Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Unemployed Still Have Jobs

Tyler Cowen's suggestion that in times like now with high unemployment
If one wishes to consider state intervention, in light of recalculation one is pointed in the direction of direct [government] employment of the struggling workers

This is really bad advice, as it defers the inevitable. The most important job I have I don't get paid for: raising my kids. Just because you aren't getting paid does not mean something important isn't necessary, onerous, and time consuming, just like paid jobs. It is a mistake to think those without paying jobs are or should be sitting around waiting for a foreman to tell them where to shovel.

Everyone has many jobs to do right now. Entropy naturally creates disordered states that need reorganizing. We all could invest more in ourselves by learning Java, or fix things in our house. Unless you are an invalid you have jobs to do that increase your wealth and that of the community.

The number one job for someone fired or downsized is to find a new job. That kind of matching takes a lot of work, and you are always in the best position to know how your talents, interests, and costs fit with various opportunities. Finding an occupation where one feels appreciated is like finding your comparative advantage, something you do relatively well, something that relative to others in that niche, you do with less cost and higher output. The common macroeconomic mistake of treating the unemployed like some homogeneous mass leads to the fallacy that bureaucrats with the public purse are best suited for giving people jobs. A good job, like the meaning of life, is something someone can't give to you, you have to find it for yourself.

'Perceived earned success' is what Arthur Brooks calls the key to happiness, and this is obtained through a job that makes one feel like they earned their pay, their respect, and this matters more than the level of their pay: a respected bricklayer knows he's good and feels good about himself, much more than some executive vice president making millions doing a job that he knows is merely about exercising authority, something anyone merely decisive could do. Such jobs may have power, but as they don't take any really special skill, just fortunate standing in some organization, the worker is financially wealthy but he does not have the same satisfaction.

A make-work job, like charity that it is, does not generate happiness for the recipient because it is degrading. That's why if you want someone to like you, ask them a small favor, it shows you appreciate them; if you want them to hate you, do them a big favor. A good example is how France loved America for needing their help in our revolution, so much so they built us a Statue of Liberty 100 years later. After freeing them from the Germans twice in 30 years, however, the French find Americans annoying.

I know people who had very firm-specific capital that is now gone. They need to find something similar but different, and taking them off task for government make-work will not help them find their best fit as soon as possible, it will do the opposite. A bureaucrat, who's not financially interested in your employment status, and does not know you well, will certainly find you a worse employment match in whatever job is given to you. Life has a lot of randomness to it, but thoughtfulness and effort help tilt the probabilities in your favor. Effort and thoughtfulness pays off, if only statistically.


PRCalDude said...


Is your book a good text for beginning investors or do you recommend others?

Eric Falkenstein said...

mine isn't a beginner book. I'd recommend Burton Malkiel's A Random Walk Down Wall Street.

Dave said...

Not everyone has the luxury of finding happiness in a job, Eric. Just finding a paying job is often difficult enough. Re the unemployed teaching themselves Java, there are plenty of unemployed people who have spent lots of time (and often borrowed money) to learn new skills, only to find those skills did nothing to make them more employable.

I agree that government make-work jobs aren't an ideal solution, but I think there are constructive things the government could do to ameliorate the unemployment situation. For starters, it could stop importing foreign workers while so many Americans are unemployed. It could also try to make America a more attractive location for multinational companies to establish or increase their factories and other operations here, perhaps by lowering corporate tax rates, reducing regulatory burdens, reining in vexatious litigation threats, etc.

Andrew said...

I think this is my fave post ever of yours, on a few levels. It's not a revolutionary thesis, but really essential.

Everyone has many jobs to do right now. Entropy naturally creates disordered states that need reorganizing. [...] Effort and thoughtfulness pay off


Job search freak said...

Even if we are earning less money,it is the job satisfaction that matters the most.