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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Little People Need To Adjust

by digby

Pitching in for Ed Shultz (as he is all week) the Nation's Chris Hayes initiated a rather extraordinary conversation about unemployment with Jonathan Alter. He began with this amazing intro:

HAYES: Welcome back. There was a debilitating disease that suddenly began affecting one in ten adults in this country. We would expect a pretty strong response, right? I mean, if one house on every block, ten percent of employees in every workplace were sick with the same thing all of a sudden, people would demand a response. Every dog catcher, mayor and legislator in this country would be getting hammered with the same question. What are you doing to stop it? If one in ten people in this country were infected with the disease, the response would be swift and massive. The government would marshal all available resources to cure the sick and stop the spread. I mean, remember the swine flu panic?

There would be tanks on the street. It would be like a sci-fi movie. Well, we do have an epidemic. And it‘s called unemployment. One in ten able-body American adults whose wants work is out of work. There is just one job for every six people who are out of work. And this is an epidemic. So, where is the emergency response? Republicans want to make the unemployment epidemic about personal responsibility. Pull yourself up from your boot straps up. They don‘t want the jobs that are available. Well, no doctor would tell a sick person getting well was just a matter of will.

I think he made his position fairly clear there and framed the issue in appropriately catastrophic terms. What came next is one of the most revealing example of Villager conventional wisdom I've seen in quite some time:


HAYES: Jonathan, I really have to say it does feel like there is just a stunning lack of urgency around jobs and unemployment in Washington. Do you think that‘s a fair assessment?

ALTER: I think it is. You know, the Congress tried to do something recently to jump start employment and it was on the back pages of the paper. It was kinds of a non-story. Part of it is that we‘re no longer panicked the way we were 18 months ago when Obama came in. [what do you mean "we" white man?]

Remember, Chris, at the time Barack Obama was sworn into office, we were losing 740,000 jobs a month. And if we had stayed on that pace, we would have been in another great depression with 20 percent plus unemployment by the end of 2009. So a big part of the story I tell in “The Promise” is how they averted this.

It was a really dramatic story that we didn‘t have a depression. When something doesn‘t happen, you don‘t get a lot of, you know, credit for it, and then the pressure‘s off when the crisis passes. And I do think that we‘ve gotten too used to 9.7, 10 percent unemployment. We‘re now kind of taking it for granted as something normal when we should be, as you indicate, you know, treating it as a terribly pressing problem

Yes, we certainly could have worse unemployment and it's good that we don't. But where he gets the idea that "the country" as opposed to DC elites are "taking it for granted" is beyond me. The country is apoplectic --- apparently the Village hasn't noticed. Hayes acknowledges that things could have been worse, but presses on:

HAYES: Yes. That‘s exactly the point. I mean, I feel like I agree obviously. I mean, when you look at that job, that sort of famous job chart that shows, you know, the Bush administration, the Obama administration, you know, we clearly, the bleeding has been stopped, the patient is under hemorrhaging.

But I feel like, what‘s happening is there is a kind of normalization that‘s going around, sort of very subtly rhetorically on both sides and this comes to the White House I think, as well that we‘re going to just have to kind of accustom ourselves to levels of unemployment that in a historical perspective or totally, totally anomalies and unacceptable.

ALTER: Well, you know, they‘re right. We are going to have to accustom ourselves to some higher than, you know, old normal percentage of unemployment. You know, I don‘t know whether it‘s seven percent, six percent, whatever. We could have an argument about that. But clearly 9.7 percent is not tolerable. And you know, clearly we‘re not having enough of the national conversation about it. I mean, even when there is relatively good news like a neutral CBO estimate that the stimulus, the recovery act added between 2.5 and 3.5 million new jobs, most of them in the private sector contrary to their right wing blather on talk radio, these are not census jobs, they‘re not public sector jobs. But it‘s not enough.

Yes, 9.7% is intolerable --- but let's look at the bright side again.

Robert Gibbs couldn't have done a better job of pimping the administration's accomplishments and avoiding the issue --- which is that nobody seems to give a damn that we have 10% unemployment and this economy is still in the shit after two years of misery. Indeed, Alter is saying we should be a lot more grateful it isn't worse which isn't exactly responsive.

After pimping the administration (and, therefore, his book) again, he did have some advice on what we need to do: get the liberals to stop being obstructionists and agree to waive the prevailing wage laws.

So, we‘re adding about 250,000 jobs a month. We‘re losing roughly 750,000 when Obama came in. It‘s still going to be a while before we can really chip away. But what I want is the government and the White House to be focused on cutting through red tape, maybe even pushing back against at some conventional liberalism in order to expand the number of jobs. For instance, there‘s something called the Davis-Bacon Act. It‘s a sacred cow for organized labor, right? It requires that the prevailing wages should be paid. The highest wage in any area be paid on government contracts. Well, that means there are a lot fewer people that you can employ. So the whole idea of getting let‘s say, green jobs of people who are getting houses, that‘s barely gotten off the ground yet. And they need to accelerate it and cut through the bureaucracy.

Seriously, he said this. Hayes was obviously taken aback:

HAYES: But John, do you really think Davis, that you can lay that at the feet of Davis Bacon and...

ALTER: Yes. A lot of it is Davis Bacon. To tell you the truth, Chris, you know, there are hard truths about liberalism that we have to face if we‘re going to move forward. Do I want them to get rid of Davis Bacon? No, but they could do waivers, they could do creative things. Go to the Congress and do some things if you‘re really going to focus on jobs. When Franklin Roosevelt established the CCC in his first year in office, they were paying $1 a day. Organized labor was enraged by this.

HAYES: Riiight ... OK.

ALTER: So, you do, you do have to make some compromises in order to get more people to work and you have to do some direct hiring. WPA style hiring which is very out of fashion in this government.

HAYES: Thank you, Jonathan. I‘m in the orthodox pro Davis Bacon camp.

Keep in mind that Alter is an elite liberal villager with strong ties to the administration. And he not only wants to lay the problem at the feet of "liberal orthodoxy" which is insane, but he's completely delusional about the congress's ability to pass any jobs legislation that costs money --- after all, they can't even extend unemployment benefits. On what planet does there exist the slightest possibility of passing a direct jobs program with or without David Bacon? And why in the world would we want to pay people less money when the whole point is to stimulate the economy? We don't want to spoil them?

I don't know if he's doing some light Heritage Foundation Report reading before he goes to bed at night but I'd guess, considering his professional and social circle, that this is reflective of the conversations that are being held among liberal Villagers, some of whom may very well be in the congress and the White House. This dry abstraction, and the idea that we just have to "adjust" to a permanently higher unemployment rate is just offensive. I wonder if Alter would be so sanguine about such a thing if he were among those who found themselves suddenly among the permanent underclass? (Not that he would --- this sort of thing doesn't happen to hard working, productive people such as he ...)

And good for Hayes for saying at the end that he still believes in Davis Bacon. The look on his face was priceless --- he kept it together nicely but was clearly gobsmacked by Alter's bizarre outburst. Who wouldn't be? It's so reflexively and anachronistically thirdway/DLC that if I closed my eyes, I could see Joe Klein blathering exactly the same garbage on Meet the Press circa 1992. That this kind of hippie punching is still so automatic among the elites explains a lot about why we are so very, very screwed. They just can't seem to help themselves, even if it makes no earthly sense at all.