Sam Uretsky

Need Bailouts at the Bottom

Three observations. The first is the tragic death of a Wal-Mart seasonal employee, trampled by anxious shoppers on the day after Thanksgiving. The second, noted by an acquaintance, is that when a local arena offered 200 jobs selling hot dogs and peanuts, the mob was around the block. The very unofficial estimate was 3,000 applicants.

Although the local authorities are searching for the people involved in the trampling death, the sad fact is that no one was really responsible. The people at the front of the line, those who may have been most directly responsible, were being pushed by the mass of people behind them, who had no idea of what was happening out of their sight. These were people who still felt a need, if not for the consumer culture, the need for big screen televisions and luxuries, then at least for winter coats and sweaters to keep the heating bill down. The line for jobs was simply a reflection of the desperate state of the economy, which is probably worse than the statistics show. Some of those people may have been laid off by the investment banks, Bear Sterns and Lehman Brothers—but others may have been dropped by the service sector, or the underground economy, people who get paid in cash for cleaning houses, and never show up in the official numbers.

Number three: an employment counselor is looking for a new career. The people most in need of her services can’t afford to pay her. Given her skills, she doesn’t know where to go.

The reality is that bail-outs at the top won’t accomplish anything unless there’s a similar effort at the bottom. Billions have been spent reviving banks so that they’ll make loans, but this won’t help the economy unless there’s somebody who wants to borrow. There should be money to save GM, Ford and Chrysler, but they can’t be saved unless somebody wants to buy a car. Rational people won’t take 3-year car loans unless they can see 3 years into the future—and right now, no one can.

President-elect Obama has moved in the right direction by promising a program designed to create 2.5 million jobs, In his radio address describing this plan, the president-elect said “We’ll put people back to work rebuilding our crumbling roads and bridges, modernizing schools that are failing our children, and building wind farms and solar panels, fuel-efficient cars and the alternative energy technologies that can free us from our dependence on foreign oil and keep our economy competitive in the years ahead.” This is a good plan, one that builds towards the future and may help maintain the nation’s lead in technology, but it will take time to implement. There simply aren’t enough large scale projects ready to begin. An effective program will have to aim at a less ambitious goal. One simple plan would be to set up Federally funded soup kitchens (the person on line for the arena job is a cook, who couldn’t find a job in a restaurant) to give jobs in the service sector, feed the poor, and give jobs to people in the food service industry. These centers would increase the market for food, and, by improving overall nutrition, maintain public health.

It has also been proposed that the Federal government increase its share of Medicaid funding, the program that provides health care for the poor. This would reduce the strain on the state budgets, preventing layoffs of state and city employees—teachers, police, firefighters. Modernizing schools won’t do as much to improve education as assuring that teaching remains an attractive career.

The president-elect was right in his goal of creating or assuring jobs, and the projects described are essential for the future, but they’re big ticket projects that may not be possible to implement quickly enough to save the economy, or those hardest hit.

The Wal-Mart tragedy shows that the demand for goods and services remains high—but people need a feeling of security before they’re willing to buy. The tax rebate stimulus package was a waste, because everybody knew it was a one time only gift, and couldn’t be applied to long-term expenses. A jobs program at every level is essential. Feeding the poor and caring for the sick may lack the future promise of renewable energy and infrastructure rebuilding, but they can begin within 100 days, and that may be all the time we have.

Sam Uretsky is a writer and pharmacist living on Long Island, N.Y.

From The Progressive Populist, Jan. 1-15, 2009

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