Obama and Krugman: What About Public Service Jobs?

Paul Krugman - CaricatureAfter reading “Obama Gets Obama Hope StickerReal,” Paul Krugman’s column in yesterday’s New York Times about President Obama’s “income inequality” speech, I went to the transcript with anticipation.

I was disappointed. The speech is narrow and superficial. It fails to affirm the most important way to increase economic opportunity and decrease inequality: tax the wealthy, decrease military spending, and send the money to local governments for public service jobs.

The needs are enormous. Child care, teachers’ aides, peer counselors for drug and alcohol rehab, nursing home aides, in-home caregiving, park and recreation staff, community center staff, cultural enrichment, paratransit drivers, and environmental cleanup are some of the more obvious example.

But when Obama cited positive programs implemented by Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Franklin Roosevelt, he failed to mention the New Deal’s Work Projects Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps that hired people for those kind of jobs.

This neglect is all the more striking because the American people strongly support such measures. In March 2013, Gallup reported that more than 70%, including a majority of Republicans, support “a federal jobs creation law that would spend government money for a program designed to create more than 1 million new jobs.”

Instead, Obama said he wants “to make sure that every striving, hardworking, optimistic kid in America has the same incredible chance that this country gave me” to climb the ladder of success. The title of the speech on the White House website, “Remarks by the President on Economic Mobility,” indicates that it’s not really about substantially reducing economic inequality or assuring everyone a living-wage job opportunity (which is achievable). Rather, it’s about assuring “that if you work hard, you have a chance to get ahead.” [emphasis added] Then, by rebuilding the middle class, “because of upward mobility, the guy on the factory floor could picture his kid running the company some day.”

Give me a break. Unemployed workers and the working poor need more than a dream for their children and “a chance” to get ahead.

Though Obama mentions how reducing taxes on the wealthy contributed to today’s inequality, he does not propose reversing those reductions. Again, strong majorities support such measures, but he fails to push for them.

Concerning the role of education in the reduction of poverty, Krugman states:

What struck me about this speech, however, was what he had to say about the sources of rising inequality. Much of our political and pundit class remains devoted to the notion that rising inequality, to the extent that it’s an issue at all, is all about workers lacking the right skills and education. But the president now seems to accept progressive arguments that education is at best one of a number of concerns…,

Krugman is correct about the exaggerated emphasis on education as a solution, but I read Obama’s speech differently than he does. I see far too much emphasis on education in that speech.

We need better education for many reasons, including the inherent value of learning. But the best way to enable people to lift themselves out of poverty is to offer them a living-wage job – now, not after they get “educated.”

If all of the unemployed were suddenly trained overnight by virtue of some miracle, most of them would still be unemployed. There are only a limited number of seats in the theater. And there are many more patrons outside wanting to get in.

Obama probably really believes in the Horatio Alger myth. Upward mobility seems to have worked for him. But many success stories forget one key fact: they were lucky.

We need to offer our people more than “a chance” to get lucky.