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Riding the Rails, Looking for Work

Now that an entire week or so has passed, it’s possible to make a cool, complete and objective assessment of the meaning of the 2010 vote. Thus, ladies and gentlemen, it becomes clear what this election was all about: jobs.
I mean, just look at Monday’s Washington Post: “The record-breaking campaign showered billions of dollars on a broad array of companies, including broadcast conglomerates, polling firms and small-town restaurants, according to a Washington Post analysis of expenditure reports. Candidates spent at least $50 million on catering and liquor, $3.2 million at country clubs and golf courses, and $500,000 on pizza, coffee and doughnuts, the records show…

“The spending came at a fortunate time for many businesses struggling with tepid growth and a national unemployment rate stuck near 10 percent. Experts predict that total spending for the congressional midterms will approach $4 billion, putting it on par with the $3 billion ‘Cash for Clunkers’ program in 2009 aimed at boosting auto sales.”

Who says stimulus programs don’t work? Or that all that insane corporate spending on the elections didn’t do some good? Gosh darn it, if you’re an aspiring barista, you’ll be thrilled to learn that Democratic campaigns spent $24,000 at Starbucks, Republicans $17,000. And gym rats and personal trainers, be of good cheer. According to the Post, “The Democratic National Committee spent $41,000 for memberships at a Results gym about seven blocks from its Washington headquarters,” keeping its candidates in physical trim if still flabby when it came to policy, decision making and vote getting.

Not unexpectedly, the largest amount of this free-flowing cash and whatever job creation accompanied it went to the broadcasters who sold airtime for that constant din of campaign ads that plagued us over the last weeks and months – an estimated $2.5 billion worth of revenues. Then there were the media buyers and campaign consultants, pollsters, direct mail and printing companies, caterers — not to mention banks, credit card and check processing concerns, including Bank of America, American Express and ADP. Those financial heavyweights pulled in $140 million from the election cycle, as if they needed it.

Of course, the ones who do need it are the close to 15 million Americans still without employment, despite Friday’s Labor Department report indicating that 151,000 jobs had been gained in October.

As Catherine Rampell explained in the November 5 New York Times, “The jobless rate has not fallen substantially this year, largely because employers have barely added enough workers to absorb the people just entering the labor force. And even if the economy suddenly expands and starts adding 208,000 jobs a month — as it did in its best year this decade — it would still take 12 years to close the gap between the growing number of American workers and the total available jobs, according to the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project” (Gentle readers may recall that the Hamilton Project was founded by former Clinton treasury secretary, Citigroup mogul and Obama economic advisor Robert Rubin as a haven for Wall Street Democrats dedicated to the Clintonian principle of growth tied to deficit reduction and free trade.).

“I am open to any idea, any proposal, any way we can get the economy growing faster so that people who need work can find it faster,” President Obama said on Friday, but it’s to be hoped that his openness doesn’t extend to caving into the GOP and continuing permanently all of the Bush tax cuts – at a budget-bursting cost of almost $4 trillion over the next ten years.

Better to focus on infrastructure and more specifically a complete overhaul of the nation’s transportation system, creating jobs and opportunities that can’t be outsourced. But while the President is in full support of this – especially the expansion of high-speed rail service — sadly, it seems Republicans are determined to undercut any such formula, scuttling programs in the name of a favorite mantra, slashing government spending.

Already we’ve seen New Jersey’s Republican Governor Chris Christie pull the rug out from years of planning and anticipated benefits by killing a proposed rail tunnel under the Hudson River that would have doubled commuter traffic in and out of Manhattan and created, according to its proponents, an estimated 6000 construction jobs. There’s no denying that it was the most expensive public works project in the United States nor that the cost to the state would be in the billions, but the long term benefits would far exceed that initial cost.

Newly-elected Republican governors Rick Scott of Florida, John Kasich in Ohio and Wisconsin’s Scott Walker all campaigned on turning down Federal stimulus money for high-speed rail links in their states. But according to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, former Republican congressman from Illinois, “The bottom line is that high-speed rail is a national program that will connect the country, spur economic development and bring manufacturing jobs to the U.S. It will also transform transportation in America, much like the Interstate highway system did under President Eisenhower.”

And as noted in a recently released report from the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs, the result of a September 2009 conference co-chaired by Bush transportation secretaries Norman Mineta and Samuel Skinner,

“The United States can’t compete successfully in the 21st century with a 20th century transportation infrastructure — especially when its chief trading partners, including not only the advanced economies of Western Europe and Southeast Asia but also rapidly developing countries like China, are making significant investments in cutting-edge transportation technologies and systems.” This could lead, the report said, to “a steady erosion of the social and economic foundations for American prosperity in the long run.”

Much of the Republican opposition points to maintenance and upkeep costs but as champion blogger John Cole notes, “Turning down a billion dollar train because you will have to pay 8 million a year in maintenance is like giving away a free car because you might have to one day buy windshield wiper fluid.”

That, friends, is something else this year’s election was all about: the triumph of shortsighted thinking over facing up to the long range difficult problems that threaten our future. Fasten your seatbelts; it’s going to be a bumpy two years.

MICHAEL WINSHIP is senior writer at Public Affairs Television in New York City.

 

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MICHAEL WINSHIP is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program Bill Moyers Journal, which airs Friday night on PBS.

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