05/24/2013 12:28 pm ET Updated Jul 24, 2013

It's Still the Economy, Stupid

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American stocks hit an all-time high earlier this month. But it was a blip in the news; it came and went without much fanfare.

It could be that the mainstream media establishment thought it would be in poor taste to trumpet this news to a nation that continues to cope with a moribund economy. Or it could be that some pundits are realizing that surging stocks are not a real indicator of economic health.
If you want to gauge health, you've got to tune in at the start of the month when America's monthly trade and employment numbers are reported.

Unlike Wall Street's recent record breakers, the jobs and trade numbers are mixed. The most recent figures, those for April, reveal more of the same: We continue a years-long trend of running huge trade deficits ($540 billion deep on goods and services in 2012); Unemployment remains stubbornly high (7.5 percent last month); and the manufacturing sector -- widely considered a bellwether of overall economic activity -- is still limping along. America created no manufacturing jobs in April, which is a bit off pace in the effort to reach President Obama's goal of one million manufacturing jobs by the end of his second term.

I know what you're thinking, though: "Not to worry! Congress has a laser-like focus on getting America back to work, and getting our economy healthy again. Right?"


Capitol Hill's attention is elsewhere. Washington likes nothing better than a scandal, no matter how much (or little) scandal there really is. But every gulp of oxygen sucked up by political division means less effort spent on rebuilding the economy. And that's a real problem for voters who want economic progress.

Looking beyond the latest political intrigue, there's plenty our elected leaders could do, right now:

  • They could get tough on trade, by calling out China on its persistent (and illegal) habit of subsidizing key industries, and by demanding Japan halt its practice of currency manipulation before we sign any Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal.
  • They could apply Buy American preferences to all federal procurement and federal-aid infrastructure spending, thereby keeping scarce tax dollars circulating in our own economy.
  • They could start reshaping the tax code. If Apple CEO Tim Cook's Hill testimony this week demonstrated anything, it's that we need to take a serious look at how we tax American corporations. If Congress ever gets around to it, they should make sure research and development tax credits reward job creation and domestic investment.
  • They could dedicate more educational funding to vocational and technical skill programs so that we can address any potential shortages of qualified manufacturing and high-tech workers.
  • And, they could press for a full review of Defense Department procurement, which increasingly relies on foreign sources for critical materials like the propellant in our military's Hellfire missiles, and the rare earth elements in our soldiers' night-vision goggles.
There is a well-documented wealth of bipartisan support for each of these steps. But unfortunately, Congress is more interested in pageantry. Sooner or later, these spectacles will lose their excitement and Capitol Hill will come back to this reality: The economy is still broken. So why not start fixing it now?