Friday we learned, as the New York Daily News headlined, “August 2011 Jobs Report: NO Net Jobs Created.”  U.S. unemployment, and underemployment, remain stubbornly stuck at very high levels.  This situation is unlikely to improve, as reported at 24×7 Wall Street in “August Lay-off Plans Up 47%” with the latest Challenger Gray report telling us 51,144 people are soon getting the axe.  No wonder we saw a dramatic decline of nearly 15 points, to 44.5, in the Conference Board’s Consumer Confidence Index – near record-low levels. 

This has all the Presidential candidates talking about jobs, and President Obama signed up to deliver a jobs speech to Congress. 

The problem actually goes beyond just jobs.  Buried within consumer concerns lies the fact that for most people, their incomes are going nowhere.  Adjusted for inflation, almost everyone is making less now than they did when the millenium turned.  Generally speaking, about 15% less than 11 years ago!  Most family incomes are about where they were in 1998.  For the wealthiest, income since the mid-1960s has grown only about 1.5%/year on average. For everyone else the improvement has only been about .5%/year. And universally almost all of that increase occurred between 1992 and 2000 (for anyone who wonders about Bill Clinton’s resurgent popularity, just look at incomes during his Presidency compared to every other administration on this chart!)

Real income growth 1967-2010 from BI
Source: “U.S. Household Incomes: A 42 Year Perspective” Doug Short,

But will anything the President, or the candidates, recommend make a difference?

So far, the politicos keep fighting the last war, and seem surprised that nothing is improving.  The recommendations for putting people back to work in factories, such as autos and heavy equipment, or  building roads simply defies the reality of work today.  America has not been a manufacturing-dominated jobs country for over 60 years!  All job creation has been in services!

Service v Mfg jobs 1939 to 2010 from SAI
Source:”Charting the Incredible Shift From Manufacturing to Services” Doug Short,

For this entire period, productivity has been climbing.  Just 50 years ago most people spent 1/3 to 1/2 their income on food.  No longer.  Today, few spend more than 5 to 10%, and everyone can enjoy an automobile, telephone, television and computer – regardless of their income!  We have all the stuff anyone could want, and in many cases a lot more of some stuff than we need – or want! 

The old notion of “what’s good for G.M. (General Motors) is good for America” is simply no longer true!  As we recently witnessed, a multi-billion dollar bail-out of the largest American auto maker may have saved some unemployment – but it did not create an economic turn-around, or create a slew of jobs! 

Today’s jobs are all in information – the accumulation, assimilation, analysis and use of information.  Few “managers” actually manage people any more – most manage a data set, or a computer program, or some sort of analysis.  The vast majority of “managers” have no direct reports at all!  The jobs – and incomes – are all in information.  Job growth is in places like Facebook, Google, Linked-in, Groupon, Amazon and Apple (the latter of which outsources all its manufacturing.)

No President or economist can manufacture jobs today.  As we’ve seen, interest rates are at unprecedent low levels – yet nobody wants to take a loan to hire a new employee!  In fact, business productivity is at record high levels as business keeps accomplishing more and more with fewer and fewer workers!

Profits per worker 2001-2011
Source: “Corporate Efficiency is Getting

Public companies aren’t going broke, by and large.  Most have cash balances at record levels.   Only they keep using the money to buy back their own stock!  Every month sees a wave of new stock buy back commitments, as 24×7 Wall Street reported “August’s New Massive Stock Buybacks… Over $30 Billion!”  Business leaders find it less risky to buy back their own stock (supporting their own bonuses, by the way) than invest in any sort of growth program – something that might create jobs.

So what’s the President to do?

We need to radically jack up the investment in innovation! Think about that last period of very low unemployment and growing incomes – in the 1990s.  We had the explosion in technology as people began using PCs, the internet, mobile phones, etc.  New technology introduced new business ideas (mostly services) and created a rash of growth!  And that created new jobs – and higher incomes.  Innovation is the jobs engine – not trying to save another tired manufacturing company, or pave another highway or extend another bridge!  Today those projects simply do not employ very many people, and the “trickle down” affect of a highway project creating more jobs has disappeared!

Bloomberg/BusinessWeek reported in “Failing at Innovation? Bank On It

  • Government spending on higher education has been declining since the 1970s reducing the number of graduate students and innovation projects
  • Federal share of R&D has been less than 1% since 1992 – all while corporate R&D spending has declined dramatically!  The days of spending “to put a man on the moon” has disappeared, as we fairly quietly mothballed the space program and commence to dismantle NASA
  • The number of entrepreneurs is actually declining!  There were fewer startups with 1 or more employees in 2007 (before the financial collapse and ensuing economic mayhem) than in 1990
  • New companies are not employing people.  In the 1990s the average startup employed 7.5 people, but now the number is 4.9
  • Meanwhile “infrastructure” spending today is the same as it was in 1968! 

We’ve done a great job of cutting taxes, but we’ve simultaneoously gutted our investment in R&D, innovation and doing anything new!  If you wonder where the jobs went it wasn’t oversees, it was into higher corporate cash levels, more stock buybacks, increased bank reserves and dramatically higher executive compensation! 

We don’t need more tax cuts – because nobody is investing in any new projects!  We don’t need more unemployment insurance, because that – at best – delays the day of reconning without a solution.

Here’s what we do need today:

  1. Implement a tax on corporate stock buybacks.  At least as great as the tax on corporate dividends.  Buybacks simply drain the economy of investment funds, with no benefit.  At least dividends give returns back to shareholders – who might invest in a new company!  And if buybacks are taxed, executives might start investing in projects again!
  2. Quit giving such large depreciation allowances for physical assets.  We don’t need more buildings – we’re overbuilt as we are right now!  Again, it’s not “things” that make up our economy, it’s services!
  3. Re-introduce R&D credits!  Give businesses a $3 tax break for every dollar spent in R&D and new product development!  Prior to President Reagan this was considered normal.  It’s not a new idea, just one that’s been forgotten.  If we can give credits for oil and gas drilling, which creates almost no jobs, why not innovation?
  4. Cut payroll taxes on the self-employed and small business.  Today self-employed pay 2x the payroll taxes, so it’s a big dis-incentive to entrepreneurship.  Give start-ups a break by lowering employment taxes on small employers – say less than 50 employees.
  5. Allow investors in start-ups to write off up to 2x their losses.  It takes away a lot of the risk if you can get most of your money back from a tax break should your investment fail.  And for all those corporations that abhore taxes this would incent them to invest in small enterprises that have new ideas they’d like to see developed.
  6. Remember the Small Business Administration (SBA)?  Re-activate it by giving it $100B (maybe $200B) to guarantee bank loans of small businesses.  Bank lending has ground to a halt as banks eliminate risk – so let’s get them back into their primary business again.  In WWII the government guaranteed every loan for the construction of the Liberty Ships – and behold business built 2,751 of the things in 4 years!  
  7. Increase funding for higher education.  Increase the grants for science, engineering and new product research at America’s universities.  Increase grants for students in science and engineering, and allow students to deduct out-of-pocket educational expenses from their taxes.  Allow corporations to deduct all the expense of employee education – uncapped!  Allow corporations to deduct the university grants they make!
  8. Invest in today’s digital infrastructure.  Once we paid to send men to the moon – and a flood of innovation (from microwave ovens to powdered drinks and frozen food) followed.  Today we should invest in a nationwide WiFi network that’s everywhere from rural forests to city buildings – and make it all FREE.  Digital networks are the highways we need today – not concrete ribbons.  Create tax deductions for people to buy smartphones, tablets and other products that drive innovation, and make it easy for innovators to network for solutions to emerging needs.
  9. Streamline the process for small companies to test and sell new bio-engineered products.  The existing complicated process is a legacy of big companies and traditional pharmaceutical research.  Make it easy for entrepreneurs to test and launch the next wave of medical technology based on the new bio-sciences.  Offer federal-backed safety insurance to protect small businesses that show efficacy in new solutions.

These are just 9 ideas.  I’m sure readers can think up 90 more (in fact, I challenge you to offer them as comments to this blog.) If we invest in innovation, we can create a lot of jobs.  But we need to start NOW!