WASHINGTON -- It is difficult to say something perfectly, precisely false. But Speaker Dennis Hastert did when participating in the bipartisan piling-on against the president's economic adviser who imprudently said something sensible.
John Kerry and John Edwards, who are not speaking under oath and who know that economic illiteracy has never been a disqualification for high office, have led the scrum against the chairman of the president's Council of Economic Advisers, N. Gregory Mankiw, who said the arguments for free trade apply to trade in services as well as manufactured goods. But the prize for the pithiest nonsense went to Hastert: ``An economy suffers when jobs disappear."
So the economy suffered when automobiles caused the disappearance of the jobs of most blacksmiths, buggy makers, operators of livery stables, etc.? The economy did not seem to be suffering in 1999, when 33 million jobs were wiped out -- by an economic dynamism that created 35.7 million jobs. How many of the 4,500 U.S jobs that IBM is planning to create this year will be made possible by sending 3,000 jobs overseas?
Hastert's ideal economy, where jobs do not disappear, existed almost everywhere for almost everyone through almost all of human history. In, say, 12th-century France, the ox behind which a man plowed a field changed, but otherwise the plowman was doing what generations of his ancestors had done and what generations of his descendants would do. Those were the good old days, before economic growth.
The disappearance of whole categories of jobs can be desirable for reasons other than economic rationality. The economist Irwin Stelzer recalls that John L. Lewis, the firebreathing leader of the United Mine Workers of America from 1920 to 1960, once said that he hoped to see the day when no man would make his living by going underground.
For the highly competent work force of this wealthy nation, the loss of jobs is not a zero-sum game, it is a trading up in social rewards. When the presidential candidates were recently in South Carolina, histrionically lamenting the loss of textile jobs, they surely noticed the huge BMW presence. It is the ``offshoring" of German jobs because Germany's irrational labor laws, among other things, give America a comparative advantage. Such economic calculation explains the manufacture of Mercedeses in Alabama, Hondas in Ohio, Toyotas in California.
As long as the American jobs going offshore were blue-collar jobs, the political issue did not attain the heat it has now that white-collar job losses frighten a more articulate, assertive social class. But an old lesson applies to this new situation.