As President Obama begins the second half of his term with a campaign for "jobs and competitiveness," we would do well to consider how he might achieve these worthy goals. It is jobs that matter most to the vast majority of Americans, and unemployment remains at 9.4 percent – about double its pre-recession level. This is a terrible punishment to inflict on millions of Americans who did nothing to deserve it. It will cause long-term and even permanent damage to many of the unemployed and their children.
What can the government do to relieve this suffering? One relatively simple measure is to subsidize employers who are willing to reduce hours rather than lay people off. Germany has demonstrated the success of this approach in the last couple of years. Unemployment in Germany was 7.4 percent just before their recession began in the third quarter of 2008. Today it is 6.7 percent. And Germany had a much steeper decline in output than we did.
The idea is straightforward: employers who are faced with reduced demand can either lay off workers or reduce hours. If they reduce hours for any worker, the government in Germany puts up 60 percent of the lost pay for these reduced hours. The worker keeps her job, with reduced hours but the pay is not reduced nearly as much.
With all this talk now about Democrats and Republicans "reaching across the aisle" and working together, a program that is acceptable to a conservative German government ought to have bi-partisan appeal here. The government can use unemployment insurance funds to cover much of the cost, and seventeen states do offer such work-sharing programs. But they are under-funded and participation is small.
My colleague Dean Baker estimates that this program can create three million jobs at a cost of $68 billion. That is less than one-tenth of our bloated Pentagon budget. Imagine a national poll where voters were to choose between continuing to occupy Afghanistan versus creating three million jobs? (Actually about 4.6 million jobs if we really get out of there). A no-brainer.
Another proposal that would help boost the economy, and wouldn’t cost the taxpayers anything would be to allow homeowners who are underwater on their mortgages to become long-term renters. An independent appraiser would set the fair market rent for their home. Millions of homeowners who bought homes at bubble-inflated prices would see a sizeable reduction in their monthly payment. Others would find that their bank, not wanting to be a landlord, would negotiate a reduced mortgage payment. This program would free a lot of people from the prolonged stress and uncertainty of unpayable debt, and boost consumer demand.
Of course demand for goods and services is what is needed to achieve the growth that will boost the economy and provide jobs. Unfortunately, it is not enough for the President to kiss up to business by appointing their friends to high places, or slathering more tax breaks on them. Our corporations are already sitting on more than $2 trillion of cash; they are not expanding or hiring because there is not enough demand out there for what they can already produce. The bursting of the housing and commercial real estate bubbles will limit demand in those sectors for years to come.
That means that the federal government will have to pick up some of the slack. At the very least it should subsidize the state and local governments so they stop laying people off and raising taxes – thus shrinking the economy and employment further while making this a less educated country. It would be nice to see President Obama take some leadership on these issues, even if it means having to fight for what is right.
MARK WEISBROT is an economist and co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. He is co-author, with Dean Baker, of Social Security: the Phony Crisis.
This column was originally published by the Sacramento Bee.