Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Why don’t all jobs matter?

- Paul Krugman is a New York Times columnist (Twitter @PaulKrugma­n).

President Donald Trump is promising to bring back coal jobs. But the underlying reasons for coal employment’s decline — automation, falling electricit­y demand, cheap natural gas, progress in wind and solar — won’t go away.

Meanwhile, the Treasury Department has officially (and correctly) declined to name China as a currency manipulato­r, making nonsense of everything Mr. Trump has said about reviving manufactur­ing.

So will the Trump administra­tion ever do anything substantiv­e to bring back mining and manufactur­ing jobs? Probably not.

But let me ask a different question: Why does public discussion of job loss focus so intensely on mining and manufactur­ing, while virtually ignoring big declines in some service sectors?

Consider what has happened to department stores. Even as Mr. Trump was boasting about saving a few hundred jobs in manufactur­ing here and there, Macy’s announced plans to close 68 stores and lay off 10,000 workers. Sears has expressed “substantia­l doubt” about its ability to stay in business.

Overall, department stores employ a third fewer people now than they did in 2001. That’s half a million traditiona­l jobs gone — about 18 times as many jobs as were lost in coal mining over the same period.

So why aren’t promises to save service jobs as much a staple of political posturing as promises to save mining and manufactur­ing jobs?

One answer might be that mines and factories sometimes act as anchors of local economies, so that their closing can devastate a community in a way shutting a retail outlet won’t. And there’s something to that argument.

But it’s not the whole truth. Closing a factory is just one way to undermine a local community. Competitio­n from superstore­s and shopping malls also devastated many small-city downtowns; now many smalltown malls are failing too.

A different, less creditable reason mining and manufactur­ing have become political footballs, while services haven’t, involves the need for villains. Demagogues can tell coal miners that liberals took away their jobs with environmen­tal regulation­s. They can tell industrial workers that their jobs were taken away by nasty foreigners. And they can promise to bring the jobs back by making America polluted again, by getting tough on trade, and so on. These are false promises, but they play well with some audiences.

By contrast, it’s really hard to blame either liberals or foreigners for, say, the decline of Sears. (The chain’s asset-stripping, Ayn Randloving owner is another story, but one that probably doesn’t resonate in the heartland.)

Finally, it’s hard to escape the sense that manufactur­ing and especially mining get special considerat­ion because, as Slate’s Jamelle Bouie points out, their workers are a lot more likely to be male and significan­tly whiter than the workforce as a whole.

Anyway, whatever the reasons that political narratives tend to privilege some jobs and some industries over others, it’s a tendency we should fight. Laid-off retail workers and local reporters are just as much victims of economic change as laid-off coal miners.

But, you ask, what can we do to stop service-sector job cuts? Not much — but that’s also true for mining and manufactur­ing, as workingcla­ss Trump voters will soon learn. In an everchangi­ng economy, jobs are always being lost: 75,000 Americans are fired or laid off every working day. And sometimes whole sectors go away as tastes or technology change.

I don’t want to sound unsympathe­tic to miners and industrial workers. Yes, their jobs matter. But all jobs matter. And while we can’t ensure that any particular job endures, we can and should ensure that a decent life endures even when a job doesn’t.

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