraries, public toilets, hiking trails, tens of thousands of small useful projects. (When my dad saw the initials WPA on the cornerstone of a building, he said it stood for "We Poke Along," but he could afford to be disdainful since he'd been hired after high school by his uncle Lew to pump gas at Lew's Pure Oil station.) My inner conservative thinks unemployment is wasteful and damaging to the spirit -- 15 million unemployed, many more underemployed -- a disaster, a blight upon the land. Intolerable.
He then goes on to note that work is redemptive. And he's not alone in recognizing the spirit-building capacity of work; Pope John Paul the Great also saw the redeeming power of work:
By enduring the toil of work in union with Christ crucified for us, man in a way collaborates with the Son of God for the redemption of humanity. He shows himself a true disciple of Christ by carrying the cross in his turn every day in the activity that he is called upon to perform.

- Laborem exercens
It's hard to argue that there isn't value in work, particularly when there so clearly is. As cliched as it has become, there is some truth in recognizing that minority joblessness has been disproportionate in this last recession. For example, while the national unemployment rate has been hovering near 10%, the rate for African-Americans has grown to more than 15%. Moreover, last November, Pew released a study linking upward mobility for the following generation to a family discipline of saving, which, among the wealth-starved poor, can only come from earnings, i.e., work. I would imagine that traditional and self-styled conservatives alike would be in favor of (or at least not oppose out of hand) something like this coming from the White House in response:
Employment is a cornerstone of America's vibrant communities and benefits individual families by building stability and long-term financial security. The President has issued a challenge to the private sector to encourage them to join the effort to close the gap that exists between the employment rates of minorities and non-minorities. The President also announced the goal of increasing the number of working minorities workers by at least 15% with in the next 6 years. As part of his initiative to dismantle the barriers to employment for anyone who wants to work, the President will announce etc., etc.
The cautionary tale here (and you knew there was one) is that those words describe nearly word-for-word President George W. Bush's policy for home ownership, a similarly "conservative" notion. Statecraft as soulcraft may be all well and good (particularly in theory), but does anyone care to hazard a guess as to how a bursting (or at least a long-time deflated) jobs bubble might look? I suppose we could always go to war were that to happen.

No, lest we forget the folly of Alan Greenspan's "soft landing" trope, pumping the value of anything with the machine of government leaves behind a mess when it pops, which it will inevitably.

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