How do we generate the jobs needed to sustain our middle class and pay for new infrastructure? It would require a different kind of politics — one that doesn’t conform to either party’s platform. We will have to raise some taxes to generate revenue, like on energy or maybe a value-added tax, and lower others, on payrolls to stimulate work, and on multinational corporations to get them to bring the trillion dollars they have offshore back to the U.S. for investment. We will have to adjust some services, like Social Security, while we invest in new infrastructure, like high-speed rail and Internet bandwidth; the U.S. ranks 22nd in the world in average connection speed. And, most of all, we will have to have an honest discussion about how we got in this rut.
How we got into this rut is no secret. We compensated for years of stagnating middle-class wages the easy way. Just as baseball players in the ’90s injected themselves with steroids to artificially build muscle to hit more home runs — instead of doing real bodybuilding — our two parties injected steroids, cheap credit, into Wall Street so it could go gambling and into Main Street so it could go home-buying. They both started hitting home runs, artificially — until the steroids ran dry. Now we have to rebuild America’s muscles the old-fashioned way.
How? In the short run, we’ll probably need more stimulus to get the economy moving again so people have the confidence to buy and invest. Ultimately, though, good jobs at scale come only when we create more products and services that make people’s lives more healthy, more productive, more secure, more comfortable or more entertained — and then sell them to more people around the world. And in a global economy, we have to create those products and services with a work force that is so well trained and productive that it can leverage modern technology so that one American can do the work of 20 Chinese and, therefore, get paid the same as 20 Chinese. There is no other way.
Sure, more countries can now compete with us. But that’s good. It means they’re also spawning new jobs, customers, ideas and industries where well-trained Americans can also compete. Fifteen years ago, there were no industries around Google “search” or “iPhone applications.” Today, both are a source of good jobs. More will be invented next year. There is no fixed number of jobs. We just have to make sure there is no fixed number of Americans to fill them — aided by good U.S. infrastructure and smart government incentives to attract these new industries to our shores.
But not everyone can write iPhone apps. What about your nurse, barber or waiter? Here I think Lawrence Katz, the Harvard University labor economist, has it right. Everyone today, he says, needs to think of himself as an “artisan” — the term used before mass manufacturing to apply to people who made things or provided services with a distinctive touch in which they took personal pride. Everyone today has to be an artisan and bring something extra to their jobs.
For instance, says Katz, the baby boomers are aging, which will spawn many health care jobs. Those jobs can be done in a low-skilled way by cheap foreign workers and less-educated Americans or they can be done by skilled labor that is trained to give the elderly a better physical and psychological quality of life. The first will earn McWages. The second will be in high demand. The same is true for the salesperson who combines passion with a deep knowledge of fashion trends, the photo-store clerk who can teach you new tricks with your digital camera while the machine prints your film, and the pharmacist who doesn’t just sell pills but learns to relate to customer health needs in more compassionate and informative ways. They will all do fine.
But just doing your job in an average way — in this integrated and automated global economy — will lead to below-average wages. Sadly, average is over. We’re in the age of “extra,” and everyone has to figure out what extra they can add to their work to justify being paid more than a computer, a Chinese worker or a day laborer. “People will always need haircuts and health care,” says Katz, “and you can do that with low-wage labor or with people who acquire a lot of skills and pride and bring their imagination to do creative and customized things.” Their work will be more meaningful and their customers more satisfied.
Government’s job is to help inspire, educate, enable and protect that work force.