Up on Capitol Hill Thursday, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke painted yet another grim picture for the future of work in America:
The high unemployment rate is a major concern because we’re seeing, not just 10 percent unemployment, but we’re seeing very long duration of unemployment. We’re seeing a lot of people on part-time work or in short hours. And that has implications, not just for the short-term, but for the skills and labor market attachment of workers going forward. It’s going to affect people for many, many years.
At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, President Barack Obama made a show of seeking a solution, gathering 130 academics, journalists, corporate and political leaders for a four hour summit on jobs. Since coming into office, Obama has been big on such summits, holding them on health care, on the nation’s fiscal problems, and now on jobs.
They are all, to put it bluntly, somewhat painful exercises–long, monotone and repetitive. If you want to get a teenagers interested in public service, do not suggest they watch any of the breakout session videos, which the White House is sure to post soon on YouTube. Anticipating the drudgery, hour upon hour of important people in gray suits talking about their own interests, the White House played a video at the beginning, about baking bread. No kidding–130 powerful minds sat in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building to watch a video on flat screen televisions. Here it is, like one of those old Sesame Street montages of factory work I used to love.
Most of the ideas that were raised in the summit that followed have been raised before–lower the corporate tax, increase tax credits for job creation, fix old trade agreements, make new trade agreements, increase the number of visas, build more infrastructure, more green energy initiatives, etc. But then new ideas were not really the focus of the event. The focus was on sending a clear signal that the someone was trying to do something about all the suffering that Bernanke says still awaits. The baking of that loaf–I know, I should use less yeasty metaphors–is much less fun.
In several breakout forums, and then a town-hall style discussion with the President, the summit participants took turns talking about their own interests. The woman from the National Family Farm Coalition announced that family farms give the “biggest bang for the buck” when it comes to government spending. Bob Iger, of Disney, noted that it was tempting for him to start making movies from a corporate base Ireland, where the corporate tax rate less than half the one he deals with in the United States. Jimmy Hoffa of the Teamsters Union said, “NAFTA, CAFTA and the workers got the shafta.” And so it went.
Jay Newton-Small has a nice story up about the ideas being bandied about on the hill, none of which will solve by themselves the long-term problem of high unemployment. But such is the situation Obama finds himself in: There are no quick government cures for the crisis that still envelops the American workforce. There is, however, a White House determined to show that it is doing what it can to address the problem.