Thursday, November 17, 2011

Can Anyone Create Jobs? I'll Have To Go With "Yes."

Adam Davidson asks, Can Anyone Really Create Jobs? Now, normally I'd prefer to leave that sort of empty-headed both-sidesism right the hell alone, or at least to the better political writers out there, especially when it's, like, so two weeks ago, but sometimes when you actually make yourself pay attention to a minor irritation like that, next thing you know you've scratched your arm raw, and everywhere else feels itchy too. I note that (1) Adam Davidson is a known economics reporter, one of those ubiquitous NPR presences—presumably they pay him for this sort of thing, which is another fine reason not to send them your donations—and now here's a regular Times Magazine opinion gig wherein he professionally throws up his hands and fails to opine (when the thesis is "nope, can't do it" then remind me why I might consider reading subsequent entries); and (2) some otherwise smart Facebook friends recently congratulated themselves for "liking" this one, and venting out my polemical impulses where no one will actually read it is pretty much exactly why I have a blog. [All right, there's (3) this business of cleaning out my browser tabs while I find myself again able to focus on this sort of thing for awhile. Most of the other tabs are job postings awaiting replies, and this is a break from that. Maybe for fun, I'll try and guess how much government creation was involved in any of them.]

Read the article if you must, but this gist is Davidson observing that—or rather appealing to authority to discover that—neither the Chicago-school approach described as "do nothing" nor the Keynesian approach described as "spending a lot of money" (and only tax breaks or subsidies are feasible, he tells us) to "goad consumers into spending again" does anything. It takes him to the end of his first page to reach the point that the austerity moves of firing government employees in Britain did not improve private job growth, but did directly cause a bunch of losses when those people were suddenly let go. "Wait," you ask, "since the British government had, in fact, created all those government jobs, doesn't that mean that they can be created?" Yeah, well, don't ask me. I don't have a keen economic mind, either. You may further wonder about the simultaneous contentions that Americans can't do things people will pay them a living wage for but still need to indenture the hell out of themselves for more education to get such non-jobs.

Here's the thing. The U.S. currently already does invest a metric fuckton into job creation. It's not just the legions of deputy assistants and other bureaucrats that make up the government workforce. To point out the obvious, our military and defense contractors (including me, for a couple more weeks) are primo recipients of this, and it creates a need for high-dollar industries like lobbying, and low-dollar ones for things like food service and building maintenance pretty much by virtue of its existence. We have a huge program to hire research staff in various laboratories and through extensive grants. Given that the government is powerful enough that it can appropriate—or invent—money and just hire people to do stuff, there's no reason it has to be doing anything special. Commenters on Davidson's article (and on Facebook) note that the Roosevelt-era rural development programs are a bit outdated in modern times, but for fuck's sake, fix the rotten infrastructure, administer medical insurance, get some science on, or do all that teaching that Davidson is convinced we need. If we're doomed to a system big enough to waste so much enterprise on evilly blowing up our contrived enemies, is it too much to ask that it do something useful as well?

The other obvious rebuttal is that the market is a construct, and the government ostensibly has some power over its operating parameters. If the problem is that our delicate corporate persons can't possibly hire Americans at the rates they (the hirees) need to survive in this predatory economy, then the government has the putative power to make foreign (or immigrant) labor more expensive too. Raise some tarriffs, let the dollar fall, things like that.

The government isn't really interested in creating jobs though. The real problem—and let's just call it—is that the people who command the economy don't want to pay people to work, and furthermore don't want to pay the government to pay people to work.

All that's your standard liberal boilerplate, which has merit so far as it goes. As I face increasingly crappy job prospects of my own, I feel a growing urge to take it all a bit further. The above argument grants various assumptions that I don't at all feel like ceding at the moment. It takes as givens, for example, that money and debt are more or less real, as if they're system variables rather than some network of agreements and contracts that will tend to work out better for the people who have the better lawyers. If we turn once more to a black box way of thinking about the economy, then, again, the sum of all the things and services produced (and imported/exported) will get definitionally distributed among the people in it. To take an IOZan turn here, why the fuck does it have to be distributed according to "jobs" in the first place? I mean, sure, there's some ad hoc philosophical justification for this, amounting to a plausible intuition that we should get rewarded relative to our contribution, but hey, the Golden Rule's pretty intuitive too, and that individualist model becomes a little bit, you know, problematic, the second any one of us gets too old, sick, or dumb to contribute, or as technology-assisted productivity (as opposed to the more work/less pay kind) advances far enough down the Player Piano timeline to obviate so much ant labor.

Why the hell not just pass out what we make? There's no law of nature involved in this (and it's a bit horrifying to think that we're basing our economy on 18th and 19th century natural philosophy, which defies even anthropological evidence). It's our society, we can arrange it how the hell we want, right? Why does the idea of getting a benefit for not working blow our minds so much? Ed's got this right in that, well, it depends on what class of people we're talking about. If you already have cornered enough money, then getting more of it gets to be something of an entitlement. The truth is, distributing the economy according to jobs isn't just a somewhat arbitrary theoretical model, when it comes down to practice, it's already something of a polite fiction. Only some segments of the population are expected to work very hard for their money, which is a convenient story for the segments that don't. I mean, in a society where monster effort was what got things done, the guys who spend their days elbow-deep in toilet drains would be the ones raking in the gains.

Anyway, I also can't let myself neglect the point that both the Keynesians and the Chicagoland bullshitters suffer from alarming cornucopianism built right into their sets of axioms. I don't want to give him credit for this, but I suppose I agree with Davidson in that in the face of economic shrinkage forced by external pressures (you know, actual physics), the current economic will be that much more imperiled. Oh well, at least we invested for the future during the flush times.


Schmutzie said...

I've often wondered if the gang down in Hyde Park came up with the bulk of their free-market, minimum govt intervention/regulation ideas was because they had Daley's patronage army as a perfect example of how something that seems logical in concept often loses something in practice. When the heat starts getting turned up, like it is now on the freshwater economists, I like to remind people that Friedman (payroll withholding mofo) was from Brooklyn.

I've posted ten billion words on how much I hate the amount of money being funneled to the military industrial complex, so there's no point in posting another billion. It's disproportionate, and they are indeed government matter what the paycheck says. It's an inertia-driven behemoth that has to be slowed and reversed...obviously without cutting your job my man.

Keifus said...

I hate it too Michael, and if it's any consolation, I won't be getting that MIC moolah very much longer, and if the goal was increasing America's killing prowess, then I pretty much wasted a decade's worth of their cash anyway.

Articles like that just piss me off. It's sort of fucked that you can pass off economic conventional wisdom as journalism when it's so flagrangtly wrong. I mean, politicians can and do create jobs, by the friggin' garrison. And if I'm not mistaken, the Chicago school at least believes in monetarism as policy, which is, like, fucking with the market, which, since it has agreed-on rules (which can be changed), by definition ain't free. And you'd think that someone might notice in 35 years of taking that shit seriously, how that rising tide has only lifted a select handful of boats.

Yeah, I like the idea that all economic theory is as local as politics.

Thanks for stopping by. I've been a horrible internet citizen lately.


Cindy said...

"the market is a construct" - This is why I love you!

I'm so effing sick of 'the market is scared' and 'the market is nervous' -- give the effing market a Xanax and get on with it.

Jason Linkins had a good read on Thomas Friedman, another hand-wringing, what-to-do ninny who passes himself off as a journo-economist-type.


Write a book, Keifus. Write two. Dammit.

Keifus said...

Aw thanks, Cindy.

I've always loved how the financiers are the primal warriors of the business jungle in one precious narrative, and yet perpetually soil themselves whenever "the market" does something that makes them worry.

I'm hardly the only person to note that there's no such thing as a free market, of course, I am just not a paid commenter. In that "23 things" book, Ha-Joon Chang made a colorful point that even in the la-la land of the local bazaar, it's subject to hard-fought (and probably not particularly fair) rules about who gets primo stall space, who gets to sell what stuff where, and all other kinds of things.

Have you ever read Matt Taibbi's classic takedown of Thomas Friedman?