The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

Jobs & Magical Thinking

If you hope hard enough, and look hard enough, the jobs will appear. At least, that’s Mark Lange’s recent column in The Christian Science Monitor

When we imagine that government – and even companies – “create” jobs, we’re missing half the story: the crucial part. The part that most of us can actually influence, right now.

It’s a paradox, but job seekers are actually job creators. People (and the politicians that love their votes) tend to focus on how many employers happen to be hiring. But an overlooked tenet of labor economics says that what’s equally vital to creating jobs is the presence of an adequately skilled workforce capable of filling them.

In other words, when the workers are ready, the jobs appear.

This is no Zen abstraction. “Ready” means retraining – going to night school, learning new skills, taking risks – not complaining, as some do, about bringing jobs back from China.

It calls for presidential leadership that doesn’t bemoan “the burden of working harder and longer for less” (a debatable factoid). It means studying harder and longer, to earn more.

It means that job seekers have to keep seeking – aware, as Woody Allen said, that 80 percent of success is just showing up. Sometimes before an employer is able or willing to pay what you’re worth.

Lange came close to getting at least one thing right. A well-trained work-force is essential to job creation.

Looking forward, job creation initiatives that the President proposed will provide solid growth for middle-skill jobs. The middle-skill sector requires occupations with an associate’s degree or some form of post-secondary certification. They span various fields from nursing and construction to information technology. Much of the employment provided by the Recovery Act or ‘stimulus’ for instance, were in this category. And looking out through the next decade, as the economy begins to pick up speed and grow again, middle-skill jobs will be a significant portion of the job market according to the latest projections by the Department of Labor.

However, the current employment situation in America tells of a different story -we have a major skills gap. As shown in the graphic below, the U.S. has few low-skill jobs for too many low-skill workers. But on the flip side, middle-skill jobs outpace the supply of qualified middle-skill workers. This was just prior to the recession too, so the gap surely persists in light of current economic woes.

This is why, as President Obama emphasized, greater investments in Americans are needed to both revive the American economy and compete globally -worker training is a crucial part to this. Workforce development will allow workers to both gain or retool their skills for the new economy, especially as Congress and the Administration put forth initiatives in the health care, infrastructure and green energy sectors that will spur extensive demand. How else will we fill vacancies for a medical technician or solar panel installer, without providing a strategy for Americans to more easily attain the skills required?

And it is not just for workers to succeed, if businesses are going to grow, especially those in emerging, cutting-edge industries, they need qualified workers with reoriented skills to do the job.

Of course, it doesn’t occur to Lange that government might have a role play in making training and re-training more available and accessible, to the point of even providing it, funding it, and/or increasing programs and services that make it easier for job seekers to take advantage available training. In Lange’s world, it’s supposed to “just happen.” People who need jobs will create them by looking for them. People who have been out of work for more than a year will somehow be able to find, receive and afford training completely on their own. Presumably, all they have to do is look for it.

This is the latest manifestation of the kind of magical thinking that has infected and continues to infect thinking about the national economy.

magical thinking

-noun

a conviction that thinking is equivalent to doing, occurring in dreams, the thought patterns of children, and some types of mental disorders, esp. obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Of course, some kinds of magical thinking are probably harmless — like a child’s belief in Santa Claus. Some might even be helpful, like karma or the concept of “paying it forward” — the idea that helping another in return for someone helping you can make the world a better place. (i.e. if I let someone into my lane or turn in front of me, maybe they will do the same for someone else, and eventually someone will do the same for me.) Some are mildly annoying, like my husband’s apparent belief that what he’s shopping for will appear on the shelf if he continues staring at it. (Sometimes, he does eventually see what was there all along, that he missed the first 50 times.)

And some kinds of magical thinking are incredibly harmful. So, there’s a job shortage? Well, it’s because Americans aren’t looking hard enough.

It’s right up there with “voodoo economics.” And it’s not that much different than The Secret – the 2006 self-help book and DVD that was basically a rehash of positive thinking:

The tenet of the book is that an individual’s focused positive thinking can result in life-changing results such as increased wealth, health, happiness and more. The book achieved high sales after being featured in two episodes of Oprah, whereafter the book reached the top of the New York Times bestseller list and the film based on the book reached #1 on the sales charts on Amazon.com.

The book has also reached a high level of notoriety and criticism from those who claim that the book misleads readers with its claims of positive thinking being able to influence a reader’s life and real-world outcomes.

The film is largely influenced by Wallace D. Wattles’ 1910 book The Science of Getting Rich.

It’s an incredibly powerful meme for a certain brand of conservative ideology that’s become increasingly more vocal in the midst of the economic downturn caused by Wall Street’s financial crisis, a downturn that’s led to a huge increase in the number of Americans receiving food stamps. Presently 1 in 8 Americans rely on food stamps, including 1 in four children.

The conservative response has to this crisis has been enunciated by people like Rep. John Linder (R, GA).

The expansion of the food-stamp program, which will spend more than $60 billion this year, has so far enjoyed bipartisan support. But it does have conservative critics who worry about the costs and the rise in dependency.

“This is craziness,” said Representative John Linder, a Georgia Republican who is the ranking minority member of a House panel on welfare policy. “We’re at risk of creating an entire class of people, a subset of people, just comfortable getting by living off the government.”

Mr. Linder added: “You don’t improve the economy by paying people to sit around and not work. You improve the economy by lowering taxes” so small businesses will create more jobs.

And Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation.

Support for the food stamp program reached a nadir in the mid-1990s when critics, likening the benefit to cash welfare, won significant restrictions and sought even more. But after use plunged for several years, President Bill Clinton began promoting the program, in part as a way to help the working poor. President George W. Bush expanded that effort, a strategy Mr. Obama has embraced.

The revival was crowned last year with an upbeat change of name. What most people still call food stamps is technically the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

…In the promotion of the program, critics see a sleight of hand.

“Some people like to camouflage this by calling it a nutrition program, but it’s really not different from cash welfare,” said Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation, whose views have a following among conservatives on Capitol Hill. “Food stamps is quasi money.”

Arguing that aid discourages work and marriage, Mr. Rector said food stamps should contain work requirements as strict as those placed on cash assistance. “The food stamp program is a fossil that repeats all the errors of the war on poverty,” he said.

And people like “serial entrepreneur” Dan Kennedy.

A report in my Sunday paper, The Cleveland Plain Dealer, says 1 in 8 Americans receive food stamps – 1 in 8. Liberals would say it is shameful for America, the richest nation on earth to permit 1 of every 8 of its citizens to live in such poor conditions. We need to say it is shameful for many of these food stamp recipients to be in such a situation and to continue relying on hand-outs. We need to ask them what they are doing to remedy their situation, to improve their circumstances.

I am not insensitive to those in temporary trouble; when I was young, my parents were on food stamps for about two months. I know trouble can arrive uninvited. But I also know that, among these 1 in 8, are huge numbers of long-term losers not exerting the slightest effort to fix their problems and get off the dole. And we have methodically removed the shame and stigma, even the inconvenience of getting the hand-out; it is electronically deposited to food-stamp cards on the 1st of each month – a time that Wal-Mart reports a sales surge. There’s no shame in being broke. There is shame in staying broke, in this, the richest-in-opportunity nation on earth.

And conservative radio host Bill Cunningham.

CUNNINGHAM: I cannot say it too often or too many times. Nothing FDR did in the 1930s stopped or alleviated the Great Depression. Almost everything FDR did in the 1930s exacerbated the Great Depression. There’s nothing LBJ did in ’64, ’65, and ’66 that helped the plight of African-Americans; in fact, it hurt them. Almost all their actions brought about the law of unintended consequences. The goal of model cities, Section 8 housing, and food stamps was to give the poor people money, not understanding that poor people were not and are not poor because they lack money. They’re poor because they lack values, ethics, and morals.

All that the mid-’60s and ’70s did to the black community was to pay black fathers money on condition that they not be involved in the lives of their children and that black mothers were told that if you married, it would have a painful consequence. If, on the other hand, you acted irresponsibly by producing children out of wedlock, you would have a positive consequence, because government would fund bad behavior.

So LBJ and the Democrats and Republicans had the best of intentions to solve poverty by giving to poor people money, acting as if that was the resolution of their problem, when just the opposite occurred. By giving poor people money by acting irresponsibly, they incentivized more irresponsible behavior.

And more recently by South Carolina Lt. Governor Andy Bauer.

My grandmother was not a highly educated woman, but she told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals. You know why? Because they breed. You’re facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply. They will reproduce, especially ones that don’t think too much further than that. And so what you’ve got to do is you’ve got to curtail that type of behavior. They don’t know any better,’ Bauer said

.

In South Carolina, 58% of students participate in the free and reduced-price lunch programme.

Bauer’s remarks came during a speech in which he said government should take away assistance if those receiving help didn’t pass drug tests or attend parent-teacher conferences or PTA meetings if their children were receiving free and reduced-price lunches.

Lange fits right in.

You’ll hear much talk pegging the “true” US unemployment rate at over 17 percent, when we include what the Labor Department classes as “discouraged workers” – those “not currently looking for work specifically because they believed no jobs were available for them.”

Media make money merchandizing misery – which does a great disservice to those who need to stay motivated to look for work, the hardest job there is. To do it right, you have to keep faith in yourself, and with your family, for 12 hours a day, six days a week.

…While tax cuts and government spending may help at the margin – for a while – “the key to a recovery is optimism,” says the godfather of all pavement-pounders, Richard Bolles (author of “What Color is Your Parachute”), who tells us that too many quit looking for work after two months – and most rely on luck.

The end of a job search doesn’t happen by luck. It’s driven by an optimism that hears past the hysteria.

The economy won’t regain momentum until Americans become more confident about spending. They won’t spend until they’re more confident in their job prospects. Until, in fact, Americans themselves start creating jobs, rather than waiting for their government to do it for them.

If you keep looking, the jobs will appear. If they don’t you’re not looking hard enough. You didn’t prepare well enough. In the world Lange, Bauer and the others reside it, that makes sense. There’s isn’t a world where people are so desperate that there are no jobs they won’t do. They don’t live in a world where the jobless outnumber jobs 6 to 1

There were nearly 6.4 unemployed workers, on average, for each available job at the end of November, according to Labor Department data released Tuesday. That’s up from 6.1 in October and a record. There were 1.7 jobless people for each opening in December 2007, when the recession began.

Job openings fell sharply to 2.42 million in November from 2.57 million in October. That’s about half the peak level of 4.8 million, reached in June 2007, and the lowest number since July 2009.

The decline shows that even as layoffs are slowing, hiring hasn’t picked up.

They don’t live in a world where there are more job seekers than jobs.

Job seekers now outnumber openings six to one, the worst ratio since the government began tracking open positions in 2000. According to the Labor Department’s latest numbers, from July, only 2.4 million full-time permanent jobs were open, with 14.5 million people officially unemployed.

And even though the pace of layoffs is slowing, many companies remain anxious about growth prospects in the months ahead, making them reluctant to add to their payrolls.

There was no downturn caused by the financial crisis that resulted from Wall Street’s (unregulated) shenanigans. And thus, I guess, no joblessness, homelessness, or hunger resulting from the downturn. The recession is all in our minds. In fact, we created it through our failure to think positively. So,it’s our fault.

EW: You write about the connection you see between positive thinking and the subprime-mortgage meltdown. Talk about that.

BE: I’m not saying this is the only thing that caused the financial crash. You can’t rule out greed and the exceeding rapid nature of transactions and globalization and all that, but we had a culture that by the mid ’00s was totally encouraging debt, the assumption of reckless levels of debt.

We often blamed the victim, the rather low-paid person who wound up with a subprime mortgage, but they were even hearing it from their preachers if they went to one of these megachurch, positive-thinking preachers who said God wants you to have a larger house.

Maybe you were never able to get any credit because of your race or your income, but you could be blessed suddenly! If someone offers you a mortgage that has no down payment and no proof of income, that’s God coming down and saying, “Go get that house I wanted you to have.”

Far worse, and on a far larger scale, was the role of this ideology in the corporations and in the finance industry.

I have traced how positive thinking became the corporate culture in America. It was mandatory to be positive.

So you had companies who would literally fire people for being negative, negative in the sense of maybe raising too many questions, maybe expressing a doubt.

One example is the man who was the head of the real estate division of Lehman Bros. in 2006 and told his CEO that he thought the whole housing thing was a bubble and they should start getting out, and he was fired for that.

So we had a culture of complete denial at all levels of the possibility that bad things could happen and maybe God doesn’t want you to get rich.

It’s jot just limited to conservatives either, as I pointed out above with The Secret, but it has a similar name.

During my 36 years as a psychotherapist, I’ve seen many clients who have been victims of people like those Hannah and my friend describe. I call them New Age Bullies – those who, sometimes with the best intentions, repeat spiritual movement shibboleths, with little understanding of how hurtful their advice can be. Some of their favorite clich’es are:

It happened for a reason.

Nobody can hurt you without your consent.

I wonder why you created this illness (or experience).

It’s just your karma.

There are no accidents.

There are no victims.

There are no mistakes.

A variant of this behavior is found in the self-bullying people who blame themselves for being victims of a crime, accident, or illness and interpret such misfortunes as evidence of their personal defects or spiritual deficiencies.

I first used the term “New Age Bully” after attending a lecture in the early ’90s. The speaker, a popular leader in the spiritual movement, recited a New Age nostrum: “We create our own reality.” A woman in the audience responded by recounting how she had taught this “fact” to her seven-year-old daughter. The child had fallen off her new bicycle and skinned her knee. When she ran crying into the house, the mother told her to sit down and think about how she had created that accident. To my shock, the speaker then led the audience in a round of applause for this woman. The message was reinforced: Even children need to learn how everything that happens to them is their own creation.

And it has a similar motivation.

“In blaming or shaming a victim,” Gen Lingpur says of the Buddhist tradition, “you are assuming that the person knew the karma they were creating in a previous life and that they have that knowledge in the present. We don’t know. We can’t know ahead of time what the results of an action will be, nor can we remember what action created the result. It’s sometimes a problem in the Buddhist community when someone says of another’s suffering: ‘It’s just their karma.’ That statement lacks compassion.”

Psychologically, there’s another reason people blame victims. Viki Sharp, a victim advocate for 26 years, explains it this way: “People tend to blame victims because it makes them feel less vulnerable and more in control. A woman leaves her window open one night and a man comes through it and rapes her. The thinking is: ‘She was raped because of something she did – she left her window open and, since I don’t do that, I’m safe.'”

Don’t get me wrong. One of the things I learned from Buddhism was to look at every circumstance in my life and ask myself (compassionately) what my part in it might have been, and what I can do differently in the future. That’s because the only thing I can change is what I do. I can’t change how other people behave, nor can I change the decisions they make, or avoid the consequences their choices decisions — which I didn’t choose — may hold for me. Nor can I go back in time and change events.

So I focus on what I can change now. It doesn’t mean that everything that happens is my fault or that I “chose” it, that I choose how to respond to it. In other words, it doesn’t absolve me or anyone else of responsibility. Lange, on the other hand, absolves everybody except the jobless. In fact, they’re almost entirely to blame. If they’d just look for jobs, they’d find them, and we wouldn’t have this crisis.

How we respond as a nation to the financial crisis and problems it causes, should include an honest look at the roles played and choices made that got us here, without absolving the most responsible, and without blaming the blameless.

How can the government create jobs or stimulate job creation? I don’t know, but increasing employment will take serious thinking about the choices we make as a country. It will probably require financial reform that both prevents another crisis, and demands some degree of accountability from those most responsible for the current one. It will take investing in American workers and in the “real economy” where it resides, in our neighborhoods and communities. And it will take re-learning that even in crisis — especially in crisis — investing for the long-term in working Americans and our families is an investment that will pay dividends for all of us.

It will take much more, as well. It will take real solutions. Not magic.

One Comment

  1. Linked.

    Whenever I try to think coherently about this sort of thing, I get all “Hulk smash!”

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