America This is Quite Serious: Do Jobs Work?

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In this week’s Sunday Times, economic historian Michael Lind — author of the excellent Land of Promise — posed an important question about a fundamental tenets of our politics. His question is raised in response to the near constant refrain of every politician, that their ideas and influence will create good jobs for the American people, and that creating those jobs are the surest way to solve problems like too much welfare spending and too little health care coverage. This is a notion so pervasive, and persuasive, that even ideas that are good on the merits — clean energy, a humane immigration system, access to affordable health care — are typically reframed in terms of economic impact.

So, Lind asks: “Should the goal of public policy be to ensure that all Americans can have good jobs — or good lives?”

Lind is narrow in his focus. He defines good jobs as “jobs with solid wages, regular hours and, perhaps, generous employer-provided benefits.” By good lives, he doesn’t mean contentment and well-balanced kids and a trim waistline, but merely the “basic goods and services that define a decent life in a modern society.” In rough terms, a safety net that keeps people out of abject poverty for the span of their lifetimes.

The easy answer is: Both. The real answer, as seen in the economic and policy changes in recent years, is something different, and is definitely not easy.  Lind’s analysis should serve as a reality check on rhetoric that we tend to take for granted, and how our expectations tend to manifest in real life.

It’s also instructive, though not necessarily a whole lot of fun, to expand Lind’s question bout how politicians create “good lives” beyond specific economic policies. A look at the Obama administration shows steady economic expansion, rapid technological innovation, greater access to healthcare and greater acceptance of  gay marriage and gender fluidity. Pretty good stuff for millions of people. But you could also define the Obama administration by growing racial tension, intractable partisanship and harmful political gridlock, and heightened fear of terrorism. At the end of all our progress, everyone is mad as hell at everyone else. Or in other words:

Has our relative economic success led to good lives? Or has the cultural anxiety and anger made everyone unhappy? Which is more important in serving the public?

America, this is quite serious, and “Can You Have A Good Life if You Don’t Have a Good Job?” is worth a read.

Read more in our election year series “America This is Quite Serious.”

-Michael Moats

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