You got to hand it to US President-Elect, Donald Trump for being able to focus attention on himself. Everything he says is – interesting and somehow, whether you like or loath him, he gets you talking about the issues that he wants to talk about. Luckily for us, there are times when the issues that he is interested in happen to matte to us. – This month, his pet topic is jobs.
Mr. Trump came to power on the premise that he would restore manufacturing jobs and he’s touted the fact that he has personally saved 1,200 jobs that Carrier, a manufacturer of air conditioners was about to ship off to Mexico. While the claim to have personally saved so many jobs is, like everything else Mr. Trump does, up to debate, Mr. Trump has a valid point – jobs are precious and every government in the world needs to work at creating them.
Jobs are valuable for the simple reason that this is usually the one source of income that we have. However, a job is usually more than just a means to make a living. It’s usually an expression of ones standing in society and human dignity is often tied up to the all-important job.
Just think back to a local election in Singapore where one of the ministers called an opposition “worthless because he had been jobless.” Unfortunately, the minister has a point. People who do not have jobs are regarded as “worthless” scoundrels who live off the rest of us. It’s particularly true for men as society still deems them the main bread winners for the family and a man who cannot earn a living to support his family is ….well, the less said the better.
When politicians like Mr. Trump tell you that they are going to get you your job back, they’re not telling you that you’re getting the chance to earn money. They’re telling you that they will restore your worth as a human being and you get your place back in society. What can be more appealing than that?
Unfortunately, the question that we all fail to ask the likes of Mr. Trump is how? How, exactly are the likes of Mr. Trump going to restore our dignity? The usual answer is that they usually find someone else to blame. Migrants are often a popular target and its especially easy when the migrants don’t look or sound like you. Hence, Mexicans get bashed in America, in the UK it’s the Poles and Pakis and over here in Singapore we blame Indian Expats, Filipino maids and Bangladeshi construction workers. The other popular one is a different country – in the old days it was Japan and today it’s China. As far as Mr. Trump is concerned, China has royally screwed America by taking away the “manufacturing jobs” that belonged to hard working white people.
I hear people in Singapore resonating with Mr. Trump. Apparently, here is a politician saying what we all think – life would be better without dark and poor people who have the unfair advantage because some snooty liberal who has never lived your harsh life has made it so.
Unfortunately, this message is economically wrong and if one were to forgive my bias of coming through, morally so.
It’s a fact of life, that countries go through different stages of economic development. Certain industries grow in certain countries because those countries happen to provide the things that those industries need. However, nothing last forever and sooner or later, the people become less willing to put up with the downside offered by the industries than they used to be and sooner or later the relationship between industry and country changes and the country something else to do and the industry finds somewhere else to go.
America used to have a strong manufacturing base. It had the people who knew what to do and it was a great market for most things. It made sense to make in America. Then, things changed. The usual story is that the Japanese and Chinese found out that they could make things better and cheaper and so the American manufactures left home and set up shop elsewhere. While, that is one side of the story, the other side of the story is that young Americans found that they would rather design and dream up things rather than make them. Why would anyone want to slog on a production line when they could make just as much, if not more designing the said things from a far more comfortable environment.
Let’s look at China itself. At first, China built itself by becoming the factory of the world. However, China has moved beyond making thing. The young do not see manufacturing as a path to prosperity but a cause of smog filled pollutants. If you look at the top fortunes in China, it’s increasingly in IT and other higher end things. While the global logistics chain runs through China, the Chinese are looking for other things to do and hopping to move the making of things out to places like Vietnam and India, which is trying to take more manufacturing from China.
Then there’s the obvious point that a wealthy China and a wealthy India are good for America and the Western world. Chinese who, a generation ago could barely afford flour in their soup, have now become good for Europe’s luxury brands and American universities. The same is true for the Indians who can now afford to buy things they couldn’t even dream of a century ago. As, was pointed out during the 1994 NAFTA debate, the best way to stop Mexican immigrants from coming in, was to create enough well-paying jobs in Mexico.
Now, it’s easy to say all of this but how do you explain this to a 40-year old man who has spent the last 30 years of his life doing particular job and all of a sudden is kicked out of work through no fault of his own? How do you convince him that the guy is Tijuana or Guangdung, who got the job where the plant was moved to is not his enemy?
The reality is that you can’t because you’ve never felt the same pain. Losing a job that you’ve been doing most of your life all of a sudden and through no fault of yours is like being told you’ve got some fatal disease – it sucks and nobody will ever understand you because they’re not in your shoes. In this situation one is usually vulnerable to quacks. In the case of the jobless rust belt worker, the demagogue telling you he’ll punish migrants and other nations and greedy corporations to give you back your old job suddenly sounds that much more appealing.
However, life is not like that. When you get sick, you got to take medicine. When you lose your job, you got to find something else to do. Easier said than done. How do you change industries and start over again?
I think the best way usually starts with the mind. You look at the pluses and minuses of the situation and focus on the pluses. When I first started work at Bruno’s as a waiter, I took the view that I was moving in the right direction because I was getting a regular income with CPF but still had time for to earn bigger and better money when the freelance projects came in. When I got the job in liquidations, I took it as an opportunity to open a new facet of my life and to look at developing a new set of skills and meeting a new set of people (lawyers, bookkeepers, valuers etc)
You could say that I got lucky. For me, there wasn’t much of a choice. I was heading into old age with little to show (admittedly I don’t have a lot to show but I have momentum in something resembling a pension). The evil teen had entered my life and did I really want her to see me (the main male role model) being a miserable sod blaming the world and developing all sorts of addictions or did I want her to see the main male role model try and earn his crust in one way or another?
For me, it wasn’t much of a choice. It’s like I said to my favourite Northern English Twat who likes to play the “I forgot my wallet” trick, “At least I work.” (he had tried to remind me of my lowly status by asking “You still working here.”)
Jobs are fluid and the sooner we expect that, the better off we’ll be. Bashing foreigners and other countries is fun … but totally unproductive and indulging in it only leaves you as poor and miserable as you were when lost your first job.