I have no degree in economics or finance, and certainly don't have the answers to our complex employment problems. But here are some observations that I think raise important questions.
- In Switzerland, wages are high and even so-called menial jobs are respected. HOWEVER, there is a high level of automation. The Swiss shake their heads in bemusement that we would pay someone to collect highway tolls or parking lot fees. They can't afford to pay good wages for low-skilled jobs.
- In Switzerland, college tuition is low and heavily subsidized. HOWEVER, only a small percentage of the population attends college. The educational system also includes an excellent vocational program in cooperation with the business community.
- It makes no sense to push for imitation of another country's system ("We should make college free and guarantee everyone a living wage!") without considering what makes the good thing possible ("Are we willing to completely restructure our educational system, drastically restrict who can attend college, and eliminate low-skill jobs? If not, how can we, in practice, make it work?").
- I'm a firm believer in the philosophy that education is valuable in and of itself, irrespective of the economic value it can confer. But how can we in good conscience encourage young people to take on boatloads of debt to acquire college degrees for which there are few or no jobs that will enable them to pay off that debt?
- Unemployment is very high in The Gambia. Since long before the current refugee crisis, young Gambian men have been taking the "back door" into Europe, entering illegally and hoping to establish themselves, undetected, because they see no hope at home. The Gambia doesn't need more direct aid nearly so much as it needs an economy and a culture that support entrepreneurship, ambition, and job-creation.
- Low-skill, low-wage jobs in the United States, like working at McDonald's, used to be a way for teenagers to get some work experience and earn a little pocket-money. Apparently, they are now increasingly being held by people who are trying to make a living and perhaps even support a family. No wonder they want more money! But how did we get into this situation—where responsible adults are taking unskilled, part-time, teen-age jobs—and how do we get out of it? Certainly not by flooding the workforce with more unskilled labor, which brings me to...
- I'm frequently told that we need a large supply of foreign workers to take on jobs "that Americans don't want to do." My immediate reaction is that if Americans don't want to do the jobs, then the wages are too low. Raise the pay, and Americans will find the jobs more attractive. But as long as there continues to be a good supply of people eager to take the low-salaried jobs, the pay will stay at unattractive levels.
- I'm also told that paying a decent wage to workers, instead of relying on what amounts to a slave-labor force, will drive food prices sky-high, with, say, tomatoes costing $40/pound. First of all, I'm pretty sure that's nonsense: As mentioned above, the Swiss all enjoy good wages, and yes, the cost of living is high, but nothing like that scale. And second, isn't it better to pay more for our goods than to enjoy a discount based on slave labor? The American South tried the "our economy will fall apart without slaves" argument before the Civil War, and look how well it worked out for them.
- One reason it is so difficult for the Gambian economy to grow is that there is no culture of saving or investment. If you have money that you don't need immediately, right now, in this moment, you are expected to give it to members of your family. Even distant relatives, from the truly needy to the plainly indolent, have a claim on you. There is little appreciation of the value of accumulating money for the purpose of acquiring the equipment or supplies needed to start a business, or for getting a better price by purchasing in bulk, or of pouring money back into a business to help it grow. If you have money now, you spend it now, or someone else will spend it for you.
- I worry that this "spend it all now" attitude has infected America, from the poorest welfare recipient to the largest corporations. The poor man who refuses to sacrifice today for the sake of his children and his future cheats himself and his family, but the corporate managers and stockholders who prize short-term gain over long-term stability and growth have the power to cheat millions of families—and maybe destroy a nation. And those in between cheat on both ends, by depriving their own families and by not investing wisely in economic growth.
As promised: no answers. But questions worth considering.