Now main streets whitewashed windows and vacant stores
Seems like there aint nobody wants to come down here no more
They’re closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks
Foreman says these jobs are going boys and they ain’t coming back to
Your hometown, your hometown, your hometown, your hometown
— Bruce Springsteen and E-Street Band, Your Hometown
“The hard truth is that some of the jobs that have been lost in the auto industry and elsewhere won’t be coming back,” he said in a speech at Macomb Community College in Warren, Mich. “They are the casualties of a changing economy. And that only underscores the importance of generating new businesses and industries to replace the ones we’ve lost, and of preparing our workers to fill jobs they create.
He added, “For even before this recession hit, we were faced with an economy that was simply not creating or sustaining enough new, well-paying jobs.”
But some economists believe Obama is training people for failure.
Well, perhaps training people for his failure. The real problem is that neither Obama nor The Bruce understands what jobs really are.
We talk about jobs as if they are physical objects. We find jobs. We lose them. We trade them. We save them. We export them by shipping them overseas. Occasionally, we believe they are stolen. Metaphors are common in language and usually harmless, but sometimes we seem to forget that they are metaphors. This in turn causes us to misunderstand the phenomenom under discussion.
In the case of jobs, the metaphor stops us from asking what physical event actually occurs when jobs “go away” and “don’t come back.” Examining this metaphor tells us something that is very important and ignored in most political discussions.
First, what is a job? A job is a task you perform for someone else’s benefit in return for compensation of some kind. If you mow your own yard it’s not a job. If you mow your neighbor’s for $10 it is. If you grow food for your own consumption, that’s not a job. If you grow food and sell it for money, then it is. A job requires that an economic exchange for the results of labor occur between two or more people.
Here we see the limits of metaphor. In the metaphor jobs are treated as objects, but in reality a job is an event or an action. It is the act of exchanging labor for money. The word job should be a verb instead of a noun.
If we think of job as a verb, then how does a job “go away”? If two people collide on the street, we don’t say the collision “went away.” We don’t say we export conversations by shipping them overseas. Collisions or conversations “go away” when the people engaged in them leave. Likewise, a job “goes away” only when a person in the exchange goes away.
When we talk about jobs leaving, moving, shifting etc., or being exported, we’re really talking about a particular subset of people leaving, moving, shifting etc. Who are these people? They are the job makers.
For example, a job in a factory does not exist before someone invents the technological item to be manufactured, designs the assembly line, buys the land, builds the factory and does all of the other thousands of tasks necessary to make, distribute and sell a product in the modern world. Until a job maker does all of that creative work, no job exists.
The ugly truth is that although we work hard, most us don’t create jobs for ourselves or others. Instead we rely on a small minority of job makers to create tasks that we can perform in exchange for a living. Only about 20% of us make any jobs at all. Of those 20%, about half, 10% of the total, are self-employed and make a job only for themselves. The remaining 10% make all the jobs for the rest of us. We rely on this small minority to identify solutions to problems and to create organizations that can implement those solutions. They then hire us to carry out the tasks associated with that solution. Without them, the rest of us would still be subsistence farmers.
When jobs “go away” it’s really the job makers, as living and breathing humans, who go away.
Henry Ford and other economic creatives created the auto industry that made Detroit for several decades the premier industrial city on Earth. No one else contributed anything unusual. Everyone else just showed up to carry out the tasks that Ford et al invented and organized. The city continued to prosper as a place in which successive generations of economic creatives could come and make new jobs. The city began to die when it became a place in which economic creativity was not welcomed. The political culture of the region became one focused on extracting as much wealth as possible from tasks created decades ago, instead of focusing on creating new tasks to solve new and more lucrative problems. Eventually, technology passed the old solutions by. Without a new crop of economically creative job-makers to create new jobs, Detroit and other politically similar cities died of technological old age.
It’s easy to see why leftists would eagerly adopt the metaphor of jobs as objects. It lets them ignore the fact that a small minority of economically creative people create jobs for the rest of us. In turn, this lets them advocate policies that drive away job makers, without being held responsible for the loss of the jobs the job makers create.
The leftmost 25% of the American political spectrum do not for the most part consider themselves Marxist but they clearly work from a model strongly influenced by Marxist thought. Marx asserted that the economy and technology were the results of impersonal natural forces. No human created a job or any other economic good. Instead, the jobs and goods just happened, and a minority of evil people unjustly claimed the lion’s share of the benefit of these natural resources for themselves by shear brute force. The entire intellectual and moral argument for Marxism stands upon the idea that business people don’t actually create anything. This is why contemporary leftists honestly don’t understand why taxing and over-regulating the economically creative destroys the jobs of the economically uncreative. They think jobs just happen like the rain, and that the only real decision to be made is how we distribute the benefits of those jobs.
When the job makers leave, and the non-economically creative no longer have work, leftists do not wonder what they did to drive the job makers away. Instead, they treat the loss of jobs-as-objects like some act of God or natural disaster.
Had Obama been less ideologically blinkered he would have told the suffering people of Michigan, “The hard truth is that some of the job makers who have left the auto industry and elsewhere won’t be coming back.” Of course, had he done so, the people of Michigan might have started asking, “How do we get the job makers to come back?” They might have asked why the job makers weren’t making new jobs in new industries in Michigan. Those questions would have started a discussion that Obama doesn’t want to have.
The rest of us should have that conversation. We should stop talking about impersonal and abstract “businesses” as creating jobs, and instead make explicit that a small and valuable minority of individual human beings creates the jobs and and wealth that the rest of us depend on. We should make it clear that the proper role of government economic policy is to support the creativity of such individuals, and it should do so mostly by getting out of their way.
The world has become “flat” in the sense that the geographical advantages no longer exist that once made one region inevitably wealthy and another inevitably poor. Today, one can build a factory or almost any job-creating system almost anywhere in the world. Today, prosperity simply requires that you have a sufficient mass of economically-creative job-makers. The great tragedy of Michigan, the other rust belt states and California is that nothing physical or material whatsoever prevents them from becoming economic powerhouses again. All they need do is change their political culture and laws such that instead of vilifying, hounding and looting job makers, they encourage them to create. If the states do that, then nothing can stop their rise to prosperity.
If they do not, then nothing can save them.