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Jack Zaleski column: Again, it's the economy, stupid

Polls before and after the Iowa Caucuses and New Hampshire Primary revealed that the economy, not the Iraq war, was foremost in the minds of Democratic voters. The Forum-WDAY poll results in today's edition show the same thing among North Dakotans.

Polls before and after the Iowa Caucuses and New Hampshire Primary revealed that the economy, not the Iraq war, was foremost in the minds of Democratic voters. The Forum-WDAY poll results in today's edition show the same thing among North Dakotans.

Unease about job security, job flight overseas and the seemingly unstoppable rise in health care and health insurance costs motivated voters more than national security or foreign policy. Those sentiments seem to be driving the support among North Dakotans for Sen. John Kerry, as confirmed by our poll. Kerry campaigns in the state today. North Dakota holds its presidential preference caucuses Tuesday.

Simmering concern with domestic pocketbook issues was one of the reasons Howard Dean's campaign stumbled. His angry one-note anti-war rhetoric might have generated an early wave of support for him, but when Democratic voters (and independents) took a closer look at the platforms of the other candidates, the former Vermont governor began to fade.

So, is it "the economy, stupid"?

Observers of U.S. economic conditions point to good signs: Inflation is low; interest rates are at historic lows; economic growth in the last three quarters has exceeded forecasts; consumer confidence is up; the stock market recovery has been sustained over several months; productivity is the envy of the world

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The anxiety, however, is real, and much of it is generated by the apparent good news about economic indicators.

Take "productivity," for example. It's one of those terms that makes Americans swell with pride. We work harder and produce more than anyone else, right? Well, sure. But what "productivity" really means is that most of us are working harder and longer. In other words, fewer people are producing the same or more than before -- whether it's building widgits or selling canned peas or processing insurance claims or growing wheat. Because fewer workers are working their tails off, there are fewer job openings. It's efficient and productive, but for whom? Certainly not for most working people. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the much-ballyhooed "recovery" is a jobless recovery.

Nervousness about job flight overseas also is affecting politics. The loss of manufacturing jobs has been going on for years. Political fallout from those job losses has already fallen. Factory jobs have been disappearing for a generation or more.

But the new cloud on the corporate globalization horizon is the transfer of white-collar technical and service-sector jobs to places like India and Singapore. Not long ago computer programmers and other techies could just about write their own tickets. Today, high-paid tech jobs are flowing overseas where the same work can be done by qualified foreigners (often educated in the United States) who earn a third or less of a U.S. salary. It's also beginning to happen to engineering and research jobs.

Corporations have to answer to stockholders. Reducing labor costs -- even if it means sacrificing good American jobs to cheap foreign labor -- apparently is good business in a global economy. But it's not good politics. (And in the long run might not be good U.S. economic policy.)

Democrats have tapped into middle-class anxiety that lies just below the surface. It's fed by job insecurity, the erosion of health care benefits and a sense that an impersonal and unaccountable global economy is driving wages to the bottom.

That's political dynamite.

Zaleski can be reached at jzaleski@forumcomm.com or (701) 241-5521.

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