The song Take This Job and Shove It hit No. 1 on the country music charts in 1978. The blue-collar worker in the song that Johnny Paycheck made famous was working up the nerve to leave the factory after 15 years on the production line. It wasn’t necessarily the best time to mouth off at the line boss. The U.S. economy wasn’t so hot. Unemployment was 6.1 percent, which politicians considered unacceptable. Real wages, which peaked in 1973, were in a long tailspin. Unions continued to hemorrhage members. Workers were angry, and the song captured some of that feeling.
But the song came out before the rise of China and India, before computers facilitated outsourcing, before free-trade agreements further eroded the U.S. manufacturing sector. The hero of the song wasn’t working in the golden age of American labor. But he had a good shot at getting another factory job.
Three decades later jobs are a precious commodity. The unemployment rate is hovering just under 10 percent, and the debate is hot and heavy over how to create more jobs. In The New York Review of Books, economists Paul Krugman and Robin Wells recommend “practically everything that might stimulate the economy. If more spending on infrastructure is politically impossible, at least make the case for it and pound its opponents for their obstructionism.”
That was certainly the message this weekend when tens of thousands of people came to Washington, DC to push the government on the jobs issue. Union members, in their different-colored shirts, turned the Mall into a multi-hued quilt. Religious leaders stood beside GLBT activists and proponents of immigrant rights. Concerned at the tea party’s momentum and the prospect of Congress shifting to the right after the mid-term elections, progressives have attempted to pull together into some semblance of coalition. And jobs are the glue that holds this coalition together, at least for now.
The other fixative that binds this coalition is opposition to war spending. Virtually all the speakers at Saturday’s rally mentioned the enormous amount of money we’re wasting on the wars we’re waging in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere. Lawmakers are all sharpening their knives to make cuts in federal spending to bring down the deficit. Defense Secretary Robert Gates wants to economize on some military operations, through only to pour the savings into other Pentagon programs. Otherwise the U.S. military has resisted attempts to slash its budget.
“More Jobs, Less War” seems like a perfect rallying cry for progressives. But here’s the problem. Many unions, although perhaps willing to oppose the war in Afghanistan, are hesitant to advocate cutting Pentagon spending. With a base that continues to shrink, they fear losing dues-paying members who manufacture weapons. Politicians, too, don’t want to appear anti-job by voting for anything that would close down production lines in their district.
There’s a way around this impasse. We need to update the Johnny Paycheck song. The new refrain should be Take This Job and…Transform It. “The obvious solution to the current economic crisis in the United States is to reduce military spending and apply those savings to a green technology initiative that reduces our dependency on fossil fuels, shrinks our carbon footprint and creates jobs,” Miriam Pemberton and I write in AlterNet. “Such a ‘green stimulus’ could pull our economy out of recession.”
In our new Green Dividend report, we show how this “obvious solution” can become a politically feasible one by playing matchmaker. We need to identify, community by community, the existing manufacturing capabilities and workforce skills and match them to the requirements of new green manufacturing. “After the Cold War ended, the United States missed a golden opportunity to use a ‘peace dividend’ to fund a large-scale conversion program to transform the defense sector into the core of a new manufacturing system,” we write. “The green dividend is perhaps our last shot at transforming the U.S. economy. We have been given a second chance. If we blow it this time, there will not likely be another.”
The military sector has already prepared its fallback option. If the Pentagon starts cutting contracts, its contractors will try to boost military exports. What the Pentagon won’t buy, other countries have lined up to purchase. The Obama administration has begun to change the rules — simplifying the approval process for arms sales — to expand the U.S. share of the export market. The United States, as Foreign Policy In Focus columnist Conn Hallinan explains in a 60-Second Expert version of his recent column, has been No. 1 in this dubious category for many decades. We export war not only with our troops, but with our arms sales. The military sector uses the jobs argument to maintain the status quo even at a time of troop draw-downs in Iraq and canceled weapon systems.
Meanwhile, in a misguided effort to craft a foreign policy that boosts jobs at home, the Obama administration is falling back on its predecessors’ free-trade arguments. Cutting tariffs and regulations, Washington argues, will create jobs. So Obama is preparing to move forward on the U.S.-South Korea free trade agreement, which the legislatures in both countries have yet to approve.
Lawmakers are right to be cautious. “Opening markets only means more intense competition and downward pressure on worker wages,” write FPIF columnist Christine Ahn and FPIF contributor Martin Hart-Landsberg in Forget the FTA Fix, Just Say No. “The experience of past decades of trade liberalization should be proof enough. A case in point: both U.S. and Chinese workers have seen their working and living conditions deteriorate while dominant transnational corporations and their national allies in both countries have gained enormous profits.”
The United States is No. 1 in military spending, No. 1 in military exports, and No. 1 in promoting free trade agreements. We’re not near No. 1 in the categories that matter in the 21st century, such generating green energy. If we don’t transform military jobs into green manufacturing jobs, the United States won’t simply lose its ranking in the global economy. Worse, we will be dragged down by a self-reinforcing and self-defeating policy: peddling weapons and wars that perpetuate the itch they are meant to scratch.