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Between the Lines: Why We're Apathetic

While Democrats and Republicans fight over irrelevant wedge issues, most of us worry about finding or keeping a job.

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Thursday, July 26, 2012

Don't be apathetic, they tell us. If you don't vote, you can't complain. But how can people get excited about a political campaign that doesn't address the issues we care about most?

Polls show that Americans are more concerned about the economy than any other issue. That has been the case since Obama became president in 2009.

Ignoring the elephant in the room, neither Obama nor Romney have put forth credible plans for getting the unemployed back to work or getting raises for those who still have jobs—and forget about underemployment. (In the long run, America's biggest jobs problem isn't that workers don't have enough skills, but that millions are working beneath their level of intelligence and educational attainment.)

Obama says he inherited a mess. He's right. His supporters say climbing out of the hole created by the 2008 meltdown and Bush's deficit spending will take time. Which is true.

But Obama doesn't explicitly promise that the economy will get better if we reelect him. His reelection campaign is mostly backwards-looking, pointing to his achievements so far: healthcare, pulling out of Iraq, the assassination of Osama bin Laden, and his unpopular bailout of the big banks. On the economy, his overall approach has been to counsel patience while hoping for things to improve.

I'll say this for Mitt Romney: he doesn't share the president's reticence. "If I become president, you're going to see an economic resurgence: manufacturing resurgence, high-tech, health care. You're going to see this economy take off," Romney told supporters in New Jersey in June. "And I say that because I know what I'm going to do, and I know what kind of impact it will have."

Romney's ads strike the same can-do tone. "By day 100, President Romney's leadership brings new certainty to our economy, and the promise of new banking and high-tech jobs."

Whoa.

How will this kickass FDR-like miracle transpire?

Romney has put forth what John Cassidy of The New Yorker calls a "ragtag collection of proposals—59 of them, ranging from eliminating the inheritance tax to capping federal spending at twenty per cent of GDP, to opening up America's energy reserves for development—[which have been] widely dismissed as inadequate by his fellow Republicans."

Trickle-down redux. Warmed-over drill-baby-dril Sarahcuda. A dash of Steve Forbes (remember him?). In short: not so whoa.

If I were Romney I'd be proposing a conservative-based jobs-growth agenda—i.e., one that puts money into the pockets of business. Tax incentives for employers to hire new workers. Federal subsidies for job training programs. Higher payroll deductions for corporations. Capital gains tax cuts conditioned on funds being invested into projects that generate new jobs.

Romney could shore up his party's nativist base by promising to build an impenetrable fence along the border with Mexico and to crack down on undocumented workers.

Thanks to the Republican Congress, it would be easy for Obama to make the case to voters that he's trying to create jobs. He could propose something bold and grand, a new WPA that directly employs 20 million Americans building high-speed rail lines, new bridges and tunnels, teachers, artists, you name it. Best of all, it's a promise he wouldn't have to keep. The GOP would block it—turning them into the obstructionists Democrats portray them as.

Obama could also pursue small-bore approaches to the jobs problem, such a "first fired, first rehired" law that requires large employers to offer new jobs to their first layoff victims. The United States should join European countries, which don't set arbitrary time limits on unemployment benefits.

Layoff victims shouldn't lose their homes; a federal program should cover their rent or mortgage payments until they get back on their feet.

Would these ideas fix the economy? Maybe not. But they would certainly go a long way toward reversing the current toxic state of electoral politics, in which the major parties float irrelevant wedge issues in their perennial battle over 2 or 3 percent of the vote in a handful of swing states, by engaging citizens in the process.

Will either party push forward a credible solution to the economic crisis? Probably not. Which is a reflection of the system's inability to reform itself, and a harbinger of revolutionary change to come.

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