For years Americans have pondered the mystery of how to create more jobs. Turns out we’ve been thinking about it all wrong: What we need are fewer jobs.
Billionaire investor and author Ken Fisher explains in Forbes — the Christmas Eve issue, on newsstands soon! — that “Job Growth Is Overrated.”
“Believe it or not, I’m for fewer jobs, not more,” he starts out.
OK, this is a good start: It is good to acknowledge right up front that readers might not quite believe that a sentient human being is somehow against more jobs.
But you expect that maybe Fisher is then going to do a bait-and-switch of some kind: He says he’s against jobs, but what he really means is that he is for some other mind-blowing kind of employment that’s not exactly a “job” as we commonly think of the term. Like being a financial advisor, say. Or maybe Fisher is sort of like a Situationist, somebody who believes the entire social construct of “work” is a sham that keeps people from ever truly enjoying life. Fine, sounds good.
But, no, what Fisher means is that he really, really can’t stand jobs, or people who want them, or people who want to create them:
“Throughout 2012 we heard politicians and pundits of all stripes yammering endlessly on the need for job growth—that we don’t have enough jobs,” he continues. “It’s pure rubbish.”
Jobs, Fisher explains, are actually signs of weakness in the economy. Jobs mean we can’t produce stuff without human beings lousing up the place, instead of nice, clean robots, which are not constantly pestering you for health care and maternity leave and breaks. The greater our economy’s productivity, the less we need of such nuisances. Then we can all sip cocktails on the beach for the rest of our days. Sous les paves, la plage.
“In the long run we will all benefit,” Fisher says, by nobody having any jobs any more, forever. He then goes on to extol the virtues of investing in a handful of companies he says will be top-notch at destroying jobs, including Anheuser-Busch InBev and Walmart.
The massive mistake Fisher is making is understandable: People often think that productivity and jobs are mutually exclusive. The government’s official measure of productivity is calculated by dividing output by worker hour. If you can get more output with fewer worker hours, voila, productivity.
But history shows that higher productivity and more jobs typically go hand in hand, according to a paper a few years back by William Nordhaus of the National Bureau of Economic Research.
Nordhaus looked at times in ye olde American history when productivity was rising and found, what do you know, jobs were rising then, too. When productivity is high, prices fall, which gives workers the ability to buy more stuff. Higher demand leads to more production and more jobs.
One notable exception was around the late 1990s, early 2000s, when computers were boosting American productivity like crazy, but China was taking all of our jobs. That experience maybe colors our thinking about productivity as a job-killer.
But China, at the very same time, was enjoying both rising productivity and more jobs.
More recently, China is no longer undercutting the rest of the world on labor costs quite as much as any more. And some of those jobs the U.S. lost to China might be coming back here. Exhibit A: Apple, which said on Thursday it is going to start making stuff in the U.S. again.
We don’t have to live in Ken Fisher’s zero-jobs world. Although we could all use more days at the beach.