I do not foresee America solving its unemployment problems by farmers bringing potatoes into the cities while every laid-off manufacturing worker opens a coffee shop. But neither do I foresee that spirit not playing a major role here as technology continues to “lay off” workers on into the next generation. My important point here is that we—Americans and our government—need to see what is happening rather than invent politically useful narratives that don’t just misstate but totally ignore technology’s impact. For the president and his administration to talk a great deal about the role of community colleges is, for example, a fine thing. But to suggest, even tacitly, that a burst of educational reform will lead to anything resembling full employment is pure silliness. It takes fewer people these days to build a car or to bake an economic pie. We do need tech-savvy workers to get it done, and we do need that educational reform, but it’s a separate proposition from making the workforce grow as much as we’d like. Closely related, but separate. Let’s get the educational system on track, let’s keep our technological supremacy in place, let’s do all we can to assure capital is available for value-added manufacturing in sectors where we can compete. But let’s do so without pretending our very large army of laid-off workers will all come marching back to the payroll. It simply cannot happen, and we cannot let a futile effort in that direction drag the entire economy down or to a slow growth.
My thought is that we can restructure the economy and get it growing at a useful pace again, with workforce levels future historians will regard as remarkably good considering the timeline in technological history. And while all this is happening, we need to prepare for long-term technological progress by reinventing the meaning of the word “job.” We need to save our constantly evolving capitalist economic engine, which means sustaining it as a free-market organism rather than a new department of the federal government. That’s one side of a ledger I deeply believe to be the real bottom line. The other side of the ledger requires recognizing that the new income disparities are genuine, and that if we wish to maintain our free-market economic engine, then we must make repairs so it, and not the government, brings a level of prosperity to everyone willing to pursue it. Why? Because government cannot get that job done. No large, diverse nation’s government ever has done so successfully, and this government is uniquely designed to achieve prosperity the American way.
Either we make capitalism work for the 21st Century, or we—all of us—lose. How badly do we lose? In my view, the decisions our society makes in that regard will be the most important the republic has made since the Constitution was written. That is why it is so depressing to see the groundwork being laid in discourse that avoids the real dynamic at work here.
Do the necessary fixes now. Get prepared for the 21st Century before everyone, from Warren Buffett to a steelworker who has not had a job for three years, wonders where the last piece of pie has gone. Get that pie growing again.
Don’t get the government any more deeply involved in passing the pie around than Washington already is. Retool capitalism and invent new ways for anyone who wishes to contribute to do so creatively, creating a place for himself or herself at the table.
Give some real thought—as in structured discourse as spirited as the founders in Philadelphia more than 200 years ago—to what is meant by “everyone becoming an entrepreneur.” Somewhere in and around that idea just might lie the viable approach to making “We, the people” and “a more perfect union” resonate in a globally connected world.