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Robert Bennett: Which candidate best understands how governmental activity impacts the way jobs are created?

SHARE Robert Bennett: Which candidate best understands how governmental activity impacts the way jobs are created?

The focus of the campaign debate has now become a statistical battle over which side has the best record with respect to the creation of jobs. The Romney campaign accuses President Obama of failure by citing current unemployment figures in the nation and saying "Obama didn't create jobs." The Obama campaign accuses Mitt Romney of failure by citing past unemployment figures in Massachusetts and saying, "Romney didn't create jobs."

Which is right?

Both and neither. The statistics are accurate, but the conditions surrounding them differ, and the conclusions drawn from them are wrong. A government, state or federal, contributes only slightly to job creation by its own hiring and the purchases it makes. Overwhelmingly, most new jobs are created in a vibrant economy responding to activity in the private sector. Governors and presidents, and the policies they embrace, do not create growth. However, they still matter because they can either stifle or facilitate the process.

Look abroad, at India and China. For decades, both nations adopted policies patterned after those pursued in the Soviet Union, where central planning was the norm and entrepreneurial ventures were banned. There was little job creation. The plight of Russian workers was summarized in a joke: "They pretend to work and the government pretends to pay them." Economic growth in India and China was equally dismal.

Then — China first, India next — both nations abandoned central planning and adopted policies that encouraged private initiative and rewarded individual economic success. Their economies boomed and a significant middle class appeared in both places, demonstrating that a middle class does not drive economic growth but is the consequence of it.

Here in America, we have seen that the states with the most anti-business governments have the most distressed economies and the highest unemployment levels. Businesses vote against them with their feet. A Utah leader was asked which economic development organization was most responsible for our growth. He replied, "The California State Legislature."

So, the proper question is not a statistical one — "Which candidate has the best record of job creation?" It's a conceptual one — "Which candidate best understands how governmental activity impacts the way jobs are created?" The first question is irrelevant; it ignores all the other factors involved in the number cited. The second question is crucial; it gives us a genuine glimpse of what to expect from the candidate who wins.

Unfortunately, neither campaign has yet to lay out a definitive answer to the second question. It is impossible to do in a sound bite, which may be why the campaigns simply shout statistics at each other, but it needs to be done. Obama took a step towards doing it in his Ohio speech a week or so ago, and Romney needs to respond in equal or even more detail. (But not length. Obama repeated himself too much and went on for 53 minutes, drawing criticism from both left and right.)

Political consultants who make their livings running campaigns will argue against such a discussion. Accustomed to waging a "sound bite war" against each other, they will urge both candidates to keep attacking with statistical irrelevancies. I believe voters are getting awfully tired of that and would welcome a clear statement of clear differences with respect to the proper role of government in regard to fostering economic growth.

In 2008, the winning cry was "Change!" In 2010, it was "Throw them all out!" In 2012, it should be, "Stop the sound bites, and tell us in detail where you want to go and how you plan to get there."

Robert Bennett, former U.S. Senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.