The New York Times

August 17, 2003

Help Wanted


A couple of weeks ago the secretaries of commerce, labor and the treasury took a two-day bus trip through the Midwest to talk up their boss's economic policies and confront, as sensitively as possible, the festering unemployment issue that may prove decisive in choosing the next president. Given that the current jobless rate hovers a little above 6 percent (a good 2 points higher than when Bush took office), the cabinet members' choice of transportation was a thoughtful touch. If the jobless rate were much higher -- say, 8 or 9 percent -- old bicycles would have been more appropriate, or maybe even a walking tour, but as things stand motor coaches were just right, evoking a nation that's still on the move but just not quite as quickly as it might be.

Like the Democratic presidential hopefuls who've also been talking nonstop about unemployment, the road-tripping cabinet members all agreed about the solution to joblessness: more jobs. Much as happiness is the solution to depression and tallness the remedy for shortness, this answer makes sense on the surface, if not beneath it. The only dispute among the politicians is over how to get these extra jobs: through plucky, old-fashioned economic growth (the Republican way) or by fetching the jobs back from China and India, where American industry has been sending them (the populist Democratic way). Both methods promise the same result, of course: a drop in the jobless rate of a couple points or so to a level we needn't fret so much about -- never mind that for people out of work, unemployment is always 100 percent, while for people who do have work it's zero, even if only three of them remain.

This talk about jobs as the be-all and end-all of American economic welfare has a fundamental limitation, though: except for certain hardcore puritans, it isn't jobs that people want; it's money. In the summer of 1978, when I was 16 and starting my working life, my goal was not to find a job at all, but to own a tricked-out Camaro with custom chrome wheels. Short of devising a surefire blackjack system, the only practical way to reach this dream was to take paid employment. The job I landed, pumping gas, was not only tedious, it turned out, but also, as self-service stations have proved, unnecessary in the scheme of things.

I hate to seem cold, but as far as I'm concerned, there are plenty of jobs that foreigners can have. Assembling Happy Meal toys, for starters. Filling snow globes with whatever that clear liquid is. For a while, that was the major type of work they did over there, and no one I know appeared to miss it much -- if it ever even existed in America. Cheap overseas labor has created products that costly labor would never have bothered with -- those flexible phosphorescent light sticks, say. Those jobs weren't stolen but invented.

But when Asians start doing our good jobs, it's another story. According to company executives, I.B.M. is considering shifting white-collar positions to India, where a competent novice computer programmer costs $5,000 a year instead of $60,000. Such a move would help keep the firm competitive and mean lower prices for consumers. But which consumers, you might ask. Laid-off I.B.M. managers? I wish the candidates would address this paradox instead of recycling rah-rah capitalist nostrums and nostalgic tariff schemes: at what point does remaining competitive dry up and dissipate the disposable incomes being competed for?

Such troublesome macroeconomic conundrums as how China's gains can't, in some sense, be our losses -- at least in the short term and to a degree -- are just what the politicians are avoiding by talking asininely about ''jobs'' when they ought to be talking about wealth, which is the only reason people take jobs other than to get away from nagging spouses. Sure, someday globalism and free trade may lift all boats equally, and to the heavens, but until our economies reach that blessed point of exalted, utopian equilibrium, isn't it true that more goodies in others' stockings naturally calls for fewer goodies in ours? No one will ever get elected for saying so, but don't tides go out before they rise again?

Maybe a redefinition of ''work'' is called for so that the term will no longer refer to making things (or to manipulating symbols) but only to buying and using them up -- tasks we still excel at. Maybe Americans should be paid consumers, retained by China to absorb the output of the factories that closed here and opened there but won't be able to stay in operation unless the American workers who got canned can purchase the things they no longer get paid to make. How about a Marshall Plan for Cleveland financed by Beijing?

If the work that remains when the money washes away mostly involves swabbing toilets at Dunkin' Donuts, even full employment will be no blessing. Yet the mantra never changes: more jobs, more jobs. But what jobs, and paid for out of whose accounts? Bailing water from a sinking ship is a job that could keep us all busy for years to come, but will it help buy that Camaro I still want?

Walter Kirn is the author, most recently, of ''Up in the Air,'' a novel.

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