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In the sunniest of circumstances, it's tough to know when to hire more people, even for employers in growing sectors. But apart from all the problems stemming from basic economic factors, the Obama adminstration has done nothing but add storm clouds to the forecast: How will health-care reform play out in terms of dollars and cents for workers and employers? Will the housing market be allowed to reset at levels clearly lower than what the government is willing to accept? Are taxes going up and if so, when and by how much and for whom?
Obama has never been shy about claiming to be the only adult in the room, the harried parent trying to force his child-like colleagues to eat their peas, rip off Band-Aids in one clean tug, and all that. If he's serious about being serious, he ought to give a speech that is long on the reality sketched above and short on the clever rhetoric and the Hail Mary job-creation passes. And he might think about layering in the following points. Odds are that he—and the Republicans too—won't come anywhere close to doing the following:
1. Forget targeting particular industrial sectors such as "infrastructure" or "green" jobs or the house construction industry by lobbing money and arcane tax incentives their way. These have been tried before and didn't work for a variety of reasons. When it comes ruinous targeted spending, the second or third time won't be the charm. He needs to suspend regulatory schemes that add nothing of value but are throttling burgeoning fields such as oil and natural gas development. Does it make sense for his Department of Justice to be meddling in mergers such as the one between AT&T and T-Mobile? Or the National Labor Relations Board on the ability of companies to build plants where they want to? Not in the best of times and certainly not now. If Davis-Bacon rules requiring "prevailing wages" in "green industries" are retarding hiring, suspend them at the very least. If "Buy American" provisions in stimulus funds got in the way of hiring, don't replicate them. Doing the same thing is unlikely to yield different results.
2. Bring the extension of unemployment benefits to a close. Every economist—including new White House advisor Alan Krueger—will tell you that extending benefits delays when people re-enter the workforce. Delaying a return to employment—even at lower pay—compounds a widely observed problem: Long spells of unemployment typically reduce future earnings beyond the actual jobless period. It's not anything anybody hunting for a job wants to hear (and certainly it's not what any politician pushing a jobs program wants to say) but any job beats no job. There are jobs out there. They are not as good as the ones people had before, but nobody's prospects get better waiting two or three years to go back to work.
Given that we're entering the thick of the presidential campaign season, there's a real sense that politics will be in a holding pattern. GOP presidential candidates such as former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman have released jobs programs that take comprehensive looks at how to fix the economy. Apart from any of their particulars, such plans are not near-term fixes and not simply because the people proposing them don't already occupy the White House. There are no short-term, rock-solid fixes. There's only a long, slow slog ahead that may well be about government doing less rather than frenetically doing more. That's a course of action which will require the sort of leadership that has been long absent in Washington.
Nick Gillespie is the editor in chief of Reason.com and Reason.tv and the co-author with Matt Welch of The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong with America.