Works Progress Administration workers build a stairway at Golden Gardens in Seattle, Washington in 1936. (Photo: Don Sherwood Parks History Collection, Seattle Municipal Archives)
No one in the US government campaigns these days for the direct government hiring of our many millions of unemployed and underemployed people. That is despite the fact that those millions suffer the resulting losses of income and self-esteem, despite the fact that they become burdens on their families, friends, and neighbors, and despite the fact that their reduced purchasing hurts countless others who work to produce what the unemployed and underemployed can no longer afford. Even though the last President faced with huge unemployment created 11 million federal jobs between 1934 and 1941, any comparable government step is off the agenda of Democrats and Republicans now.
The conventional explanation – or better, excuse – for this inaction is ideology: the government, we are told, ought not to intervene in the economy because the private sector does all that better and cheaper. Before taking this seriously, even for an instant, consider two economic interventions our government is now undertaking. In the first, the US government’s National Institutes of Health has unveiled its plan to form a new National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences. Its official purpose is to have the government undertake research to find new drugs because the private sector is not doing enough of that, according to the Institues of Health director, Francis S. Collins. He says: “I am a little frustrated to see how many of the discoveries that do look as though they have promising therapeutic implications are waiting for the pharmaceutical industry to follow through on them.” All this is reported in a front page story in the New York Times (January 23, 2011) that explains this government intervention as aimed to offset and compensate for the private drug makers’ decision that work on new drugs is not profitable enough to warrant their investment.
In other words, because the private sector fails to do something deemed socially important, the government is stepping in to do that itself. Note the disparity. The massive unemployment and underemployment of workers by private capitalist employers is likewise socially important and is likewise something the private sector is failing to do because it is not profitable for them to do. Yet, no direct government hiring of unemployed and underemployed workers is underway or planned. How revealing.
For the second example (also reported in the same issue of the New York Times), let us turn to the joint news conference last week by President Obama and China’s President Hu Jintao. There Mr. Obama said “We want to sell you all kinds of stuff…planes…cars…software.” Later the two Presidents announced $45 billion in export deals with China for US corporations. This was nothing less than direct economic intervention to aid corporations. Much public money has been and continues to be spent in all sorts of ways to support US government agencies’ work to expand export markets for US corporations in China and elsewhere.
Evidently the US government does not believe in leaving the promotion and advertising of US goods abroad to the private sector that receives all the revenues from export sales. It feels that the private sector’s performance is inadequate, so the government must supplement, at public expense, insufficient private outlays for promotion with direct, publicly financed promotion. Yet we have no direct hiring to supplement the private sector’s inadequate employment of workers. How revealing.
The issue is not and never has been about whether to have the government intervene directly in American capitalism. The issue has always been for whom and in whose interests does the government intervene (and choose not to intervene).