I hate admitting youthful indiscretions. Way too long ago, I was with friends in a desolate Colorado parking lot drinking rare-outside-the-state Coors beers. One guy would occasionally open his window and toss empty cans out. I shyly mentioned that he probably shouldn’t litter. After all, I grew up watching “The Three Stooges” on channel 11 WPIX with constant public service announcements featuring an American Indian standing next to a highway crying as litter is thrown at his feet.
The can-tosser launched into a long diatribe ending with, “Listen, someone will have to be paid to clean up all these beer cans. Who am I to deny someone a well-paying job to feed his family and pay rent?” I stupidly laughed. I think that guy is now a politician, but obviously dead wrong.
During the first debate, I had a Coors flashback when moderator Chris Wallace asked Joe Biden about his $2 trillion climate change spend-fest: “I actually have studied your plan, and it includes upgrading four million buildings, weatherizing two million homes over four years.”
Mr. Biden responded: “The fact is, it’s going to create millions of good-paying jobs, and these tax incentives for people to weatherize” are “going to make the economy much safer.” Maybe he cribbed this from Al Gore in Wired magazine last year. “Now, think about the Green New Deal,” Mr. Gore wrote. “What it encompasses are two things we have to solve: the climate crisis and the opportunity to create tens of millions of new jobs.” That includes “retrofitting residential, commercial, and industrial buildings.”
This is what passes for progressive policy these days? It sounds impressive but it’s dead wrong. These are litter jobs—unproductive work that subtracts from societal wealth rather than adding to it. A waste of resources.
We saw similar thinking this summer. Vicky Osterweil, who wrote the book “In Defense of Looting,” told NPR that looting is “basically nonviolent” as “most stores are insured; it’s just hurting insurance companies on some level. It’s just money. It’s just property.” As my Coors friend might say, “Who am I to deny someone a job cleaning this up?” A new spin on the broken-windows fallacy.
Driving back from Golden State Warriors games, before they were any good, I remember hearing coach Don Nelson analyze a typical loss. He’d say something along the lines of, “I felt everyone contributed tonight,” then pause and add, “though not everyone positively.” Yes—you can have negative productivity, wealth destruction per worker-hour.
Most green jobs are not productive jobs. They’re public-works projects—litter jobs—that raise the price of energy. I know: In California, energy is 52% costlier than in the average for states. That’s negative productivity. How bad could it get? Gina McCarthy, CEO of the Natural Resources Defense Council, told Bloomberg, “Well if you asked me how much I would spend on clean energy in the future for our kids, I’d say all of it. That’s my price tag.” Yikes.
Jobs for jobs’ sake never works. If we put aside productivity we might as well have an economy of hand-washing each other’s laundry. Or digging canals with spoons. But washing machines and backhoes are more productive, with fewer people. Adding insulation is not productive. It only vaporizes resources created by those who are productive.
Don’t be fooled. You can’t fabricate productive jobs by government edict. Sustainable jobs, to borrow from climate phraseology, are created by solving problems, applying both financial and human capital to improve current ways of doing things. The tip-off that it’s working? The solution gets cheaper over time.
The huge opportunity in today’s economy is to lower the cost of more complex services by getting pesky humans out of the way. Wait—put humans out of work? The horror. But better jobs always, always emerge. Decades of technology-driven job destruction led to a 50-year-low 3.5% unemployment rate, before Covid.
is now hiring 100,000 warehouse workers and another 33,000 corporate employees, many at close to $150,000. That’s because Amazon is a platform for millions of merchants to do commerce away from stores, with fewer humans: positive productivity.
is a productive way for small businesses to reach new customers. iPhones mean never having to ask for directions.
We’re not even close to being done. There is huge upside in harnessing data and using artificial intelligence and machine learning to scour for patterns that help services scale to the masses. Especially education. The Photomath app, downloaded 100 million times, lets students take a photo of an equation and walks them through how to solve it step by step. Duolingo and Babbel teach hundreds of millions a dozen different languages.
Do enough of these things and, voilà, money gets freed up to allow even more capital to solve even bigger problems—yes, creatively destroying jobs to hire even more people. As Coach Nelson would insist, be a positive contributor. And please, don’t litter.
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