Looking back won’t find a cure for unemployment

Too many north County store fronts are vacant. Snohomish County’s unemployment hovers at 9.4 percent, a notch below the state average 9.6 percent. Businesses and public agencies tighten belts by cutting still more jobs. Investment capital has gone into hiding, afraid of deflation and unwilling to accept meager earnings that might not match inflation. What to do?

What can anyone do? Everyone I know is waiting and watching, hoping the Feds will work something out. Call me naïve, but I don’t think it has to be this way. It could remain gloomy though, if we continue to expect someone else to bail us out.

A fact: It is easier to invent new jobs than to retrieve jobs sent overseas. They’re gone. The only reason for looking back is to understand why it happened and adjust the forces and incentives that sent the jobs away. The task now is to look to new vision, new jobs and new protections for our economy.

Old models for federally funded recovery can’t work as well as they did during the New Deal because one worker on a $100,000 machine now does the work of fifty wage-earners with picks and shovels. The money that one worker spends is quickly shunted overseas to pay for imported consumer goods instead of recirculating in our economy

Watching the situation drag on makes a lot of us feel frustrated and impotent. What can anyone do in the face of foreclosures, capital freezing up, joblessness and dim forecasts for the future? Watching corporate and organizational budgets contract by five, ten and fifteen percent is disheartening. We need some ideas that work.

People have wrestled with this before. The Internet’s TED.com lectures and performances serve as springboards for innovators, entrepreneurs and artists. TED’s sponsors seek out people of vision with cutting-edge ideas that deserve an audience. As interested movers and shakers take note of their offerings, they help the best of them to gain traction. The PBS series, “Everyday Edisons” and the July issue of “Mechanics Illustrated” echo the idea.

Looked at from another perspective, “America’s Got Talent” and “Antique Roadshow” demonstrate America’s fascination with special discoveries. Imagine advance parties seeking out fresh job-creating ideas. Juries of industrial designers, patent lawyers and venture capitalists would critique them. Care would be taken to protect the showcased intellectual properties by delaying broadcasts when legal safeguards need to be put in place.

Any major city or region could adapt the TED/Antique Roadshow formula to activating local visionaries. There are enough high-powered and open-minded TED-watchers who would like nothing better than to be on the ground floor in promoting slam-dunk good ideas. Of course there are pitfalls. From the nation’s capitol on down, well-intended schemes get tripped up because of

n Failure to accurately assess need.

n Insufficient or ill-conceived planning.

n Not incorporating the right minds during planning.

n Working from too small a base of support.

n Inability to wrest financing from a stingy credit market.

Too much sits on its hands, waiting. This includes city and county councils, chambers of commerce, Rotary, Kiwanis, Lions, bankers, construction and what have you. Meanwhile, civic planners work to bring in Big-Box stores and chain restaurants to beef up their tax-bases. That’s nice but a closer look points out some flaws:

n Big-Boxes take profits out of state

n Assign decision-making to corporate headquarters.

n Grant service and maintenance contracts to non-local contractors.

n Award plant design and construction to non-local companies.

n Draw management from corporate staff, not local talent.

There is a real danger that city and county planners are defining local economies as Big-Box economies, a euphemism for economic serfdom. Though Big-Boxes are here to stay, for the sake of our communities, planners should focus even more effort on fostering the more important tier of marketing and production — innovative small business.

Small business accounts for more than half of all jobs in the private sector. The Office of Advocacy reports that 60 percent to 80 percent of the year’s new jobs were created by small businesses. Small business is where the action is. As a one-time small business owner I recall the time when my operation grew to where I had to hire a first employee. It was as though someone had just entered my life, or visa-versa. Because of me, someone had an income they didn’t have before. For me, it was a huge moment. I had made a job!

Given the shakiness of the nation’s economy, small business needs fans, sympathizers and enablers. It needs the kind of vision that’s not hinged on greed and comfort. For such a program to work, visionaries and enablers would need answers to these questions: How might a program of showcasing innovative thinking actually be brought about? What scheme would maximize the launching of good ideas into production or performance? How could inventors, to some degree, be protected from pirates? And most importantly, would such a program actually create jobs?

Comments may be sent to: rgraef@verizon.net.

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