Fast Company

The Pillars of Our Economy

I have been blogging from time to time about the President’s recovery package ever since I finished the manuscript for Great Jobs in the President’s Stimulus Plan. If you’re interested in news about specific programs being funded by the plan, I suggest that you look at the press releases on the Recovery.gov Web site.

Right now, however, I’d like to stand back from the day-to-day roll-out of the stimulus package and look at the larger economic trends that the Obama administration is promoting.

I have been researching these trends in order to write 200 Best Jobs for Renewing America, which is scheduled for release in the autumn. The idea of the book is to focus on those jobs that are linked to the major forces that are reshaping the U.S. economy and that will make it competitive in the years to come. I should note that although many of these trends are being promoted by the government, at least one of them (the growth of the high-tech sector) is of great importance even without continuing government encouragement. Furthermore, many of these forces of renewal were mentioned favorably by Senator John McCain during his candidacy and may have been encouraged by him if he had won the presidency--although probably with different policy tools and with greater difficulty convincing a Congress dominated by the opposing party. 

In a speech this week, President Obama referred to a parable in the Sermon on the Mount that contrasted two houses, one built on sand and the other on a rock. I don’t need to tell you which one was destroyed by a storm and which one stood firm. The President’s point was that we need to put our economy on a firmer foundation: 

“It's a foundation built upon five pillars that will grow our economy and make this new century another American century:  Number one, new rules for Wall Street that will reward drive and innovation, not reckless risk-taking; number two, new investments in education that will make our workforce more skilled and competitive; number three, new investments in renewable energy and technology that will create new jobs and new industries; number four, new investments in health care that will cut costs for families and businesses; and number five, new savings in our federal budget that will bring down the debt for future generations.”

In my book about renewing the economy, I don’t discuss the first and fifth of these pillars. However, I have quite a lot to say about the second pillar, reform of education: its importance for America’s competitiveness in the world market, our poor showing in recent years, the specific policies that the President is backing (such as better testing, more pre-school education, and expanded aid for college), and major jobs in the education industry.

The third pillar touches on another trend I’ve been researching: the shift toward green technologies. It’s worth remembering that, unlike many technologies that were developed here and then turned into jobs for overseas workers, green technologies can create a large number of jobs that cannot be offshored. Foreign workers cannot insulate our buildings, mount solar panels on our roofs, or even manufacture our wind turbines, which are so massive that they must be fabricated near the sites where they will be deployed.

The fourth pillar, reform of health care, obviously will be a major economic trend because it affects our biggest and fastest-growing industry, one that employs 14 million Americans. Expansion of health-care coverage, conversion of medical records to digital form, and increased funding for medical research will create many new jobs for health-care workers, ranging from PhD scientists down to hospital orderlies.

In the book, I also discuss a few other trends that are not touched on in the “five pillars” speech. I may want to cover those in a future blog. For now, I want to stress that the first pillar, though I do not discuss it in the book, is essential. Wall Street needs to play a constructive role in our economy and not be an arena of reckless speculation. Most of our supposed economic growth in recent years has consisted of financial transactions based on fantasies, such as insurance of uninsurable loans. In this context, it’s useful to revisit a speech by another politician, one who might have also become president. These words were spoken by Robert F. Kennedy on March 18, 1968:

“Our gross national product…if we should judge America by that, counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for those who break them. It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and the cost of a nuclear warhead, and armored cars for police who fight riots in our streets. It counts Whitman's rifle and Speck's knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.

“Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it tells us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.”

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