The Trouble With “Jobs”

Coming and going on vacation through DCA over the past week, I had occasion to see a bunch of ads about the 9.6 million jobs in the oil and natural gas industry. Here’s a representative sample:

This is, in fact, a good illustration of why progressive reform is hard. Dirty energy doesn’t just have a lot of money behind it, there are tons and tons of people working in the field and they don’t want to lose their jobs. And the same is true of health insurance, banking, and any other sector you might want to take on.

But as an argument on the merits, it’s a huge fallacy. Suppose someone invented a Magical Energy Device tomorrow, a cube that costs about $1,000 to build and provides enough energy to power a city the size of Philadelphia. Even better, the cube has no operating expenses and causes no pollution. What should we do? Well, obviously, we should start building MEDs! A lot of them. We’d need somewhere between 300-400 of them to power the whole country, and we’d want more than that since with this new source of basically free, zero-pollution electricity we’d want to pursue electrification of our automobile fleet very aggressively. This technological breakthrough would be an enormous step forward for mankind. And not because of the jobs that would be created in the MED-manufacturing sector. Even if all the MEDs were built in China, America would benefit, and even if all the MEDs were made in the USA the benefits would be modest since the total size of the global market for MEDs would be pretty modest in dollar terms.

The MED would be a boon to humanity, in other words, just because an unlimited supply of cheap pollution-free energy would be a great thing to have. And yet, just like all forms of dramatic technological progress it would, in fact, disrupt a lot of people’s careers.