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Pretend jobs

It says here in the paper that it takes 125,000 new jobs every month just to keep up with population growth. No wonder we have so many people holding down unnecessary jobs. There aren’t enough real jobs to go around and besides, we are replacing people with machines as fast as we can to do the real jobs. Rather than trying to eliminate pretend jobs for the sake of efficiency as is now being proposed (lots of pretension in that too), we should be thinking up better quality pretend jobs— imaginative new positions in useless work that are more beneficial to society than the usual run of useless work.

The famous economist, John Maynard Keynes, first thought of this approach many years ago. He proposed, as useless but harmless work, burying tin cans full of money all over the landscape and then letting people without jobs hunt for them and pocket the contents. He claimed this would keep the unemployed occupied and happy without causing any costly harm to society. He didn’t say it, but I suppose if the money were buried out in next year’s corn fields, you could get the soil worked up for planting without burning a whole lot of fuel. Also you could create another bunch of useless jobs hiring people to bury the cash.

Agriculture is full of examples of beneficially useless jobs. Many of the positions in the Extension Service no longer serve any real need or purpose and are finally being cut in the current wave of “austerity.” But if county agents and consumer educators merely repeat work already being done by the private sector, at least such jobholders are not doing destructive work like manufacturing bombs. For awhile, I had a job that paid me for checking newly-installed drainage tile systems to make sure they were put in according to Soil Conservation Service regulations. It never seemed to have occurred to authorities that farmers were not going to deliberately put in drainage systems that did not work. But my job surely contributed more to the social good than if I had been employed to check the operation of roulette wheels at casinos.

The ticklish part of all this is that one man’s pretend job is another man’s real job. The financial conservative today, intent on reducing taxes, generally defines a real job as one that people will willingly pay for (private sector jobs rather than public sector jobs). I believe that definition sanctifies prostitution as good business, doesn’t it? Growing corn is certainly real work, but what about growing corn to make car fuel while people starve?

In case you didn’t notice, the Senate just voted to end direct payments to wealthy farmers. Direct payments are those a farmer receives just because he or she is a farmer, no other strings attached. These payments are despicable, really, and it is high time they were abolished. But again, I am wondering if it is better to shower money on a food producer rather than on a bomb producer. More benefit might come from spreading the direct payment folly out to everyone willing to brandish a hoe productively. How about paying people a hundred dollars a bushel for backyard corn? Backyard corn won’t hurt the environment. People would happily stay at home and garden rather than get killed on the highways so often. And look at the jobs that would be created for the army of inspectors needed to make sure the corn growers didn’t cheat. Food prices would decline with all that corn on the market. There would be an increase of fresh, healthful cornmeal, corn fritters, popcorn, sweet corn, corn chips, pancakes, corn bread, parched corn, tortillas and good old fat-producing corn-fed meat. The countryside would blossom into a beauteous land of peace and plenty with hundreds of new, small farms.

Many parts of Europe have been doing this for years, literally paying small farmers to preserve an oasis of local food and a healthy rural environment. In New England, there are areas where imaginative local government actually pays farmers to keep cows grazing out in the pastures. It attracts tourists and the money pours in. That’s the way to go.

Okay, so I’m being a bit facetious. But underneath I am deadly serious. We should not allow the abstract dictums of money to rule the real world of human life, love and the pursuit of happiness. That means creating more pretend jobs, not fewer.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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