06/05/2012 08:07 am ET Updated Aug 05, 2012

The Jobs Babble

Everyone is talking jobs but saying nothing. The inadequate recovery is sputtering and no one is doing anything. In the phony war on unemployment, no one has picked up a gun. We're going through the motions, waiting for the misery to ratchet up, the cities to blow and corporate profits to tank before getting serious.

Bill Maher captured this reality when he mused that he wasn't surprised the Conservative wing nuts thought Democrats had a secret plan for if Obama is reelected, because they didn't have a public one. The Democratic appeal, he suggested, is "elect us, we're lame, but the other guys are nuts." And so they are.

Romney's campaign, of course, is all about jobs. Actually, it is all about the absence of jobs. Romney offers no coherent plan to produce jobs beyond a generic, "Trust me, I'm the man from Bain." Good luck with that. House Speaker John Boehner is "on message," as they say, repeating relentlessly his question: "Where are the jobs?" But Boehner and his Tea Party compatriots have no plan for jobs, either. Instead they have a plan for austerity -- deep cuts in spending in every government service except the military.

Last weekend Russ Douthat, one of the few pundits for whom the label "thoughtful conservative" isn't an oxymoron, tried to imagine a Romney recovery. He used the book by Edward Conard, Romney's former partner at Bain, to outline the Bain vision: Greed is good. When Romney was at Bain Capital, the Bush economy was humming. We saw more inequality, more financialization and more speculation that was meant to renew America. The plan was to deregulate Wall Street, cut top end taxes, slashed government spending, and let her rip.

This remains, of course, Romney and Boehner's agenda. And as Paul Krugman has noted, we're already living in a mild version of that policy. Republicans forced Obama to sustain the top-end Bush tax cuts as a price of getting unemployment insurance and the payroll tax cut for workers. Government spending -- state, local and federal -- is going down, not up, contrary to right-wing fantasies. Government workers are being laid off, not hired.

We've seen the result. Sputtering growth, record corporate profits, growing inequality, declining household incomes, mass unemployment. Boehner's "job creators" aren't creating jobs. Douthat is smart enough to realize that the Bush economy didn't work for most Americans, even before it blew up. So he invokes a study by a Chicago conservative, Luigi Zingales, who suggests that what ails America is a corrupt crony capitalism similar to that which plagues his Italian homeland. Zingales and Douthat call Conservatives to embrace a "free-market populism" that will roll back the subsidies, tax dodges and cartels in the private and public sectors.

But even Douthat can't get himself to believe that Romney, much less Boehner's Republicans, have the temper for such an approach. These Republicans fight to the death in defense of billion dollar subsidies to Big Oil and Big Agra and Big Pharma. The Koch brothers aren't funding "free market populism;" they are expecting a huge return on their investment -- and they'll get it if Romney wins.

But if Republicans have nothing to say about jobs, neither do Democrats. They are terrified by polls that say voters are concerned about deficits. So every jobs program has to be "paid for" -- and, almost by definition, small. Obama issues a "to do list" for Congress that even his aides have a hard time pretending to be excited about.

Ironically, there really isn't much of a secret about what needs to be done. The only question is how deep the crisis must go and how crippling the pain must be before action is taken.

Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz have been campaigning for change. But we don't need to take Nobel Prize winning economists as our guides. This week the sober, conservative editors of the Financial Times detailed the common sense steps that were needed from America.

First, they called on the Federal Reserve to announce another round of quantitative easing. But with interest rates at record lows, there is little scope for reform in monetary policy. With a yield of 1.45 percent, 10 year Treasury bonds are now cheaper than free. (They are earning less than the inflation rate.) Investors are essentially paying the U.S. to hold their money in a safe place.

Those same low interest rates offer the U.S. a remarkable opportunity to rebuild the country. There will never be a better time for the "internal improvements" that we need to make -- rebuilding roads, bridges, mass transit, sewers, fast trains, airports, retrofitting public buildings, building up renewable energy and more.

This is work that must be done. Now we can borrow the money at virtually no cost to finance it, stimulate a construction industry that is now idled and help get the economy going. As the editors of the Financial Times conclude,"whatever is invested at these rates is likely to pay for itself in higher growth and revenues." This is what most would call a no brainer.

There's more that we can do. Reviving Richard Nixon's "revenue sharing" -- a tip of the hat to E.J. Dionne -- would send money to states and localities to rehire teachers and cops. The president has suggested a jobs corps for veterans so no one who risks his life in battlefields abroad will be cut down in economic crossfire at home. That could sensibly be expanded to urban and green corps, targeted toward areas with obscene levels of youth unemployment, to ensure that young people under 25 don't start their lives in idleness, depression, drugs and despair. And we should start making the long term investments -- in world class education from pre-K to college, in research and development, in new energy -- that are vital to our economic future. These can be paid for by ending the subsidies Republicans protect, shutting down corporate tax havens, and enacting fair taxes on Wall Street speculation and the rich.

Most sensibly, this program for revival and renewal would be accompanied by a hard-knuckled, no-holds-barred, everything-on-the-table drive to get our books in order once the economy recovers.

That requires a relentless focus on the three things that drive our budgets out of whack: shackling Wall Street, which just blew up the economy and effectively doubled our debt to GDP; ending our commitment to endless wars and policing the world, which we cannot afford; and fixing our broken health care system, the most corrupted by our crony capitalism, now squandering about twice what other advanced countries spend per capita on health care with worse results. Everything else -- the so called "grand bargain" that would trade cuts in Medicare and Social Security for tax reforms -- is simply using the crisis to take another hit on working families.

What was Churchill's famous quote? Something like Americans will do the right thing, after they have exhausted all the other alternatives. Well, let's hope he's right.