Jewish World Review Sept. 25, 2003 / 28 Menachem-Av, 5763
Don't be sentimental, Mr. Bush
President Bush's "compassionate conservatism" has attracted imitators around the world. But Bush
wannabes beware: At home, the label often lands the president in trouble.
This summer, for example, the U.S. economy has yielded some spectacular productivity numbers. Yet
Bush's opponents are arguing that the new data prove him to be a heartless corporate type. For what
is increased productivity but increased profiteering if it is not accompanied by strong job creation?
And there has been no strong job creation: Unemployment is significant, even "high" at more than 6
percent, as Howard Dean, one of the contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination, has
noted. The situation is so dire, says Dick Gephardt, a Democratic fellow hopeful, that the best way to
ensure that the U.S. economic engine survives is to impose a worldwide minimum wage (an ambition
worthy of a German). At a presidential debate this week, the Democrats will vie in their attacks on Bush economics.
The argument that the president has failed sounds exaggerated, given that the U.S. economy on the whole has fared well under
him, notwithstanding big market corrections and Sept. 11, 2001. And it seems downright crazy when we consider the
economy's postwar record.
Start with that troublingly jobless productivity increase.
Productivity is a simple concept: widgets produced, divided by input. Labor often dominates the input figure. It is therefore
difficult to generate high productivity and substantial employment increases at the same time. The very phrase "jobless
productivity" is close to a tautology.
But that does not mean productivity gains are not good for workers in the longer run. For one thing, when companies make the
sort of profits U.S. corporations are announcing now, they tend to pay better wages to the workers they do employ. They also
tend to invest in projects that eventually create yet more jobs--perhaps not precisely the same sort of jobs, but more jobs
nonetheless. If this were not true, what with the productivity gains of the past three centuries, we would all be unemployed by
High productivity is in any case better than other sorts of productivity--weak, middling--that the U.S. experienced in the 1970s,
1980s and early 1990s. Indeed, in those days it was low productivity numbers that were said to presage U.S. decline.
In 1980, concern about Japanese success and low U.S. productivity led Congress to pass the Bayh-Dole Act, which permitted
universities to patent ideas or research that they had developed with federal funds. It is revealing that Japan, doubtless in a
mood of similar desperation, passed its own version of Bayh-Dole about four years ago.
Some commentators worried that low productivity was such a persistent problem that it would drive the U.S. to become a
protectionist stronghold. Other commentators blamed President Ronald Reagan's administration. Even as recently as the early
1990s, editors at U.S. financial papers were hosting teas for famous economists at which everyone would speculate as to
when, if ever, productivity might resurge.
Which brings us to the second Bush datum, unemployment.
This is a more genuine problem. Many hundreds of thousands of Americans have failed to find replacements for the jobs they
lost after the 2000 market highs. Here the campaigning Democrats are right: America needs to create more work.
But unemployment, while significant at 6.1 percent, is not high compared with what most American adults have experienced.
In the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s, economists and politicians alike believed that 6 percent or so was the "natural" rate of
unemployment, below which there would be dangerous inflation. Kevin Hassett of the American Enterprise Institute points out
that in the early 1990s, unemployment fell so low that President Bill Clinton began a campaign to cut unemployment insurance
benefits from 30-plus weeks to 26.
That dangerously "low" rate was 6.8 percent.
Which brings us back to Bush and his compassion.
Recently, he has announced several compassionate initiatives, including "re-employment accounts." These sound like modern
private-sector Republican projects but are really Democratic-type cash payments for training, day care and so on for the
unemployed. On Labor Day, Bush also announced that he would establish a "jobs czar." This recalls the 1970s, not a decade
that reflects well on presidential economics.
It is easy to see what moves Bush. He feels for the unemployed. Who doesn't? And he reckons that the election cycle moves
faster than the Schumpeterian economic cycle.
Still, hedging weakens his general argument, which is, or ought to be, that his rather significant tax cuts and other pro-growth
measures will in the end serve the compassionate cause of job creation. Better, certainly, than any sentimental motto.
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