Reductionist Debate on Job Creation Defies Reality

I’m usually very choosy about my information sources, but a walk through an airport yesterday assaulted me with headlines on newsstands and monitors. One caption stopped me in my tracks : “Can government create jobs?”

I’ve waited decades for that question. When I studied Economics in college, it was taken for granted that government can and should create jobs. Since then, candidates and media have continued presupposing this role for government. At long last, this election cycle may stimulate debate on an issue that needs debating.

But the timing of the question is curious. It appeared on a major news channel whose editors are almost exclusively Democrats. Why would Democrats be editorializing about government’s lack of accountability for jobs after positioning themselves as the good-for-jobs party for so many years? Obviously, because Democrats would benefit from the “don’t blame the economy on us” perspective at this moment. But what about after the election? Would all those Democrats stop expecting the government to put chickens in their pots?

That would be a win for the country as far as I’m concerned. If Democrats won votes by shifting thinking toward realistic expectations, I would celebrate. If Republicans won by appealing to realistic expectations, I would celebrate. Partisans of both stripes might see it as cynical retreat, but independents know that political discourse must help adults come to terms with the fact that a leader cannot really protect you the way an alpha baboon protects a baboon troop from a lion. Politicians cannot lead you to food the way an alpha chimpanzee leads a troop to food. They can’t find you water in a drought the way an alpha elephant does. Instead of expecting too much from your leaders and being frustrating, we can appreciate the fact that we don’t give up our autonomy to our leaders as much as baboons, chimps and elephants do.

My hopes were dashed this morning. No tidal wave of challenge to the job-creation view of government appeared in the media. I should have known that from the wording of the question. If the question were “Does government affect job creation?” instead of “Can the government create jobs?” then broader issues would be on the table. Such complex questions may not appeal to poets who are listening for a New-Deal-style job corps for poets. Some people may be waiting for the government to promise them their dream job saving puppies, designing computer games, or planting organic nettles. But voters in the privacy of their homes may be saying: “it’s not realistic to expect leaders to get everyone their dream job.”