Why The Keynesian-style Mass Labor Projects Don’t Work Any More

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OK, sure, it’s possible to make too much of this but still:

Our analysts are available. What do you want our rugby, cricket, and football experts to examine?

We still get some slavering at the thought that in economic hard times we just get everyone off digging ditches. We get to hear Woody Guthrie singing again or something. The mass ranks of peasants dying at the Belomors Canal. Or maybe the navvies building the railways, it’s always difficult to know which historical episode they’ve got in mind.

Any economic down turn is always met with cries of “go build something” and they always do envision some mass mobilisation of labour to do it. The current one seems to be “insulate every house in the country and create jobs in every constituency”. The bit that is always missed being that most people haven’t a clue about how to do such work. The division of labour and specialisation have seen to that.

Which is where our example comes in. So, people working on a newspaper, they’re journalists, right? And if there’s no sport to write about go write about something else. Except, obviously enough, it doesn’t work like that.

Because the knowledge to write about something is subject specific. And yet now think of what those glorifying mass labour projects are saying. That the out of work barista, accountant and diversity consultant can all be usefully employed with pick and shovel. But if we can’t even transfer skills from the sports to the coronavirus desk then that’s not really true is it?

Having the diversity advisers – and this is a lovely thought even so – navvie the railways into being is going to be about as effective as having the navvies – and this is a lovely thought even so – doing the diversity advising. Division and specialisation of labor means the one is not a substitute for the other.

It’s only in GuardianWorld that labour is such a lump that can be allocated as the Commissars wish. Which presumably means their economics pages are written by the sports desk which does, to be fair, explain a lot about that output.

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Itellyounothing
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Itellyounothing

There are few journalists who know their own subject, let alone anyone elses……

Spike
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Spike

No, all labor is not interchangeable; but retraining is a real thing. When we need teachers in a certain subject and loosen the racketeering that forces teachers to have a four-year degree in teaching (and a certificate to prove that they toe all the important lines), people from the relevant industry stream in and, on average, teach as well as the “professionals.”

TD
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TD

I don’t think they’re necessarily advocating that anything be built well. If you really want to employ a lot of people, think spoons instead of backhoes.

Thomas Knapp
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Seems like kind of a bizarre objection. I built houses for a little while. What I knew about building houses before my first day building houses was: Zero, zip, zilch. I carried lumber and such while the people who already knew how to frame walls and lay shingles and such did that. And over time, I got called over to help, and they showed me things, and within a few months I was one of the people framing walls and some new kid was carrying 2x4s to me. I don’t think “mass labor projects” do any good as a way… Read more »

Spike
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Spike

Thanks for the reminder of the magic of apprenticeship!

Wherever the government gets the labor, it is unlikely to be geared to teach the newbie which edge of the sawblade to line up with the pencil mark, as apprenticeship does. The first lesson would be where to go if you have a Grievance. Jobs, see? not work.

Thomas Knapp
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Actually, it is MOST likely to be geared that way, since the goal is full employment, not lots of really cool stuff being built really quickly. They’d love nothing better than to have one master carpenter spending six weeks teaching 100 newbs how to read a square and drive a nail.

Snarkus
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Snarkus

Good argument but the non-economic benefit of seeing bankers or CEOs of bubble companies with blistered hands, sore backs in a hole they have to keep digging is the boost in morale for those who were hurt by these clowns owning politicians. However, building anything these days requires trained labour. It requires a skilled worker on a JCB, whatever to dig a clean trench that needs no cleaning up before the pipes go in is amazing. Also, the potential for ego rush when one of the soft hand types gets on a modern bulldozer with sidestick controller instead of the… Read more »

Esteban
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Esteban

There’s also the problem that you can’t build anything significant without a year or more of red tape, sometimes several years including the lawsuits. So, by the time you actually break ground the reason for the gov “stimulus” has passed. No less than Hopey McChange actually admitted this once it was safe to do so “I guess shovel-ready wasn’t really shovel-ready”.