Creating jobs, with “more” and “less”

There’s no denying that “shovel-ready” projects, like building new roads, bridges, runways and railroad tracks are good ways to generate new jobs—but they’re not the only way. A recent article in “Yes” lists 10 ways to jump-start jobs without tearing up the landscape. It’s an offbeat approach, but worth considering. Some are more practical than others, and some will require a bit of help via tax breaks and/or government subsidies. But, hey, we subsidize highways, agribusiness, and other things are aren’t so great for the landscape, so why not?

New, creative solutions are too often crowded out by conventional subsidies and breaks, and they’re not on politicians’ hotlists–perhaps because many of these ideas don’t appeal to big businesses, whose campaign contributions set the political agenda.

Anyway, here’s the list from “Yes,” with my personal reactions to some of the ideas:

1. More farms, less agribusiness. Agribusiness substitutes chemicals and machinery for labor and employs remarkably few people. Small organic farms are far more productive per acre and bring the people back.

Small farms have vanished, because they can’t compete with agribusiness. And while nostalgia for the agrarian America that once existed is not a particularly productive political philosophy, small urban farms offer interesting possibilities for jobs and for bringing the food supply closer to home.

2. More repair, fewer products. Instead of tossing those shoes, that toaster, that computer, let’s fix them—and employ repair people in the process.

The rapid pace of change in computer technology makes fixing them somewhat impractical. But it’s been my experience that many computers are trashed because they crash or run slowly–not because they’re totally out of date. Some users–me included–don’t realize that computer ill-health can be caused by the way we use them, and that crashes and speed can be remedied by some basic maintenance procedures.  As for shoes–fixing them is such a novel notion in a throwaway society. Good one!

3. More recycling, less mining. Ray Anderson of the Interface flooring company says we already have enough nylon to meet the world’s carpet needs forever. The same may be true for aluminum, steel, copper, and other easily recyclable materials. We just need good systems for recovering them.

4. More renovations, less construction. Our nation has 129 million housing units. We build new ones and let old ones deteriorate. How about renovating what we have and in-filling our cities to use existing sidewalks, gas pipes, water mains, and roads?

I live in a metropolitan area that has an exemplary track record in getting grants for historic renovation. I also live in a neighborhood where scores of 1960s-era ranch homes built to human scale have been torn down and replaced by McMansions crammed sideways onto 1/2-acre lots. These two trends live side by side, and that doesn’t make a lot of sense. As to the notion of reusing gas lines and water mains…in light of the recent gas-line explosion in California, perhaps not such a great idea

5. More restoration, less destruction. Whether it’s forests, Superfund sites, or oil-laced wetlands, it’s time to restore. Some restoration can even pay for itself, as in restoration forestry where folks make products from the fire-prone, small-diameter trees normally considered too small to market.

6. More bike paths, fewer highways. They both cost money, but one is good for our health and good for the planet. What’s not to like?

7. More local businesses, fewer megastores. Locally owned stores employ more people per goods sold and you can often talk to a decision-maker about your purchase.

Yes, it’s virtually impossible to compete with a megastore. But drive down any major suburban street, and you might notice a lot of empty big box stores plastered with for lease and for sale signs.  So, that’s not working so well, either. Earlier this year, I came across a flyer for a group called “3/50.” The idea is to find three locally owned businesses that you’d hate to see disappear, and to do $50 worth of business in them each week.  I’ve adopted a locally owned Thai restaurant, a framing shop and a local hardware store. I’m not spending $50 a week in all of them, but I’m doing what I can, and it feels soooo good.

8. More dishwashing, fewer throw-aways. What if we got rid of all the disposable containers in fast food restaurants? At a shopping center near Seattle, the food court vendors share a common crockery supply. No trees needed. It works.

9. More education, less advertising. Let’s face it. Advertising is about making us feel inadequate for something we don’t yet have. What if we stopped subsidizing advertising with tax breaks and focused on educating people to lead satisfying lives?

As a fan of “Mad Men,” I can see how changing the nature of advertising sounds like a nutty idea in a capitalist society, where owning more stuff is the ultimate goal. But how about using advertising techniques to sell the idea that intellectual curiosity and life-long learning are as desirable as drinking beer or buying shoes that cost $1,000? That’s an advertising job worth hiring for–and a tough-sell campaign that could mean job security for a lot of people.

10. More clean energy, less fossil fuel. Here we do need new stuff—wind turbines, solar panels, insulation, passenger trains. Politicians are providing some—though not enough—funding for these sources of “green jobs.”

In tough economic times, businesses, families and individuals are constantly seeking ways to do more with less.  Bringing that notion to job creation is a novel idea–more or less.