The Moral Significance of Employment

President Obama launched his jobs offensive with a fine speech Thursday night. He seemed to have reasonable ideas, and the Republicans are going to have to be very careful about not seeming to look obstructionist if they are going to turn him down. There was one note that I wish the president had struck harder: the moral significance of employment. I wish he would talk about employment as one of the key elements of the American dream, and that having a job–providing a job–creating and preserving jobs–is a fundamental part of the experience of coming to America and pursuing the American dream.

Somehow we have gotten it into our heads that pursuing the American dream is something that entrepreneurs do, and that they because they provide the jobs that the rest of us hold, their interests should get precedence over everybody else’s.

Surely that has been the trend of the last thirty years, since Ronald Reagan was president and the ideology of the free market has dominated. Even allowing that some adjustments in employment were necessary correctives, it does seem that there has been an assault on employment in favor of business. First came the takeover mania of the eighties, where investors would take over companies, fire workers, strip the companies, and generally create havoc to maximize investor gain. We have seen NAFTA, PATCO, Bangalore, the anti-union assault of Chris Christie and that knucklehead Governor Walker, the whole shrinking government crowd, the Walmart part-time employment program, lower tax rates for the rich, and more. Meanwhile, the fortunes of the business elite have grown nearly beyond measure.

The whole idea seems to be that we have to liberate these priests of the free market to create wealth for their stockholders and bondholders, and that the rest of us should be grateful for what trickles down. But the problem is, it ain’t trickling down.

And the truth is, this is just one sort of social arrangement. There are others where capitalism is respected but the free market is not fetishized. There are ways to organize government and society where the freedom of the individual to pursue massive wealth is not considered the greatest and highest value.

For twenty years or so, Democrats have had success being Apple Democrats, essentially agreeing to the free market while thinking that we can surround it with smart ideas that will make it work better. And a lot of Democrats have grown rich, although stylishly so. But guess what? Although we won some big elections–Clinton twice, Obama, arguably Gore–the story hasn’t really worked out for us. We let the NAFTA jobs go, we let the Bangalore jobs go, we bought into the Robert Rubin-Larry Summers brilliance rap, and now we’re suffering.

It’s time we got back to fundamentals, and talked about jobs as a moral good. The right wants to talk about marriage between a man and a woman as fundamental to society? Fine. What happens when Mom and Dad don’t have work?

Try to get more something more morally fundamental to society than secure jobs.

[Cross-posted at JamieMalanowski.com]

Jamie Malanowski

Jamie Malanowski is a writer and editor. He has been an editor at Time, Esquire and most recently Playboy, where he was Managing Editor.