Job Creators

One of the more repugnant aspects of the current US campaign season has been the reduction of a complex issue, unemployment, to this most vapid of terms, job-creation.

The 2012 class of presidential candidates, or the class of intellectual puerility, seems to have no problem tossing this notion around in meaningless utterances such as: ‘When I was governor of state x I created 210,000 new jobs.’ Or: ‘When I was governor of state y our state was ranked first in job-creation.’ Invariably, his latter utterance is followed by a rebuke of some other candidate’s state’s place in the job-creating pecking order while that candidate was governor: ‘And your state, person z, ranked 47th.’

Besides the absurdity of the idea buried within all these claims that politicians are somehow directly responsible for the employment rate (when it should more accurately be seen as an indicator of a complex marrying of a myriad of factors), does the term job-creator actually hold any real meaning?

Cannot one create a whole bunch of jobs while simultaneously destroying a whole bunch of others? Technological innovations do this all the time. Or take the example of the recently ratified US trade agreements with Korea, Columbia and Panama. While they might create a bunch of jobs for the US financial services sector, the automobile industry, and the beef industry, they also likely will kill a bunch of US jobs in the textile industry and in high-tech manufacturing. The elementary lesson of trade agreements: some sectors gain from a reduction of export barriers while other sectors lose from a not-quite-parallel reduction of import barriers.*

Balancing gains over losses over a long period of time is a difficult economic equation with many variables to consider – and I, for one, admit that I have no real idea how to determine how many jobs are really created as a result of the passage of a certain piece of legislation. But reducing it to the simplistic and one-dimensional notion of job-creation clouds the potential for understanding the variety of issues at play. While I grant that trade agreements and job-creation can be positive-sum games, other issues, e.g., environmental effects, employment conditions, diverging labor laws, etc., reduce the arithmetic of ‘x jobs were added here and y jobs lost here’ to almost pure fatuousness.**

(For a more or less positive view of the recent trade agreements, here’s what bloomberg has to say. For a more skeptical view see motherjones.)

Is it a qualitatively good thing if all the jobs added during candidate x’s tenure were added in the fast-food industry? Who knows, but quite a lot would have to be examined to confidently come down on one side or the other.

But I suppose that is the real lesson of any campaign season: let’s please not try to think about anything too seriously.

* By no means am I here advocating protectionism. I agree that comparative advantage is a notion that states should take seriously. And anyway, borders generally disgust, annoy and scare me. But this doesn’t mean I don’t get the practical need for borders, so I put up with them in the same way I put up with, I don’t know, traffic lights and things.

** And even granting the efficacy of comparative advantage, factory workers who’ve lost their jobs can’t simply pick up jobs in finance. These things take time; and in the meantime, a bunch of unhappy people take their legitimate beef and protest on wall street.

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