Why temporary census hires might have thrown off the recovery

The point of employment is not just jobs: it is productive and economically viable jobs. If there is no consumer-driven demand for the things people are doing, their jobs are nothing more than waste.

By , Guest blogger

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    In this April 29 file photo, census employees assemble after a training course in New York. Thousands of temporary census jobs ended this spring and summer, skewing the unemployment numbers.
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In many ways, the unemployment numbers are much worse than they appear. One factor has been the timing of the US census. The bureau hired some 700,000 workers to collect data — people who otherwise were having a very difficult time navigating the choppy labor markets. They went for the jobs because they were a sure thing, paid decently, and didn't require unusual skills (anyone can knock on a door and pester people about their private lives).

That inflated the jobs number for a while. But now these jobs are at an end — a highly unusual event because government jobs usually last a lifetime. Now all of these people are facing the bracing reality of looking for employment in an economy wrecked by the government.

The press has been posting tributes to these people and their jobs and wailing about their fate now that their jobs are vanishing. And that raises questions. If these jobs are so great, why should they be eliminated at all? Surely, there is a way that these people could be transitioned to some other kind of government-funded service? That way, one might reason, people would have jobs, work would get done, and everyone would be better off.

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Right? Wrong. Census jobs perform no market function, and the wages of these workers are paid by the taxpayer, meaning that these jobs are actually destructive of wealth. They siphon wealth and work out of the private sector into the wasteful sector. In fact, we can go further to say that eliminating these jobs is actually a step toward economic recovery.

Given the way economic fallacy has gone viral these days, it seems necessary to explain the issue further. The point of employment is not just jobs: it is productive and economically viable jobs.

It would be possible, for example, to reduce unemployment to its bare minimum simply by a mandatory regression in technology. We could abolish the trucking industry and force all freight to be carried by car, thereby creating millions of new jobs. Or we could abolish the car and create even more jobs for people to haul freight around by hand.

"The point of employment is not just jobs: it is productive and economically viable jobs."

In each case, the number of jobs created would vastly outnumber the number of jobs lost. But would we be richer as a result? Not in any way. It would amount to a mandatory drop in living standards for everyone. These kinds of policies violate the Hazlitt dictum that part of good economic thinking consists in looking at what is good not just for one group (the unemployed) but for all groups in society, and not just for the short term but for the long term.

The point of jobs is for people to work towards providing goods and services that are valued by the marketplace. If there is no consumer-driven demand for the things people are doing, their jobs are nothing more than waste. It does nothing for society if everyone is employed building pyramids, contrary to what Keynes once claimed. It would be senseless to have a business that employs thousands to do nothing but break new cellphones and repair them again, or to dig holes and fill them. And why is that? Because there is no economically rational basis for these tasks to exist.

To be sure, a wealthy entrepreneur can create a business doing anything, even something that loses money and is even socially ridiculous. But in order to sustain that, he will have to continue to throw good money after bad for an indefinite period of time, even unto the end of time. The day that he decides to stop doing it, the jobs will go away.

Of course, no businessman in his right mind wants to do such a thing. If you are going to create and retain uneconomic jobs, there is really only one way to do it: government. The government takes money from the private sector to throw around in inefficient ways, regardless of whether the job is worth doing in the first place.

The taxing and debt creation that is necessary to fund the government jobs is extracted from the real engine of wealth creation. This is not only true of census jobs but of all public sector jobs, whether in the federal bureaucracy, the military, or the educational sector. For this reason, the public sector's payrolls really ought to be excluded from the employment rolls.

One objection might be that some of what public jobs produce is actually necessary for long-term economic health. We need an educated society, people might say, and even the results of the census are necessary for private-sector planning. But if that is true, there is no reason why the private sector would not have the incentive to provide these services themselves.

And they do in fact. The private sector has ever more sophisticated means for educating its employees and making up for the inferior products of public schooling. It is the same with the census results, which are used by the state to keep track of us and control us; the private sector has its own methods of assessing demographic concerns over business location and product development. Even if there were government jobs that are in fact productive in their results, they could be performed at a profit instead of by extortion.

While everyone obsesses about the plight of census workers, there is a genuine calamity taking place in the private sector, which is being attacked by government every day. This is why the latest jobs numbers show nothing like robust job growth where it matters most. We see only slight overall increases from a decade ago, with boom-time jobs almost entirely wiped out in the bust.

This is what needs attention, but not from government programs. We need an absence of government programs, plus dramatic cuts in taxes and regulations of all sorts, and across the board. We need wage reductions in some sectors so that employment can grow in other sectors. Government cannot plan real job growth. It can only get out of the way and let it happen.

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