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Shields and Brooks on the Job Numbers, Obama’s Budget Bargaining Prospects

April 5, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks talk with Judy Woodruff about the week's top political stories, including the March 2013 jobs report, whether President Barack Obama's proposed budget will include cuts to social security and how the U.S. should react to North Korea's nuclear threats.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That is syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Welcome back to the program, gentlemen.

So let’s start out talking about the jobs numbers, David. We heard the analysis earlier in the show, fewer jobs created than what the economists were predicting. The rate went down, which everybody is happy about. But, overall, the picture is what?

DAVID BROOKS: Bad.

We shouldn’t even be happy about the rate going down. You know, Austan Goolsbee, the former Obama administration official, called it a punch in the gut. And I think that’s accurate.

There was a sense — and I had been hearing from economists, from businesspeople that we are finally reaching takeoff, because the housing market has been looking a lot better. The private debt has been looking a little better. So all of the fundamentals seem to be fine that we’re taking off. And that clearly is not the case, or probably not the case.

And so now we’re stuck in this frustrating economy. And, politically, you began to see everybody rallying around their favorite causes. Why does this happen? Some people pick on sequestration. But the timing isn’t quite right for that. The sequestration is probably going to hit, to the extent it does, later. Then, oh, maybe it’s because the payroll tax was raised or restored to earlier levels.

But, again, retail, jobs were down, retail sales not so much down, maybe health care. Well, it’s hard to see. I would only say we should be hesitant about trying to draw a narrative about a short-term cost vs. a long-term, and focus on what we heard in the discussion, some of the more fundamental issues about technology, about globalization, about men in particular dropping out of the wage — the labor force.

Those big long-term structural problems seem to me the core thing to worry.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark, what did you think about this jobs report?

MARK SHIELDS: I think it is sobering, Judy.

I think that Austan Goolsbee deserves the anti-spin award for 2013.

Usually, you get straight partisan explanations. And he said it was a punch in the gut.

It’s more than that. It’s more than a political setback. I mean, it raises the question — 11.7 million Americans were looking for jobs to go to last month, and they didn’t find one. And we have people, lowest percentage in the work force now in 34 years, 1979, which some of us may recall wasn’t a great time economically in this country.

And I think the earlier discussion really raised what I think is the fundamental question. I mean, the moral test of any society is whether that economy serves the human beings in it or the human beings are there to serve the economy. We have got corporate profits at an all-time high. We have got the stock market going through the roof. And yet we have this human waste of capital and these broken human dreams.

And I just think it’s time beyond just a quick Band-Aid fix or whatever. We have got to examine that. If we’re not going to produce jobs, I mean, what are we going to do with these people with their abilities, with their energy, with their ambition, with their time? I just think it’s a serious, serious question.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Should people be looking to Washington right now for solution, for answers?

DAVID BROOKS: I think some of these structural things — I mean, it’s hard. You go into a drugstore now, it used to — there would be four cashiers checking you out. Now there’s four automatic machines and one person helping out the four machines.

So that is what we are seeing. And so what can we do? And it’s — I would say both parties have very bad growth strategies. You know, cutting taxes anymore, I doubt that’s going to help. Spending, well, we just can’t spend that much more. Maybe some people can argue …

JUDY WOODRUFF: Even the infrastructure spending?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, so then we look to the long-term stuff.

And infrastructure spending is not a short-term thing. That is a long-term thing that — and I think most economists would say that would help. As we heard earlier in the program, improving the education system would help. But that is easier said than done.

So we have got a lot of big structural problems we could improve. But, as a short-term fix, you know, we have spent — I don’t know — we have spent another $5 trillion, $6 trillion dollars in debt over the last — since the financial crisis. We haven’t solved a thing short-term yet.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you are saying neither party is offering the answer?

DAVID BROOKS: I’m really struck by the lack of a persuasive growth agenda from both parties.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

I obviously tilt more towards the Democrats’ answer. But I don’t — I don’t think where we have come to is that whether we assert and establish that people have a right to decent and productive work, and decent conditions, at fair wages, I mean, is that — is that a cornerstone of the United States and our value system?

And I think, if you start there, rather than, you know, what are we going to do between now and October, I mean, if that’s the question, then I think it becomes a different test for both the private sector and the public sector.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we heard the analyst — or both of you have mentioned the earlier segment. The analyst, she said other countries have done a better job …

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right. She mentioned Norway. She mentioned Germany. She mentioned Denmark, Netherlands.

JUDY WOODRUFF: … of supporting the economy when it hits a — this kind of a pass.

MARK SHIELDS: No, that’s exactly right. And I really do think that it is a more humane and humanitarian.

Instead of — the German example is, instead of laying somebody off, they cut back the hours, so that there’s five people working 35 hours a week, instead of, you know, four people working …

DAVID BROOKS: Well, there are tradeoffs. Look at the European unemployment rate. It is four — what is it, four or five points higher than ours?

The European economy is not exactly something to self-recommend itself right now. I do think they — some German …

MARK SHIELDS: German …

DAVID BROOKS: German retraining may be better, but they have a different sort of economy than we do. We have a much more disruptive economy.

Then the thing that worries me is long-term — men in particular dropping out of the labor force. As a number of economists have said, this economy still rewards education, even if this economy. If you have a college degree, your unemployment rate is very low. Women have gotten that message. Men have not gotten that message.

Men have not upped their skill levels. And so why is that? It could have to do with family structure. It could have to do with 1,000 other things, but those are the sort of fundamental things that are really hurting the labor market.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, nothing — so, can anything be done? I mean, do I hear both of you saying …

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think there is an awful lot of work that needs to be done in our society. There’s all kinds of tasks that need to be performed.

The question is, are we going to be stuck in this corporate model that says that — I mean, Wal-Mart, largest employer in the country, its profits are up. It’s opened new stores with fewer employees. I mean, if that’s the model we are going to going to find, and just — and turn it over and say that is fine, then we’re going to end up with double-digit unemployment and wasted lives.

I mean, I just think there are all kinds of things that can be done and ought to be done. But it does require the public sector to do them.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. Here, we get into more of a left-right thing.

Woolworths took jobs away from mom-and-pop 70 or 80 years ago. Wal-Mart is just a more efficient system. I think we need to use human capital more efficiently, and so more productively. And so Wal-Mart is on net an enhancement of productivity levels. But that doesn’t mean you do nothing.

You increase training. You increase infrastructure spending. You get the education system, and mostly you devote less resources, fewer resources to the elderly and consumption on health care for the affluent, and much more to young families and young workers, and shift what’s turned into a — really a redistribution machine at the age scale.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, speaking of less money for the elderly, President Obama, it has just been reported overnight that in this budget that comes out next week, he is going to propose something the Republicans have been asking him to put out there, and that is cuts, Mark, in entitlements, in Social Security, Medicare, with some carve-outs for those at the lower end of the income scale and for the — what they call extreme elderly.

They’re still talking about cutbacks in benefits for people who look to government for support.

MARK SHIELDS: I agree.

I mean, this is a real body blow to those who have accused President Obama of being a socialist.

This is hardly a socialistic approach.

In addition, I mean, for not taking difficult political stands, he’s been bombarded by the liberal part of his own party and many liberal groups. You know, I think, Judy, that he’s probably the last best chance we’re going have to reach any kind of a big or semi-big agreement is in what the president is going to unveil in his budget next Wednesday.

And I think it’s an absolutely legitimate point on his side to say that the Republicans have to come up with revenue if we are going to do this, because this is a blow to the Democrats. It’s been the Holy Grail of the Democratic Party platform for the past 70 years, Social Security.

And, you know, I think, in that sense, we will find out whether the commonsense caucus that editorial writers and some of the leading pundits have spoken about, whether it’s the Loch Ness Monster of American politics or whether it’s a reality.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think he’s taking the right approach.

I mean, we have the Patty Murray, the Senate Democratic budget over here. We have got the Ryan budget over there. He’s sort of a little closer to Murray, obviously, but he’s sort of in the ballpark of where a deal will be cut.

And so some of the things I think are right and good policies, this chained CPI, which will be adjusting Social Security revenues or benefits. Some of the things, I think, are a little less persuasive. He’s got some Medicare things which are not structural reform, but just trying to tamp down reimbursements at the same time as we are just running away from any kind of effort to control Medicare costs.

But if he can take this chained CPI, this Social Security thing, and he can put in a few little more moderate Medicare reforms, structural reforms, like combining Medicare A and B and some other things that I think that has some bipartisan agreement, then I do believe there are a number of Republicans who would be willing to give on revenues.

And then you — we’re not going to have a grand bargain, but then do you see a bargain. You see a functioning government making progress.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So do you think, Mark, this could lead to some kind of agreement, because right now the Republican leadership in the Congress is saying, no, this isn’t enough, and we’re not giving on revenue.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, Speaker Boehner today rejected it, and so did Majority Leader Cantor.

I think one of the real key players here is Dave Camp, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. I mean, there’s — all the Republican plans say, we will send it to the Ways and Means Committee. The Democratic budget doesn’t say, we will send it to the Senate Finance Committee to do it. And so they have reposed in the Ways and Means Committee and Dave Camp in particular enormous responsibility.

This is his last big chance as chairman. I mean, if he wants to make history, and Barack Obama, this is 1986 revisited. And Barack Obama is Ronald Reagan, and he is Danny Rostenkowski. Then it does take on a chance.

But I am still looking for those commonsense Republicans who are going to step up and say, yes, Mr. President, you just did bite the bullet. You did, in fact, step on the third rail of American politics, Social Security.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, the president is going over to have dinner with, what, a dozen or so Republican senators on Wednesday night?

MARK SHIELDS: Why won’t he have them to the White House?

The only fun to going to the president is to go to the White House. I mean, he always wants to meet them. It’s like a strange date in somebody else’s house.

DAVID BROOKS: They steal the silverware.

They can’t be trusted.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, we have only got a couple of minutes.

North Korea, it’s been — it has gotten — it was scary, David. It sounds scarier today than it did. They are moving missiles into position. They have said just about everything you can say. What are people saying you are talking to? How worried should they be?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, there’s two schools of thought.

One is, ehh, they’re blustering. It’s for domestic use, that sort of thing. They have got a new leader. The second is, no, this is different. They’re actually doing, as you say, some substantive things in addition to the bluster. This new leader, maybe he is unpredictable.

And so the one thing they see — people I hear from seem to be united about is, what do we do about it? And so there are some things we can do. We’re trying to pressure China. But I don’t hear too much hope about that. And so there’s — so far, there seems it to be relatively little. We have tried the talks, and that doesn’t seem to have worked.

MARK SHIELDS: I mean, North Korea is a Chinese client state. Without China, there is no North Korea.

But, unlike Iran, where everybody is exercised about the fact that they may get a nuclear weapon, this fellow has nuclear weapons. He is untested. He’s new. He’s absolutely unpredictable, and Chuck Hagel’s first test as secretary of defense. I mean, I think it more than bears watching. I think it’s serious stuff.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, on that sobering note, we thank you both, Mark Shields, David Brooks.

And Mark and David keep up the talk on The Doubleheader, recorded in our newsroom. That will be posted at the top of the Rundown later tonight.