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United States of Wal-Mart: will the jobs of the future be retail and nursing?

A robust economy provides an incumbent president a better electoral boost than any campaign slogan Karl Rove or James Carville could dream up. The Obama administration has looked to capitalize on that fact by celebrating the government's latest employment figures. "The economy is getting stronger," President Obama tried to convince a skeptical crowd gathered at a Petersburg, Virginia, Rolls Royce jet-engine assembly plant in early March. The Bureau of Labor Statistics soon announced that month's 8.2 percent unemployment rate--a meaningless improvement over the 8.8 percent recorded a year ago.

Massive structural problems lurk behind the Potemkin facade of government-supplied data. Sadly, neither party has the guts to address them. Partisan rhetoric has further confused the non-debate on the economy. Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels sent shivers down the spines of his history teachers back at Indianapolis's North Central High when he recently proclaimed on CNN's "State of the Union," "This is the worst recovery ever from a serious recession." Perhaps North Central's history department excised that other "serious recession"--the Great Depression, when unemployment stayed above 15 percent until 1940--from its curriculum.

Similarly, the Wall Street Journal has described Obama's efforts as "a Keynesian debacle." Such derogatory tags were rarely heard when George W. Bush rebated $300 to "needy" taxpayers through his Economic Stimulus Act of 2008.

But Obama's opponents missed their chance to focus attention on our long-term economic peril when they overlooked an earlier report released in February--the Bureau of Labor Statistics' employment projections going out to 2020. At first glance, the BLS report sounded promising with its estimate of 20.5 million new jobs by decade's end, but that rosy figure conceals a depressing reality.

According to the BLS, "The fastest job growth" over the next eight years will occur in "health care, personal care and social assistance." The report identifies four specific occupations "expected to add the most employment" by 2020: registered nurses (712,000), retail salespersons (707,000), home health aides (706,000), and personal care aides (607,000). Aging Baby Boomers' medical needs and shoppers' ravenous appetites will provide our largest employment gains.

The BLS further expects that, of the 20 industries predicted to lose the greatest number of jobs, the manufacturing sector will account for 11 of them. But even that disheartening item might seem like good news compared to another landmine buried in the forecast: two-thirds of the 30 occupations with the largest number of new jobs will require "less than a postsecondary education [and] no related work experience." An economy loses its vibrancy when spoonfeeding nonagenarians and greeting customers at Wal-Mart are its highest growth opportunities.

"Whither manufacturing?" ask blue-collar workers dismayed by the bulldozing of America's industrial base these last few decades. More important, what about manufacturing productivity?

Adam Smith taught that economic growth occurs in two ways, "By increasing either the number of ... productive labourers, or the productive powers of those labourers." Our political leaders have lost sight Smith's dictum, if they ever understood it. They bang on about how immigration contributes to "the number of productive labourers" while they remain oblivious to the other half of Smith's simple economic growth equation.

The United States can only regain its manufacturing supremacy through a combination of infrastructure and transportation improvements, the diffusion of new technologies free from excessive governmental interference, and expanded work force education and competence. Television commercials preaching "Buy American" appeal to our patriotism. But Americans need a good reason to buy American.

Without increases in productivity, the economic pie from which we all take our slices will shrink, leading to further disputes--maybe even violent ones--between labor (union members and low-level white collar workers) and capital (now represented by the mutual funds these same workers hold in their sinking IRAs). Adam who?

Marxists argued that history's progress adhered to scientific laws. The Whigs saw history as an inexorable progression toward ever increasing liberty and enlightenment. Both of these discredited schools of historical thought ignored contingency as a driver of history. Sometimes things occur for no good reason. Chance happens.

The fledgling United States benefitted from the improvements in technology, manufacturing, and transportation brought on by the most important wave of economic development ever to sweep the West, the Industrial Revolution. Now, more than two centuries later, the United States finds itself stagnating in the "Post-Industrial Era" as a result of its careless embrace of globalization spurred on by consumers' lust for the cheapest goods, regardless of their ability to produce or pay for them.

Yet like the least morbidly obese contestant on "The Biggest Loser," the United States' balance sheet still looks healthier than the even more irresponsible European Union's. OPEC still accepts the U.S. dollar--for now. Money market mutual funds, the Chinese government, and global banks still buy U.S. government bonds--for now. And the United States can muddle along with a frustrated middle class preoccupied with its declining real income--for now.

But then contingency hits. Maybe Occupy Wall Street or the Tea Party will morph into something bigger and more dangerous. Maybe China will retaliate against our embargo of Iran. Maybe, maybe, maybe. For now, President Obama should return to that Rolls Royce jet engine assembly plant to inform those workers they won't be buying new cars from their employer's luxury automotive division any time soon, no matter who wins in November.

Mark G. Brennan is adjunct associate professor of business ethics at New York University.
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Title Annotation:Front Lines
Author:Brennan, Mark G.
Publication:The American Conservative
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2012
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