In the fifth year of a sick economy jobs have reached an exalted status. Polls show they are people's No. 1 concern, so if they are exploited smartly they are sure vote getters.
Like the terrorist attacks of 2001 and the threat of school integration in an earlier time, jobs have become the flexible all-purpose political issue. They can suit any politician's agenda and provide cover for chicanery you couldn't otherwise get away with.
A lower tax rate on rich men, for example, will be good for the economy because they will telephone headquarters and leave instructions to hire more greeters or start a new production line, even if there is no demand for the work, or so Republican politicians say.
When President Obama postponed the Keystone XL pipeline because its route cut through the Nebraska Sandhills, the most sensitive agricultural aquifer in the country, Republicans and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said he had blocked 250,000 new jobs.
An independent analysis concluded that the pipeline would create 500 to 1,400 temporary jobs. The Canadian pipeline giant that will build it acknowledged that the principal effect would be temporary employment and that the project would create only "a few hundred" permanent jobs.
But the most asinine exploitation of the national jobs mourning has to be the attacks on government regulation, always a good whipping boy. Government regulation by its nature — rules generally require industries to do extra things or install technology to protect health and safety — has created rather than killed jobs, but that has never stopped industries and their political courtesans from claiming that every rule raises the cost of doing business and forces layoffs.
From the presidential nominee to congressional candidates, Republicans are claiming that rules laid down by the Obama administration to carry out federal laws are killing jobs. Two weeks ago, the House of Representatives by a party-line vote (Republicans and Arkansas's Mike Ross) passed a package of seven Republican bills to stop or roll back new environmental, banking and safety rules. One bill, written by the House Republican leader's office, was sponsored by Tim Griffin, who got to say with his re-election approaching that he had passed a bill, although everyone knew it was a dead issue.
It would block all significant new government regulation until the employment rate drops below 6 percent, which economists say will not happen before 2017. It was front-page news for a day: Republicans, Griffin fight for jobs.
The net effect of the moratorium would be the opposite — fewer jobs, heavy economic costs and poorer health. One set of rules that Griffin and his party set out to block will implement the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2010, passed after a series of food-contamination scandals. Republicans say companies will fire people if their plants have to take new steps to insure the safety of eggs, dairy, seafood, fruit and imported foods.
Have government rules really been responsible for big job losses in the recession, as Griffin said?
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics actually tracks such things. Its monthly survey asks employers the reasons for layoffs. Here are the numbers for the first three recession years, 2008-10: 1,726,317 jobs abolished owing to low demand for products and services, 13,330 jobs canceled for government rules and mandates. Nearly half the rule-related job losses were on George W. Bush's watch.
The regulation moratorium had absolutely nothing to do with jobs. It was a genuflection to the coal and petrochemical industries, utilities, banks, insurance companies, some parts of the food industry that don't want to comply with new food-safety rules, manufacturers that resist efficiency standards that will require a range of products to use less energy, and car and truck makers that would prefer not to meet new fuel-efficiency standards for a few years.
Those and not the sunburned sons of toil are the people Griffin, House Speaker Boehner and the rest were fighting for. They will show their appreciation — those that already haven't. Griffin had gotten $69,408 from industries fighting the regulations through June of 2011; Ross did even better, $98,900.
The real biggies — those who want to stop Clean Air Act rules curtailing emission poison from coal- and oil-burning plants — have paid their dues more generously.
If you don't think carbon, mercury, sulfur and other emission poisons are important, you might review one of many earlier versions of this story — leaded gasoline. After medical research began showing in the 1960s that the lead that ramped up fuel octane escaped into the air and damaged children's brains, the American Petroleum Institute insisted for two decades that it was not a health risk and that making the oil and car industries eliminate gasoline lead would lay a heavy cost on the economy. The Environmental Protection Agency and Congress diddled.
That is, until a pediatrician named Philip J. Landrigan went down to El Paso and tested children attending schools near a giant smelting plant. Sixty percent of them had highly elevated levels of lead in their blood, and he demonstrated that even small amounts lowered a child's IQ. Other research findings verified all of it.
By 1996, lead had been banned from the fuel of on-road vehicles. By 2005, the levels of lead in American kids' blood had fallen by 88 percent.
You never hear about the results of those infernal government regs. Griffin just wants you to worry about jobs.