Joblessness v. Uselessness

I quite enjoyed this article by Julian Dobson, posted at the RSA website.  Although the statistics are drawn from Britain, the gist of the article — that ‘unemployment’ and ‘uselessness’ are not identical states of being — resonates well on this side of the pond, particularly given the lingering employment concerns of the Great Recession.

I also found it to be an excellent counterpoint to a meme that’s developed amongst conservatives, a kind of less-racist ‘welfare queens’ concept that’s used to justify the denial of unemployment benefits.  Economic policy on the right argues that providing money to people who don’t work disincentivizes people from looking a job and prolongs the economic slowdown (never mind that such relentlessly supply-side perspectives have been largely disproven), but whether out of an impulse towards sloganeering or simple disgust, the argument has been taken from the academic to the mudslinging.  Recently someone in the economics blogosphere (who, of course, I now cannot find to link to, no matter how hard I google!) derided the extension of unemployment benefits as an excuse for the unemployed to go out and “coach Little League.”

Now, it’s less damning than “welfare queens,” but it’s also, from a purely economic perspective, a far stupider point to make.  Leaving aside the fact that coaching Little League in no way precludes a person from either looking for work or holding down a job, let’s think for a moment about the function of a Little League coach.  They are providing a service for which there is a clear demand.  The service they are providing has the following effects:

1.  Child care — parents are now free to do other things while their kids are at Little League practice.

2.  Increased demand for a variety of goods and services, including uniforms, equipment, field maintenance, ticket sales, and game-day concessions.

3.  Keeping kids active and reducing the public health burden of childhood obesity and diabetes.

4.  Community-building. 

Moreover, being engaged in a meaningful activity is likely to dull the depressive effects of unemployment.  All of these are, from a purely economic perspective, good things.  “Community building” is a little bit intangible, but the fact remains that coaching Little League is a productive activity, full stop.  What rankles those on the right is that it is not a paid activity, that it has not been blessed by the wisdom of the free market with a mountain of distributable cash.

The purpose of a market economy is that it should monetize those activities which are most productive in society, but it’s pretty inarguable that someone coaching Little League for zero dollars is, in fact, being much more productive than any of the financial traders who blindly engineered economic ruin but made off with millions.  Our metrics are blunt, and it would be difficult to gain a fuller picture of the benefits generated by those who are ‘workless’ but not ‘useless’ (or ‘jobless’ but not ‘workless’, perhaps — many of the unemployed are working hard, on community-building or entrepreneurial projects or self-improvement or simple survival, without any compensation for their efforts), but our current system leaves undervalued a huge informal sector that, despite the lack of pay, somehow still accomplishes a great deal.

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