Creating jobs, a practice both obvious and confounding

Last week’s episode of This American Life dealt with the theme “How to Create a Job.” If you haven’t heard this give it a listen. In summary, creating jobs is the top priority for public officials of all stripes but actually creating them is a complicated process that more often than not involves moving jobs around rather than actually creating them.

The TAL and Planet Money team interviews people like Govs. Jay Nixon of Missouri and Scott Walker of Wisconsin talking about how they create jobs in their states. Some of the their signature proposals remind me of programs I’ve heard about here on the Iron Range or in Minnesota (JOB-Z? Is that done yet?)

Conservatives will enjoy the general sense that corporate tax cuts and rebates have a positive effect on job creation. Liberals will enjoy the parallel reality that other factors like supply and demand, the livability of a state and education are of equal or greater importance. The reality is that a growing, educated society creates its own jobs — first through the private sector and then through the public sector by the way of needed services and amenities.

At one point in the first act TAL posits the notion that all public officials have to choose between the policies that might cause near term job creation and the policies that would foster long term job creation. Both sometimes negatively impact the other, meaning the choice often ends up being weighted one way or the other. I’d argue that we’ve made a lot of hay out of short term solutions lately and by the time we face the long term consequences the short term options will all be bad.

My favorite section of the broadcast is the third segment featuring This American Life Senior Producer Julie Snyder and Planet Money correspondent Adam Davidson. The pair attend a meeting of the International Economic Developers Council in San Diego to find out how well local governments are creating jobs in their areas.

Snyder and Davidson equate the experience to being in a singles bar, with each city trying to claim that the recession didn’t hit them very hard, that everything is great in their town, and that they don’t need more jobs but they’d be glad to take some off your hands. (Afterward, they list the unemployment rates in some of the cities, many of which were well above the national average). One session at the conference instructed economic developers on how to manage expectations in their town so they could keep their own jobs.

As a former reporter and man-about-town I have cause to interact with economic development types all the time. The sad, reptilian confidence — OK, bullshit — they can exude at times is a unique commodity in itself. If only somehow there was some way to produce clean energy off that supply! (Or IS there?)

Lessons for the Iron Range in northern Minnesota? I think they are in this broadcast, but only as clues. One can imagine the advice being to stick to our mining, natural resource and tourism base and expand around the edges. But so much of our public policy here seems dedicated to pouring tens of thousands of dollars into the attraction for each (possibly temporary) job. Even our mining is now heavily subsidized or otherwise supported by government spending. I find possibility in balancing our approach, adding new technology, bolstering education and creating the kind of place that creates its own jobs from within.

As I’ve said before, and before, and before, “Jobs, Jobs, Jobs” is not a policy. It is a prayer.

This American Life is probably the best podcast and public radio program in the nation. I subscribe and listen for free each week on my iPod. I recommend you do the same.


  1. Government can’t create jobs but they can create an environment that allows small businesses to grow. The less the govt gets involved the better we’ll do. If govt could create jobs the Trillion we threw at our country with the Stimulus package would’ve made a difference.

  2. “In summary, creating jobs is the top priority for public officials”

    I strongly disagree. Creating jobs is not the purpose of our government or elected officials. Our government is there to create and maintain a safe, stable, civil environment where people and business can operate. If you look back to the wisdom of our contitution and founding fathers I don’t think you will find any mention of the need for the government to create jobs.

    All this take about wanting or needing jobs is kind of silly. What people really want is money. Manny people forget what money is, it is a means to exchange work between people. Rather than the carpenter working on the butchers house in exchange for some steaks, he does the work in exchange for money (money that the butcher got from selling steaks).

    You cannot create jobs, jobs exist because there is work that needs to be done. All that our government can do is create the environment where this can take place.

    I suggest reading Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.


  3. To a degree that’s what the T.A.L. program finds, C.O., though they would add that there is a difficult-to-measure, hard-to-predict influence from other factors besides the cold calculus of supply and demand. In other words, ways of producing supply and the ability to meet demand can be influenced by factors like education, transportation, etc.

    To dig deeper into that debate would take us into our more significant disagreement, the writings and teachings of Ayn Rand. I respect the totality of her philosophy and theories. I diverge (and find it hard to get into her novels) because I think there is something more to life than the raw force of supply and demand. I should say, there is something more to civilized life. I can game out a Rand theory on paper and understand it, but in practice I find her way of thinking to be too simplistic and self-indulgent. I suppose the same could be said of liberal theorists. That’s why I’m edging away from living by political labels.

  4. I agree.

    It is a complicated (some would say chaotic) system. There are a lot more factors than just supply and demand. Having a well educated population, a stable banking system with credit available, transportation infastructure, these and many other intangible things are neccessary for a successful economy/nation.

    It is all of these secondary factors where I think that the government should be involved in the “creation” of jobs.


  5. Government IS involved in creating or dissappearing jobs. For example, currently, many positions are being cut in government at all levels of government. That means that people are losing jobs and that families are losing incomes, so local stores will lose business. I believe that there will be a secondary recessionary bump due to these cuts.

    Another example is that in the years when companies were taking the factories and jobs to China, etc. the tax policies favored this flight. I saw a documentary on PBS about people who fought this change in court. The Federal Gov. weighed in on the side of the companies going overseas!!!

    Creating jobs is harder, however. If the government spends money on projects, jobs are created. But when there is high unemployment, there is more need for government money for subsidized health care, food stamps, etc. so there is less money for projects, and less income from taxes. A vicious cycle.

    Much better that we support our businesses here when times are good.

    It is like the small town mantra on a large scale: If you don’t bother to shop locally when you have a grocery store in your small town, then the store won’t be there when you have an immediate need for food in the future.

    Plus, we need our manufacturing businesses in case we have need to produce items for defense on our own shores in the future. Plus we need our medications made here, not abroad or on some unregulated islands.

  6. Your premise is flawed PS…”If the government spends money on projects, jobs are created”.

    For government to have spent this money, they took it from somebody. If they wouldn’t have taken it in the first place, the people would have the money to spend on whatever they wish which would have created “jobs” to produce whatever they bought…

    The jobs gain is same whether the individual spent the money or gave it to the government to spend. I contend leave the money with us to spend how we the government takes a cut along the way so actually, fewer jobs are created if they take it from me and spend it..

  7. Ranger47, I agree. In the case of the government spending money to “create” jobs, they are really just a middle man taking their cut.


  8. I usually try to be very diplomatic when I write comments on blogs, but I can’t respond in any way but ad follows:You both show both a profound ignorance of the economics of government jobs and projects, as well as a deep disrespect for civil servants.

    I could probably give scores of examples, but I’ll just give three, from two different ends of the spectrum. First:my parents met while working at the Milwaukee Health department after WWII. Mother was a public health nurse;my father was a restaurant and grocery store inspector. They didn’t earn all that much, but they were dedicated . I heard stories about some stores and restaurants that my father would NEVER take us to because of filth. Mom took care of kids who were sick in school, among her many duties. Tell me how lowering somebody’s taxes by eliminating such jobs would bring individuals to accomplish the tasks that such public servants do? My friend’s father was a garbage collector. Sure, eliminate that job, lower taxes. Have you ever seen pictures of a city after a few days of a garbage collector strike?,,I just ask you to be more aware of how people serve us.
    Third example : when the bridge fell in Minneapolis , many construction workers worked long hours at mostly high paid jobs to build the new bridge. My son’s friend was a supervising engineer . If we eliminated the tax burden to pay for such projects, we’d probably wait 50 years for the engineer to stand there with a cup in his hand asking people to throw in a few coins.

    My mom identified as Republican . But she taught me that if we tax everybody, we can gather enough money to build some big projects , but if we just expect people to throw in some money if they feel like it, not much will be accomplished. Individuals are more likely to fritter away their money of a hot dog and pop than put that money toward a larger cause.

  9. With $11 million of federal money, mine and yours, Microsoft’s Seattle headquarters built a new bridge to connect its two campuses. I think Microsoft could have afforded to build the bridge using it’s own money..

    Oh…my Mom and Dad met in Bovey while working together at a grocery store.

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