At the town hall in Schnecksville, Penn., today, President Obama got a rather direct question from a college student.
QUESTION: Mr. Obama, I really appreciate how you’re trying to stimulate the economy to help this country out. And I was just wondering in LCCC in college we’ve been studying some criminology and I was wondering if — maybe if you checked out some of the statistics about legalizing prostitution, gambling, drugs, and nonviolent crime in order to stimulate some of the economy? (Laughter.)
THE PRESIDENT: You know, I have to say this — I appreciate the boldness of your question. (Laughter.) That will not be my jobs strategy. (Laughter.) But let me say this. What year are you in school?
QUESTION: This is my second year in college.
THE PRESIDENT: Your second year. I think, first of all, part of what you’re supposed to do in college is question conventional wisdom. (Laughter.) And so you’re doing exactly what you’re supposed to be doing — (laughter) — which is thinking in new ways about things.
(The words do not entirely do it justice. Mediaite has the video up here.) The president went on to change the subject. Read the rest of his answer after the jump.
Here’s — the truth is that when you look at our economy, in the same way that we used to be an agricultural country and then we moved to an industrial age, and then we went from an industrial economy into an information economy, you know, that transition means that manufacturing will never be as high of a percentage of our economy as it was back in the 1950s. It’s not just because we’re competing overseas; it’s also that a factory that used to require a hundred guys to make something, now they can do it with 10 guys, because of automation and advances in technology.
So there’s going to be a shift in our economy. But the capacity for a state like Pennsylvania to make enormous progress on advanced manufacturing around infrastructure on the one hand and green technology on the other are still enormous.
I mean, think about it. We’ve got about $2 trillion — $2 trillion worth of — it might even be more than that, Ed; Ed probably knows the statistics — we’ve got trillions of dollars of infrastructure improvements that need to be made all across the country: roads, bridges, ports. And that’s just the old infrastructure. Then we’ve got a whole new infrastructure that we have to build.
So when we talk about, for example, the smart grid, this is not a complicated concept. We’ve got basically an old electricity network that leaks electricity, it leaks energy, all the time. It’s not efficient in the ways that it should be. And if we could create a much more efficient 21st-century grid, we could save huge amounts of energy — 10, 15, 20 percent — just in making — just becoming more efficient, and that would create a whole bunch of jobs for people who would have to lay down lines, put up new transmitters, all that good stuff.
The same is true when it comes to clean energy. There is no reason why we shouldn’t have the corner on wind turbine technology, on solar panel technology. (Applause.) In fact, some companies that are doing battery and wind and solar technology benefited from the Recovery Act, and they are now hiring people right here in Pennsylvania to do that work.
But in order for us to take advantage of this new future, we’ve got to make some investments now. We’ve got to have an infrastructure plan, and something that I’ve been working with the governor on is the idea of an infrastructure bank so that instead of us just every six years having Congress vote to figure out what our infrastructure is — and there’s no real planning to it — that you had a system where we could actually leverage private sector dollars into making investments alongside the public sector, and it wasn’t based on who’s got the committee chairmanship but it was based on what are the infrastructure needs that we really have in this country and prioritize them.
When it comes to energy, this is a triple-win situation. If we invest now in clean energy and we acknowledge that we’ve got to change how we do business — for our economy, for oil independence, but also for climate change — then we can clean up our environment, we can free ourselves from dependence on foreign oil so we’re not waiting to see what somebody in the Middle East is doing before we know what’s going to happen to gas prices here in the United States. And we can put people to work right now. And those jobs can’t be shipped out. Those are jobs that have to be done right here in the United States of America. (Applause.)
So that’s the strategy that we’re pursuing. There’s one last component — two other components I just want to mention. People — first of all, I think — I noticed the press yesterday, because we had this jobs forum at the White House, they said, “Obama is finally pivoting to jobs,” as if what we haven’t been doing for the whole nine months, from the day I was sworn in and we started talking about the recovery, was all about jobs. But folks’ attention spans are short, I understand that. (Laughter.)
What has happened is a lot of the debate in Washington has been around health care, so people think, well, I guess they must not be working on jobs. No, we’ve been working on jobs the whole time. Health care is part and parcel with where we need to take our economy. (Applause.) You talk to every small business — how many small business owners are here? There may be a few. Okay, you talk to any of the folks who raise their hands and you ask them, what happened to your premiums over the last year, two years, three years, they’re not just going up 7 percent or 8 percent — they’re going up 25 percent, 40 percent.
Now, if you’re a small business person, and let’s say you’ve got five employees, and you are doing the right thing by them, and you’re giving them health insurance, and then you find out that what you’re paying suddenly doubled over the course of two or three or four years? That’s money that is directly out of your pocket that you could have been reinvesting in your business or hiring more workers.
So us being able to control health care costs and giving small businesses the opportunity to pool with other small businesses and individuals around the country so that they have the same kind of leverage with insurance companies that the big guys have, that’s an economic plan. That’s part of our jobs growth.
Last point I want to make — last point I want to make, and that has to do with education. You know, I was in Asia for a week and we were mostly talking about trade and how we can increase U.S. exports. I’m tired of just them sending goods into the United States — I want to start sending goods from the United States out there. (Applause.)
And I think there are a lot of opportunities for us to increase exports and increase jobs here in the United States without us spending any money. If we increased U.S. exports, our share of exports to Asia by just 5 percent, we would be creating hundreds of thousands, maybe a million, 2 million jobs — just by opening up new markets.
But — I mentioned this yesterday at the jobs summit and I want to mention it again today — I was having lunch with the President of South Korea. And that country has gone from dirt poverty and now is just booming. I mean, they are doing really well. And I asked him, you know, what’s your biggest challenge in terms of education? He said, you know, my biggest challenge is the parents are just too demanding. (Laughter.) He said, they’re in my office — I’ve had to import foreign teachers, pay for foreign teachers to come teach English to Korean kids because all the parents there think that their kids should be learning English when they’re in first grade.
Now, I tell that story to make the point that these folks are serious. They’re not — you know, their kids aren’t spending a whole bunch of time playing video games or watching TV. (Applause.) They’re out there — they’re working. They’re working in math, they’re working in science, they’re working in foreign languages. They are preparing themselves to compete.
And so, you know, one of the messages I have is that we are going to have to work just as hard. We can’t take for granted that somehow it’s just owed to us that automatically we’ve got the strongest economy. We’ve got to make sure that each and every one of us are working as hard as we can and working smart in order to create the jobs of the future.