We are the greatest city,
the greatest nation:
nothing like us ever was.
Two hundred years ago 90% of all men everywhere were farmers. That had been true for a long time and even as late as the 1900 federal census that was true in the United States. Two hundred years ago in England there was a political movement among artisanal weavers called “the Luddites” (allegedly after Ned Ludd, a kid who smashed two stocking frames, knitting machines, in the 18th century). The Luddites feared for their livelihoods, worried that they would be replaced by low-waged workers using machine-driven looms. At one point the Luddites were powerful enough that they actually clashed with the British Army.
Over the period since the Luddites destroyed stocking frames and French saboteurs threw their wooden shoes into the new Jacquard looms (from sabot, a wooden shoe), the machines have improved people’s life spans and quality of life enormously, more food is being produced on less land and with fewer inputs than ever before, and only about 1% of Americans are farmers. Despite the low number of farmers, unemployment remains remarkably low.
Recently, a number of people have begun to wonder whether slow job growth not only in the United States but in much of the developed world means that we’ll never have robust job growth ever again. They are, in essence, echoing the Luddites’ concerns. Add Paul Krugman to that list. I won’t link to his recent column, Sympathy for the Luddites, because I’m reluctant to link to anything behind a paywall but you can find it easily enough. Megan McArdle is similarly worried:
Paul Krugman has a column today on a topic you don’t normally get much of from economists: sympathy for the Luddites. Back in 2001, when I sat in on my last formal economics class, this was about as daring a proposition as “Sympathy for the Devil” was as an album title.
A dozen years on, I don’t think it’s quite so edgy. I’d guess that Paul Krugman of 2000 would probably have given short shrift to the idea that we should listen to Luddite complaints. So would Megan McArdle of 2000. Both the later versions, much to my surprise, seem to have changed their minds.
What’s happened in the intervening ten years? Some of my more dour readers suggest it’s the fact that I’ve moved to Washington. But I moved to Washington from Manhattan, hardly a bastion of free market sentiment. And besides, I haven’t stopped thinking that markets are the best way to handle voluntary cooperation.
The problem is that all the proposed solutions ring hollow. Until roughly the last five years, it was possible to believe that education would be the solution: send more kids to school, retrain people for new jobs. But college graduates aren’t finding it so easy to obtain solid employment either. It’s true that having a college diploma is still much better than not having a college diploma, but that doesn’t mean that by sending more kids to school, we’re actually making the workforce more productive, much less mitigating the problem of economic change; we may just be forcing people to jump over a higher bar to gain access to a shrinking number of jobs. Paul Krugman points out that these days, highly educated workers still have to fear having their job disrupted.
And retraining only works to a point. For my forthcoming book, I interviewed a Danish photographer facing a career crisis. Could he take advantage of Denmark’s generous retraining programs, I asked? He was glum. Your forties are a bit late to be tackling a whole new career; the payoff to investing years in education is simply inherently lower than it is in your twenties. Besides, he had a new baby. What would he and his wife live on while he spent a few years in training?
Paul Krugman’s solution, a stronger safety net, is equally unsatisfying. I’m not arguing for or against a safety net here; I’m just pointing out that it won’t do as an actual substitute for the majority of the population having jobs.
For starters, it is politically difficult to imagine a really large class of people who simply permanently live off the state. The safety net is rooted in human instincts about reciprocal exchange. Of course, it isn’t all that reciprocal–the majority of people who are net taxpayers are extremely unlikely to collect much in the way of food stamps, TANF, or even unemployment insurance. Nonetheless, the moral arguments are founded in the premise that these benefits are for emergencies, and anyone can have an emergency. They will lose political support if you have one group of people paying taxes, and a different group of people who can expect to live their entire life on the dole.
I think that people who believe that high unemployment is inevitable and forever, like Lucy, have some ‘splaining to do. The number of jobs created per month in the U. S. has been at 175,000 for some time. If jobs are no longer being created, how can that be? If “good-paying jobs” (whatever that may mean) are no longer being created, how is it that hourly average wages continue to rise and the number of employees in sectors with good compensation continues to rise?
I agree that we aren’t creating jobs fast enough. I disagree with the explanation that’s being offered which IMO boils down to “we’re doing the best we can under the circumstances”. I find that a heartless rationalization. I think we’re doing the best we can given the policy preferences we’ve put into place.
I have eight nieces and nephews. They’re all in their twenties, all of them are employed at least part-time, and they all have jobs that didn’t exist a century ago. I can think of a hundred jobs that didn’t exist 100 years ago, 25 jobs that didn’t exist 25 years ago, and 10 jobs that didn’t exist 10 years ago. Here’s a list of some of the latter:
- Social Media/Online-Community Manager
- Elder-Care Services Coordinator
- Telework Manager or Coordinator
- Sustainability Manager
- Educational Consultant
- Search Engine Optimization Specialist
- Medical Biller/Coder
- Online Advertising Manager
- Talent Management Coordinator
- User Experience Manager
So, what jobs will be created ten years or twenty years from now? I have no idea but I genuinely believe that they’ll be there if we allow room for them. That’s the mistake we’re making now. Our policies are in deep conflict. We don’t produce a lot of jobs for people who can’t read or write English but we continue to encourage large numbers of non-speakers of English who can’t read or write to come here. We know that the jobs of the future will require, at the very least, the ability to read and write in English, numeracy, and basic computer skills and we don’t equip our children with any of those. We know that we’re importing too much but won’t act to reduce our largest import, oil. We devote billions to propping up industries that need to shrink. Our greatest single national problem is not enough jobs, we reduce the return to labor.
To change the outcomes, change the policies.
The woman named To-morrow
sits with a hairpin in her teeth
and takes her time
and does her hair the way she wants it
and fastens at last the last braid and coil
and puts the hairpin where it belongs
and turns and drawls: Well, what of it?
My grandmother, Yesterday, is gone.
What of it? Let the dead be dead.