Hidden assumptions in “Jobs Americans won’t do” and systems thinking

July 15, 2013 by Joshua
in Blog, Nature

I keep reading the phrase “jobs Americans wont’ do,” as in “illegal immigrants do work in jobs Americans won’t do.” Search on the phrases in quotes and you’ll find plenty of articles on the topic.

Economists, politicians, and pundits use the tools they use to analyze jobs — labor supply and demand, wages, competition, and so on — to understand the situation.

These articles never seem to question the existence of some jobs. They seem to take for granted that some work just has to be done and that it has to be done in just that way. Of course we need people to gut pigs and work in the sun all day in huge agricultural fields, they suggest…  of course we need people to work with dangerous chemicals.

We humans created those jobs. They don’t exist in nature like apples and waterfalls. When we say a job exists to go into a dangerous coal mine to blast rock, we mean someone decided they wanted something done a certain way and offered to pay someone to do it that way. We don’t have to create dangerous jobs. Any work requiring heavy machinery, for example, by definition requires using machines humans designed and built. We don’t have to design them to be dangerous.

Before we created cities, factories, mines, and so on people didn’t do any of the things cities, factories, mines, and so on ask of them. We created those tasks. We didn’t have to. We could ask people to do things in different ways.

Designing something to work more safely may cost more. Maybe in some situations. Not necessarily, though. Even if it costs more, we can at least clarify the issue that we choose to ask people to do such dangerous work. We can frame discussions on what type of work we ask each other to do and how much danger we’re willing to accept people paying each other for.

Where I’m coming from

I read a story (sorry, can’t find a link) that described jobs women didn’t enter and why. It mentioned that for a long time women avoided becoming doctors in part because of the crazy hours in their residencies. Then it mentioned as women entered some subfields in medicine, the hours of the residencies became less crazy. The old standard practices turned out not to be so necessary. When they changed the subfields’ hours, more people worked in those subfields.

When people consider something necessary, they often assume a system that requires that thing. They may not question the need of that greater system, though, or if the system can be changed.

A company creating a factory to butcher animals, for example, may think it needs to kill a certain number of animals per hour to sell it profitably. It might then decide it can’t spend more than a certain amount to build the factory and machines, it has to run the factory at a certain speed, and it can’t pay employees more than a certain amount. Given its assumptions — that is, based on the system it assumes — those decisions may be right.

But from a bigger picture, we might notice that humans never did that factory work before because that factory never existed before. If they are dangerous enough, we might ask if we want to allow people to ask others to do such dangerous things. If people elsewhere do such dangerous things, maybe we could do more to influence them, or not do business with them.

If we’re talking about immigration, isn’t that why we’d want people coming here, because it’s safer here? Not because it’s too dangerous?

Bottlenecks and systems

We can take this discussion further. Skipping a few steps, I see the logical end point, assuming free markets, that each time we choose not to allow some practice that could be done — that is, when we regulate a market more — we make a system less efficient than it could be if we allowed any behavior we wanted.

What are the results of a less-efficient market? Ultimately we wouldn’t be able to feed as many people. Some bottleneck would limit how many people the planet could sustain — food, water, air, real estate, or something like that.

The thing is, we’ll never be able to remove all bottlenecks. Something will always limit the Earth’s potential population. If we accept that we don’t have resources for an infinite number of people, we can let go of our drive to keep removing bottlenecks.

Then we change our goal from increasing the quantity of human lives to the quality of human lives.

If that reads overly idealistically, I only mean to highlight the systemic properties of the discussion. From a systems perspective, the issues are simpler.

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