As I write this, we have some extremely cheering signs. Corporate profits are superb. The profits are owned mostly by the pension funds of America and the individual retirement assets of Americans. When corporate profits are good, we all benefit. “Corporate America” is not the enemy. It is us.
Certain sectors of the economy are extremely strong: energy-related minerals, in fact, most minerals, are booming. Agriculture is phenomenally robust. Artificial demand from ethanol mandates has stimulated corn production and demand, creating prices that farmers could only have dreamed of a decade ago.
A seemingly endless demand from the Far East (even though China is rapidly gaining on us as the world’s leading agricultural producer) is fueling higher prices in every area of food production and processing.
You do not hear much about the problems of crop surpluses or suffering farmers these days.
Healthcare is strong, in fact, too strong. Demand for healthcare is driving up prices and getting decent medical care has become difficult because of shortages of doctors and nurses. The pharma sector is under endless government pressure to keep prices low, but it is basically strong also. We owe them a lot.
Auto and truck sales have recovered beautifully from the 2008-2009 crash. All of the big U.S. auto companies are doing well — to be sure, with help from us taxpayers. Aviation is staggeringly strong on the civil side. Even a titan like Boeing can barely keep up with demand.
The defense sector is going to take some hits as the defense budget either shrinks or stops growing so fast, but this comes after a decade of breathtaking growth.
There are several problem areas though. The state and local governments of the land are laying off workers as a net balance. This causes real problems. It is tough for a teacher to adjust to non-teaching work. Likewise, the public suffers when we have less police and fire protection.
The real problem is in housing. We are having a staggering correction in housing prices and construction from levels of four or five years ago. Adjusted for inflation, home prices have recently fallen the most they have ever fallen in the United States. This lowers household net wealth. It also creates a vast army of carpenters, roofers, bricklayers, drywall installers, and many more who are unemployed. These people gradually adjust and find other work, but the process is deeply painful.
Then there is simply the problem that with a slow-growing economy, in which businesses learned to do more with less after 2008-2009, we have cruelly high unemployment. This is not even remotely close to the levels of the Great Depression, but unemployment is hurting people and families badly. It is not a joke to be unemployed and to watch your money running out. Early mornings spent worrying about sustenance are extremely difficult.
And then there is the problem of the unsustainable government deficits. These have to end somewhere.
President Barack Obama has spoken on the jobs issue and what he will do about it. I would like to say I sympathize with him. This is a super-tough issue and neither party has a clear idea of what will work.
But may I offer a suggestion? Perhaps the problem is not one that government alone can solve — and maybe should not solve by itself.
Maybe Americans need to show much more flexibility and inner mobility in their own work searches. There are jobs out there. There are Mexicans and Ethiopians and Guatemalans and Jamaicans who come here and get jobs and go to night school and learn to repair air conditioners or vacuum cleaners or vans, and little by little move up in the society.
If native-born Americans were willing to take low paying, menial jobs, then exert themselves to gain more skills, some of them would find work.
In fact, in my tiny circles, almost everyone I know who is unemployed considers himself or herself an “artist” and will only work as an “artist.” This is a national problem, I fear. If more Americans would get off their high horses and work as burger servers or hotel valets or manure spreaders, we would start recovering and Americans would know the self-esteem of work.
Maybe the solution to the economic slowdown is not tax and spend. Maybe it’s at least in small part “root hog or die.” Maybe it’s time to stop looking for a handout and start looking for work gloves.
Just a thought: If every American were willing to take any legal job that came along — and would live accordingly — we would be back on the track.
Or, we can whine about being “artists” and feel sorry for ourselves. This is only part of the solution, and I have no doubt at all that Mr. Obama will not suggest it, but perhaps it has some slight merit anyway.
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