Why can't the government provide jobs?

September 02, 1994|By Irvin Weintraub

TO THE generation that experienced World War II, the recent events commemorating D-Day bring a host of memories -- so many tinged with sadness.

However, we too remember the blissful feeling of relief on that day in August 1945 when the nightmare ended.

And yet, strangely, there was an exhilarating, uplifting side to the war. For it brought to an end the most disastrous decade in American economic history since Jamestown. The 1930s were a time when most adults desperately attempted to get by, while the young, often fruitlessly, begged for an opportunity to enter society. If you had a job, a sideward glance from the boss would send terror into your heart, for frequently, when you arrived at work in the morning, there'd be a long line of job seekers, each eager to replace you.

All of this changed in the 1940s. Jobs were everywhere; then the worker had the upper hand. Money flowed freely. It was as though someplace in the recesses of Washington the government had uncorked a long lost set of money spigots. In the euphoria, few asked why the recovery had been so long in coming. Even fewer realized that the profits and income generated by the war would lay the foundation for spectacular growth and expansion in the years that followed.

Does this mix of memories have any relevance for today? I believe it does. For 50 years after the great battles of World War II, we again have a war to fight. It's a different kind of conflict, to be sure, but it is also one that we cannot afford to lose.

The challenge we face today is that of keeping the masses of our big cities from sinking more deeply into a morass of idleness, crime, violence and hopelessness. Anarchy reigns in large segments of our major metropolitan areas. In World War II, young men left relatively secure homes and neighborhoods to risk death on foreign shores. Today, for many of our young, the war zone lies outside the front door. And we call ourselves civilized.

The urban crisis has to be our number one priority. The problem must be confronted in a variety of ways: job training, better education and drug treatment, among others. But if we don't TC provide an adequate number of jobs, all other efforts are doomed to failure. And this means, like it or not, a federal financial commitment on a wartime scale. It should work. If federal spending could pull millions of people out of poverty in 1944, it should be able to do the same in 1994.

More government spending today? Heresy, naivete, lunacy. How can any sane person propose added spending in the context of ballooning debts and deficits? Well, economics is a little less than an exact science, so it is an open question as to how much pressure we can put on the federal budget. It is interesting, however, that several years ago President George Bush got all of the funds he asked for to mount a major military effort in the Persian Gulf.

Simultaneously, Congress was appropriating billions to remedy the damage done by the savings and loan debacle. (A scandal for which Congress itself must bear a significant part of the blame.) It seems that when national leaders conclude that something important must be done or when they seek to cover up a blunder, money is miraculously found. And yet the republic stands!

We can, we must find the funds to create jobs in our cities. The stakes are very high. In Detroit last March, on the eve of an international job conference, a French expert on international affairs stated: "Seen from Europe, unemployment is the biggest security problem facing the Western world today . . . if we don't find answers to that problem, our entire system will collapse on itself."

Irvin Weintraub writes from Baltimore

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