Ezra Klein reprints an email:
Some of my work is as a primary doctor at a VA primary care clinic in Southeast Michigan. We are totally overwhelmed right now with people who lost their insurance from auto-related layoffs and are using VA eligibility for the first time. It is totally awful. Think about the job prospects for a high-school educated 50-year-old with 32 years experience with one employer welding a single auto part near Detroit.
These are good people who lived and taught their kids with a perspective on life — work hard and stay out of trouble to earn a middle class life — that is now totally wrong. They’re essentially unemployable here but sure aren’t going to leave friends and family for a job at a Panera in Arizona. I suppose that’s the nature of technology and change, but it’s pretty brutal in this neighborhood.
This is the central problem with dynamic, growth-oriented market economies. It’s really not just something that is “now totally wrong,” though the recession is making it a particularly intense problem in Michigan. My mother went to college, worked for years as a graphic designer, and attained middle age in possession of a valuable set of skills related to a period in which “cut and paste” was not a metaphor. Then, quite suddenly, the economic value of those skills was wiped out and her labor market possibilities took a huge negative hit through no fault of her own notwithstanding the fact that she “did everything right.”
It’s clear if you look at the past 300 years of human history that allowing this process of change to move forward leads to huge increases in average living standards. But the notion that it makes everyone better off or that market outcomes are “fair” is a lie. Hence the need for redistribution in general and, ideally, some kind of active labor market policy for people like these former auto workers.