We're in the middle of a painfully halting recovery that may well turn into another recession. The president and Congress concocted an amateurish scheme of across-the-board cuts they thought no one would ever dare implement -- which has just taken effect.
Corporations are making bigger profits as a percentage of gross domestic product than any time since the 1950s, but they're sitting on those profits, not investing them. Despite last week's jobs numbers, more than 20 million Americans are out of a job or can't find enough work. State and local governments are cutting back employment and services. Millions have been forced out of their homes or had their budgets squeezed as the result of small print in misleading mortgages. Our government is paralyzed by political polarization, and the public is divided as well.
What's missing in this ugly picture?
A serious plan for economic growth.
What national leader of either party has put one forward? Who has gone beyond ideological incantation and proposed a way to rebuild competitiveness, create jobs, and get the economic engine turning over again so that business plows all that idle cash into private sector investment?
In the Depression era, that role was played by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He was the jobs cheerleader-in-chief. He started programs that hired people even when there was no revenue to fund them. Where is our growth engine today?
The Republican speeches were total zeros in terms of plans for growth. They talked vaguely about lower taxes and less government. We'd do better to wait for the tooth fairy than bank on the idea that lowering taxes, particularly for the wealthy, will drive economic growth.
Obama's ideas, while harder to dismiss, were foggy. He mentioned five areas in which he had "proposals" to create jobs, but the first three -- bringing back manufacturing jobs from overseas, energy research and technology, and a project to map the human brain -- would not have large, short-term job impacts.
Then the president mentioned two ideas that do have short-run job and growth potential if seriously pursued. One was "to cut in half the energy wasted by our homes and businesses." The second was to fix our "aging infrastructure . . . putting people to work as soon as possible on our most urgent repairs." Unfortunately, Obama hasn't been talking much about them since the speech.
These are two parts of the same idea: invest, rebuild and make our economy more efficient. There is an important and powerful reality behind those thoughts. There is only one area of the economy where you can create lots of jobs starting soon, where the jobs will all stay in this country, where the result of the investments will make the nation more competitive globally over the long run, where the economic activity launched is something the public and private sector already know how to do, where the investment meets a deep and widely recognized need without expanding the role of government into new areas, and that will harness private capital and generate badly needed tax revenue from growth for all three levels of government. It's capital infrastructure. Invest in transportation facilities of all kinds, in water and sewage systems, and as the president suggested, in energy efficiency.
The way to start this up politically, in the face of an always-say-no House of Representatives, is to make it a partnership with the states, and leave it to each state to decide if they want to opt in and help finance it.
But first, the president has to get out there and push this plan.