Friday, May 6, 2016

Brooks's Imaginary Problem

Alfred Hitchock's The Lodger, 1927. Via somebody's Tumblr.
Shorter David Brooks, "Clinton's Imagination Problem", New York Times, April 6 2016:
Hillary Clinton seems very nice, but her ideas for revitalizing the lives of Appalachian coal miners whose livelihood has disappeared are just the same old stale Democratic nostrums, like trying to create new jobs to replace the lost ones. Instead, she needs to consider some fresh approaches such as that of David Cameron's Conservative Party in Britain, of reweaving the social fabric through relationship counseling and parenting classes. I mean who needs a job when you can get a social reweave?
So he's returned from his excellent adventure in West Virginia, though it remains unclear whether he ever did manage to get out of that hotel room; the only West Virginia experience he discusses is reading the local papers (Charleston Gazette-Mail) online.

From which he learned, of course, that things are pretty dire in West Virginia, as he probably might have suspected already. Indeed he might have been afraid to leave his hotel room, under the impression that the entire population consists of fiendish drug addicts, which would be an exaggeration. As he did earlier this week, he offers some evidence that he recently did go outdoors in Pennsylvania for some reason, and there, certainly, the drug addicts are pretty much wall-to-wall:

I ran into employers in Pittsburgh who had industrial jobs to fill but they couldn’t find people who could pass the pre-employment drug test.
Last time it was a school principal. Perhaps West Virginia doesn't have any management personnel for him to chat with. He could have gotten that information from the online press too, together with the information that it wasn't true for two thirds of the applicants according to the study his informants were citing, and possibly not true at all if you go to a source other than the Pennsylvania Manufacturing Association:
In Pennsylvania workplaces that have federally regulated jobs, such as manufacturing plants and energy production, some employers have said they struggle to find enough applicants who can pass drug tests. 
survey last year commissioned by the Pennsylvania Manufacturing Association found as many as a third of all applicants either fail drug tests or fail to show up for them. “The fact that 19 percent refuse to take drug tests as a condition of employment and 16 percent fail these tests raises a red flag,” it read.
“It’s a problem. It’s a real thing,” David Taylor, president of the manufacturer’s association, said. “It’s a great source of frustration.”
Unemployment advocates have denied that there is a hiring issue. (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, July 12 2015)
You can also learn from the same source that the vast majority of failed Pennsylvania drug tests indicated not heroin, Oxycontin, or Vicodin but recreational marijuana use, which wouldn't have affected their job performance any more than a few beers on Friday or Saturday night. If he wants to do something about that problem he should be calling for a reform of the idiotic drug testing instituted under the Reagan administration for federal workers and truck drivers, railroad operators, pilots and pipeline workers, and since extended to all sorts of people under various state laws.

Anyway, Clinton's response to this crisis (which he read about in the Dayton Daily News, Ohio, and off the Clinton campaign website) seems inadequate to Davy:

Clinton did gesture toward some of these truths, saying, “They’re dying from suicide, but I thought Bill really put his finger on it. He said, ‘You know what they’re really dying of? They’re dying of a broken heart.’” But her policy ideas don’t exactly respond to current realities.
She vowed to “take a hard look at retraining programs.” She’d expand tax credits to encourage investment. She’d get tough on trading partners who are trying to dump cheap steel. These are the normal, sensible ideas candidates propose, but they are familiar and haven’t exactly done much good.
This is where I start getting mad, because as we heard on NPR last week, even the swinish neoliberal Peterson Institute for International Economics (as represented by Jacob Kierkegaard) will tell you that the retraining part is of central importance, but has been largely abandoned in the US, for years. That is, the Trade Adjustment Assistance programs passed during the Kennedy administration (in 1962) to help workers deal with the job losses occasioned by expanding trade worked really well for 20 years, but in 1981 the Reagan administration got Congress to cut it back brutally, and it has never recovered.

And I mean this is serious stuff. Germany has low unemployment with a ferociously liberalized trade regime, and retraining is one of the central reasons.
Kirkegaard acknowledges that European countries spend up to 10 times more, as a share of GDP, on these so-called activist labor policies than the U.S. Spends on its programs. And he admits there's no political appetite for spending that much in the U.S. 
Indeed; and therefore, though you don't often hear about the 700,000 jobs created in the US in the first five years of NAFTA, from 1993 to 1998, you do hear about the 415,000 really good factory jobs that were lost, mostly in the Rust Belt, where no alternative redevelopment took place; you can say NAFTA took the jobs, but a very big reason no new jobs came to take their place was that the TAA wasn't funded adequately.

The mortgage crisis served the Obama administration as an excuse for raising the annual funding cap (from $220 million in 2002 to $600 million in 2009 and $575 million in 2011), but the TAA extension passed last year in conjunction with the TPP debate cuts it back again, to $450 million. This is not good. These are the programs Clinton says she wants to take a "hard look" at. Hopefully she will be taking a look at the kind of wage insurance program President Obama has been pushing (with almost no attention from the Washington press), which will help laid-off workers undergo on-the-job retraining without starving their families:
On the job training, which is the most effective kind, training that lifts skills and productivity and ultimately wages. [Colby College Professor Lori] Kletzer calculates a program like this would cost the U.S. about $2 billion a year.
Brooks, as ever, doesn't want to know about such things. Loved it when Bill Clinton said unemployed coal miners were "dying of a broken heart", but spare him those numbers! "Don't shoot me, I'm a Chicago history major!"

A daring approach might have been to use the speech to propose a comprehensive drug addiction and mental health agenda.
You might just try to look at the programs she's been pushing since last September. Since Tuesday's speech was in the context of one of her "listening tours" she wanted to emphasize that she'd been listening—not to hurl down another list of bullet points on the subject—hence:
I’m going to take everything I’ve heard these last two days, add it to everything else I've heard over a lifetime and work with leaders like [...] and others to come up with plans.
If what she learned this week makes her want to tweak the comprehensive $10-billion program she's already proposed, she has plenty of time between now and November to let us know.

A more imaginative approach might have been to unfurl a vision to reweave social fabric, the way David Cameron has in Britain.
Oh right. Reweaving. The same vision Brooks was trying to sell Republicans in January, but they weren't buying. Cameron and his "Troubled Families" initiative. "Imaginative" is the right word for the approach, since as Jonathan Portes of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) has explained, Cameron's report on the success of the program to date is "pure unadulterated fiction". Fabulation is always the Tory alternative to spending money.

The four phases of Appalachian coal country: far left, the current situation; left, the results of cutting off food and housing benefits; right, the initial stages of the Life Chances Strategy; and far right, it's all better! Image by Katherine Glusica.
A more timely approach would have noted this fact: That for all of American history, people have moved in search of opportunity, but these days we’re just not moving.... Place-based federal anti-poverty programs discourage mobility; if you move in search of opportunity you risk losing your benefits. The government could offer mobility grants to help people get their families from one place to another. It could set up migration zones — helping people find housing and connection in places where jobs are available.
Because what good is reweaving your community if the government doesn't give you resources for running away from it?

That mysterious paragraph is actually the American Enterprise Institute product placement section of the column, in case you were wondering why it's there. There's no special obstacle maintaining unemployment benefits, Medicaid, SNAP, or TANF when you move, depending on what state you move to; the conservative bugbear is employer-sponsored health insurance, which isn't transferable when you change employers (though moving to another state doesn't stop you from continuing to pay for the policy yourself through COBRA).

What they say they want is for health insurance to be "portable", but they're never really able to explain what they mean; what they really want is for the responsibility to be taken away from the employer, where the Affordable Care Act firmly places it, in what is really the Act's most important provisions, which nobody ever talks about; it's one of the sharpest tines on the fork they want to stick into Obamacare.

Not that Brooks has any idea that's what it's about—he's just following his instructions, as ever, as best he can, but probably not doing it quite right...

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