Some Types of Make-Work Jobs Won't Survive
I never liked full-service gas stations. There’s something aristocratic about sitting in the warm comfort of your car while someone standing out in the freezing cold fills your tank -- a lord in his carriage being tended to by footmen. So I was relieved to hear that Oregon is relaxing its law against self-service gas stations. In many rural counties in the state, you can now pump gas yourself.
“I don’t even know HOW to pump gas and I am 62, native Oregonian . . . I say NO THANKS! I don’t like to smell like gasoline!” one woman wrote…
[Another commenter wrote:] “I’ve lived in this state all my life and I REFUSE to pump my own gas. This [is] a service only qualified people should perform. I will literally park at the pump and wait until someone pumps my gas.”
After the Facebook post went viral, people from other states jumped into the fray, poking fun at the Oregonians. “It’s not hard people, I assure you,” one commenter wrote. “If you can’t pump gas you shouldn’t be operating a large piece of metal being propelled by controlled explosions.”
“I’m offering an online certification course for gas pumping,” another declared. “For only $30, Oregon drivers can learn to pump their own gas with a step-by-step tutorial. Sign up today and receive the bonus windshield squeegee certification for 50% off.”
Other reactions were even more hilarious.
Oregon’s gas-pumping woes may seem like just a funny quirk of local culture, but the issue is emblematic of a wider debate quietly taking place throughout American society. How much should the government provide people with make-work?
To many economists, the answer has long been zero. Occupational-licensing laws, government make-work jobs and regulations like Oregon’s gas-pumping restriction reduce economic efficiency -- if labor markets were free, workers would find more productive things to do, and the whole economy would be richer as a result.
But this is a cramped a point of view -- there’s more to economic life than the total amount of value produced. Jobs provide an important source of dignity and self-respect for many workers, especially for young men who might otherwise lead dissolute lives. Labor-market restrictions can also provide a type of insurance against obsolescence caused by technological changes and globalization. If the government protects your occupation, you won’t suddenly find yourself needing to retrain for a whole new career at the age of 45. And in recessions, make-work programs can keep people in the labor force and prevent their work ethic and human networks from decaying.
A balance needs to be struck. In general that balance will depend on how restrictive a piece of regulation is, how much a make-work program costs, and the conditions in the local or national economy. But as the Oregon case shows, it also depends on human psychology.
Much of the benefit of make-work programs and occupational protections like Oregon’s gas law come from the sense of dignity that they provide. If the people whose job is being provided or protected by the government feel that they aren’t creating real economic value, there may be no real dignity conveyed. In that case, government might as well switch to a direct transfer program like basic income.
In the case of Oregon’s gas law, there has clearly been some psychological rationalization going on. Oregonians claiming that pumping gas is dangerous or difficult are helping to create the collective impression that gas attendants’ jobs are valuable skilled occupations rather than useless make-work. It’s a community’s way of providing a sense of belonging and value for some of its less-wealthy, less-skilled members.
But the Facebook reaction shows how hard it is to maintain that kind of social illusion in a less localized age. Note that several of the commenters fretting about self-service gas emphasize their local roots. In most of the country, with the exception of New Jersey and Huntington, New York, self-service gas is the norm. As soon as Oregonians are exposed to the huge number of Americans who pump their own gas every day, it becomes clear that full-service gas doesn’t provide much safety or require much skill.
Globalization and the internet are thus making it harder to sustain the local information bubbles that let neighbors redistribute respect and dignity to each other through shared work. This is probably one reason for the increasing popularity of programs like basic income.
That doesn’t spell the end for all make-work programs, of course. The case for providing jobs in recessions to stimulate the economy is still very strong. And some labor regulations really do increase safety, even if gas pumping is best left to drivers. Allowing unlicensed doctors, for example, would probably decrease both positive patient outcomes and overall trust in the medical system.
But the task of providing dignity through work is an increasingly uphill battle in an age of transparency. Today it’s gas pumpers in rural Oregon -- tomorrow, it may be asset managers, subway construction workers or university administrators. As we discover more and more of the inefficiencies in the work that we do, expect continued disruptions both to local societies and to people’s self-image.
To contact the editor responsible for this story:
James Greiff at firstname.lastname@example.org