Where are the workers?


Last updated 10/4/2022 at Noon

For the last year, a contractor friend near my home in Oregon has been unable to hire carpenters.

Three months ago, a mechanic couldn’t find a new muffler to install on my old truck.

Last month, stranded in Canada on a boat, I was told it could take three weeks to get a repair.

Two days ago, the owner of one of my favorite coffee shops announced he’s going to close because he can’t hire a barista.

Something is going on. It’s as if a whole generation of workers have disappeared. Everywhere, in every industry.

Over the last two years, explanations have included checks that went out to help workers through massive unemployment caused by COVID. Then, poor work ethics of Gen X were blamed. Supply chains from China, environmental regulations in California, lack of housing, the weather …

I recently read a book, “The End of the World Is Just the Beginning,” by Peter Zeihan, and regularly watch Zeihan’s blog. You should too — Zeihan is brilliant. He points out that the world is changing quite rapidly, with falling populations as a primary cause.

I’m at a time of life where I’m insulated to some extent from world trends that don’t have an immediate impact on this Old White Liberal. Regular readers know I think there are too many people on Earth.

More accurately, I feel that a wasteful, exploitive, and arrogant species such as mankind is destined to destroy the world’s viability through carelessness and hubris, at least as long as we poison the air and water, destroy the soils, and strip mine oceans to the point where they can no longer sustain a complex web of life.

I could blame capitalism for these sins, and have, but one also has to realize that capitalism has also led to the most significant elevation in the standard of living of all mankind. This is partly the result of capitalism’s ability to quickly and efficiently reallocate resources, according to books on economics I read a half century ago.

However, a related (and often hidden) ability of capitalism is to shift costs. Not only can capitalism quickly reallocate capital to create an immensely profitable (if unnecessary) social media, or wondrously effective (if cancerous) weed killers, the process does not require that capitalists who profit must pay for chemotherapy to cure the diseases they cause.

Which, of course, allows them to search for even more effective ways to add to the bottom line. (Unfortunately, guided by the human brain and unfettered by accountability, this search can result in fishing nets miles long bumping along the ocean bottom, killing all life in search of protein to be sold at $1 pound as a can of cat food.)

Here’s another old idea from economics textbooks: at some point, supply and demand will reach a balance. This would allow an Old White Liberal to buy a muffler for his old truck at least at some price, or a cookie and coffee at a café if he was willing to pay the bill and leave a tip.

This is where the process that has served us so well may be breaking down. It may no longer be the case that we can buy it if we can afford it, or buy it used if we can’t. If there’s nobody to make it, bake it, saw it, or paint it, then “whateveritis” might not be available at all, or so few can afford it that everything we want is now custom and ten times as expensive as before.

Which begs another question for the Old White Liberal. Is equality attainable, or even desirable? If there was true, absolute equality, would anyone make a muffler, install an alternator, build a house, serve a muffin, clean a fish?

And here’s one for my conservative friends: If capitalistic private equity firms buy up all the starter homes and turn them into rentals at rates that prevent young workers from building their own equity, have we killed incentive? Just asking.

My hope was that less labor might cause the value of labor to increase, and provide a more equal world for those who keep it running, that the “system” might reach a new balance. But I don’t know if that’s what will happen.

It might be that the road from a world where labor was plentiful and cheap to one where there are too few to do too much is likely to be a rough one.


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