Who’s afraid of job training?

First off, a big thanks to my colleague Dave Hoffman and the other editors for the invitation to guest blog this month. I’m planning to post about my own research as well as other interests, including law and social movements, the meaning of and significance of the Occupy protests, and the complicated role of class in U.S. law and politics.

For now, though, a more topical post: the unemployment numbers are out today, and things are looking up: 243,000 new jobs created in January, lowering the national unemployment rate to 8.3%. Granted, the top-line number lacks granularity, and tends to understate the extent of un- and under-employment. But lower unemployment is a good thing. As the post-Keynesian Joan Robinson once quipped, “The only thing worse than being exploited by capitalism is not being exploited by capitalism.”

What’s intriguing to me is that while Obama, Romney and Gingrich’s proposals regarding unemployment differ in many ways, each has endorsed job training as an anti-unemployment strategy. Obama stirred controversy last year when he praised a Georgia program in which firms could “hire” and train unemployment recipients but not pay them for the first eight weeks.  Less controversially, the DOL recently granted $500 million to community colleges to help retrain and place the unemployed.

There’s just one problem: it’s not at all clear that job training does much good, particularly in a down economy.

The potential reasons are myriad. Training programs might not be ambitious enough; or workers might need more advanced skills than those programs can provide; or, frankly, macroeconomic factors may dwarf workers’ skill levels as a cause of unemployment, rendering supply-side solutions largely ineffective.

Why, then, is job training so politically popular? Perhaps politicians are in bad faith, and they want to create the illusion that they’re doing something about unemployment. But even if true, that would not explain such programs’ popularity among the general public.

I suspect that this may be another example — no pun intended — of cultural cognition at work. Job training programs, even if mediocre policy, may be quite “congenial to persons of diverse cultural outlooks.” Egalitarians may believe that job training helps disadvantaged groups gain more remunerative and meaningful work; hierarchs may view it as a means to help businesses prosper by building a more skilled workforce. Individualists may feel job training helps workers take personal responsibility for their own economic situation, while solidarists and communitarians may be happy to see the government doing something to address unemployment, a collective, social problem.

If I’m right about this — and I should be clear that I have zero data on point — then the implications for employment policy are significant. At the same time, policies that may have more profound effects on employment rates — like renewed WPA-style programs, or broad changes to fiscal policy — seem politically unpalatable in part because they run afoul of some cultural groups’ perceptions of efficacy. Or perhaps the political conversation around economics and values needs to shift much more significantly … about which more in future posts.

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