The new major of Chicago wants to fight crime by creating new opportunities for young people, and he has blamed recent upswings in violence in Chicago on the lack of opportunity. Research from the NBER suggests that there is less violence when there are more job opportunities, so this is at least promising. So why aren’t there more jobs?
Maybe it’s because so many people are all fools and knaves, but if economics teaches us anything, it’s to look at people’s incentives before we examine their mental and moral fiber. After a quick internet search, I learned that the minimum wage in Illinois is $13 per hour. If legislation makes Chicago youth unemployable, why should we be surprised that no one will employ them? Chicago – and cities around the country – need to repeal minimum wages and reduce the regulatory hurdles teenagers have to clear to find work.
These aren’t dead-end “McJobs,” as they are sometimes derisively called. They’re important opportunities to learn how to function in the labor market and, importantly, how to serve others. One of the most important things about working for pay in a service enterprise is that it takes you off the throne. It makes you contend with the fact that you are not the star of the cosmic narrative. Other people matter, other people have preferences and problems, and it is presumptuous to expect them to ignore those preferences and problems and do what you want for no other reason than because you want it done. It turns out that the best way to do what you want is to govern your selfish passions and help other people do what they want.
Unfortunately, I expect this argument to pass unnoticed before blind eyes. H.L. Mencken allegedly said that the definition of “fundamentalism” is the fear that someone, somewhere might be having a good time. 21st-century progressive fundamentalism is the fear that someone, somewhere might make money, and progressives look askance at fast food companies and retailers that make a great deal of money. This is not in itself vicious; if it is done via exchange – which, as it happens, is how fast food companies and retailers make their money – it is positively virtuous. In competitive labor markets, these firms’ profits do not come at the consumer’s or employees’ expenses. They do not take it. They earn it by making consumers and employees better off relative to their best alternatives.
“McJobs” aren’t just worth having. They’re vital. They make it easier for the people who have them to accumulate valuable skills and labor market experience, which research has shown leads to higher future earnings. The market process allows low-skill people to specialize in what they do best while freeing up high-skill people who can concentrate their efforts on things they do best. Everybody wins, and in some small way, you have a part in every achievement by every bleary-eyed customer for whom you dutifully pour coffee on their morning commute.
Consider a real-world example. This article has sat in my “drafts” folder for a very, very long time. I wrote the very first draft of this article more than a decade ago at a McDonald’s and revised it one time at India Palace (one of my favorite restaurants in Memphis, where I was living at the time). The opportunity to cooperate with the owners and staff at India Palace freed up time I would otherwise spend on food preparation and allowed me to concentrate on something I enjoy and do relatively well, namely, writing articles like this one. The owners and staff at the restaurant were able to earn higher incomes. I’m able to earn a higher income. We’re both better off.
Someone might object that I, a privileged white guy, am ruthlessly and brutally exploiting the low-wage workers who prepared and served my meals while I mused about the labor market. It’s true that the restaurant’s proprietors haven’t had the same opportunities I’ve had, but that is largely because of lousy political institutions in their home countries and a nonsensical immigration policy in their adopted home. Their children have vastly expanded opportunities relative to what they would have enjoyed elsewhere, and in just a few short years I’ve seen things changing in my “day job” as a college professor. More and more of my students are immigrants or the children of immigrants. Their educations are financed in no small part by the opportunities afforded by a more integrated global market for goods and services.
Someone might object, “We can’t build a strong economy on jobs at Walmart and McDonald’s.” Actually, we can. Bryan Caplan has made several excellent points in this regard and continues to do so as he prepares his book Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids. He argues, quite correctly, that allowing people to have the ability to specialize in low-skill occupations frees up the time and energy of high-productivity, high-skill workers. Both high-skill and low-skill workers can innovate, and mightily.
But these allow us to save time and energy, which in turn allows us to have greater output. The productivity increases might be indirect, but they’re there.
People want big, splashy programs administered by fancy leaders with flashy titles and flashy outfits. I’m convinced that there remains a lot of low-hanging fruit, however, that requires none of these. Market integration that allows capital and labor to cross borders freely – borders, after all, are lines drawn by politicians – has enormous potential to increase standards of living. Getting rid of regulations on labor markets, even and perhaps especially at the bottom of the skill distribution, will allow for greater specialization.
People look at “dead end” jobs and so-called “McJobs” and say one isn’t going to earn enough to support a family flipping burgers. This misses the point. A “McJob” gives someone the opportunity to make connections and learn and practice valuable skills like punctuality and reliability – the kinds of “soft skills” that can lead one to new opportunities. And regardless, it’s easier to feed and support a family at some wage than at no wage.
Is it the world we would design if we were starting from scratch? No, but it’s the world we inhabit now in no small part due to millennia of attempts to redesign and rebuild society according to the plans and visions of intellectual and moral elites. No one wants to spend an entire career in a McJob, but they don’t have to–and usually, they don’t. Any job, no matter how bad, can be a stepping stone to bigger and better things. It’s obnoxious to look down on the jobs, the people who do them, and those who provide them. “McJobs” have an undeserved bad reputation. They provide good and honorable work if you can get it, and they can be important steps on the road to bigger and better things.