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Thursday, Nov. 29, 2012 01:16 am

We need to focus on jobs

In the United States, citizens who believe that they live in the reality-based community are happy about the recent election results, even though the pulverized wreckage of this nation’s political discourse will be harder to repair than the damage inflicted by Hurricane Sandy.

There is a strong case now for ignoring the deluge of discourse dousing us through cable television, talk radio, and Facebook or Twitter, and focusing on pragmatic solutions at the local level.

After all, both the left and the right remain mired in logical swamps. Too many citizens on the left insist that we can solve our budgetary problems by taxing the wealthy, whose most contemptible exemplars are used to stereotype other wealthy citizens who are using their talents and compiling meaningful accomplishments. Too many citizens on the right promote a tediously flawed conception of our economy (Only “makers” and “takers” exist? Oh, please.), or still see mythical communists behind every shrub.

In the towns and cities we actually inhabit, almost everyone, left or right, rich or poor, young or old, believes in economic development. We want our communities to be prosperous. This shared desire begs the questions: Where are the jobs? And why aren’t we more prosperous?

Some of our confusion exists because of sheer digital overload. We are paying too much attention to the endless stream of data. We’re watching, reading or generating too much content about trivial matters.

I wrote this column because I was experimenting with Internet and social-media resources and trying to decide whether paper textbooks are obsolete. My progress was slowed partly by my repeated encounters with incoherency in this flood of digital discourse.

Here’s my favorite example: Robert Samuelson, a conservative economist, recently used research from the Economic Policy Institute, a left-labor think tank, to argue that President Obama should be very kind to businesses and the wealthy.

Are we really going to waste another four years arguing over whether President Obama is mean to business? Or can we instead build a modern power grid and finish health care reform so that our businesses can compete fairly against those in other wealthy countries?

As Heidi Shierholz of the EPI writes, “The current gap in the labor market is 9 million jobs.” According to her calculations, in September this year the “job-seekers ratio”– the ratio of unemployed workers to job openings – was 3.4 to 1. We need to create twice as many jobs each month as we are currently creating, and we need to do it for a long time to have reasonably prosperous communities.

That progress will not happen unless our teachers teach more effectively, our students spend more time on their studies and our communities focus their attention on learning, practice, experimentation and practical problem-solving.

If we approached this sea of digital content with a clearer sense of purpose, then perhaps we would learn how to separate the useful and the effective from the trivial and the useless.

If we knit our entire communities, from top to bottom and across all divisions, into one large forum about job creation, then perhaps we would remember that knowledge, skills and cooperation matter.

Or we can pretend that our communities will survive if they lose their external sources of revenue. We can pay our political leaders large sums of money to talk about fiscal cliffs and ideologically pure economic theories unsupported by real-world evidence.

I’d rather see our teachers experimenting with open-source textbooks or social media to determine whether we can make education more affordable and effective. I’d rather see water treatment plants being built and businesses entering new markets, developing new products and adding to the ranks of the employed.

I’d rather see action this day, rather than paralysis every day.

Nick Capo of Jacksonville, associate dean and associate professor of English at Illinois College, writes as a public scholar and private citizen.
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