The "Jobs" Trap

“Jobs.” Every time we make a big public expenditure in NE Ohio, it’s because of, for, and in service of “jobs.”

Taxing ourselves to build a convention center and hotel complex = jobs! Major league sports subsidies = jobs. Highways, especially highways = jobs.

Whoever is proposing or benefiting from the public expenditure can hire a firm to produce a study that says X expenditure will create Y jobs. How could anyone be against “jobs” in NE Ohio? You can’t. Don’t you care about all the people in NE Ohio who are without work?

So we build convention centers, and major league sports stadiums and highways. Yet somehow this “jobs” problems hasn’t been solved.

It’s enough to make you question the whole approach. It’s interesting the type of projects that are framed this way. It’s not — “we need to solve infant mortality because ‘jobs.'” It’s not, “we need to make our transportation system more efficient because ‘jobs.'” It’s not even “we need to do more to make our city more attractive to young people because ‘jobs.'” Or we need to do something about segregation and ghettoization. All of that is really secondary to these large projects and the promise of “jobs.” These things are a distraction from the more fundamental problem of jobs, not, you know, the heart of the “jobs” problem.

Here’s how this plays out in the real world. Cleveland is getting ready to build a $330 million road through it’s east side. The project — the Opportunity Corridor — is a “jobs” project through and through. The idea is that the road will attract firms to some vacant land in Cleveland. It’s an easy concept to understand. This is the same thing we’ve been doing for decades. Road = jobs.

Probably there will be some jobs that will come out of it too. In the minds of a lot of observers, that makes it sort of a foregone conclusion. The people that would stand in the way? Well, they’re sort of jerky.

But I don’t think anyone thinks “jobs” are not a problem in NE Ohio. It’s just a question of what’s the best way to produce them. Building a 3-mile road for $331 million can still be a bad approach for our economy even if it does result in some end number of jobs.

First of all, if we spent $331 million in a way that didn’t produce any jobs, that would be sort of a miracle. The question is, will it have a long-term impact on our economic prospects as a region — as really any public expenditure of that magnitude ought to?

I think that is really a much more complicated question. It involves examining alternatives, giving them serious consideration. But that is not the way things are done here.

For example, Mayor Frank Jackson has estimated that Cleveland’s roads need about $300 million in repairs. Cleveland’s roads are horrible, a sure and clear and persistent drain on our economy. But we aren’t having a discussion about whether that alternative might be more beneficial to our economy in the long run.

Here’s why: The state of Ohio won’t give the city of Cleveland a big pot of money to fix its roads — only for new construction. So, civic and business leaders have instead applied for money for a three-mile road that is costly enough that all of Cleveland’s roads could be brought into good condition for the same price. And this is considered a “win” for Cleveland, because otherwise the city of Cleveland wouldn’t get any money at all.

Here! Here is why our economy is bad, why we don’t have “jobs.” >>>>>>>> Rather than tackle the obstacles to economic revival put in place by our own political system, we are gaming it. The result is a less-than-great return on taxpayers’ investment. Public resources are being spent in a less than efficient way, in a struggling city, just because our political system prevents us from addressing our real problems. That more fundamental problem is skirted.

Every place has these kinds of problems to some extent, but to the extent that they do, all of their economies struggle. Look at what we went through with the U.S. economy over the last decade. That should have inspired some fundamental rethinking of our approach to real estate development. But old attitudes persist.

Fixing the “jobs” problem is never going to be just one major project away for NE Ohio. It involves examining the more fundamental problems with the whole system and addressing them — fixing them. It involves making the most of the resources that come down the pike. Northeast Ohio hasn’t done a very good job of that over the last few decades. And we’re all suffering from the results.

Big “jobs” projects aren’t a solution. More and more they seem like symptoms of the problem.

–Angie Schmitt

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