The Politics of the Job Market

By John Buell

Remember those discussions of “the fallacy of composition” in your economics 101 textbooks? A course of action that makes sense for one person can have disastrous consequences if many pursue it. The most frequently cited example of course, courtesy of John Maynard Keynes, is saving during an economic slump.

If a family breadwinner is worried about losing his/her job, it makes sense to cut back on purchases as much as possible. Yet when many citizens do so, the economic slump deepens and many more families are likely to face unemployment. Unfortunately too many liberal Democrats, many of whom doubtless studied Keynesian texts in college, have been reluctant to acknowledge that the US can’t save itself out of this deep recession. If families are too deeply in debt or too scared to spend, governments must. And since international capital markets offer our government extraordinarily cheap money, now is an ideal time to borrow.

If the fallacy of composition casts doubt on the current push toward austerity, it also challenges a favorite liberal remedy for unemployment — more education.In the February issue of Left Business Observer, economic journalist Doug Henwood in effect reminds us that the emphasis on education provides a perfect example of the fallacy of composition. At least before the cost of post- secondary education skyrocketed and public support diminished, it made sense for individuals to go to college.

Henwood then goes on to ask an equally important question. Do the occupations expected to show the most job growth in the next decade demand a substantial academic background? Henwood cites a Bureau of Labor Statistics study (conducted every ten years) that projects the greatest job growth in such fields as personal care aids, office clerks, security guards, janitors, landscaping and groundskeeping workers, and food service workers. None of these jobs demand any extensive higher education background. The only category of jobs requiring post- secondary education and expected to grow are elementary and post- secondary teachers, accountants and auditors, nurses, physicians, and surgeons.

Henwood acknowledges that the BLS projections are just that, projections. Nonetheless, he seems to place a good deal of trust in these projections. He points out that the BLS study conducted ten years ago, though wrong in terms of the total number of jobs predicted, was quite accurate as to the composition of the job market.

I would, however, prefer to take such projections as a warning rather than as a crystal ball into the future. Henwood properly wants to blunt the collective — often bipartisan — enthusiasm for education as an all-purpose cure to our economic woes.

The BLS study could also be seen as a sad commentary on the direction of our corporate society. Most of the new jobs are monotonous, mind numbing, often downright dangerous, and poorly compensated. Nonetheless, even these high growth jobs could be more highly compensated and redesigned in such a way as to offer challenges and require substantial educational background. Markets are often portrayed as neutral, egalitarian mechanisms that sum up and reflect our given preferences. Such a picture is naïve. Markets are often shaped by corporate power, mediated not only through economic consolidation but also through media and political power.

A society in which workers had more opportunity to convert gains in their productivity into increased leisure would inevitably fashion different needs and career paths. More workers’ power within the workplace would potentially change the nature and demands of the job experience and promote greater equality. Such a society might need fewer rather than more security guards and sales clerks.

Education today is at the center of many economic issues. Education — in particular our students’ purported lack of fundamental skills — is blamed for unemployment and US uncompetitiveness. Teachers and their unions are in turn blamed for these failings. For this teachers and education are being scapegoated. Educational failure can hardly explain the vast surge in unemployment accompanying the bursting of housing bubble.

The future of teaching is a clear instance of the ways politics and power determine “trends” in the number of jobs in particular occupations and the quality of these jobs. If the political right and their corporatist Democrat accomplices reduce education to preparation for standardized testing they will not only demean and diminish a profession but also leave students ill prepared to examine critically not only our disastrous level of unemployment but also the poor quality of jobs our corporate order is fashioning.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine. Email

From The Progressive Populist, June 1, 2012

News | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 2012 The Progressive Populist
PO Box 819, Manchaca TX 78652