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Jon Talton

Analysis and commentary on economic news, trends and issues, with an emphasis on Seattle and the Northwest.

September 9, 2011 at 10:00 AM

Thinking about jobs. Vote on the Obama plan

Last night, President Obama proposed a large series of tax cuts and a more modest set of infrastructure investments. Heavily composed of measures Republicans have supported in the past, they’re aimed at garnering bi-partisan approval. Do you think they’ll work?

The president’s jobs plan

Before the speech Thursday, I spoke with University of Washington Professor Graham Allan about the labor-market crisis. As a professor of polymer science and chemical engineering, he might seem outside the economic debate. But not to his mind. Among the many challenges facing Americans is not merely finding jobs, but thinking up new ideas on their own. To that end, he teaches classes in creativity and innovation.

“People are told to take more math classes,” he said in his rich Scottish brogue. “That’s nonsense. I love mathematics, but they’re just tools. It’s like telling an unemployed carpenter to buy more hammers…What doors will it open? You can become a math teacher…”

What’s missing in the conversation, Allan argues, is an emphasis on teaching creativity and innovation. “Jobs are not lost,” he said.”They’re taken away. If you’re unemployed, you have the ability to create your own company.” Find a demand. Solve a problem. Even in K-12 education, we teach to the test but don’t do enough to encourage young people to start their own enterprises. “Nothing happens without an idea to start,” he said.

I’m not getting all Tom Friedman-y on you — not everyone is suited to be an entrepreneur — and Allan is well aware of the roadblocks. Without universal healthcare, many are afraid to strike out on their own. And translating creativity into true innovation that attracts capital, “that’s the tough part,” he said. Still, he said, too little attention is paid to thinking and applying creativity (a theme of Richard Florida’s Creative Class work) more broadly among American workers.

It reminded me of when I was a department head and my new boss, the late Max Jennings, demanded each of us take an afternoon off once a week and sit alone with just a pen and a legal pad, thinking and coming up with innovations and solving problems. We were all overwhelmed with work and thought he was nuts. But he was right, of course, and the ideas that made it through the bureaucracy were among the best.

Something to think about.

Links of the week:

  • Is inflation the answer to re-energizing growth? || Project Syndicate
  • Lobbying masquerading as economic analysis || Simon Johnson/Economix
  • Obama’s speech: Is he coming to grips with the downturn? || New Deal 2.0
  • Eurozone liquidity at worst level in years || Zero Hedge
  • Why small businesses aren’t creating jobs || Seeking Alpha
  • Comments | More in Jobs/Unemployment

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