Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Get Serious about Jobs Creation

As I've previously discussed, President Obama launched his 2012 campaign by proposing a $447 billion stimulus proposal, the "American Jobs Act." He may not be able to bring the unemployment rate below 9%, but his main priority is to shift blame for the sticky unemployment rate to "obstructionist" Republicans. If he can't persuade Congress to "spread the wealth around," maybe he can persuade voters to "spread the blame around" and vote Team Obama.

The new stimulus proposal is heavy on payroll tax cuts ($240 billion total) and unemployment benefits ($62 billion). It also includes $140 billion in funding for state teachers ($30 billion) and first-responders ($5 billion), school modernization ($30 billion), road construction ($50 billion), an infrastructure bank ($10 billion) and neighborhood stabilization ($15 billion).

When talking about the ways to tackle the unemployment crisis, Obama loves to pull out the "infrastructure" card. If you took him at face value, you'd think the federal government could allocate funds to "infrastructure," load the funds into an enormous Jobs Vending Machine, and order up a few hundred thousand jobs over the next 12 months. Please deposit $1 billion and punch A1 for jobs in Alabama, A2 for jobs in Alaska, A3 for jobs in Arizona...

Unfortunately, infrastructure spending does not occur with the snap of a president's fingers. Major infrastructure projects involve years of lead time and millions of dollars in up-front costs. Project managers cannot get "shovels in the ground" until they have surmounted an exhaustive list of hurdles. To name a few: developing budgets and time lines; arranging engineering studies; procuring licenses, easements, land rights; procuring other state and local permits; environmental reviews; obtaining RFPs from prime contractors and/or subcontractors; resolving potential litigation and environmental remediation; navigating state, local and federal labor regulations; arranging committed financing; and paying legal and consulting fees for each step forward in the regulatory labyrinth.

The ugly truth is that local, state and federal regulatory hurdles significantly delay the infrastructure development process. When it comes to federal spending on infrastructure, President Obama talks a good game, but hasn't backed that up with meaningful legislative or regulatory proposals to accelerate investment in public or private infrastructure. A $10 billion "infrastructure bank" is a silly drop in the bucket. Moreover, banks and other financial institutions have plenty of capital. We don't need a new government bank to fund infrastructure development.

So how can President Obama get serious about jobs creation?

First, scrap the $447 billion stimulus proposal. It's another round of political gamesmanship that distracts from the problem at hand. In the real world, we're suffering from a slow-burning unemployment crisis. President Obama and his advisers should have trouble sleeping at night, because the unemployment crisis has largely unfolded on their watch. They should wake up every morning and get worked up into a slather over fresh ideas to improve the conditions for investment, development and job creation.

Second, the crux of my proposal. The Obama administration should use its platform to blast the following message to the private sector:
Private sector businesses and developers, we want to help you accelerate the development of your capital-intensive projects.

We will be shifting all resources necessary from other administrative functions into development-support functions until we have measurably decreased the unemployment rate.

Our goal is to accelerate $250 billion [or $500 billion, stretching for the biggest number realistically possible] in capital spending into the next two years.

You bring us a credible development plan for a project involving capital investment of $250 million or more. We will twist arms and use all executive powers available to ensure that your project is "shovel ready" no later than year end 2012. We will provide federal overrides of state and local red tape, relax environmental regulations for projects that do not pose an imminent danger to human life, and mediate settlements with litigants who seek to delay the start of construction.

We acknowledge that jobs creation is driven by private investment and private enterprise. Government regulation and frivolous litigation has been an impediment to jobs creation for too long. For now, we need to address the unemployment crisis. We can revisit the overall regulatory environment after we put millions of Americans back to work.
Here's the interesting thing. Although I've been noodling on this idea for some time, someone within the administration shares my perspective. The administration recently announced that it would "fast track" 14 infrastructure projects to accelerate jobs creation. My question for administration officials is: why limit this to 14 public infrastructure projects? You have just conceded that red tape delays public infrastructure development and jobs creation. Why not extend the "fast track" principle to private development projects (infrastructure, technology capex, industrial capex, utility capex, etc.)? Sure, it's a tacit admission that liberal regulatory objectives can impede economic growth. But we're in the middle of a crisis, so let's deal with the political blowback at a later date.

Do I think that President Obama is ready to get serious about jobs creation? All evidence suggests that he is not. So I'm not holding my breath, but I'd love to be wrong on this one.

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