Washington doesn’t sincerely want jobs

In the 1960s, mutual fund magnate Bernie Cornfeld used a key question to winnow prospective new employees. It was: "Do you sincerely want to be rich?" Cornfled’s view was that anybody could get rich if they really wanted to. The reason there weren’t more rich people, in his view, was that most people weren’t willing ...

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

In the 1960s, mutual fund magnate Bernie Cornfeld used a key question to winnow prospective new employees. It was: "Do you sincerely want to be rich?" Cornfled's view was that anybody could get rich if they really wanted to. The reason there weren't more rich people, in his view, was that most people weren't willing to do what it takes to become rich and thus didn't really want to be.

If we alter the question just a little for today's situation and ask if Washington, by which I mean the president and Congress, really want more jobs for Americans, the answer must be no.

Let me give you just two quick examples of why I say that. A few days ago I was in Singapore meeting with, among others, some old friends from Singapore's Economic Development Board. This is the government body in charge of promoting exports, attracting foreign investment and technology to Singapore, and of generally planning and executing the city-state's economic strategy. As always, I was impressed with the comprehensive strategic thinking of these people and of their single-minded pursuit of investment, technology, and jobs that could be brought to or developed in Singapore.

In the 1960s, mutual fund magnate Bernie Cornfeld used a key question to winnow prospective new employees. It was: "Do you sincerely want to be rich?" Cornfled’s view was that anybody could get rich if they really wanted to. The reason there weren’t more rich people, in his view, was that most people weren’t willing to do what it takes to become rich and thus didn’t really want to be.

If we alter the question just a little for today’s situation and ask if Washington, by which I mean the president and Congress, really want more jobs for Americans, the answer must be no.

Let me give you just two quick examples of why I say that. A few days ago I was in Singapore meeting with, among others, some old friends from Singapore’s Economic Development Board. This is the government body in charge of promoting exports, attracting foreign investment and technology to Singapore, and of generally planning and executing the city-state’s economic strategy. As always, I was impressed with the comprehensive strategic thinking of these people and of their single-minded pursuit of investment, technology, and jobs that could be brought to or developed in Singapore.

I went from these meetings to have a drink with a senior U.S. Commerce Department official who happened to be in the neighborhood. Now remember that one of the much-publicized Obama administration initiatives of the past couple of years has been the export doubling program of the Commerce Department’s Foreign Commercial Service. The idea was that every $1 billion of exports generates about 15,000 jobs and that doubling exports would therefore generate lots of jobs and drive unemployment down. It was and is a good idea. So you can imagine my surprise when the official explained that, although not yet announced, the Commerce Department is planning to reduce the staff of the Foreign Commercial Service. I guess Obama and his new, inexperienced commerce secretary think the service will do more with less, but the reality is that it will do less with less. And this was the plan before the recent debt ceiling deal. In the wake of that, the likelihood is that the service will get even less and perhaps do nothing.

From Singapore, I proceeded to Tel Aviv, where I have involved in an evaluation of the work of several U.S.-Israel bi-national foundations for promoting science, agricultural research, and industrial research and development. Created in the 1970s with a total endowment paid equally by both governments of about $300 million, these foundations have been making grants to Israeli and U.S. scientists, researchers, and corporations for the past thirty five years. In that time, they have been associated with several Nobel Prizes, the development and commercialization of an astonishingly wide variety of new technologies, products, and processes, and the creation of tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of U.S. (as well as Israeli) jobs.

The problem for the foundations at the moment is that they have not had their endowments topped up since the early 1980s. They have therefore been requesting that both governments renew and increase their contribution commitments. Now we’re not talking real money here. No trillions or billions. Not even hundreds of millions. Just a few millions or even thousands. Crumbs off the table, really.

Well, fractious and combative as it is, the Israeli government sincerely wants to be a technology leader and to create jobs and has therefore put its money where its mouth is. It has committed not only to maintaining the old funding but to increasing it, contingent on the U.S. government doing the same.

Yes, you guessed it. There’s the rub. No one in Washington is even considering a replenishment of or increase in the endowment, because, truth be told, Washington does not sincerely want to create new jobs.

Clyde Prestowitz is the founder and president of the Economic Strategy Institute, a former counselor to the secretary of commerce in the Reagan administration, and the author of The World Turned Upside Down: America, China, and the Struggle for Global Leadership. Twitter: @clydeprestowitz

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