Optimistic Futurist: Thinking futuristically about jobs

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 30, 2013

I am a big believer in the oath taken when sworn in to testify in court. It defines truth: “The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” It rules out half truths, exaggeration and downright lies. Pursuit of the truth is foundational to our democratic society.
Too bad we don’t use the same oath when we talk about creating jobs. You cannot open a paper or go to a party or meeting without someone talking about “job creation” or “jobs lost to regulations” or “jobs leaving the country.” Interestingly, we discuss jobs by talking about their absence — unemployment.
Here is the official definition of unemployment, widely used by the media: “Persons are classified as unemployed if they do not have a job, have actively looked for work in the prior four weeks and are currently available for work.” Didn’t tell the government you looked for a job in the last four weeks? You aren’t counted. Unemployed and went back to school to upgrade your skills? You aren’t counted. Cannot get full-time work, so you are struggling along working part time? You aren’t counted, either.
A more common sense official definition also exists but is seldom reported. It counts everyone who wants a job but cannot find one. Using this definition, one in seven members of the American workforce is unemployed.

Here is where it gets messy.
Let’s start with this question: Are all “jobs” of equal value to the society? Are drug dealers worth as much as nurses? How about jobs which create pollution; are they as valuable as non-polluting jobs paying the same amount?
Which kind of job would you want American public policy, and taxpayer dollars, creating? Or eliminating? The answer to this shapes our future.
Take this example: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 91,600 employees working in coal mining in the United States; 46,000 more work transporting it to the utility and 21,000 burning it to make electricity, for a total of 158,600 jobs.
In 2010, statisticians analyzed EPA data about the impact of coal fired electricity on the health of the general population. Consistent with many other studies over the past 20 years, they found the smoggy air pollution from coal-fired electricity generation kills 13,200 Americans annually. Put another way, each year the output from 12 coal related jobs results in one dead American. Additionally, the same data showed burning coal annually causes 20,000 heart attacks, 12,000 hospital admissions and costs our society more than $100 billion per year in health-care expenses.
Divide 158,000 jobs into $100 billion in annual health-care costs, and you get an annual public health cost of $630,000 per job year created by burning coal to make electricity. Is this good public policy?

There are two ways we can control this damage in the future. We can improve the capture of pollution when we burn coal, or we can make electricity a cleaner way. Lowering pollution raises the cost of electricity, but lowers the cost of health-care handsomely. Studies show that continuing to burn coal but capturing the pollution saves between $3 and $9 in health-care costs for every dollar invested. Jobs needed to make pollution capture equipment pay well, are not as hazardous as mining coal and are mostly close to home. These are “good” jobs. Pollution control does not eliminate the danger to public health, but does reduce it.
Or for less money than burning coal and capturing pollution, you could make electricity by using cleaner technology like windmills. The American wind industry is the fastest growing source of new power production. In 2012, the wind industry employed virtually the same number of Americans as the coal mining industry! And the product of their labors did not result in 13,000 deaths last year.
Local and state officials have a significant role in this discussion. They can work toward the future or resist it by the incentives they approve or deny. California, New Mexico, Colorado, Hawaii, Massachusetts and Texas all have strong state incentives for wind power, and have gained enormous job growth and economic stimulus as a consequence.
Change will not come easy. The railroads resisted the construction of the interstate system; the paper industry fought the new competition from plastics, and the telephone companies tried to slow down the emergence of the cell phone. There are many companies which will try to slow down the replacement of the coal industry.
To make a better future for our families, we need to be more thoughtful when jobs are discussed — after all, one of the 13,200 killed next year as a consequence of our choices may be one of yours.

Francis P. Koster lives in Kannapolis. His “Optimistic Futurist” column appears every other Sunday. More information: www.TheOptimisticFuturist.org.