Thursday, February 19, 2004

This election is about jobs.

So goes the conventional wisdom. This is how the yapping heads explain the fall of Howard Dean. The punditocracy says that when Dean's campaign started to rise in stature, Iraq was on the front burner. But it's faded and now people are more concerned about jobs and the economy.

Job creation is the message John Kerry and John Edwards are hammering away at. The economy has lost 'x' jobs under President Bush. The subtext is, of course, that it's the president's fault. Except that it's not.

President Bush can be blamed for many things. I am far more concerned about his reckless and dangerous foreign policy actions as well as the assault on civil liberties. Although corportacracy and its role in corrupting good governance have long been problems, they've become much more blatant and shameless under this administration. These are far more important to me than the president's role in stimulating the economy. Why? Because the president doesn't really create jobs. If the economy has lost jobs, it's not primarily his fault. I may not be fond of what he's doing but you have to be fair.

One immutable law of politics is that the sitting president almost always gets too much credit when the economy's going well and he almost always gets too much blame when it's not going as well as expected. When the economy happens to go well, the president's a genius for doing nothing much. When the economy happens to hit a downturn, the president's Herbert Hoover II if he's not seen as doing much.

People think that the head of state can merely snap his finger and create a ton of jobs. This might happen from time to time, like when President Bush invented the Department of Homeland Security or when his foreign policy choices means we need more manpower in the military. But these are one-off deals. And the president doesn't create private sector jobs.

Sure, the government can do little things that will help. But these are small things that will have, at most, a small effect. The economy (both domestic and international) is so huge, intricate and interconnected that one leader can't affect it too much. Frankly, this is a good thing. Can you imagine if the whole world economy's stability hinged on the judgement of the American president?

But this also means that there are no magic bullets.

There is the question of trade policy. But if you gathered 300 experts, 100 would say "hurrah for fundamentalist free trade", 100 would say "protectionism today, protectionism tommorow, protectionism forever" and 100 would advocate some melange between the two. Some say NAFTA has cost us jobs, which is surely true in specific places. Others respond that the agreement has CREATED jobs if you look at things in net terms. If you lost your job at a company that moved its factory to Mexico, you'll likely see things in a different prism than if you work for a company that now exports a lot more of its products/services to Mexico.

Even so, trade policy is complicated and anything the president's team negotiates has to wind its way through Congress. So, the credit and the blame for such agreements can't be aimed solely at the White House.

This election is in fact about jobs. It's about the jobs of the people who would work in a Kerry/Edwards/Bush White House, their cabinet departments and various agencies. It certainly has to do with the jobs of American soldiers and how often they'll be sent on foreign excursions and crusades (though this may only vary slightly depending on who wins). But it has little to do with the jobs of the overwhelming majority of American citizens.

When John Kerry, John Edwards or George W. Bush says they will create jobs, they don't mean jobs for you and me. They mean jobs for themselves.

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