A jobs bill that won’t work

September 14, 2011

Barack Obama's rhetoric about creating jobs might sound good today, but don't forget that he championed the same austerity agenda as Republicans all summer long.

AFTER MONTHS of political leaders obsessing about the government deficit and proposing drastic austerity measures as the solution, Barack Obama's speech to a joint session of Congress last week was a sign that Washington might finally acknowledge an unemployment crisis that has left one in six working-age Americans in search of full-time work.

That's the long-overdue good news, if it can be called that. The bad news is that the jobs program that Obama proposed is nowhere near what it will take to solve the problem. And the worse news is that his proposals have no chance of being passed into law--and he and every politician in Washington know it.

The urgent need for action was highlighted again this week when the U.S. Census Bureau released its annual report showing that poverty rose sharply to engulf nearly one in six people in the U.S. last year--and almost one in four children--while just shy of 50 million people were without health insurance.

But the harsh reality is that Obama's "American Jobs Act," as underpowered as it is, doesn't stand a chance of making it through a Congress where Republicans control the House.

President Obama delivering his jobs speech to a joint session of Congress
President Obama delivering his jobs speech to a joint session of Congress (Chuck Kennedy)

Democrats and their supporters are already heaping blame on Republicans--including liberals who have been critical of the Obama administration's many concessions to the right. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, for example, celebrated the return of the "real" Obama. The jobs proposal, he wrote, is "much bolder and better than I expected...[C}learly and gratifyingly, [Obama] does grasp how desperate the jobs situation is. But his plan isn't likely to become law, thanks to Republican opposition."

Krugman is right, of course, that the Republican fanatics will reject even the modest measures in Obama's proposals, with the excuse that these will either increase the deficit or require tax increases to implement.

But why do the Republicans have veto power over everything that happens in Washington? Because Barack Obama gave it to them.

During this summer's debate over raising the debt ceiling, Obama and the Democrats matched the Republicans' fear-mongering about the deficit and insisted that balancing the budget was the most important priority in Washington. The result was a "compromise" agreement that will require unprecedented spending cuts in programs working people rely on, including Social Security and Medicare--and not a single cent in tax increases.

Obama may be sounding the call for more spending to help the unemployed today, but all summer long, he was on board the budget-cutting bandwagon. He offered up austerity proposals that Republicans once only dreamed about. So when the Republicans attack the White House's "big government" jobs plan today, they'll be using arguments legitimized and sanctioned by Barack Obama and the Democratic Party.

WHAT ABOUT the proposals themselves? If it could be enacted, would the White House jobs plan make a difference for the millions of unemployed workers struggling to scrape by?

Much of Obama's $447 billion plan comes in a form that Republicans normally embrace--tax breaks for corporations, as inducements to hire new workers.

But it's doubtful such incentives will work any better than they have already. Much of Corporate America has returned to profitability since the official end of the recession more than two years ago--and they've done so by squeezing more work out of fewer employees working for lower wages and benefits. It was hardly a good omen when, just days after Obama's speech, Bank of America--which has paid no federal corporate income taxes over the last two years--announced that it would lay off 30,000 employees.

The amount that Obama's plan devotes to tax breaks dwarfs proposals for spending to rebuild infrastructure, such as crumbling roads and bridges and school buildings--which would be far more effective in putting the unemployed back to work.

During his speech, Obama promised $30 billion to avoid further teacher layoffs and $30 billion more to renovate school facilities, asking Republicans to "[p]ass this bill, and put our teachers back in the classroom where they belong." According to administration officials, the plan is supposed to save as many as 280,000 educators' jobs.

The need for more education spending is desperate--nearly two-thirds of school districts expect budget cuts this fall of 5 percent or more, according to the Center on Education Policy.

But the administration's newfound commitment to greater spending on public education rings hollow in the wake of Education Secretary Arne Duncan's recent "back-to-school" bus tour, where he campaigned not for funding increases, but for faster privatization of schools, longer school days with no increase in teachers' pay, and the punitive "Race to the Top" program that stresses merit pay and charter schools.

Likewise, while Obama's plan calls for increasing taxes on the rich, that's hard to take seriously after the administration retreated time and time again on this issue--like last December, when the White House abandoned promises to let the Bush-era tax cuts for the super-rich expire. Over 10 years, keeping these tax breaks for just the richest 2 percent would cost $700 billion--far more than Obama proposes to create jobs for the working majority.

In fact, Obama has other ideas about where the money will come--cutting social spending. In his speech, Obama called for "modest adjustments to health care programs like Medicare and Medicaid"--in other words, programs that the most vulnerable in society depend on.

If you want an idea of how Obama's plan to "get America back to work" would work, take a look at the Georgia Works program that served as a model for one of the White House's proposals.

Georgia Works allows businesses to hire unemployed workers temporarily--without pay. The unemployed work eight 24-hour weeks while continuing to receive jobless benefits, plus a $240 stipend from the government.

It's a great deal for business, which get temporary workers for free. But not such a great deal for workers, who have to work a part-time job and deal with related expenses like transportation and child care for only a small stipend over what they get in unemployment benefits.

Plus, there's no evidence that the programs actually provides the training that workers need to find employment. "We reviewed Georgia Works. It looks more like work than training," Andrew Stettner, deputy director of the National Employment Law Project, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "You can't try someone out and not pay them. It's not allowed under our nation's labor laws."

During his speech, Obama turned to a favorite theme in today's Washington: China-bashing. He called on people in the U.S. to "pull together" in the face of "global compedition" and declared that he wants "to see more products sold around the world stamped with three proud words: 'Made in America.'"

Economic nationalism like this is a tried-and-true tactic for politicians during an economic crisis. Obama is trying to divert the blame for joblessness and poverty wages in the U.S. onto China and South Korea--when it's Corporate America that has driven down working-class living standards. The solution won't come from blaming Chinese workers or "buying American," but from workers in the U.S. coming together to defend their jobs and demand a bigger share of the pie.

THERE HAS to be another solution to the jobs crisis than the false hope that Obama and the Democrats will fight for workers' interests. Fortunately, there are inspiring signs that more and more people are coming to this conclusion.

A new spirit of resistance could be found on the picket lines of Verizon workers last month, as they battled a highly profitable corporation that nevertheless demanded union workers give up concessions worth about $20,000 a year for each one. The Verizon fight won solidarity up and down the East Coast, with supporters joining in at Communications Workers of America pickets of Verizon Wireless stores to step up the pressure.

This month, that spirit crossed the country to Longview, Wash., where International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) members are confronting the opening of a scab grain terminal operation by physically blocking trains, dumping grain shipments and taking on police when they attack picket lines. The ILWU fight is bringing back the lessons of the struggles of the 1930s, when workers waged pitched battles to win union rights and better working conditions.

In just the past week or so, picket lines have gone up at Hyatt hotels in Chicago, Honolulu, Los Angeles and San Francisco; outside schools in Tacoma, Wash.; at Long Island University in New York City--and that's just a small sampling.

Then there are the community struggles that can emerge and gain support quickly and unexpectedly. Like in Brooklyn, where 200 neighbors turned out on short notice to defend a 82-year-old grandmother who faced eviction--and they won.

Three years ago, millions of people were inspired by Barack Obama's presidential campaign to hope that business as usual would change if a Democrat moved into the Oval Office. But three years on, Obama and his administration have failed to offer anything more than a rhetorical fight against the Republicans--and not even that most of the time.

The alternative lies where it always has--outside Washington, in all the struggles, large and small, to defend working-class people against the corporate and political establishment's assault on their living standards.

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