The stagnant economy remains the central concern of most Americans.  Although the financial crisis of 2008 had repercussions around the world, the brunt of the job loss was felt here: The International Monetary Fund estimates that one out of every four jobs lost as a result of the financial crash of 2008 was lost in America.  And many of those who lost their jobs then have not gotten new work.  The John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers recently released a study showing that only one out of four of those laid off since 2008 have found full-time work, and half of the new jobs pay less than the jobs that were lost.

Particularly hard hit have been men without college degrees.  On August 25, 2011, Bloomberg Businessweek published an article by Mike Dorning entitled “The Slow Disappearance of the American Working Man.”  The statistics Dorning relates are dire.  Only 63.5 percent of American men have jobs, very near the low recorded in 2009, which was the lowest level of male participation in the labor force since these statistics were first kept in 1948.  The number of men working in their prime working years (between 25 and 54) is just 81.2 percent.  By contrast, 97 percent of men between 30 and 50 were working in 1967.  And working-class American men have grown poorer since the 1960’s: The median real wage for men declined 27 percent between 1969 and 2009.

Men are unfashionable victims, and our elites do not seem overly concerned by the plight of working-class American men.  Men remain targets of discrimination under affirmative action.  When Obama was putting together his stimulus package, Robert Reich, the labor secretary under Bill Clinton, publicly worried about too much stimulus money flowing to “white male construction workers.”  He needn’t have been concerned.  Only $80.9 billion of the $787 billion stimulus package went to infrastructure, and 27 percent of construction jobs have disappeared since the end of 2007.

But the unemployment and underemployment of men raises concerns beyond the economic sphere.  As Don Peck observes in his article “Can the Middle Class Be Saved?” in the September issue of The Atlantic,

Women tend not to marry (or stay married to) jobless or economically insecure men, though they do have children with them.  And those children usually struggle when, as typically happens, their parents separate and their lives are unsettled.

Indeed, the problems Americans associate with the underclass are beginning to move up the economic ladder.  As Peck notes, between 2006 and 2008, 44 percent of births among women with high-school degrees have been illegitimate, compared with 54 percent among those without high-school degrees and only 6 percent among those with college degrees.

Dorning recommends college as a solution, even though he notes that women have outnumbered men on college campuses for three decades and currently account for 57 percent of all college students.  Thus, the problems caused by male unemployment and underemployment are likely to keep growing.  And college is problematic as a universal solution for several reasons.  College costs have outstripped inflation for decades, with many students now graduating saddled with tens and even hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt.   And since many people are simply incapable of getting a college degree, a push for more and more students to go to college will inevitably mean a further decline in academic standards.  Peck recommends a renewed focus on vocational education, which might be useful if it helps lessen the disdain far too often expressed for work that does not require a college degree.

But neither a bachelor’s degree nor a vocational certificate will be of much use for work that is being sent out of the United States.  “In 2007,” writes Peck, “the economist Alan Blinder . . . estimated that between 22 and 29 percent of all jobs in the United States had the potential to be moved overseas within the next couple of decades.”  He also notes that one third of U.S. manufacturing jobs have disappeared since 2000, and “from 1999 through 2008, U.S. multinationals actually shrank their domestic workforce by about 1.9 million people, while increasing foreign employment by about 2.4 million.”

Unfortunately, both Dorning and Peck, like all the presidential candidates, treat this massive outsourcing as a force of nature, akin to the tides, about which nothing can be done.  Actually, something can be done about outsourcing, and was done for most of American history.  That something was the tariff.  In his tightly reasoned and amply documented Free Trade Doesn’t Work, economist Ian Fletcher argues that a 30-percent tariff, one “in the historic range of American tariffs,” is needed to restore the economy to health.  We are not going to see sustained improvement in jobs and wages until we begin to remember what earlier generations knew about protecting American industry and American jobs.