Monday, May 28, 2012

Jobs That Mean Something

In the past several weeks I’ve been getting quite a few campaign emails from Neil Livingstone, who’s running for governor in a crowded Republican field. Livingstone and his running mate, Ryan Zinke, who are usually in high dudgeon about something, were upset last week because they think that Max Baucus, Jon Tester and Brian Schweitzer haven’t done enough to “ensure the continued viability of Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls.” They’re worried that if the United States moves to reduce the size of its nuclear arsenal and eliminate its fleet of intercontinental  missiles, Malmstrom will be in “real jeopardy.”  And they’re fretting about the current proposal by the Pentagon to move the F-15 fighters currently stationed at Malmstrom to California and replace them with C-130 cargo planes. 

Now if you’ve been longing for the day when you no longer have to worry so much about nuclear annihilation, or if you think the Pentagon probably knows best what kinds of planes should be based where, you might wonder what all the fuss is about.  Well, in a word, it’s jobs. Livingstone and Zinke are convinced that reducing or changing Malmstrom’s mission would mean Montana would lose jobs, and they offer some numbers (no source cited) to prove it. Some of the numbers are pretty big and others quite small, but in the end it doesn’t make any difference because, in Livingstone’s words, “The loss of a single job is not acceptable.”

Really?  Does Livingstone really believe that the decision to decommission part of the world’s largest stockpile of nuclear weapons should turn on the loss of a single job? Does he really think that the loss of one job is too high a price to pay to use the nation’s military and fiscal resources more efficiently and effectively?  In his emails, Livingstone promises that when elected he will cut taxes, balance the state budget, and reduce costs.  Does he really think he can do that without cutting a single job?

Well, probably not. Chalk it up to the desperation that comes at the end of a long and not very promising primary campaign.  And understand that what Livingstone is saying is not a lot different from what a lot of other politicians, from both parties, are saying as well.  At times like these, in a recession that we just can’t seem to climb out of, job creation tends to emerge as one of the first, and sometimes the only, things we consider when we’re making decisions about how to manage public resources.  In the process we tend to downplay the other important values at stake in these decisions – after all, it’s jobs that really count – and the result can be that we fail to do right by ourselves.  We forget that it makes a difference what the people with the jobs are producing.

Livingstone may go particularly astray here, but we all do to some degree. In debates about the environment, or natural resource development, or funding education and the arts, or, well, almost anything,  both sides assail each other with claims and counterclaims about jobs gained or lost depending on whether we do one thing or another.  And the fact that human health and quality of life, or climate stability, or civic, social and cultural vitality may be at stake  tends to get lost in the shuffle.

Don’t get me wrong. I shouldn’t have to say this, but just to be on the safe side, I will: jobs and job growth are very, very important. We all want to live in a country where anybody who wants a decent job can find one, and where when a worker does get laid off, it doesn’t take her months to find a new job and get back to work. That’s not the country we have right now. Too many workers are unemployed and too many who have lost jobs stay unemployed for far too long. It’s Americans’ number one concern as we approach the 2012 elections, and they expect government to do something about it.

And government should do something. But the solution lies in firm and effective macroeconomic management. Even Livingstone and Zinke, despite their pledge to be fiscally conservative, argue forcefully  that government can and does  generate job growth through spending.  In fact, almost any kind of spending will do that. But in spending money to stimulate the economy and sustain job growth, we should use our fiscal resources wisely and efficiently.  That means putting people to work in not just any jobs, but in jobs that build a more just, healthy, secure, and prosperous nation.