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White House War on Jobs Making Progress

Walter Russell Mead

Less-skilled men are finding themselves shut out of the labor market, not because they are lazy or reluctant to work, but because opportunities for work are evaporating. The Wall Street Journal reports:

Working-age males have been sitting on the sidelines in greater numbers for decades, a trend that accelerated during the latest recession and has broad implications for individual well-being as well as the overall economy.

A new White House study highlights the sharpest decline among men with lower levels of educational attainment and concludes much of the cause is a loss of economic opportunity for those would-be workers.

“No single factor can fully explain this decline, but analysis suggests that a reduction in the demand for less skilled labor has been a key cause of declining participation rates as well as lower wages for less skilled workers,” the Council of Economic Advisers said in the report.

Some of the decline in less-skilled employment may be the inevitable result of technological advancement, but the administration has been doing everything it can to accelerate the trend. Indeed, few elements of liberal social policy have been as consistent in this administration as the relentless offensive against anybody who employs low-skilled people. Minimum wage increases, attacks on fast food franchises, the war on Walmart: any business that offers an entry into the workforce for people who don’t have post-high school education will sooner or later find themselves under siege.

If you want to open the kind of metal bashing industrial workshop in an inner city neighborhood where poor people live and could get jobs—fuggedaboutit. Between the zoning regulators, the OSHA inspectors, the environmentalists, the tax authorities and the ‘living wage’ myrmidons, liberal progressive governance will come down on you like a ton of bricks.

The war on less-skilled employment has three effects. First: the accelerated automation of low skill jobs. Why hire cashiers when you can automate check out? Why hire stock clerks when robots can do more of that work? Why not automate the ordering process in fast food restaurants—especially when it will now cost $15 an hour plus a growing list of benefits and taxes to hire a semi-literate immigrant or product of failing inner city schools to do that job?

Second: more workers without a lot of education and skills are leaving the work force to subsist on benefits, or in the informal economy, or some mix of both.

Third: clueless SJW-types who deplore the ways that ‘capitalism’ is creating mass unemployment and rising inequality are growing ever more confident in their crusade.

If we are serious about raising wages at the low end of the job market—and that is a critical task—another approach is needed: Encouraging job creation in this sector. People who find ways for low-skilled workers to make a modest income while adding some value to society are public benefactors, not public enemies. If we stopped illegal immigration, moved to a points system for legal immigration, encouraged the development of industries and companies that hired low-skilled workers, wages for those workers would go up in line with the laws of supply and demand.

Of course, they won’t go up forever; ultimately, productivity matters and employers won’t pay workers more than the value that the workers can add. But unless we miraculously transform every person in America a super-competent symbolic analyst able to excel in the global marketplace, we are going to have tens of millions of Americans whose skill-level limit the kinds of work they can do. Is it really liberal and progressive to develop a set of policies that systematically sideline and warehouse whole classes of people, depriving them of dignity and respect?

Automation is going to happen, and ultimately it’s a good thing. But should a center-left party really be working night and day to make millions of poor Americans—disproportionately people of color, by the way—unemployable? Wouldn’t a true friend of the poor and the unskilled be upholding the dignity of work, increasing opportunities for work, and looking at ways that government policy could tip the scales in favor of more jobs rather than fewer, and in creating more jobs where the poor people are? Just wondering.

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