Last week the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, a (privately-funded) program for what used to be called old folks (people my age) which operates on and around the UC Berkeley campus, staged an afternoon event in the glamorous new (privately funded) Freight and Salvage auditorium.
Its title was “From Boom to Bust: Insights into the Economic Downturn One Year Later.” and it was billed as a “roundtable discussion with UC Berkeley professors: Brad DeLong (Economics) Martha Olney (Economics) Robert Reich (Goldman School of Public Policy) David Robinson (Haas School of Business).”
Since our household includes at least one DeLong groupie, we went. DeLong, perhaps wisely, didn’t show, with the stated excuse that he couldn’t find anyone to cover his class.
The other three, seated on the stage, provided what would usually be called a panel discussion, with a longish question period for audience members who lined up after the main event to express their reactions. No one had elaborate prepared analyses—it was more like what you might see on public television of a Sunday than like a graduate seminar.
Reich was his usual witty self, quick with an apropos quip whenever there was an opening. The other two displayed the amount of dazzling brio one usually associates with academic economists, which is to say not much (except, of course, Reich, DeLong and his buddy Paul Krugman , who is widely rumored to dislike Reich.)
Despite differences in personal style, their analyses all seemed to add up to similar conclusions: the financial data looks a bit better--or more technically, it’s getting worse at a slower rate. But there’s not enough demand, they said—in lay language, no one’s buying much. And translating demand into jobs, demand is down by about10 million jobs. Consumers in the U.S. aren’t buying, people in other countries aren’t buying, and the government stimulus program isn’t buying enough.
The panelists all agreed that what’s needed is more jobs. Yes, no argument there. But what kind of jobs? That’s where the mini-clashes surfaced.
Business School Prof. Robinson said building roads was a good way to provide jobs. Slightly to his left, Reich said no, public transit was more politically correct. (All right, he didn’t actually say PC, because that’s out of style, but that’s what he meant.) And he liked the idea of more Smart Growth too, whatever that means in his universe.
Both were endorsing the standard Keynesian idea that the government spending is essential to recover from an economic downturn. Both were trying to come up with jobs that couldn’t be outsourced to other countries: Robinson suggested drycleaning as one possibility.
But where is the money to come from, especially if a major health care program were to get underway? Reich reprised the question in his Monday column:
“Americans desperately need health care reform. They also desperately need jobs. Even if it’s difficult for many to make the connection, it’s still possible for the nation to try to do two important things at the same time. We need a big jobs bill — including especially extended unemployment insurance, aid to hard-hit states and cities — and we need health care reform. The sooner we do the former and get the economy moving into positive job numbers again, the more quickly and easily we can afford the latter. The big question is whether the President can make the case.”
But what exactly is health care reform?
Econ Prof. Olney, moving in from a very slight right wing, advanced the idea that health care costs need to be slashed dramatically. Her candidate: cutting out the expense of unnecessary end of life care.
She said that the last four months of life typically consumed the vast majority of medical expenditure, citing her recent personal experience with her own mother’s last years. She stressed the importance of making sure that everyone has on file a Do Not Resuscitate order, not just to save themselves unnecessary suffering, but to save money for society as a whole by eliminating that expensive last four months.
In the question period, this idea didn’t seem to go over too well with all the members of the predominantly grey-haired audience. There was, of course, the usual California contingent which believes that if people get sick it’s their own fault. These folks touted their own diets, vitamin regimes and exercise programs as evidence that they themselves would live forever and not consume any of that expensive end-of-life care.
Others, however, were not so sure. A friend who was in the audience, a retired academic himself, commented in an email the next day:
“I was certainly not happy with the implied waste of keeping people alive who will presumably die in 4 months. For one thing, doctors are often wrong on such predictions, and second, what if those whose lives will end soon are still enjoying currently a good quality of life? In any case, the main cost of medical care is institutionally and not patient driven.”
Right. And what’s even more important, end-of-life care, in fact much of all health care, is nothing if not a source of jobs with demand built in, jobs that benefit workers at all skill levels, and jobs that are not easily outsourced to China. Many healthcare workers are woefully underpaid, of course, and many insurance executives are shockingly overpaid, but those details could and should be fixed.
When the topic on the table is jobs, there’s a deplorable tendency to think of jobs as what have traditionally been Guy Jobs: mostly big construction projects. Roads, transit systems, building condos downtown—all Guy Jobs, even though a few women have managed to break into the construction industry. And often enough what gets built is not actually needed by society in the grand scheme of things (million dollars condos, for example.)
Meanwhile, it’s the Girl Jobs that are both desperately needed and underfunded. There’s not a preschool or a day care center or an elementary school that couldn’t use more workers in the classroom.
In my age bracket many, perhaps the majority, of my close personal friends are now responsible for taking care of an aged parent, well-loved and still-contributing community assets in their eighties and nineties. who now need everything from drivers to bedside care Those are jobs too, good jobs, again simply underpaid because they have been traditionally woman’s work, though now the women been joined by a few men. Women didn’t support whole families as much in the olden days. And there are more good jobs in hospitals: clerks, technicians, nurse’s aides…again underpaid, of course.
And what about other kinds of jobs?
The academics on the panel appeared to agree that the way for U.S. universities to fund themselves was by admitting many more foreign students at high tuition fees, since there’s still a lot of demand for an American education, and higher education can’t be outsourced or automated.
But wait---will that demand prove to be robust as universities in India and China improve by leaps and bounds? And is it true that higher education can’t be outsourced? The discussion was preceded by an announcement of an upcoming OLLI course that would be taught by a Manhattan-based New York Times reporter via videolink. Are the professors’ own jobs as secure as they seem to think they are?
Here’s my retired correspondent again:
“It’s not only important what speakers say, but what they don't say. After all, there is history. What about the efforts of the New Deal? What worked and what didn't? If that is all that academia has to offer, how pathetic.”
My mother is still actively participating in the social discourse at 95, and she remembers the New Deal. She called me yesterday indignant over the reports of punishments to be inflicted on “failing” schools and their teachers and students. She’s right. Those schools need more carrots—classroom assistants, smaller class sizes, parent education--not bigger sticks, if they are to succeed.
The bottom line is that it’s not just “jobs” in the abstract that are needed. A careful analysis of what’s lacking in society should link government funding of jobs with social ills that need to be remedied with meaningful work. Healthcare and education are the two areas that cry out for more social investment at this point in history, and both would benefit greatly right now from stimulus funds. On the other hand, we could probably do without a bullet train to L.A. or an environmentally costly ferry system in San Francisco Bay for a few more years, perhaps forever..