The Peculiar, Singular Fixation on "Job Creation"

Photo: Innovate Impact Media/Flickr

Photo: Innovate Impact Media/Flickr


In this post, I'm going to address the widespread tendency, in political discourse, to fixate on "job creation" as if it's the sole or primary attribute that we should use to assess the worth of a particular person or policy. I'll begin by providing an example from USA Today's January 20th, weekend-edition newspaper. In an article entitled "Was Obama a positive influence on labor market?", they write the following:


"Of the myriad ways to judge a U.S. presidency, one measure emerges as the bottom line for many Americans: jobs. Much like a baseball player's runs batted in or a company's earnings, the number of jobs created during a president's tenure is the vital statistic eched in memory decades later. Bill Clinton? 23 million. Ronald Reagan? 16 million."


My response is: Why? Why is the mere quantity of jobs created while a president was in office "the vital statistic" that we should focus on? What about the quality of jobs? It should go without saying that minimum wage jobs that offer no benefits are vastly inferior to high-paying jobs that provide a variety of employee benefits. Yet, if all we're doing is focusing on the number of jobs created—regardless of their quality—we're overlooking crucial information. This statistic doesn't tell the whole story. I'd feel much better about a president's legacy if he presided over the creation of predominantly high-paying jobs with benefits than if the lauded jobs created under his auspice were minimum-wage fast-food jobs, or positions where workers aren't even classified as employees, but are instead labeled "independent contractors", allowing companies to subvert labor laws and even avoid needing to pay them the bare minimum federal wage. 

There's another crucial angle to this issue that's worth addressing, and we'll approach it using an another example: Trump's recent executive order greenlighting the Keystone XL and Dakota Access Oil Pipeline.


"This is with regard to the construction of the Keystone pipeline—something that's been in dispute—and it's subject to a renegotiation of terms by us. We're going to renegotiate some of the terms, and, if they'd like, we'll see if we can get that pipeline built. Lot of jobs. 28,000 jobs. Great construction jobs."


Here we see Trump enthusiastically mentioning the thousands of jobs that the building of these pipelines will create. My response is: So what? So what that jobs will be created? Job creation should not be the sole or primary metric by which we assess the value of a particular policy. We could theoretically create hundreds of thousands of jobs by paying half of the workers to dig gigantic holes in the ground, and paying the other half to fill them back up. Yes, jobs would be created, but there are clearly other factors that we need to take into consideration: Will the world be made a better place as a result of this initiative? Is the endeavor solving a problem or moving society forward? Is it contributing to beneficial progress in some valuable area? These are the kinds of questions that deserve the bulk of our attention—not the mere number of jobs that could be created. 

In the case of oil pipelines, I would argue that, at this point, these are a net negative to society. Considering the environmental emergency that we're in the midst of—and that we're responsible for—I maintain that accelerating or facilitating our extraction, transportation, and usage of fossil fuels is a detriment to society and to the planet as a whole—not a benefit. Yes, oil executives and shareholders might enjoy the boost to their profits, thousands of construction jobs might be created, and gas prices might drop for ordinary consumers, but the building of oil pipelines doesn't just contribute to, but actually speeds up the emission of planet-warming greenhouse gases. And there's also, of course, the inevitable reality that the pipelines will eventually rupture or malfunction, causing an oil spill that does tremendous, direct damage to the environment. 

The more ethical and environmentally-sound course of action would be to transition away from dirty fossil-fuels, and create an energy grid powered by cleaner, alternative energy sources. And after we do the more important thing by deciding upon what's best for the health of the environment and for the future of our civilization, then we can ask ourselves: What will be the effect on jobs?

It seems to me that there's almost no better way to generate hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of new jobs than by undergoing a complete energy revolution in this country, transforming everything from our power grid to our airplanes and vehicles in such a way that they're powered by clean energy sources. Plain and simple, a nationwide technological revolution of this sort would undoubtedly create vast numbers of jobs. That said, I maintain that even if we knew that we'd have more jobs available if we stuck with fossil fuels and neglected clean energy sources, I would vehemently argue that the future of the environment and our civilization is infinitely more important than the number of jobs available in one particular industry. This seems axiomatic to me.

Just to provide one final example to support my position, in this case an extreme one, we could theoretically create thousands of jobs by paying people to kidnap and torture children. If we didn't have any ethical concerns, if we didn't care about the pain and suffering that this would cause, if we didn't care about making the world a better place and avoiding actions that cause harm, and instead, if the only thing we cared about was the number of jobs created, then yes, perhaps this would be a fantastic jobs program. But if you step outside of this one-dimensional mindset and consider other factors, you immediately see that the number of jobs created should be near the bottom of the list of our priorities. There are simply more important questions to ask and focus upon than the basic job-creating potential of a particular action.