By PETE GOLIS
In the 1990s, an explosion of innovation and entrepreneurship brought unprecedented prosperity to Petaluma and to Sonoma County. In the heady days of Telecom Valley, people celebrated what they were sure would be decades of job creation. In 1999, when Cisco Systems purchased a hometown startup called Cerent Corp. for $7.3 billion, it was said that 200 Cerent employees became millionaires in a day.
Thirteen years later, we can reflect on the transitory nature of success in a world that is changing at light speed.
When the dot-com bubble burst in 2001 and corporations discovered the cost savings associated with overseas production, jobs in Telecom Valley began to disappear. Eventually, companies such as Cisco, Nokia and Motorola would leave altogether.
Meanwhile, in the worst economic conditions since the Great Depression, the Sonoma County jobless rate more than doubled. More than 22,000 local residents are looking for work, according to jobless figures released Friday. Many more are underemployed.
In December, the unemployment rate did fall below 9 percent for the first time in three years — but only because the number of jobs and the number of people seeking jobs declined. This is usually a signal that people have given up.
The local economy shed 2,800 jobs in the past year.
Hoping to put people back to work, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors this month promised to spend $591,000 on an economic development program (though the board has yet to explain where it will find some of the money).
It’s noteworthy that the board recognizes the importance of jobs. Not so long ago, local leaders would cover their eyes when anyone expressed an interest in promoting economic development — a term then viewed as code words for uncontrolled growth.
In recent years, Sonoma County residents have learned the hard way that prosperity can’t be taken for granted. More people are out of work. More people live in poverty. Essential public services are being jettisoned as tax revenues decline.
If you check out the Economic Development Board’s website, you’ll find evidence that officials and citizen groups have devoted a lot of time and energy to developing a strategy to get people working again.
Still, the hard part will be proving that this economic development initiative is not like all the others. All over the country, communities big and small are trying to entice new jobs and preserve the old ones. Some of these efforts will make a difference, and some will be window dressing.
Board members say the emphasis will be on creating “green jobs” in industries that promote renewable energy and conservation — an admirable goal, but hardly unique.
While the objective is to be applauded, no industry gets a free pass when it comes to the economic forces that are transforming business around the world. U.S. companies that manufacture, say, solar panels still must compete with their rivals in China.
And Americans wherever they live must recognize that the economic landscape has changed — and they better learn to deal with it.
Unfortunately, American politicians aren’t willing to speak plainly. They aren’t willing to separate what’s real from the stories that promote their selfish political narratives.
Consider, for example, the conventional wisdom that manufacturing production is declining in the U.S. Among Republicans and business leaders, it’s an article of faith that taxes and regulation are strangling business.
If these same folks read the cover story in this month’s Atlantic magazine — “Making It in America” — they might be surprised to learn that U.S. manufacturing output grew by one third in the last decade. What declined was the number of jobs in manufacturing. This is what happens when less skilled workers are replaced by machines.
As best we can, Americans also must try to reconcile the contradictions that follow us wherever we go.
How do we preach the importance of education in job growth — even as we are eviscerating school budgets?
How do we demand lower prices for the products we buy — even as we condemn working conditions in other countries?
How do we advocate for public works projects that create jobs — and decry government’s growing indebtedness?
Gov. Jerry Brown last week took flak for preaching government frugality — and then endorsing a proposed bullet train.
Given what we’ve learned about the problems associated with the bullet train, he probably deserved it.
But it’s too bad because Brown, in his second time around as governor, seems to be reaching for the combination of optimism and realism California needs right now.
In the 1960s and 1970s, this state didn’t create millions of new jobs by cutting taxes, shortchanging education and refusing to build highways and water systems.
Jobs, jobs, jobs. Politicians talk about them all the time. Starting now, they need to tell us the truth and make the hard choices necessary to get people working again. Meanwhile, the rest of us are challenged to support job creation as a way of renewing our faith in the future.
Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.