Saturday, July 16, 2011

They say: “It’s the Economy, Stupid!” I say: “It’s the Stupid Economy!”

By Zvi Baranoff

What is the one, most compelling way that you, as an individual can contribute to stimulating the economy? Get in your car and crash it, preferably in a way that results in multiple injuries that will require hospitalization and legal complications that will take years to resolve in court. You have helped employ cops, tow truck operators, emergency responders, doctors, nurses and various hospital workers, lawyers, court personnel, auto mechanics, parts manufactures – the list goes on.

Waste, carelessness and destruction are good for the economy. Safely driving your car and avoiding accidents really contributes very little to our economic system.  If you feel the least bit reluctant to do your part in this way you probably have the basis for understanding the fallacies of virtually all discussions of jobs.
No class of people does more to help stimulate the economy than blown out heroin addicts. Under the current system many junkies steal to support their habits. A junkie with a $200 dollar a day habit may very well steal a thousand dollars worth of stuff to pay for his fix. This set up supports a wide array of people in the underground economy and keeps cops employed. Stolen items are replaced at full market value. Security systems are installed. If the junkie gets AIDS he stimulates the medical industry. If he goes to prison, he helps keep the prison-industrial complex going.

Now some may argue for a harm reduction approach to heroin addiction. I myself am one to take that position. From an economic perspective, harm reduction offers nothing but negatives. If you were to provide heroin to confirmed addicts by prescription in safe clinics at a reasonable cost, all the above mentioned economic benefits would disappear. If you can actually cure the addiction, even the doctors and clinicians would be out of work! Of course, you may think that it is a good thing to reduce the harmful social affects including lessening your chance of being mugged, but that is a pretty selfish point of view!

Clearly, “creating jobs” cannot be the primary motive of any individual action or social policy. The motive must be the greater common good. While some jobs may be created as a result, the most positive approaches will lead to less work being needed rather than more. For society no less than an individual, jobs are a means to an end. We want the security of having a safe place to live and enough to eat. We want medical care when we need it and we want to be able to educate our children. We want recreational opportunities and the occasional luxury. When politicians begin to wave the flag of jobs, they have distracted us from the true goal.

Almost all the public discussion and debate concerning the economy in general and jobs in particular is based on misconceptions, wrong thinking, delusions or outright lies. Pundits and other know-it-alls from the left, right, center, environmentalists and anti-environmentalists alike, all talk about creating jobs and stimulating the economy.  We are asking the wrong questions and the answers we are getting are at best useless and sometimes dangerous. We need to look at the bigger picture, draw honest conclusions and offer suggestions that will make our future more livable.

We need to start with the honest, blunt assessment that the nature of the economy is in the process of a fundamental change that will result in a future with less jobs. No amount of tinkering with structures, no ideological game playing, no government interventions and no wishful thinking will change this. There are things we can do to temporarily create jobs but in the long term we need to recognize that many of the jobs we have known in the past will no longer exist and most of them will not be replaced with an equivalent. We need to think beyond our current set-up.

Where did the jobs go? A popular response is to blame outsourcing or illegal aliens. This is a convenient way of sidestepping truer analysis, while stoking the fires of xenophobia. Newspapers, movie theaters and book stores did not move to India. Undocumented Mexican workers did not take all the jobs in the buggy whip factories. The jobs are going, going, gone mostly because our technology has made much of the work more efficient or obsolete.

In the not so distant past, it took a lot more workers to get anything done. Agricultural work on large estates was done by slaves or serfs. Early factories were crowded places. Mining was done by hand. Wealthy households were staffed by swarms of servants. Transportation required the support network of horse breeders, stables, blacksmiths, etc. Then was then. Now is now. It just ain’t like that any more!

Greater efficiency driven by the combined forces of scientific advancements and the drive for increased profit have steadily moved in the direction of getting more work done with less physical effort and fewer hands needed. First tools and then machinery have significantly reduced the number of farmhands required to produce food.   Production has moved from the craftsman to the factory. The factory system developed the assembly line and the assembly line has become more and more automated. Electrification and household appliances have significantly reduced the number of servants even in the wealthiest of households. Now a flick of a switch or the push of a button can accomplish what took manpower to do not so long ago.

 Of course, all this “advancement” has other costs as well, particularly the environmental degradation.  By the middle of the last century a comprehensive critique of much of the mechanisms of our economy developed as environmentalism. In a piecemeal approach, environmentalism has operated mostly as an emergency break on the madness-driven forward motion exploitation of natural resources for profit. Each step along the way dominant business interests claim that the more environmentally sensitive proposal is “jobs killing” and as of late the environmental knee jerk reaction is to start talking about “green jobs”.

A green transition is an imperative that falls outside of the widespread current understanding of the economy. The argument that a given environmental policy is “job killing” is spurious because continuing with ecologically destructive practices will not “create” jobs. When we respond that green initiatives will create jobs, we are using half truths and basing our arguments on wishful thinking and self-delusions. Ideology or philosophy will not create jobs. Only the need or desire to accomplish a given task and the willingness for someone to pay for it creates jobs. Anything else is smoke and mirrors.

We are right to encourage the development of green technology and it is perfectly logical to use incentives like tax breaks or government loans to help bring about these developments. Manufacturing and installing solar panels, retrofitting older houses to make them more energy efficient, installing and maintaining windmills and more is certainly needed but to claim that it is “job creation” is less than truthful. Some jobs will be created, but many of them will be short term. Once the solar panels or the weather stripping is installed, that house is done. A crash program could –and should - convert the entire country over to energy efficient and clean energy in a relatively short time frame. This would be a labor intensive transformation. The end result of a job well done will be a much healthier environment, which is absolutely necessary but will not be lasting full employment.

The key catchphrase of Environmentalism as a movement has been “Reduce, Reuse & Recycle”. A greater truth has probably never been stated in such a pithy manner. Efficiency and voluntary simplicity are central to any long term healthy environment. If you don’t need it, don’t buy it. Of course, if we consume less, we manufacture less, which means fewer jobs.

Green activist are not the first, of course, to claim that adopting their policies will create jobs. Peace activists have long claimed that ending wars and reducing military spending will result in a Peace Dividend that will stimulate the economy. There is a failed logic here on several fronts. First off, it presupposes that if the military spending was curtailed, the same amount of money would be spent on social programs. The government has been funding the military with borrowed money. If we were to seriously cut back on military spending (and we certainly should) we could reduce or eliminate borrowing. Ending a war brings troops home with no jobs. Cutting out wasteful military production leaves factory workers idle. War is a good business. Nonetheless, peace is still a good idea.

Lately hemp activist have argued that the reintroduction of hemp would turn the economy around. Hemp offers a lot of environmental advantages and the reintroduction would certainly change the nature of the economy, but anyone that thinks that the economy will be stimulated has probably been smoking hemp’s psychoactive cousin. Hemp can produce a better cloth than cotton with less impact on the environment. This would replace one agricultural product with another. Hemp production would be less labor intensive than cotton and the resulting cloth will last longer, reducing purchases of clothing. Hemp can make paper better than wood pulp. The production of paper without cutting trees is a wonderful thing. The process however will certainly be less labor intensive and offer lower paying jobs. Hemp for fuel has a lot of potential. We certainly need to shift from fossil fuels to renewable. However, the key word here is “shift”. I’m all in favor of supporting farmers rather than the oil industry, but if we eliminate one industry and create another, how many jobs are “created”?

Every step we take in reducing waste at either the government, industrial or personal level also reduces the amount of work that needs to be done. We must recognize this, change our methodology of measuring economic worth and begin to develop mechanisms that promote a soft landing because the economy as we know it is going to come down.

One social reform that is already in use in other countries that it would be wise for us to adapt is a system of voluntary part time work.  In the United States part time workers are penalized. For instance, only full time workers have any company benefits and part time workers are generally paid at a lower hourly rate. If we were to adopt a system that made it easier for workers to have a part time work schedule, many full time workers would choose this as an option, having more leisure time for themselves and opening employment opportunities of others.

There is a growing movement striving for self sufficiency. This is made up of individuals, families and collectivist communities. As folks build their own homes, grow their own food, make their own clothes and generally care for their own needs, there is less need for the wasteful processes of industrial production or the assistance of government agencies. Government could encourage self sufficiency in various ways. At the very least, government should remove any regulatory impediments there are in the way of this sort of social development.

The goal must be the development of systems that offer individuals the ability to live securely and with self respect. A job is really only one path in that direction and very well might not be the best long term choice. As we develop alternative mechanisms of support outside of the industrial model, the lack of a “job” will become less and less significant. As a movement we should be far more focused on building alternative economic structures and far less concerned about “economic stimulus” and “job creation”.

The jobs of the last century are gone and will not be replaced. The workers however are still here. It is time for us to roll up our sleeves and do for ourselves what neither government nor capitalism can do; make a livable future.