Construction Destruction

April 7th, 2012

Inspired by How to rebuild a job market (Washington Post4/07/12 A9).


“Are unemployed construction workers worse off than the rest of the jobless?” – Washington Post


“Construction workers are not experiencing relatively worse labor market outcomes.” – New YorkFed economists Richard Crump and Aysegul Sahin


When you ask the wrong question, the answer will be wrong,

And THAT’s why the economic recovery is taking so long.


Why are so many construction workers unemployed?

Because Bush’s recession that sector basically destroyed.


But we need it now more than ever, and can still bring it back,

If Republicans will just temporarily suspend their anti-Obama attack.


If Republicans really want to create jobs,

Rebuilding our infrastructure would create gobs.


That is the wrong question, which makes the answer even more wrong. It doesn’t matter whether unemployed construction workers are worse off than the rest of the jobless (except, of course, if you’re a construction worker; then it matters a lot). There are 1.7 million unemployed construction workers. They are unemployed at a much higher rate (over 17% versus about 8%) than the general working population.

The good news is that unemployment rate for construction workers has been falling quickly, in part thanks to infrastructure-related stimulus spending. That’s a good thing, but we can and should make it better. But the important thing we should remember here is that the goal is not to equalize construction worker unemployment with average unemployment. The goal is to reduce their and the overall unemployment rates as quickly and efficiently as possible.

I use each of those two words for a reason. Many decisions and problems that we as a nation confront are difficult, but this is not one of them. We have dangerously decaying roads and bridges that are costing us more to drive on (or drive around) than they would to fix (read Highway to Economic Hell for more about that). The interest rates we can borrow money at to fund these repairs are among the lowest they’ve every been. Construction material costs are among the lowest they’ve ever been. The economy is in the toilet and unemployment is high.  Making the repairs later will cost the country lots more (the Atlanta Fed’s response to the New York Fed supports that). And there’s an enormous pool of idle construction workers and construction companies out there ready and willing to do work that desperately needs to be one. (Actually, that’s one reason why it does matter that construction sector unemployment is higher than in the rest of the economy, both to the economy, taxpayers, and to government at all levels. That higher rate means that infrastructure spending now will be both more quickly effective economically, and will be cheaper to do now rather than later.)

There are only three conceivable reasons to put off the work: (1) If the economy gets better, it might help Obama get elected; (2) Republicans hate all forms of government spending so much that they don’t care how bad our roads and bridges get, and (3) Republicans actually want roads and bridges to get bad, so that it increases public and political pressure for privatization (read Just Bad Isn’t Bad Enough for more on that). Those reasons may be good reasons from a partisan perspective, but they are not in the public interest.

This is what’s called a public policy no-brainer. What America SHOULD do is immediately begin a massive infrastructure rebuilding program to fix our decaying roads and bridges and employ as many of those unemployed construction workers as soon as possible. That would not only be a quick economic and employment boost, but it would be an efficient one: the work urgently needs to be done, and it will cost America lots more to do later rather than sooner (the “moderate” Republican partisan position), and cost us even more to do never rather than sooner (the Tea Party Republican position).

Like the commercial says: Just Do It.


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