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Opinion

Obama and the myth of job creation

Obama wants a jobs bill ASAP. Government can't create jobs. But a prepared workforce can.

By Mark Lange / January 28, 2010



San Francisco

A president’s speechwriter, desperate to relieve the rhetorical ramble of a State of the Union, will often stage a special guest in the gallery, or a line or two from a letter – anything to generate something like intimacy. 

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Wednesday night, President Obama described the letters that he reads “each night. The toughest to read,” he said, “are those written by children, asking … when their mom or dad will be able to go back to work.” 

Does official Washington really believe that we’re waiting for government to generate jobs, somehow? What is the effect of an American president reciting everything government might do to support job creation – loans, tax cuts, high speed rail, clean energy, basic research, community colleges, student loan forgiveness – while asking nothing of the people themselves?  

There’s actually very little that any administration can do to create sustainable, real employment – other than reduce the cost of credit (which the Federal Reserve has long discounted to record lows). 

The “deficit of trust” Mr. Obama spoke of tonight – and sounded so determined to resolve – referred to that of a people and their government. But where real job creation is concerned, Americans should start by trusting themselves. 

To do something about the state of the soup we’re in, it would be helpful if the president and commentariat would focus less on the way Washington works, and more on the way the rest of us work. 

Politics corrupt our conversation about job creation. Democrats demonize trade. Republicans demonize unions. And both parties indulge in culture wars and talk in code. Whether you call a stimulus package “targeted investments” or “taxpayer dollars” depends on whether you’re getting any. 

When we imagine that government – and even companies – “create” jobs, we’re missing half the story: the crucial part. The part that most of us can actually influence, right now.  

It’s a paradox, but job seekers are actually job creators. People (and the politicians that love their votes) tend to focus on how many employers happen to be hiring. But an overlooked tenet of labor economics says that what’s equally vital to creating jobs is the presence of an adequately skilled workforce capable of filling them. 

In other words, when the workers are ready, the jobs appear. 

This is no Zen abstraction. “Ready” means retraining – going to night school, learning new skills, taking risks – not complaining, as some do, about bringing jobs back from China

It calls for presidential leadership that doesn’t bemoan “the burden of working harder and longer for less” (a debatable factoid). It means studying harder and longer, to earn more. 

It means that job seekers have to keep seeking – aware, as Woody Allen said, that 80 percent of success is just showing up. Sometimes before an employer is able or willing to pay what you’re worth.  

You’ll hear much talk pegging the “true” US unemployment rate at over 17 percent, when we include what the Labor Department classes as “discouraged workers” – those “not currently looking for work specifically because they believed no jobs were available for them.” 

Media make money merchandizing misery – which does a great disservice to those who need to stay motivated to look for work, the hardest job there is. To do it right, you have to keep faith in yourself, and with your family, for 12 hours a day, six days a week. 

Consider a few steps to create sustainable job growth, that don’t rely on official Washington:

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