Things To Act
Wednesday, April 28, 2004
Nibley's Eleventh Commandment: Thou Shalt Not Commit Sociology
The current issue of BYU Magazine has an article about the closing of Geneva Steel with which I have some issues. While it does raise some valid points, it has some problems as well.

Perhaps the first reason I'm inclined to view the article less than charitably is its word choice in the first paragraph. The characterization of Geneva going under due to "cheap foreign imports" is suspicious. "Cheap" is a word in English with connotations affecting both quality and price. However, the more perfectly competitive the market, the less relevance quality has, as the commodity in question will not vary as much by quality. In my understanding, most steel production trends toward the more perfectly competitive end of the spectrum. In this context, "less expensive" is probably a better way to describe foreign-produced steel that is identical to Geneva's, only differing in that it costs less. Better yet might be "more efficient." "Cheap" seems designed to play on fears of inferior shabby foreign products--at a bare minimum, using the word "cheaper" would be slightly more accurate.

The next problem is the rather limited focus of the researchers' choice to "[study] the steelworkers' experience from many angles." Talking about "reemployment prospects, financial status, and marital, physical, and mental health" of steelworkers is fine as far as it goes, but hardly gives the whole picture if we're interested in whether or not "the costs are high." One obvious factor to consider is the economic effect of less expensive steel (and hence, all sorts of less expensive products for the American consumer). Thus, for instance, studies have shown that the Bush steel tariffs cost more jobs than they helped preserve, due to increase prices of steel inputs in a host of industries. The problem with protectionism is that it always leads to deadweight social loss; in this particular case, we were faced with the moral absurdity of deciding that steelworkers were Special enough that we had to protect their jobs at the expense of more jobs belonging to other, less politically Special individuals. There are other factors to consider as well (wasn't Geneva's air pollution the bane of environmentalists, including Nibley?). Thus, while the BYU sociologists' study may document some specific costs, their analysis is neither complete nor helpful without analyzing accompanying benefits.

A final interesting question is raised by the stats documenting an increase in depression among the unemployed workers. While depressed individuals deserve sympathy, I wonder about the mindset that facilitates depression for this reason. It seems to me that it can be dangerous to put too much faith in the assumption that one's present job will always be there, unchanged. Perhaps it was just because of the nature of the times in which I was raised, but I've always had the impression that it was my job to find a job in which I could create value, and that my employer(s) had no obligation beyond the letter of the contract I signed. The cliche I can remember being told at least as far back as junior high was that I could expect to change jobs many times, and that the notion of working for one company for one's entire life was out of date already. Because of this, I can see how losing a job would be depressing, but view it as my responsibility to go out and find another one. And hence, I get suspicious when discussion of job loss turns into searching for scapegoats and villians other than the laws of economics (can we say "Benedict Arnold CEOs?"), and get downright hostile when talk turns to protecting other people's inefficient jobs by levying direct and indirect taxes on me. I can never recall being told that the universe owes me a job, and thus get resentful when others try to enact public policy based on that curious notion applying to themselves.

Thus, while I have a limited degree of sympathy for those left unemployed in the wake of Geneva's collapse (and may even have a limited degree of sympathy for social programs designed to help them readjust their lives and find more productive work), I think I can muster far greater sympathy for starving Third World children and others who are helpless in the face of life's challenges and unfairness.

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