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Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: “‘Jobs’ a misnomer”

In my column for the December 9th, 2009, edition of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review I did my best to sweep away some confusion that arises from the common use of the word “jobs.” This column remains especially timely, given the rise of Trumpian protectionism and of calls by people such as Oren Cass for policies that directly aim at protecting jobs rather than allowing the creation of value-creating opportunities.

You can read my column beneath the fold.

‘Jobs’ a misnomer

On Dec. 3, President Obama hosted a “jobs summit” at the White House. The purpose was to brainstorm on how to reduce unemployment — unemployment that many pundits predict will remain high for years unless Uncle Sam takes more direct and drastic action.

On Dec. 4, the unemployment rate for November was reported, and it surprised nearly everyone by falling, from 10.2 percent (in October) to 10.0 percent.

Naturally, the administration took credit for what may be a turn for the better on the employment front. Just as naturally, GOP politicians either downplayed the drop as inadequate or argued that it occurred despite, rather than because of, Mr. Obama’s “stimulus” and other interventions.

This debate will remain unsettled for years, not only because it is infused with politics (which is a quest for power rather than for understanding), but also because the economy is so incredibly complex that isolating cause and effect is notoriously difficult for even the most dispassionate economists and statisticians.

Regardless, though, of whether “stimulus packages” are effective, destructive or neutral, at the core of the public discussion over unemployment is a terribly misleading word: jobs.

Jobs are not scarce. They never have been. They’re all around us. There are far too many of them ever to be done.

My house needs to be painted. I’d enjoy having a personal masseuse. I’d love to employ a live-in housekeeper to cook my meals and clean my home each day. These are jobs that can be done — indeed, jobs that I wish would be done.

Will you do them for me?

The correct answer, I’m sure, is “It depends.” It depends upon what I offer to pay you in exchange for your services. Because I’m unwilling to pay you as much as you would demand to perform these services for me, you’re not tempted to accept my job offer.

The reason you refuse my offer of a (full-time!) job is because what you really want is not the opportunity to toil for someone else but, rather, the income that you can earn by toiling.

No matter how prestigious the job, few of us are willing to toil unless we’re paid to do so.

The reverse, of course, isn’t true. Nearly all of us are willing to be paid without having to toil for it.

Only a moment of reflection is necessary to make clear that no society can survive if significant numbers of its denizens try living without working — without producing. So the reverse course of action — being paid without working — is impossible to generalize. It’s impossible to establish such a course of action as a general policy open to all.

To survive, enough food, clothing and shelter must be produced to nourish and protect society’s members. And for members of that society to thrive, they must together produce not only adequate amounts of life’s necessities, but also large amounts of an increasing variety of goods and services that add diversity, richness and comfort to their lives.

To promote such economic growth, markets ensure that people are paid only when — and always when — they produce value for others.

“So what?” you ask. So plenty.

By speaking incessantly about “jobs” we lose sight of the above realities. What each person ultimately wants is not a job. What each person wants is income — the ability to consume — that enables ready access to a rich, and hopefully growing, array of goods and services.

And in a society that affords widespread prosperity, income is attainable for each willing worker not by merely producing, but by producing goods and services that other people value.

Rather than speak of “jobs,” therefore, I wish that people who discuss economics would speak instead of “value-producing opportunities.”

Such a term is unquestionably awkward. But the clarity of thought that would be promoted by replacing “job” with “value-producing opportunity” would more than offset the cumbersome terminology.

This change in word usage would make clearer that what people seek are not opportunities to toil. It would indicate more directly that what people want is maximum possible opportunities to produce value, for only by producing something that other people value will those other people pay a worker handsomely for his or her toiling.

Substituting “value-producing opportunity” would also help expose the flaws in policies such as protectionism and government make-work programs. Such policies can indeed transfer wealth from society at large to people whose jobs exist only because government relieves them of the need to participate fairly in the market process. But such “jobs” clearly are not “value-producing opportunities” — for the amount of value that such workers produce is less than they are paid.

And no society can long survive by institutionalizing such unproductive policies on a widespread scale.