Russ Roberts on Jobs

I finally got around to listening to this podcast on jobs and captalism and poor people.

The basic concepts that Russ discusses:

  • Does Capitalism require poor people to do the menial work?
  • Do rich countries require poor ones to exploit in order to do the manual labor work?
  • Is Capitalism “rigged” to ensure that only the top 1% get all of the benefit of economic growth?

In general, Dr. Roberts knocks it out of the park – discussing in clear and data-leavened terms about why he believes that the system is not “rigged”, and why rich countries do not require poor ones.

It is on the topic of Capitalism requiring poor people that I find myself disagreeing with him. Here’s the general claim:

Rich people don’t want to mow their own lawns or paint their own houses. Without poor people to do that work, the whole system would collapse

Dr. Roberts points out, quite correctly, that this is absurd. 100 years ago, there were a lot of dirt-poor people who made a living (barely) threshing wheat in fields. Now we have combines and tractors and other devices to do this work for us. The poor in the US have multiple color televisions, cars, refrigerators and all sorts of other amenities in their lives that those wheat-field workers would have never had, or been able to afford, if they were still doing that work today.

But where I don’t think Dr. Roberts fully explained things is that this definition of poor is always changing – no one thinks about wheat-fields anymore when they think poor – they think “garbagemen” and “cashiers”. If, through the miracle of science we automated those jobs, people would move the goalposts – mechanics and security guards would be “poor”. And if, again, through science those jobs were eliminated, a new set of jobs would be the “demeaning jobs that no one wants to do.”

Essentially, there are always jobs that are the “least pleasant”, and people will always think “How horrid that I should have to do this unpleasant job.” Thus, they will perpetually see these people as exploited rubes whose sweat grease the wheels of the market.

Perspective is in order here, but perspective usually gets in the way of a good sound-bite.

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