Friday, November 6, 2009

A very important lesson on Jobs vs. Production from Casey’s Daily Dispatch

Jobs in and of themselves do not guarantee well-being. Suppose that the employment is to dig huge holes and fill them up again? What if the workers manufacture goods and services that no one wants to purchase? In the Soviet Union, which boasted of giving every worker a job, many jobs were just this unproductive. Production is everything, and jobs are nothing but a means toward that end.

Imagine the Swiss Family Robinson marooned on a deserted South Sea island. Do they need jobs? No, they need food, clothing, shelter, and protection from wild animals. Every job created is a deduction from the limited, precious labor available. Work must be rationed, not created, so that the market can create the most product possible out of the limited supply of labor, capital goods, and natural resources.

The same is true for our society. The supply of labor is limited. We must not allow government to create jobs or we lose the goods and services which otherwise would have come into being. We must reserve precious labor for the important tasks still left undone.

Instead of praising jobs for their own sake, we should ask why employment is so important. The answer is, because we exist amidst economic scarcity and must work to live and prosper. That's why we should be of good cheer only when we learn that this employment will produce things people actually value, i.e., are willing to buy with their own hard-earned money. And this is something that can only be done in the free market, not by bureaucrats and politicians.

To quote Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson:

A young hoodlum, say, heaves a brick through the window of a baker's shop. The shopkeeper runs out furious, but the boy is gone. A crowd gathers, and begins to stare with quiet satisfaction at the gaping hole in the window and the shattered glass over the bread and pies. After a while the crowd feels the need for philosophic reflection. And several of its members are almost certain to remind each other or the baker that, after all, the misfortune has its bright side. It will make business for some glazier. As they begin to think of this they elaborate upon it. How much does a new plate glass window cost? Fifty dollars? That will be quite a sum. After all, if windows were never broken, what would happen to the glass business? Then, of course, the thing is endless. The glazier will have $50 more to spend with other merchants, and these in turn will have $50 more to spend with still other merchants, and so ad infinitum. The smashed window will go on providing money and employment in ever-widening circles. The logical conclusion from all this would be, if the crowd drew it, that the little hoodlum who threw the brick, far from being a public menace, was a public benefactor.

Now let us take another look. The crowd is at least right in its first conclusion. This little act of vandalism will in the first instance mean more business for some glazier. The glazier will be no more unhappy to learn of the incident than an undertaker to learn of a death. But the shopkeeper will be out $50 that he was planning to spend for a new suit. Because he has had to replace a window, he will have to go without the suit (or some equivalent need or luxury). Instead of having a window and $50 he now has merely a window. Or, as he was planning to buy the suit that very afternoon, instead of having both a window and a suit he must be content with the window and no suit. If we think of him as a part of the community, the community has lost a new suit that might otherwise have come into being, and is just that much poorer.

The glazier's gain of business, in short, is merely the tailor's loss of business. No new "employment" has been added. The people in the crowd were thinking only of two parties to the transaction, the baker and the glazier. They had forgotten the potential third party involved, the tailor. They forgot him precisely because he will not now enter the scene. They will see the new window in the next day or two. They will never see the extra suit, precisely because it will never be made. They see only what is immediately visible to the eye.

So it is with government “job creation”… we lose the goods and services that would have otherwise come into being.

Consider the Obama administration’s claim that the 640,000 jobs were created from $159 billion of stimulus spending (a cost of almost $250,000 per job, most of which are temporary, and many last for just weeks). But where did that $159 billion come from?

It came from you and me… the taxpayers. What would we have used that $159 billion for had it not been taken from us?

Some of us would have spent it on food, some shelter, some luxury goods, and some may have saved and invested the money. Indeed, if that $159 billion had not been taken from us, then every business we would have purchased from or invested in would be better off. They would have received more revenue and produced more goods, and potentially would have hired more people to make and sell those goods.

But it doesn’t stop there. If that $159 billion had been left in our hands, we would have spent and allocated it on things that are the highest priority for us. This action would have sent a series of signals through the market of what to produce more of and what to invest more in. It would have encouraged competition among suppliers of the various items being purchased, driving them to find more efficient and effective ways to create superior, more innovative products for less. This is how the market creates wealth. Competition spurs innovation and creative destruction, which increases productivity.

So, instead of the $159 billion, higher employment, more goods and services, and more innovative businesses producing what society values more, we have 640,000 (mostly temporary) jobs producing what society values less… and that’s assuming the administration’s claim is accurate.

Which scenario do you prefer?

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