The U.S. unemployment rate was 14.7% in April, and that rate threatens to go far higher.
Perhaps we should do something about that Bureau of Labor statistic. Yes, we should reopen the economy, to the extent that it’s reasonably safe — that is, realizing that perfect safety is never possible, that trade-offs are inherent in every choice we make.
And yet even a fully reopened economy is likely still to suffer from huge closures in restaurants, retail and tourism, to name just three sectors — and thus we could have long-term high unemployment.
So maybe we should take direct action against unemployment: namely, hiring people. Right now.
What could we hire people to do? For openers, they could be hired as guards, or at least as monitors, at places of business; after all, no clerk, or anybody, should have to deal with menaces on the job. Yet even before COVID-19, we were seeing upticks in crime. And now there seems, as well, to be a despicable epidemic of gratuitous spitting at clerks as they attempt to enforce rules on face-masks. In the meantime, other crimes, such as firing gunshots at employees and even murder seem to be on the rise. (RELATED: KOTKIN: One Nation, Under Lockdown, Divided By Pandemic)
And while we might wish we could have a police officer present in every setting — hopefully as deterrence, but if necessary, for apprehension — a shorter-term expedient would be to employ the unemployed, to have them around to monitor events. We can’t expect barely trained novices to act as law enforcers, but they can at least be witnesses.
We might consider, for instance, the predicament of eating places. There are about 1 million restaurants in the United States — or at least there were, according to the National Restaurant Association. These restaurants and their employees are struggling to revive themselves, while struggling, at the same time, to negotiate the perplexities of masks and social distancing. What they all ought to have, at least, is the peace of mind that comes from a friendly guardian. And who knows, maybe the guardians could also be hungry customers.
Some might object that such employment would merely be a subsidy to restaurants. And in fact, that’s exactly what it is — and what it should be — because it’s also a subsidy to the rest of us; we all have an interest in getting the economy and its workers off their rear ends.
In the past, we cared enough about air travel and the airline industry to hire federal sky marshals to protect airplanes from hijackers. So now maybe we should have federally funded “restaurant marshals.” Or maybe we could call them, in a cheerier spirit, “hospitality ambassadors.”
If we were to assume that all 1 million of these restaurants were to give reopening a try, then this program would yield up a million jobs, or perhaps twice that many, depending on the hours of the restaurant. We can see, then, that such hiring would sop up a goodly share of America’s 20 million unemployed.
Okay, so what about other businesses? There were 7.7 million establishments in this country with one or more employees, at least pre-pandemic, the Census Bureau estimates. Perhaps now they could all have two or more employees, with the new person hired to sit outside, keep watch and maybe make friends.
Admittedly, this is all pretty much make-work. And it would be expensive; if we were to assume, for example, that each of these new jobs would pay $15 an hour, that would be about $30,000 a year, not including benefits and other costs. And so if we were to say that this new jobs program were to include 5 million employees, that would be an annual expenditure of $150 billion — but since Uncle Sam would be running it, let’s say it would be $200 billion.
To be sure, $200 billion is a lot of money. And yet these days, in our effort to revive the economy, we’re spending many trillions; this is one way to do it.
Of course, there are plenty of other workable ideas. Here at American Renewal, this author has written in praise of Republican Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley’s proposal to support existing wages at existing jobs. Now that’s a really expensive program, costing up in the trillions.
Indeed, some old ideas deserve a new look. For instance, during the 1930s, in another time of double-digit unemployment, Uncle Sam hired millions at the Public Works Administration, as well as the Civilian Conservation Corps.
In fact, three decades ago, when this author worked in the Bush 41 White House, he suggested revising the CCC, coupling it specifically to President George H. W. Bush’s tree-planting initiative. Alas, the idea of a revived CCC failed to take flight, although the tree-planting effort, mostly in the private sector, proved to be a success.
Indeed, an associated “point of light,” the Earth Conservation Corps, exists to this day. And of course, amid concerns about climate change, the economic value of planting, say, a trillion trees to serve as carbon-capturers puts the cost of a new CCC in useful perspective. That is, the value of the trees as “carbon sinks” — and thus value of reducing carbon dioxide, while not shutting down our carbon-fuels economy — is not small. So the “Tree Deal” could, in fact, be a big deal.
Moreover, in April, Democratic Sens. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland and Chris Coons of Delaware introduced legislation to hire 750,000 people to work on such public health issues as contact-tracing. That, too, seems like a worthy idea.
Some will argue that, worthy or not, we can’t afford all these spending programs. And yet the putative desirability of not borrowing needs to be weighed against the more obvious desirability of not letting our fellow Americans be ruined, either by economic deprivation or enforced idleness. (RELATED: The Re-Open Rebellion Hits Pennsylvania)
Indeed, in the meantime, espying a neutral arbiter of what’s financially feasible, we might look to the one obvious indicator that signals the affordability of borrowing — namely, interest rates.
The Federal Funds Rate is .05%, or one-twentieth of 1%. That isn’t so high, especially at a time when we’re in such a deep hole that Americans in their caution are saving, not spending. And that’s exactly why we should borrow and spend, at least in the short term.
As for the longer term, well, that’s a different story, and so we’ll need a better strategy for renewal, based on the fundamentals of technology, productivity and social harmony. But for right now, the issue is survival.
In this economic storm, the challenge is to keep the ship of state afloat — and all hands on deck, doing something.
James P. Pinkerton, a former White House domestic policy aide to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, has been a Fox News contributor since 1996.
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