November 23, 2019

Job Protection

NPR ran a story this morning about both liberal and conservative groups urging President Trump to ban flavored e-cigarettes. Apparently, the president had agreed to do this but is now vacillating because such a ban could result in lost jobs.

I am tired of hearing arguments that one policy or another cannot be implemented because jobs will be affected. There are few policy decisions of any consequence that will not result in reduced employment in some field. If we embark on a crackdown on murder-for-hire, for example, there will surely be assassins who will lose their current livelihood. This is too bad. The good entailed by this endeavor would surely outweigh the inconvenience—even pain—of a small number of people who earn their living as hit men.

Surely, the number of people likely to become unemployed because of a ban on e-cigarettes is vanishingly small, perhaps even zero. A ban on all e-cigarettes has not been proposed, and it is likely that affected manufacturers and their suppliers, in response to the proposed ban, would, at least to some degree, reassign workers within their respective companies. If some people lose their jobs, so be it; the job market is strong, and workers in many occupations are in short supply. The effect on unemployment will be unnoticeable.

Of course, the jobs argument for an e-cigarette ban is a trivial instance of the argument. Conservatives regularly argue against measures to protect the environment or pursue other regulatory measures because the rules are “job killers.” Well, sometimes they are, and sometimes they increase the cost of doing business. People may need to seek employment in a different field. Few policies are equally favorable to every person in the country. In every case, advantages and disadvantages of a policy must be weighed against one another. That some people will lose jobs is not an argument that should automatically trump every other consideration.

Happily, the assassin lobby is weak, but it takes little publicity to frighten this president out of a policy because of potential job losses. In fact, reduced employment in one sector of the economy and increased employment in another is commonplace and, often, necessary. (Livery stables have given way to car rental counters, for example.)  President Trump is counting on a robust economy to power his re-election, and his personal ability to evaluate tradeoffs in any rational way is, to put it gently, limited. We have a president incapable of seeing consequences beyond the most immediate ones. He is, in any case, reluctant to rock the economic boat if the economy seems to be performing well, at least from his point of view.

Like all other policy considerations in this administration, the effect on Donald J. Trump is what is given most weight in the decision-making process. The distribution of labor across occupations is not and cannot be immutable.

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