Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Big Ideas!

"The idea is not just to cultivate a broadly educated population but to subsidize the customized training for workers for emergent technologies, as well as their living expenses so that they can afford to train -- and to do so at a scale sufficient to make a difference. This strategy is combined with a national commitment that there shall be no bad jobs..."

Robert Kuttner, Obama's Challenge: America's Economic Crisis and the Power of a Transformative Presidency

I first read Robert Kuttner's Economic Illusion decades ago and was taken by his depiction of the "good capitalism" of northern Europe. Now he is back in full force arguing for Rooseveltian presidential leadership and the adoption in some form of the Danish model.

I still like this idea and believe that after we fix a few things to get the economy stabilized and growing the next administration should pursue a set of bolder labor market investments. My big worry with visions that focus on the demand side and on top-down federal policy is that they assume appropriate and timely responses at the ground level around the country. A trickle out. If the investments are big enough, the arugment goes. What the book doesn't lay out is what kind of old institutions need to be rebuilt and new institutions formed to give this kind of agenda a fighting chance. Our strength and weakness is decentralized fragmentation.

Given the book's focus on incremental steps leading to bolder actions, there's no attention to the millions of middle-skill jobs that require skilled workers. These jobs exist now and in the near future, at least they did exist. Depending upon region and industry, these skill shortages require education and skills enhancement and "some college." Yet the recent National Commission on Literacy concluded that 88 million Americans are in need of some adult education.

Sometimes an underlying implication of trying to make all jobs good jobs is that we then don't have to worry about issues like adult education or some college for low-income, low-skilled workers. They will do just fine, like in Las Vegas. My gut sense is that we will only get halfway to Denmark at best so that we had better have a few other strategies in reserve.

We need the big, transformative policy and investment frame. And we need a sense of how to knit together various institutional capacities for implementation.

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