Do We Owe Them Nothing?

Something I’ve been musing about recently, which I would write an essay about but I am far too lazy and far too busy to do anything of that nature, so I’m going to fire off some thoughts here

I wonder, what do we as a polity owe one another? When I go back to visit Bethlehem PA where I went to college, and I see the abandoned steel stacks towering over an entire city built, by the, now defunct, Bethlehem Steel. And I wonder, what do I, or people like me, owe the people who worked there?

Famously the ‘white working class’ quote unquote revolted and delivered us, Trump. We’ve talked a lot as a nation about those who’ve been ‘left behind’ by globalization. My great-grandfather worked on the railroad, but since then I have no direct connection to heavy industry. It’s easy for someone like me to look at the steel & coal towns throughout America and murmur incantations about ’employment trends’ ‘retraining’ ‘structural shifts’ and ‘cyclical unemployment.’

In economics we talk about friction, meaning anything that prevents markets from operating at optimal efficiency. Mass changes in the labor market cause ‘friction’ for instance. Friction while we transition for an economy based on physical, muscular jobs, to an economy of knowledge workers in cubicles.

The aggregate statistics, in this case, lose a reality. That the ‘friction’ is people, Americans. The ‘friction’ is waiting for a 22-year-old college grad to take the place in the labor market of a 45-year-old steelworker who was laid off and will never work again. Middle-aged steelworkers were not being re-trained to be accountants or computer programmers.

Steel is an interesting case to me because it’s one of the industries that didn’t need to go away. There is no economic law that dictated America needed to outsource steel production. The death of American steel was the result of a trade policy pursued by the American government. It was not an unfortunate accident, it was a deliberate choice.

The situation as I see it is this. America in the post-war order pursued a set of economic and trade policies. These policies benefitted the country (and world) as a whole. Yet the brunt of the cost, almost all the downside, was borne by a minority of our citizens. Do we owe them nothing? A pink slip & well wishes? Destroying American steel made America rich, but made American steelworkers poor.

At this point, some tech-utopia libertarian going to stick his head into the conversation. He’ll say ‘well they should have followed employment trend, learned how to code, transitioned to another industry!’ Which I have two objections to.

First, on learning to code. A 45-year-old man who spent his entire life as a steelworker is not just going to up and learn to code and get a software dev job. Some will and can, most won’t and can’t. It’s not realistic as a broad solution. Especially if that 45-year-old man was, until he lost his job, supporting an entire family on his income and relying on a now nonexistent pension for his retirement.

Second, that recommendation, in general, doesn’t scale. That advice works if you have a friend who is in x industry which is going to go away soon. It does not work for an entire industry of workers. Why? Because we needed the steelworkers, right up until the moment we didn’t. It was the steel industry that made the materials for the tanks, airplanes, and ships the won WWII and the rebar that built our cities. If everyone took the advice of leaving for greener pastures when the writing was on the wall, we would have been in a pickle.

Take trucking. Trucking is going away as a profession in the next decade. But, up until the very second that we turn trucking over to autonomous vehicles, we need truckers. They’re the engine of our economy, getting almost everything we use from the docks to us.

Do we owe them nothing? People doing the equivalent of going down with the ship so that the economy can still function and we can live comfortable lives while we make their industry & jobs obsolete? I think we owe them something. I don’t know what, but we can do better than snide slogan about ‘learn to code’ and a half-hearted ‘job retraining’ program that doesn’t work.

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