In recent days, at least two plans to boost our economy and create jobs have been proposed to the American people.
Last week a group of Western congressmen, including all three members of Wyoming’s delegation, issued a proposal they call the Western Caucus Jobs Frontier proposal. The next day, President Barack Obama brought his administration’s plan to Congress. The proposals are predictable in many ways.
The Jobs Frontier report, for example, begins by cataloging the failure of Obama’s policies, and government in general, to reduce unemployment. It calls for the usual Republican solutions, such as fewer government regulations, including many environmental and safety regulations that they say interfere with, among other things, the production of energy through mining, drilling and the building of hydroelectric dams.
Just as predictably, the administration’s plan calls for, in part, more government activity to produce jobs. A large part of the proposal calls for repairing bridges and highways, upgrading schools and building transportation systems.
It could be argued that both of the above proposals would create jobs. The building of the Interstate highway system back in the 1950s and ‘60s, for example, employed thousands of construction workers, and is stimulating commercial activity even now in areas along the system’s routes.
Energy production also creates jobs, of course, as we Wyomingites know very well, and when it is booming, Wyoming prospers.
But there is the other side of the equation, which neither President Obama nor the Jobs Frontier proposal mentions. Both proposals have costs, and one of those costs may be the loss of some jobs.
Government investment means more government spending, requiring either higher taxes or bigger deficits. And while it may help some people, it may hurt others. The Interstate highway system, for example, has contributed to the decline of many small towns and rural areas, even those only a short distance from the highway. In addition, its maintenance has laid a heavy burden on the states. I-80, for example, is badly in need of repair and possible expansion, a very costly proposition for Wyoming.
Building a hydroelectric dam may create jobs and provide cheap power, but at the expense of agriculture-related jobs when it floods productive farm land, as Yellowtail Dam did in the Lovell area.
Speeding up oil and coal production also has its drawbacks, particularly if it happens too quickly, as happened in the communities of Gillette and Rock Springs back in the 1970s, creating great social and economic disruption and driving up local taxes by requiring huge public investment in schools, public utilities and other services. In addition, reducing regulation may mean dirtier air, less open space and loss of wildlife habitat, outcomes that may impact jobs in the travel industry.
Will jobs created by government investment in infrastructure be worth the higher taxes it may require? Is it worth reducing regulation in ways that might harm our air and water quality, harm farming and ranching or drive up local taxes just to mine a few more tons of coal?
Those are two of the questions we need to ask ourselves and our political leaders, both locally and nationally. In a government of the people, it’s our responsibility to ask them.