Millions of Americans are facing a lost decade, living from paycheck to paycheck, struggling to pay their bills, having to borrow money and go deeper into debt. Blue-collar workers and the middle class feel they are falling further and further behind, no matter how hard they work. Older Americans are faced daily with the specter of having insufficient funds to retire.
Our workforce faces a frightening future at a time when global competition has brought into play a vast new workforce ready and willing to do the jobs of American workers.
Too many families are just one layoff or one medical emergency away from going into bankruptcy, especially given the dramatic increase in healthcare costs and decrease in home values.
The week-to-week pressures facing middle-class America are simply unprecedented, and the political and economic results are unnervingly unpredictable. Even for the millions of Americans with jobs, there is a sense of deepening anxiety and even fear.
So, who among the contenders for the White House has a policy to fix this catastrophe? There were good things in President Obama’s belated American Jobs Act that the Republicans had themselves advocated.
But they chickened out. Even when Harry Reid had a majority, the House was Blue and with Obama in the White House, Reid was content to play prevent defense instead of aggressively and decisively taking on the GOP.
Maybe President Obama has tried to be a force of change, but what we got was political deadlock and wasted opportunities. Clearly, there is no hope of getting anywhere in this dysfunctional Congress until after 2012, and a longer-term series of priorities is imperative.
So, absent any substantive ideas coming out of Washington, here’s my to-do list to bring about the change we need; nothing especially profound, just practical:
1. Education: Reverse the decline in American education that has left an entire workforce less able to compete. It won’t be easy in light of budget constraints, but somebody is going to have to think outside the box and get it done. Skills, not muscle, are the only reliable path to high-wage jobs in an era when technology and globalization allow companies to make new investments in regions where labor is cheap, regardless of demand. America’s university graduation rates have slipped from near the top of the world to the middle, despite student indebtedness reaching epic proportions.
2. Immigration. Approve more H-1B visas quicker to permit highly educated graduate students in the hard sciences to work: in engineering and technology. Contrary to popular perception of immigrants, these are people who would create more jobs rather than cost jobs. Also, make it easier for tourists to get visas, as these are people who increase consumer spending here in the United States.
3. Lower CORPORATE tax rates so that we’re competitive with the rest of the western world. Simultaneously, speed up the process of certifying patents, which could and would unleash thousands of
start-ups, the single greatest source of new employment. Individual income tax rates will go back to pre-Bush Era rates, which is fine, but corporations are locating in more tax-friendly countries and we could use those jobs and patents much more wisely.
4. A national infrastructure bank. This has been bandied about for far too long. Investing in overdue maintenance and repairs would create jobs in the short term and raise the efficiency of our private sector economy. Some infrastructure projects could be tolled so that the users would ultimately pay for them, and the projects should be chosen based on merit rather than on patronage.
Of course, we ought to undertake new projects of the kind that built America. But we are not even keeping up with repairs, which means it will cost much more when our bridges, roads, dams, schools, and sewage and water systems collapse.
The American Society of Civil Engineers has spelled out the need in convincing detail, but investment has been changed to “spending.” So while millions sit idle and interest rates are historically low, the air is filled with stupid slogans instead of the sound of men and women at work.
Maybe we really are fiddling while Rome burns, while Washington has become the graveyard of the American Dream.