When the Democratic Party fell under the spell of the Clintons and the Democratic Leadership Council in the early 1990s, American politics ceased to have two opposing sides on free trade and most other major economic issues. We have two parties that quibble on the margins – Should we cut everyone's taxes all the time or just 98% of the country's taxes most of the time? – but no meaningful disagreements over the free market, go-where-labor-is-cheapest policies that have taken the opportunities for non-college educated Americans to earn a decent living overseas to China, Mexico, India, and elsewhere.
As is typical of American politics, we deluded ourselves into thinking that a painfully obvious outcome from NAFTA and other free trade policies – a large pool of people with less than a college degree either unemployed or working unskilled service industry jobs – would not happen. Those readers old enough to remember the Clinton campaign in 1992 will recall that education would make all young Americans hi-tech wizards (because that kind of work will never be done overseas!) and older laid-off workers would be retrained (in some vague and unspecified way) and made useful in the New Economy. Perhaps you recall the "Silver Bullet" speech from the TV show The West Wing, which was Clintonomics in a nutshell. Let the jobs go, we'll just focus on getting everyone up to speed for the newer, better jobs that await us.
The problem, of course, is that we can retrain people until the cows come home and it won't matter because the jobs aren't there. We keep adding more people to the game of musical chairs, and if the number of chairs doesn't increase it really doesn't matter how quick the players are. So when the White House announces the thousandth "job training initiative" of the last 20 years in response to the current levels of unemployment it is hard not to laugh. Retraining for what? The stated goal is to match the unemployed with the needs of the major companies behind the plans, including Gap and McDonald's. It's sad that people need to be retrained to reach the level of competence necessary to fold sweaters at Old Navy or supervise high schoolers at McDonald's. Anyone else wonder if the difficulty in filling those positions, if indeed there is any, has anything to do with the fact that an adult can't live off of the money they're paying? Can't quite "retrain" ourselves around that problem, can we.
If the government spent half as much time trying to create decent jobs as it has spent teaching the unemployed to run around in circles or master the skills necessary for $9/hr no-benefit jobs, we might actually find our way out of this mess at some point. But since the odds of that happening are so slim, I guess we'll just piss away another couple hundred million retraining people for jobs that aren't there.