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Jobs: Aughts for Naught

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When it comes to jobs, it turns out the aughts were for naught. Too bad we can't just party like it's 1999.

This morning the Labor Department issued its final monthly jobs report for the decade just ended. In December 2009, the economy shed 85,000 jobs and the unemployment rate held at 10.0 percent, but only because 661,000 people left the labor force.

So this report makes it official: The last decade was indeed a lost decade for job creation. We're beginning 2010 with just about 131 million jobs, only 129,000 more than at the beginning of the decade. This is despite the fact that the U.S. population has grown by roughly 25 million people since 2000.

As the Washington Post recently reported, the aughts' net zero job growth puts the decade in its own inauspicious category. In each of the six preceding decades, from the 1940's forward, job growth was 20 percent or higher.

It's important to note how we got here. Right-wing economic policies -- and remember that the right wing was in charge for eight of the past 10 years -- emphasized that government was the problem and the market always knew best.

Regulators sat on the sidelines while Wall Street gambled with Main Street's money, inflated an enormous housing bubble and marketed dangerous mortgages. The bubble popped with catastrophic consequences for millions of workers who had, in fact, played by the rules.

The Bush administration passed recklessly irresponsible tax cuts that further enriched the wealthy and handicapped our ability to make investments for a stronger economy -- investments in infrastructure, innovation, and education, which would have yielded dividends for all Americans for generations to come. The results were not only poor job growth but also the only business cycle where the typical working family had less income at the end than at the beginning -- as if recovery never happened.

Rather than attempt to reinvigorate American manufacturing, the right wing pushed for unfair trade deals that lacked protections for workers, forcing Americans to compete for their jobs with workers in countries that lack even basic labor standards.

Conservatives talk about the dignity of work; when they call for gutting the social safety net and workplace safety rules, they do it in the name of empowering more people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and achieve economic independence. Yet right-wing economic policies gave us the worst decade for jobs since the 1930's.

The point here is not only to affix well-deserved blame. The more important point is to make sure we don't repeat the mistakes of the past. Yet the right wing, having overseen a disastrous decade for America's middle class, simply wants to double down on the failed policies that got us here.

Insanity, as Einstein put it, is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Viewed that way, the "job creation" proposals floated by House Republicans are truly insane. More deregulation. More unfair trade agreements. More tax cuts for rich people. That's why their respectful rhetoric about the value of work is plainly just talk.

But there is a dignity that can only be found in decent work. Everyone who wants a job ought to be able to find one -- a good one with benefits and a family -- supporting wage. That's why the jobs crisis is not only an economic crisis, it's a moral one.

After two and a half years of rising unemployment, it's time we put people back to work. The initial effort to generate jobs -- the recovery act -- is already helping. But the scale of the problem is much more than that legislation can overcome. We need to do more.

We should put people to work repairing and modernizing school buildings. We should put people to work serving their communities, doing important jobs like maintaining parks, operating emergency food programs, staffing early childhood education centers, and cleaning up the environment. We should provide assistance to states to prevent looming layoffs and stabilize services, which will save as many jobs in the private as in the public sector.

Because the private sector will not start creating jobs in sufficient numbers to make a real dent in unemployment, the jobs crisis will not recede on its own anytime soon. In fact, unemployment is expected to grow throughout 2010. That's why the government has to step in and take bold, aggressive steps to create jobs. The right question is not, as conservatives would frame it, whether government is too big or too small. It's whether government works. And right now it must.