Economic States of Being and Forces of Nature

Kiersten Marek offers what might be thought of as the social worker’s response to Friday’s cris de coeur, and I’m not sure she’s understood my complaints or my worries. Most starkly, as I explained in the comments to my post, I do not blame Rhode Island’s politico-economic environment — much less the people who take advantage of it — for the loss of my Massachusetts job. That would be, as Kiersten notes, “ridiculously flawed.” Rather, I blame it, first, for requiring me to go out of state for work after college and, now, for making dim my prospects for continuing to earn at my already inadequate level. Note that I mentioned my job mainly as context for my mood, referring to recent news as the subject to which I was responding.
The “wild idea” with which Kiersten closes her post represents less stark of a misunderstanding, but perhaps justifying more umbrage for that:

… try spending a year working in the social services. You would probably need to work two jobs in order to make the money you were making in construction, but many people do this. This would give you the opportunity to learn about the struggles of people who end up using social services, and see how many of them, like you, want our economy to work so that they can be successful. It might be a life-altering experience that will help you appreciate a fuller range of the human experience. Or, if it turns out that all you find are a bunch of indolent leeches on the system, it will make great fodder for a book.

I realize that folks of a liberal social service bent like to think that it is merely a heartless lack of familiarity that leads conservatives to take the positions that they do, but on the basis of what presumption does Kiersten conclude that I, one, have never had occasion to know people who’ve found it necessary to turn to public resources and, two, do not take the wellbeing of such people into account when formulating my concept of how our society ought to structure its economy? Putting aside my expectation that a year of social service work would actually require me to work three jobs — and contrary to the lack-of-empathy thesis — I’m quite certain that my conclusions would remain the same: mainly, that attempts to manage the economy for their benefit and to ease the experience of unemployment cause broader harm than good, particularly to the class of people whom such attempts are intended to help.
Kiersten admiringly quotes commenter Klaus’s vilification of the Market (his cap, not mine) as if it were a burdensome, avaricious beast created by Ronald Reagan. But market pressures exist more as forces of nature than as a man-made machine for drawing wealth to the wealthy. It is convenient for those who have built an ideology out of wishful insistence that society can stamp out inequities to characterize the market as a conscious actor manipulating the economy to the detriment of the poor, but it clouds comprehension to mock its “infallible wisdom” and to suggest, for example, that it “has decided to stop allocating capital to construction and to put it elsewhere.” Capital is flowing elsewhere, and the alternative to “the ‘creative destruction’ of capitalism” is not “creative management,” but slow deterioration and a deflation of creativity, as capital and innovation both evaporate from the stagnant pool.
There are two ways to read Kiersten’s suggestion that social services users “want our economy to work so that they can be successful,” and the distinction between them is instructive. The reading that would evoke encouragement from me would be that they want our economy to work [comma] because that would make it possible for them to become successful. The second reading — which, I suspect, more people accept subconsciously than would declare it — is that they want our economy to work in such a way as to ensure their success. Being a diverse species, however, with a multitude of variegated talents and inclinations, it is necessary that a system that favors a particular set of qualities would disfavor people who do not possess them. A basic premise of capitalism is that we all benefit maximally if we privilege hard work, ingenuity, and a willingness to adapt.
For simplicity’s sake, consider one step that we might take in a serious attempt to prevent capital from flowing too easily away from construction workers: increasing their value by requiring a certain degree of expertise and certification. (As I’ve previously explored, Rhode Island goes above and beyond with this strategy.) From the point of view of plumbers (to pick a trade), the benefits of a rigid apprentice-journeyman-master process are well worth the hassle; the speed with which competition can arise is retarded, so they can charge more for their necessary, often emergency, services, and their industry cannot respond but so rapidly to increasing demand, so there’s less excess capacity when demand lightens. By the same token, however, the trade will not usually be accommodating as much of the workforce as it is able. In other words, those unfortunate souls who find themselves out of work and uncertified have less ability to take advantage of the opportunities that exist in their area. The education industry provides perhaps the most full illustration of this dynamic, with arduous procedures for procuring and maintaining certification and unionized protection of jobs once procured.
As a carpenter, I have to admit that the trade was once much more complicated. More intricate knowledge was required to build a window and chisel a run of molding than is now involved in installing either. Particular muscles and techniques required more development to hand-nail and crank screw than to work the triggers of nail and screw guns. And room for this slow developmental process was made necessary and possible by the lower speed of both information and competition. Just so, the full panoply of technological advances ought to give upstarts and innovators a stronger hand in the market. It ought to be becoming easier to change fields, not more difficult.
Klaus writes with scorn about companies’ ability “to react nimbly to changes in the Market,” but even if we allow him to ignore the reality that all workers are reliant on the health of their employers, we cannot ignore the fact that, to the extent that current employees are entrenched, workers in general are less nimble. And in the larger view, a less nimble workforce creates an environment in which large companies can become more exploitative. For one thing, raising salaries in a closed field, such as education or master plumbers, does not have the same upward effect on salaries in general, because employers don’t have to compete as immediately with other industries for the best workers.
See, my worldview does not hold that people are “indigent drags” (much less Kiersten’s rephrasing, “indolent leeches”), as if it were some sort of state of being. Rather, I’d argue that we are providing them with that role to play. Moreover — partly in tandem, partly as a consequence — we are making it more difficult for them to exit that role and, thereafter, to climb well beyond its gravity.
Yes, as a moral matter, as well as a calculated investment, our society ought to provide a safety net for those whose lives take harmful turns. Yes, our public constructs have a role in ensuring that those with privileged access to and control over capital do not abuse their resources to lock others out. But as technology increases individuals’ access to information and opportunities for networking and production, government interference will be increasingly likely to create advantages for incumbents than to assist outsiders. Less light, after all, can pierce murky glass and wind labyrinthine halls.

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