Monday, July 23, 2012

Flim flams then and now

By Bill Kraus

It’s flim flam time again on the campaign trail. This year the subject of the flim flam is jobs.

In 1968 the flim flam was Vietnam. Everybody talked about it. Nobody knew what to do to end it, or if they did, they weren’t willing to toss that ball into the campaign rhetoric ring.

In 1960 the flim flam was the missile gap. A subject that was never mentioned again once the election was over. Flim flams have a way of doing that if they are all rhetoric. The missile gap was.

Jimmy Carter’s flim flam was something called zero base budgeting. Nobody else knew what he was talking about, and it turned out he may not have either, because no budget of his had the characteristics of this money saving flim flam. If you erase the slate clean and make everyone budget ab initio as if there had been no budgets before this one, the savings we were told would be enormous. If, of course, the budget creators ever finished putting this monstrosity together which was unlikely.

This year’s flim flam is jobs.

Everybody talks about jobs, some even make ridiculous promises about how many jobs they will create. Others put their history of real or imagined job creation into the discussion on the ridiculous assumption that the microcosms they describe can expand exponentially under their guidance and all those things that have changed and are changing the global economy in general and the US economy in particular will succumb to their magic wand.

I had an opportunity recently to ask an over-promising candidate for an important office three job questions: What jobs, for whom, making what?

As usual, anything that specific is troublesome on the campaign trail where messages are sound-bite sized and slogans trump disquisitions.

The candidate said in response that manufacturing jobs were coming back. From where? From places where labor intensive low skill manufacturing is done at half the cost? From the robots that are doing more and more things every day and are getting smart enough to do more and more things every day as well?

The candidate also said that the opportunities in skilled trades are legion, that the country needs 600,000 welders as we speak. Fact or flim flam?

As long as vague promises and encouraging slogans suffice no candidate is going to talk about the Information Technology revolution which is even more disruptive than the Industrial Revolution of the last millennium was. The Industrial Revolution moved jobs from the artisans’ shops to the factories. The Information Technology is moving them to cyberspace which human beings do not occupy.

The press which at one time was ever present and enormously annoying. Reporters used to ask the kind of questions I posed to the candidate already mentioned. When they got a non answer or an evasive one, they asked a follow up question and they kept asking follow up questions until they got an answer that satisfied them, which could be “I don’t know” which is clearly a political no no.

They didn’t settle for flim flam.

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Bill Kraus is the Co-Chair of Common Cause in Wisconsin's State Governing Board

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