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Would President Obama’s Plan Create ‘Right Kind’ of U.S. Jobs?

September 12, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Flanked by workers in industries he says would be helped by his jobs plan, President Obama announced Monday that he was sending his American Jobs Act to Congress. Gwen Ifill discusses the plan's scope and expected effectiveness with Dartmouth College's Matthew Slaughter and the University of California, Berkeley's Robert Reich.
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GWEN IFILL: President Obama’s jobs bill arrived on Capitol Hill late this afternoon. He challenged Republicans not to let it languish, and he called again for a series of tax increases to cover the cost.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: On Thursday, I told Congress that I will be sending them a bill called the American Jobs Act. Well, here it is.

(APPLAUSE)

GWEN IFILL: Echoing many of his own arguments, this time while standing in the Rose Garden, the president demanded that lawmakers act on his $447 billion program.

BARACK OBAMA: No games, no politics, no delays. I’m sending this bill to Congress today. And they ought to pass it immediately.

(APPLAUSE)

GWEN IFILL: The president surrounded himself with people from industries he said will benefit from his plan, law enforcement, construction, the military and small business. The administration is proposing that a significant portion of the new spending be used to create jobs by rebuilding schools, transportation and housing.

BARACK OBAMA: I’m standing with construction workers. We have got roads that need work all over the country. Our highways are backed up with traffic. Our airports are clogged. And there are schools throughout the country that desperately need renovating.

GWEN IFILL: Thirty billion dollars of the new spending would go to modernize at least 35,000 public schools and $50 billion would be spent on improving highways, rail and transit.

The proposal comes at a time when 28 percent of the nation’s schools are at least 60 years old, according to the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities. In response, House Speaker John Boehner promised a careful review of the Obama plan, but, he said, “We have a different vision for what is need to support job creation.”

And House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said the new plan resembles the president’s old 2009 plan that included $105 billion for public works. “We have been there, done that,” he said. “The country cannot afford more spending like the stimulus bill.”

White House Budget Director Jack Lew said the plan calls for raising taxes on the wealthy to pay for it, including limits on charitable deductions and closing loopholes for oil and gas companies. All have been proposed before and rejected by both parties in Congress.

We take a closer look now at whether the president’s infrastructure proposals would actually create jobs with Robert Reich, professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley. He served as secretary of labor in the Clinton administration. And Matthew Slaughter, he served on President George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers from 2005 to 2007. He’s now associate dean of the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College.

Our economics correspondent, Paul Solman, who is breaking down the numbers in this — the president’s proposal today, he said that there are 28 million un- or under-employed people in the country right now and that this jobs bill might create jobs for a million of them.

So what can — I will start with you, Robert Reich. What can infrastructure spending due to close that gap?

ROBERT REICH, former U.S. labor secretary: Gwen, infrastructure spending on roads and transportation, also rebuilding America’s schools, really is a twofer, in the sense that we need to reform and certainly make sure that our transportation infrastructure system is — is good. There’s been too much deferred maintenance for years, a fancy way of saying it’s crumbling.

And at the same time, it could put many of — hundreds of thousands of workers to work. One out of five construction workers today is unemployed. And this is the best time to do it, because not only do you have all those workers unemployed and all that deferred maintenance, but you also have very low borrowing costs.

The 10-year Treasury bill is now — has a yield of 2 percent or less. If we’re ever going to get our infrastructure rebuilt, this is the time to do it.

GWEN IFILL: Is this the time to do it, Matthew Slaughter?

MATTHEW SLAUGHTER, former George W. Bush economic adviser: I think it is.

I would pick up on Robert’s insight of it being a twofer. Some sort of infrastructure investment now will create some new jobs in the U.S. economy. I think it’s important to temper that expectation. The 25 million, 28 million under- and unemployed Americans, infrastructure spending alone will not address all those needs in job creation.

But the crisis in the United States is not just the number of jobs. The challenge also is creating the right kinds of jobs. And one of the challenges that predates the financial crisis has been America’s infrastructure has been crumbling for quite some time. The American Society of Civil Engineers graded America’s overall infrastructure at D. a couple of years ago.

And to grow the right kinds of jobs, high-productivity, high-wage jobs linked to the global economy, we need to improve America’s infrastructure.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me start with you and then ask Professor Reich this as well.

Fifty billion dollars is the price tag being put right now on the part of this bill which would speak for high-speed rail, highways, transit, the kinds of crumbling roads and bridges that you’re talking about, Matthew Slaughter. Is that enough?

MATTHEW SLAUGHTER: No, it’s not.

The American Society for Civil Engineers, when they did their analysis a couple of years ago, adding up all the needs of our ports, our roads, our bridges, our airports, the shortfall they saw in spending over the next five years was $1.1 trillion. And so I think this speaks to an important way that I think we need to think about improving our infrastructure.

It’s not just public taxpayer dollars we need to try to put to work. It’s also private capital as well. There’s a lot of great global companies, some based in America, many based abroad, that have a lot of expertise and experience on helping fund, build and maintain infrastructure projects. So, part of what our leadership needs to do in Washington is figure out ways to bring the private sector into some of these needed investments as well.

GWEN IFILL: Well, Robert Reich, piggyback on that. How much of this is about public sector involvement and private sector involvement? We were — have been here before when we heard the tale of shovel-ready projects which would immediately create jobs. Is there a danger of overpromising?

ROBERT REICH: There is a danger of overpromising, Gwen.

And the problem with infrastructure projects generally is that very few are actually, as we learned, shovel-ready. It takes a number of years to get them going. Even this year, there are tens of thousands of workers who have jobs because of the infrastructure spending that was in the first stimulus. But that first stimulus really didn’t get geared up to provide those jobs for a full year-and-a-half after it was started.

So, infrastructure spending is critical — $50,000 is a good beginning. As Dean Slaughter said, it’s a much larger challenge than — $50 billion, rather — but we still have a very, very long way to go. And it’s not going to be instantaneous job creation.

GWEN IFILL: Well, and this bill, continuing with you, Robert Reich, it is just not just about building roads and rebuilding roads and bridges. It’s also about modernizing schools. It’s even about renovating or refurbishing foreclosed homes as a way of jump-starting local economies. Is that part of the overreach?

ROBERT REICH: I don’t think it’s overreach so much.

The schools are a different category. I mean, we know what schools need repairs. That is closer than almost anything else to being shovel-ready. We can get to work right away on those schools. There’s no excuse for having substandard schools and so many substandard schools.

With regard to vacant buildings or buildings that have been forfeited upon, if they are genuinely vacant and the government starts investing in them and takes an equity interest in them, so the taxpayers can get something back when those buildings not only are resold, but also it improves the entire neighborhood, that’s worthwhile to do. But that also, like a lot of other infrastructure projects, is going to take a little bit more time to get done.

GWEN IFILL: Matthew Slaughter, what do you think about those two pieces of this, the schools and the foreclosed properties?

MATTHEW SLAUGHTER: So, you know, there’s many needs to improve America’s educational system. And some kids in America do need to be in higher-quality schools. So I see the value of that.

I would stress, though, the value of the transportation and broader pieces of infrastructure that touches American business. You know, the jobs crisis we face today is predominantly a job crisis of private sector job creation. We have about 109 million private sector jobs in the United States today. That’s the same number that we had 12 years ago in the fall of 1999.

And to build millions of private sector jobs linked to the dynamic globally engaged companies that traditionally have played a really big role in helping grow the American economy and with lots of links to small business also, those are companies — when you look at surveys of both large and small businesses, one of the big hiring constraints that they cite for the United States is our crumbling infrastructure.

GWEN IFILL: But that sounds like a completely different approach than government money being spent on actually hiring construction workers to rebuild a crumbling underbelly of the country. That — trying to get the private sector to step up seems like a different approach, Mr. Slaughter.

MATTHEW SLAUGHTER: Well, the two can — I would say the two can work together, but I think the important thing to keep in mind is rebuilding America’s infrastructure in all these dimensions is in the future going to foster job creation in all kinds of industries.

It will be industries like retail trade, wholesale trade, a lot of companies that are trying to export goods and services out of America. So in the future, this could dovetail with things like the national export initiative as well to build the ability of companies in America to sell things into the dynamic global economy.

GWEN IFILL: Robert Reich, we heard Eric Cantor saying, been here, done that.

We have been here before. Did it work last time?

ROBERT REICH: Well, it worked much better than many people think it worked, because most economists, most analysts have shown that the first stimulus saved or created about three million jobs.

Now, it’s not large when you take consideration of the 25 million to 28 million people who are looking for full-time work. Even if you actually had the impact that the president is talking about, we’re still stuck with very high unemployment and we still have a huge problem of wages as well.

As Dean Slaughter was saying a moment ago, we have got to attract global capital here into the United States to create good jobs. And one way of doing that is by restoring our infrastructure, building a good, first-rate educational system, generating a lot of jobs directly by doing that, but also indirectly, because global capital comes here because it can get a high return on its investment.

GWEN IFILL: Matthew Slaughter, what is different this time from last time?

MATTHEW SLAUGHTER: Hopefully, I think there will be a sustained focus on thinking about infrastructure, not just in terms of what it can do next quarter — again, I don’t mean belittle the real challenges and hardships facing a lot of American workers and families — but telling a story to explain that this is going to help rebuild the productive capacity for America, a need that has been present for a long time.

And, as Robert said, you look around the world — I sometimes call this kind of the trains, planes and automobile test. You look at the airport and the quality of airports in places like Shanghai and compare that to a lot of our airports in America, you see that the ability of America to attract and grow a lot of investment in jobs is more challenged today because, in part, of the infrastructure progress that’s been made in the rest of the world.

That’s something we can’t solve in one or two months, but it’s something that hopefully we can start to do in the coming weeks and months.

GWEN IFILL: Matthew Slaughter, the associate dean of the Tuck School at Dartmouth, and Robert Reich, the former secretary of labor, thank you both very much.

ROBERT REICH: Thanks, Gwen.

MATTHEW SLAUGHTER: Thank you.