The creativity comes from how the government chooses which immigrants win the right to join the incoming tide. Some could be selected for citizenship through a lottery. In the spirit of American capitalism, others could buy citizenship at an auction. As economic blogger Matthew Kahn suggested last month, “The United States does have a product that the rest of the world wants. It is called a ‘U.S passport.’ ” Each new one could fetch an average of $250,000 at auction, Kahn estimates. U.S. employers, which are both flush with cash and worried about the thinness of America’s ranks of engineers and other highly skilled workers, could buy spots for would-be citizens who would help their businesses. Would-be entrepreneurs could borrow money or recruit venture capital to sponsor themselves. A million citizenships averaging $250,000 each would raise $250 billion—money that the president and Congress could agree to devote exclusively to paying down the national debt.
Unleash energy companies’ spending power. Late in 2010, Midwest mega-utility Exelon announced that it would start spending $5 billion on renewable-power generation, energy-efficiency efforts, and other clean-energy projects, which the utility said would create “thousands of jobs.” Few other utilities have announced investments anywhere near that large, even though the nation’s power plants are aging and electricity demand is projected to rise. The disconnect is one of the easiest-to-spot examples of the “certainty” problem that Republicans often complain about—and it’s fairly easy to remedy.
Exelon CEO John Rowe likes to point out that utilities face a “train wreck” of multiple new environmental regulations in the next decade, along with a vague sense—but no concrete indications—that Congress will eventually put a price on carbon dioxide emissions. The multiple unknowns create a near-paralysis for an industry that invests on decades-long time horizons. Utilities don’t know which types of power plants will be affordable or even feasible to operate down the road, so they’re hesitant to make big bets now. If they build more coal or natural-gas capacity, which is mostly cheaper today than renewable power such as wind or solar, utilities might get socked by regulations or carbon pricing down the road. If they had a better idea of what’s to come—specifically, the knowledge that renewables, which are costlier today, will necessarily form a growing share of the nation’s future electric mix—they would be more likely to invest in those sources now, when idled construction workers could use the work.
One of the easiest ways to shore up certainty for utilities would be a “Clean-Energy Standard”—a mandate that a certain percentage of each utility’s power generation come from low-carbon-emission sources. The percentage would ramp up over time. Under current technology, clean energy is often more expensive than, say, coal-fired electricity, but a phased-in standard would allow utilities time to increase electric prices incrementally; a well-designed standard with flexibility (for regions most dependent on fossil fuels today) could blunt much of the long-term impact on consumers. Meanwhile, the new construction could start right away. Such a federal mandate, says Joshua Freed, vice president for clean energy at the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way, “would provide a clear signal, without costing any money, to the private sector to invest in wind, solar, or any of the other technologies that are coming on line today.” Several large utilities say that the resulting certainty would spur billions of dollars of investment and drive job growth.
Explore other deals. Obama and Republicans could seek common ground elsewhere, too: freezing or repealing some federal regulations (the National Labor Relations Board has several that the business community would love to vanquish); enacting German-style labor laws to encourage job-sharing, in which businesses keep workers on the payroll but reduce hours across the company to prevent layoffs; and extending payroll-tax cuts or enacting new ones designed to encourage businesses to hire the long-term unemployed (Obama has pushed that last idea for some time now). Lawmakers should look for more ways to boost exports, to unleash corporate investment, and to unlock credit for start-ups.
If Washington’s top political and policy strategists can’t find some way to compromise on any of these ideas, they should take a day off—only one—and draft a list of new possibilities. Then they should reconvene, or call in their super committee and lock its members up until they reach consensus.
It doesn’t matter where everyone meets, but it would be nice if the room had a big bank of phones. That way, if job-creation talks stall, everyone could leave the table and dial for a while. Across America, 14 million unemployed workers would be happy to take their calls. They’re bound to be full of ideas. Unlike the folks in Washington, they have thought about almost nothing else these last few months.
This article appears in the Aug. 6, 2011, edition of National Journal.