All Jobs Are Not Created Equal
 By Peter Van Schaik

   

     There is one thing politicians consistently promise, no matter their party or ideological perspective, and that’s jobs. Almost all politicians in nearly every race tell us they have a plan guaranteed to create jobs, generally thousands if not millions of jobs depending on the particular position they are vying for. But does it ever occur to them that all jobs don’t offer the same economic benefits? Do they ever stop to think that all jobs are not created equal?

     We’re not talking about a mere differential in wages and benefits, although that is a factor worth considering. After all, a minimum wage job for 25 hours a week just can’t compete with one paying $25 an hour with paid vacation and full medical benefits.

     But we’re talking about a more fundamental difference in jobs. We’re talking about taking into account the resources jobs take from the economy relative to the goods and services the jobs put into the economy. In the future, as energy and resources cost more in real terms due to increased global demand, this ratio will become more important than ever.

     There are two factors we need to consider when assessing the benefits jobs bring to an economic system relative to their real costs in terms of energy and resources. First, all jobs have one thing in common: They are subject to the Laws of Thermodynamics. Second, the only way we can gain wealth in real nuts and bolts terms is to produce more than we consume. While these two factors may seem elementary, they are generally ignored. To most of us, especially our political leaders, a job is a job is a job. And, I’ll admit, if you need a job to survive and you’re unemployed, there is nothing to gain by waxing philosophical about the relative energy consumption among the jobs for which you’re applying. It doesn’t matter one iota to the unemployed job seeker, but to the whole economy it becomes an issue which eventually will need to be addressed.

     Let’s consider the first factor: The Laws of Thermodynamics. Basically, the primary Laws of Thermodynamics say energy can neither be created nor destroyed, it can only change form, and any time we change the form of energy some energy will no longer be available to us due to entropy. This matters to an economy because every economic transaction always changes the form of some energy and some energy is always irretrievably lost to the economic system.

     It takes energy to power the human body and it takes energy to power any machine and, since some of that energy is lost forever, it matters what the humans and machines are doing with that energy.

     Let’s consider, for simplicity’s sake, just two jobs: Farming and dealing cards at the neighborhood casino. It takes roughly the same amount of food, clothing, and shelter to maintain life for the farmer as the dealer of cards.  Let’s suppose, again for the sake of simplicity, that the card dealer’s share of energy consumed to operate the casino itself equals the energy used by the low tech organic farmer to power his food producing and processing equipment.

     In both cases we have roughly the same amount of energy changing form and the same amount of energy lost to entropy but we have radically different outcomes in the economy after a year of dealing cards and a year of producing food. Nothing new was produced by the card dealer and nothing of the energy consumed by him or his share of the casino operations is available to the economy. It’s simply gone. Up in smoke figuratively, if not literally, speaking. But the result of the farmer’s consumption of energy is food to feed dozens, if not hundreds, of others, allowing the production of additional goods and services in the future.

     Now I’ll admit this is an extreme example and most jobs don’t fall into such neat little slots of consumption or production but the reality is jobs either are net consumers of energy or net producers of energy. If we want to enjoy an ever improving quality of life and increase our wealth as energy becomes more expensive, we best ensure the jobs that are net consumers of energy fill a real need or an extremely important desire of those who comprise the economy.

     There are, of course, consuming jobs which do fill real needs of an economy and leave us all better off. Doctors, hospitals, and auto mechanics are all net consumers of energy and no one would argue we can do without them. But we have to face the cold, hard truth: They only maintain what we already have. They maintain our wealth but they do not produce new wealth. If we want our economy to gain wealth, maintenance jobs need to be kept to a minimum.

     Now for the second factor: The only way we can really increase the wealth of our nation, or any other nation, is to produce more than we consume. This seems so ridiculously obvious that it would hardly need to be mentioned yet the Gross Domestic Product, the very statistic that purports to measure our nation’s wealth, is filled with consumption as well as production. Packaging that looks great when we buy that new product just ends up in the landfill yet it is included in the GDP. Did it really add to our nation’s wealth? The $25 hair cut looks nice but our hair grows back in a month or less and we’re right back where we started but the $25 is there in the GDP and we haven’t really gained a thing. If all jobs added to our real bottom line in the same way we could just lead lives of total irresponsibility and debauchery. The cost of repairs to our bodies, cars, houses and so on would add billions to our Gross Domestic Product. But no one in their right mind would argue we would have more wealth to split among us in spite of what the growth in the GDP would seem to indicate.

     If we want to increase our wealth as a nation, we need to produce real, tangible goods that serve a necessary purpose in our lives. An obvious example would be energy production. If we eliminated all unnecessary production and devoted the resources to manufacture wind plants and solar panels, we would lighten the load on our landfills and achieve energy independence with little sacrifice. Some of the energy produced by the wind and the sun could be used to manufacture additional goods, including more wind plants and solar panels, and we would gain wealth in real terms. When we are producing energy we are producing wealth.

     We have a service based economy but services, by their very definition, are actually consumption, not production. Services can add to our quality of life but once the service is performed, it’s gone. There is one major exception. Educational institutions consume energy, produce no real, tangible product but they do pay real dividends to society over the long run. A solid education is always an investment in our future.  But the typical service, like that haircut mentioned earlier, is a fleeting benefit providing only a brief pleasure before it vanishes for all time, taking some energy and resources with it.

     Services aren’t the only problem for our economy: Most consumer goods fall into the same category as services when looked at from a standpoint of energy consumed. Sure, an MP3 player is a fun toy but it isn’t going to put anything back into the economy tomorrow. The energy and resources are gone and all we have left is another trinket to toss in the landfill when the new model hits the market or the next fad strikes our fancy.

     In the 21st century we will be hard pressed to meet the global demands for energy and natural resources. If we want to increase our standard of living, we’ll need to consider how we are spending the real wealth of nations.

    

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