Where’s creative destruction when you need it?

Australian politicians speaking of greenhouse gas emissions, the coal industry, and what (if anything) ought be done about them frequently raise the issue of jobs. What actions might be necessary and appropriate for addressing climate change is beyond the scope of this blog, but the political rhetoric around jobs touches this blog on at least two points.

Firstly, proponents of weak targets for greenhouse gas emissions frequently appeal to the need to create and maintain jobs, sometimes to the point of implying we ought to create and maintain jobs at any cost. Putting aside the question of whether coal mining or other forms of energy might create the greater number of jobs, this position appeals to the business-as-usual understanding that one needs a job in order to provide for oneself and to have dignity in society. Yet I’m sure that, in other contexts, many of the people demanding coal jobs would be horrified by the thought of organisations—especially government, or in industries subsidised by government—keeping on workers just in order to keep people in work.

Secondly, in those other contexts, policy-makers and business gurus talk up free markets, “disruption” and “creative destruction”. Such things are usually made to sound dynamic and exciting in the abstract, and many insist that they are the basis of the success of Western societies, but of course the problem here as elsewhere is that hardly anyone on the ground wants to be disrupted or destroyed.

The conventional resolution to the dilemma posed by the two foregoing points is that consumer demand will expand so as to create new (and presumptively better) jobs to replace the ones destroyed by technological progress. But this is a rather abstract proposition and seems anything but certain to someone threatened with the loss of an existing job, particularly in areas bound up with disrupted industries. Hence the temptation to promise people that nothing will change on the ground even while praising the necessity and desirability of change in the abstract.

I won’t attempt to resolve the future of coal-mining communities here. Maybe those promising jobs at any cost would consider a job guarantee; maybe disruption enthusiasts can point out the creation that will make up for the destruction; maybe coal-mining communities will migrate to other locations in which there are new opportunities; or maybe there’s a happy combination of all three. Or maybe we’ll continue to sell and burn coal regardless of what the consequences might be. But either way we need get our story straight.

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