How do you reverse the economic spiral? How do you get people shopping again? How can people be convinced to shift some of their 401(k)s back into stocks? By securing people's jobs. In the near term, the only one with a chance of doing that is President-elect Barack Obama, and he can do it with a simple phrase: No more layoffs.
What you did or didn't spend at the mall this weekend is the latest critical economic indicator. First it was the real estate slide, then the swoon of the bank stocks. Now the auto industry teeters on the edge of disaster, and if holiday shoppers don't rescue the fourth quarter, the economy may fall into the abyss.
After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, George W. Bush called on Americans to go shopping. Consumers borrowed and spent their way out of the economic aftershocks of 9/11, but it seemed a pretty easy sacrifice to ask of a country primed to be inspired by the deadliest attack ever on American soil.
In the current emergency, shopping makes more sense as a call to action than it did in 2001. But consumers are holding on to their wallets, spooked by things that are scarier than terrorists: losing their jobs, losing their health care and losing their homes.
Those fears are justified. Millions of people are a few missed paychecks away from foreclosure and bankruptcy. Their jobs are their lifeline, and today's corporations won't hesitate to cast them adrift.
There was a time not that long ago - the '80s, if I recall - when corporations identified several stakeholders in their mission statements so fashionable at the time: their stockholders, certainly, but also their employees, their customers and the communities in which they operate.
Not any more. Corporate honchos consider their only obligations to be maximizing shareholder profits and executive compensation. A decade or two ago, CEOs bragged about avoiding layoffs; today they brag about laying off workers even when they don't have to.
We're now starting to see anticipatory layoffs from companies with healthy balance sheets. They project business may be down next year, so they are letting their workers go now.
"Business in general, especially U.S. business, has become more preemptive in terms of responding to downturns," economic historian Andrew H. Bartels told the Boston Globe. "They want to get ahead of bad news. If you've been expecting growth and suddenly you see this cliff ahead of you, you think, 'Uh-oh, we better put on the brakes."'
It may make sense for them - and Wall Street rewards any effort to reduce costs - but every layoff feeds the economy's downward spiral. Not only does the unemployed worker become a drain on the economy, his friends and co-workers cut back on their spending and investing, knowing they could be next.
How do you reverse that spiral? How do you get people shopping again? How can people be convinced to shift some of their 401(k)s back into stocks? By securing people's jobs.
In the near term, the only one with a chance of doing that is President-elect Barack Obama, and he can do it with a simple phrase: No more layoffs.
So far, Obama has only been talking about what the government should do to fix the economy. This mostly involves the government borrowing and spending its way out of recession. His stimulus plan will spend billions of dollars fixing roads, bridges, schools and a new electrical grid. If they're smart, they will also pay for research grants and service programs, so you don't have to wear a hardhat to get a piece of the stimulus. Obama also wants a tax cut for the middle class, and he's considering postponing the tax increase on rich folks he promised during the campaign.
In other words, he's just asking us to accept higher federal budget deficits and lower taxes. After eight years of Bush, we've gotten pretty good at that.
But Obama can do more. He can challenge businesses to take a pledge: Rearrange the work as needed - especially by reducing employee hours - but make it your priority to keep everyone on the payroll.
I'm not suggesting a new law, a government mandate, or a bureaucracy to monitor compliance. Just put the names of companies that take the pledge - and unions that pledge to renegotiate contracts to accommodate no-more-layoff strategies - up on a Web site. Let employees, not the government, watch to see if companies are keeping their promises.
I understand job loss is part of the "creative destruction" of American capitalism. Of course, failing companies will cut loose their workers. Hiring freezes and attrition should continue to be part of how companies adjust to economic downturns.
But a part-time job is better than no job at all, and the flexibility it offers can pay off for the economy as well as workers. It's not a matter of sharing the wealth - a phrase used against Obama in the campaign. It's a matter of sharing the work.
Government can help. Unemployment insurance regulations can be adjusted, for instance, to help ease the loss of pay for those whose hours are reduced as well as those left jobless. There may be a way to reward companies that keep employees' health insurance in place even when their hours are reduced.
But what government can mainly do - really, what Barack Obama can do - is enlist patriotism in the cause of economic recovery. He can tell Americans that companies have a duty to their country as well as to their shareholders, a duty to keep people working.
Obama has reportedly been reading up on Franklin D. Roosevelt, no doubt because he, too, is entering the White House at a moment of great economic peril. I expect he has read this FDR quote from 1932, noted in The New Yorker recently by George Packer:
"The Presidency is not merely an administrative office. That's the least of it. It is more than an engineering job, efficient or inefficient. It is predominately a place of moral leadership. All our great Presidents were leaders of thought at times when certain historic ideas in the life of the nation had to be clarified."
Obama has called the economic downturn "a crisis of historic proportions." Emergencies of that magnitude don't yield to tweaking by government managers, however expensive the stimulus package or extensive the new regulations.
Obama must do more than lead the government. He must lead the country, enlisting the people in the struggle to turn the economy around. Don't just tell us to go shopping; inspire us to keep each other working.
Rick Holmes, opinion editor of the MetroWest Daily News, blogs at Holmes & Co. (http://blogs.townonline.com/holmesandco). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.