Thursday, January 9, 2014

On Unemployment

I recently finished Garret Garret's novel "The Driver," which opens with a surreal procession of various people, from lawyers to farmers to beggars, marching behind two men who, jointly, constitute the modern reincarnation of Christ on earth. Their mission: to solve the problem of joblessness by marching their army to Washington and demanding that congress pass a law granting unlimited prosperity to everyone. Surprisingly, the novel wasn't published in 2008, but in 1922, and set in 1893. Oh the times, they are a changin'.

"There aren't enough jobs" was the crux of the argument made by sympathizers with Coxey's army, as the odd procession came to be called. It is strikingly similar to the complaints made today, particularly of college students who emerge from their academic institutions armed with a fiercesome intellectual resume and the force of will to take on the world... only to find that no one seems to need their job-skills, or at least far fewer than expected. Economists, politicians, and lay people lazily pontificating about the world's problems will say "well, the job-market's tough out there."

But is it really? I don't think so. Nor, as it happens, does Mike Rowe, whose recent interview with Reason.TV is an insightful view into the untapped job-market that the people complaining about the lack of jobs are inexplicably ignoring.

Ignoring these jobs isn't exactly inexplicable though. In fact, it has a perfectly legitimate explanation: as we've gotten more successful as a nation, we've been told over and over again that "college is a path to success." For a while, this was true; as we got more things we needed, like food, housing, and clothes, at affordable prices, we could afford to do research, and come up with theories about society and pay people to do that. Pay them very well, in fact. It was all very new and very interesting, and such people were intellectual giants of their time. Many still are.

But we overcompensated, and the corollary of aspiring to be great doctors, lawyers, professors or politicians, by no means bad or irrational careers (except maybe that last one), was to begin looking down on the more traditional kinds of work as "beneath us." On a more personal note, as a professional truck-driver who left academia for the blue-collar world--I was previously set on becoming a teacher, then a journalist--people from various different walks of life ask when I'm going to wake up and get a "real job." Never mind that the average driving salary is $48,000 a year, ignoring benefits. My second company trainer was an owner-operator, and grossed over $150,000 last year. What do people mean by "real job?"

There is no shortage of jobs. Welders, plumbers, drivers, various tech-industry jobs (it's this easy to learn to code), are all relatively easy to get into, and provide a reasonably good income to people claiming to have no employment. In education, a field that requires upwards of 5 years of school, depending on your state, tens of thousands of dollars, thousands of hours of time that could have been spent doing something else productive, all of that will give you the opportunity to fight tooth and nail against your erstwhile classmates for a job as an intern. Maybe. I'm only slightly exaggerating. My driving-training, which with any effort will easily out-pay teachers in the long run, took one month. Not six months, not three, but one. One month. That's thirty days, to clarify, and four thousand dollars instead of eighty thousand, or more. Before I had even graduated, I had been pre-hired with three separate companies.

There is a town in North Dakota called Williston, where an oil-boom has left the city struggling to catch its infrastructure up to the incredible wealth pouring out of that region, and the subsequent flow of people pouring in. An inexperienced worker can move there and make $16 an hour as a McDonalds employee, with guaranteed overtime, or upwards of $80,000 a year as an oil-field worker. Due to the lack of housing and hotels, construction in that region is in demand, and it doesn't take much to get paid very well to pound nails.

Of course, the reason the pay is so good is that there's a cost. There's a cost--in time, energy, stress, and even danger--in every job, but in Williston, the cost is very high. Temperatures in the winter can drop into the -60F range (even excluding this year's polar vortex), the hours are long, and the whole city is essentially a sausage-fest; romantic prospects are slim even if you aren't wrapped in oil and mud-soaked Carhartts. But people who are willing to work and are resourceful enough to find housing, even just a trailer, can get it there.

I mention Williston to make a point about people's choices. In a recent episode of Joe Rogan's podcast, Stefan Molyneux pointed out that Americans under the poverty line worked an average of 16 hours a week... as a family. That's husband and wife combined, and these numbers precede the 2008 housing crisis. To be fair, there are certainly people out there who work very hard and still live in poverty, but the fact that the average sits at 16 hours a week per family, even if we grant that many people in poverty don't work at all, gives us good reason to guess that number to be much smaller than many particularly leftist politicians would have you believe. These people are, to a great extent, unemployed by choice.

This is not to say that they don't want to be employed; far from it. All I'm saying is that people who are unemployed are, by and large not willing to make the sacrifices or put in the creativity to find or make work for themselves. There is this mindset of externalization at work, which has been fostered in large part by polarized political finger-pointing and the mainstream media, that it is someone else's responsibility to make work for me. Nothing could be more damaging to employment numbers though. The jobs are out there, and it's not anybody else's responsibility to give you one. You cannot parade your way to Washington and legislate a job for yourself (though many people today do seem to be under that impression), and even if you could, you don't need to, because it's far more efficient and effective to go out, figure out what people need, and help provide that for them, and right now, like South Korea, we don't need more college educated graduates; we need linemen, and fishermen, and drivers. The problem of unemployment is social and cultural, not economic.

This article by David Wong gives eloquent (albeit vulgar) advice on how to think about this on a more personal level.

1 comment:

  1. If they paid linemen more perhaps more people would aspire to be linemen. But currently it is dangerous work with health tolls, paid low, little benefits. College is still a motivator (well depending on what you go for, you and I know a couple of college grads with very, very low-paying jobs). 48k runs out real quick, I can tell you from personal experience, you will eventually want to make more. I don't know how long you go out for, but I've heard it's 3 weeks out and 1 week back? That's a lot of money to pay for housing if you're only home once a month.