You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Selling the Public on a Jobs Program

Ruy Teixeira's contribution to TNR’s symposium on economics isn't about policy. It's about politics. And that's really the toughest issue of all.

Although economists of different persuasions have different ideas about exactly what mix of policies would help the economy grow, most of them agree on the broad parameters: A large, fast-acting fiscal stimulus that includes more unemployment insurance, aid to the states, and infrastructure. But Republicans oppose that kind of action, even insofar as it includes ideas that they once championed. Advocates of such policies, including President Obama, have only one hope: Rallying public support enough to the point where Republicans fear a severe backlash if they don’t act.

It won’t be easy. In a May article for The Democratic Strategist – where, as it happens, Teixeira is a co-editor – Andrew Levinson explained that the public is highly skeptical not just of Keynesian economics but, more generally, the whole notion that government can actually do something to boost the economy. 

Sure enough, Republicans are already attacking talk of another stimulus as more wasteful government spending. But Teixeira thinks the story doesn’t have to end there:

Even in the middle of the Great Depression (1935), 70 percent of the American public told Gallup that now was the time to balance the budget and start reducing the national debt. But that distinctly non-Keynesian sentiment coexisted with sky high support for a raft of New Deal spending programs like Social Security—in fact, three quarters of the public wanted to see that program expanded.
Today is no different. Even as voters express skepticism that government spending can create jobs and endorse anti-Keynesian measures like a balanced budget amendment, they are quite capable of supporting each of the measures in a strong jobs program because they do want to see specific programs meet specific goals: Putting money in the pockets of consumers and the unemployed; helping businesses hiring workers; fixing roads and schools; and preserving jobs for teachers, police and other local government workers.
This is how Obama can escape the trap he has found himself in. Instead of arguing with the Republicans over whether spending can create jobs—an argument where he doesn't have public sympathies on his side—he should change the conversation to specific measures that will put money in people's pockets and put them back to work.

Is he right? I’m honestly not sure. But with unemployment as high as it is, and the economy as sluggish as it seems, the risk of not trying seems greater than the risk of trying. And there are certainly policies that Obama and his allies could promote in this way.

A perfect example is one that Jared Bernstein has been hyping: FAST, which is short for Fix America's Schools Today. FAST would do exactly what a jobs initiative should do: Quickly put unemployed construction workers back on the job. But it'd also leave us with something tangible and worthwhile: Better public schools. And that's a cause most Americans would probably support, even in good times.