The secret of jobs in the West? Not what political ads say

The political campaign has brought a lot of talk about the private sector being the only place jobs are created. It flies in the face of reality.

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Hydro power, like that from the Bonneville Dam, doesn't count as 'renewable' in Washington state, as it does elsewhere.

The political campaign has brought a lot of talk about the private sector being the only place jobs are created. It flies in the face of reality.

You’ve probably heard this phrase a lot during this campaign season: “Government doesn’t create jobs.” It’s the ultimate dismissal of self-government, usually reinforced by a bow to the ultimate power of job creation by the private sector (or if you want to score even more points, by small business.)

But saying it over and over — even in the most reverent tone — doesn’t make it true. It’s a fact that government does create jobs.

These days, thanks to the collapse of the newspaper industry, I am a self-employed entrepreneur. But I owe my three-decade private sector career to a make-work, government jobs program. My first professional journalism gig was as editor of The Sho-Ban News. My boss was the tribal government – and my position was funded under the federal Comprehensive Employment and Training Act or CETA. So every time I hear the campaign phrase, “government doesn’t create jobs,” I think how different my life would have been without that government job.

But that broader myth persists. A report by Congressional Republicans, “The War on Western Jobs,” sticks to this storyline and blames DC. “Federal policies emerging from Washington are making these challenges more difficult,” it says. “Too often, federal policies stand in the way of job creation and economic growth.”

The report calls for a return to “pro growth” policies that will support mining, gas, and oil ventures. Guess what? Those industries are not creating jobs. And government is not to blame; technology has changed.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that jobs are declining in all mining sectors (except for coal mines). The jobs that are being created often require post-high school education. The BLS reports: “Most mining machines and control rooms are now automatic or computer-controlled, requiring fewer, if any, human operators. Many mines also operate with other sophisticated technology such as lasers and robotics, which further increases the efficiency of resource extraction. As a result, mine employment has been falling over time, particularly of workers who are involved in the extraction process itself.”

A similar story is told in agriculture where technology has made a single operator more productive. That means fewer jobs. Blaming the federal government won’t change these trends.

We should be thanking Washington, instead. After all, those of us who live in the rural West live in the most subsidized region of the country. What would Alaska look like without Ted Stevens? What would any community in dry state look like without obscenely expensive water projects? There is already a large taxpayer tab: an investment list that goes from airplanes to silicon chips. Indeed, Gerald Nash in his book, “The Federal Landscape: An Economic History of the West,” argues that complicated mix of public and private capital is the essential factor in the region’s story.

But if government jobs are essential for the rural community, they are doubly important on Indian reservations where unemployment levels are about the highest in the nation. Investment from the private sector is minuscule and government is practically the only game in town. From where I write in Fort Hall, Idaho, I can look out my window and see a gas station convenience store, a café, a grocery store, a post office and a casino. All owned by a government. And all are jobs created by government.

Back to the current political discourse: I reject “either, or.” It’s not either government jobs or private sector jobs. We need both. Sometimes government is the most effective tool to create jobs. We also ought to be doing all we can to encourage private hiring, especially in places like Indian Country.

What we need to find is a way to change the conversation. For example: There is a heated discussion about the wisdom of raising taxes during a deep recession. There are arguments to be made for and against both alternatives. But why not a similar discussion — for and against —  about the wisdom of cutting government jobs during a recession? Where are these government workers — our neighbors —  going to go? What sort of private sector magic will hire them after they leave government service?

It’s important to stop demonizing government jobs because we’re at an interesting junction. There is a coming wave of civil service retirements — the ideal time for a mature discussion about the role of government. We need to make certain we use tax dollars wisely, but we also need to keep good paying federal jobs in communities across this country.

Remember, government does create jobs.


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