Vice President Joe Biden defended the administration in a speech to America's labor leaders, gathered at the AFL-CIO Executive Council meetings in Orlando, Florida this week. Mentioning individual union presidents by name -- including some not in the room --he detailed the billions from the recovery act that helped to create jobs in the industries that they organize. Biden is a known friend of labor and he forcefully described the positive effects of the president's recovery spending.
But his speech had a chilling message for union presidents whose members have been ravaged by the loss of jobs in the Great Recession. He stated, sensibly, that there was no way to recover the 8 million jobs lost in one or year or two. It would take time, but he promised, by the spring, this economy would be generating 100,000 new jobs a month.
Whoa. 100,000 jobs a month? Economists tell us that it requires 125,000 jobs a month simply to employ new entrants to the labor market. 100,000 jobs a month is better than nothing, but it isn't good news. Biden is saying even if all goes well, the mass unemployment we now suffer -- with some 25 million unemployed or underemployed -- isn't going to get better soon.
Biden sensibly scorned Jim Bunning and his Republican Senate colleagues for standing in the way of the token $10 billion unemployment insurance and jobs bill before the Senate. But he didn't summon the union presidents to join in pushing for the $260 billion plan the president has put on the table, much less mention the $400-500 billion plan that is actually needed, and that the AFL-CIO has championed.
Biden vowed, as the president has promised repeatedly, that the US would "claim our stake in the new world economy," especially the green industrial revolution, new energy, electric cars, fast trains, modern broad band. He detailed the down payment the administration had made in the recovery act for key investments in research and development and procurement of alternative energy, the building of fast trains.
"Where is it written," Biden asked, "where is it written that the US can't lead in the new industrial revolution? We've got the best workers in the world, the best entrepreneurs, and deep pools of venture capital. I know we don't have a manufacturing policy, but guess what?" he said with characteristic brio, "I plan on the US making those train sets in the US."
But absent from the speech was any mention of just how he would keep the jobs here. No mention of countering the aggressive industrial policies that China, Germany, Spain and others are using to capture lead roles in manufacturing alternative energy. No mention of dealing with the mercantilist Asian nations like China that employ a hard-nosed strategy to capture production at home and export markets abroad. The Vice President provided not a hint of what the administration strategy will be in a world that now is half "free trade," as defined by global corporations, and half mercantilist. Thus far, the two have co-existed by shipping jobs abroad, and financing debt so Americans can buy the exports they need or want. As the president says, we can't go back to that world.
Here conservatives in both parties stand in the way. Their mantra -- free trade, more tax cuts, more military spending, more deregulation, smaller government and balanced budgets -- doesn't add up and doesn't make sense. Old trade policies merely lead back to the imbalances that helped drive us off the cliff. Tax revenues are already down to 14% of GDP, levels not seen since 1950. The military budget is already bloated, spending as much as the rest of the world combined. Conservatives don't dare mention and won't enact the domestic cuts then needed to balance budgets.
Obama understands that the US has to create a new economy out of the ruins of the old. He has called for us to move to balanced trade, and enlisted the G-20 in monitoring progress. He's pushed for government investment in modern infrastructure, in new energy, in education, and research and development. He's stated that we can't go back to an economy where finance makes 40% of the profits. He argues that we need to empower workers once more to ensure that they make a fair share of the increase of productivity and profits they help to create. He's proposed progressive tax hikes to pay for some of this.
But Biden couldn't mention how to get to the new economy because the administration's policies haven't caught up to the president's objectives. Industrial policy is still verboten. A new trade strategy has yet to emerge. The jobs program needed is stalled. And the big banks are bigger, more concentrated and more brazen than ever. Productivity is up in the recession but workers are still being squeezed.
So the union presidents gave Joe a respectful hearing, but they then turned to planning how to move on their own, to mobilize, rally allies and push once more for jobs. Jobs, curbs on the banks, a new trade and industrial strategy, worker empowerment -- none of this will happen from today's Washington. It will happen only if workers and progressives organize and make it happen to Washington. The Tea Party folks have the spirit right but the direction wrong. We don't need to weaken government, we need to take it over and get rid of those standing in the way. It is time for progressives to get out of the stands, stop applauding or booing the leaders they elected, and get back on the field.