January 29, 2012

A call for renewed social infrastructure

I write these columns each Tuesday. Tonight, President Obama delivered his State of the Union. The 84 percent are grateful that we are hanging on, and the 16 percent who are unemployed and underemployed are feeling worse as all their resources are exhausted.

This is what happens when unemployment stays high for so long. In fact, there have been only a couple of years since early in the 1990s that unemployment and underemployment have remained above 10 percent. The level of underemployment has not averaged below 16 percent for three years now.

Meanwhile, governments have been unable to weather a recession and have exhausted their resources as so many of those who pay taxes are unemployed or earning less.

I was at a Target store in Seattle the other day and witnessed a sign of our times. A well groomed, obviously highly educated, energetic middle-aged man was my cashier. He could have been an executive, or a software engineer, or a doctor or lawyer.

That day, he was one of the underemployed, perhaps wondering how he can support his daughter's wish to go to college when his salary has been cut in half, and then half again.

These are stories of a nation that has lost its appetite to invest in itself.

We know what it means for companies to invest in new plants and equipment, new products and processes, new research and development. This private infrastructure is what yields for companies like Apple and Alcoa the profits and dividends for a market ready to buy their products.

We see that companies will not invest in even their private infrastructure right now, for the same reason that you don't want to buy a house. You know prices are low, but why buy if you think prices might go lower. Instead, you want to time the bottom.

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