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When you see these signs – do you get the joke? (Hint: Seen vs. Unseen)

November 13, 2009

Part of me laughs, and part of me cringes whenever I see these signs….because they are absolute rubbish. This sign is based on the assumption that we the public are either too lazy, or just too ignorant to think beyond what we immediatly see.

Whenever we are presented with this concept: that the government can “put people to work,” the question must be asked, “How?” 

When a non-state entity creates a job, it does so either by taking out a loan on the investment bet that the job created will produce enough value to repay or exceed the loan taken, or by reinvesting its own existing capital with a similar goal.

The State “creates jobs” or “puts people back to work” either with existing tax revenues, or by taking on debt to be funded through future tax revenues. I used quotes above because anyone with a grasp of elementary mathematics would realize that this is neither “creating jobs” nor “putting people back to work.” It is nothing more than shifting work around.

Ask yourself, what would the tax revenues taken by the state to ‘put Oregon back to work’ have been used for otherwise? What of the things the tax-payers would have invested their money in, had it not been taxed away?

The answer is: jobs.

Perhaps the tax-payer was planning on buying some new shoes (a shoe salesman’s paycheck), going out for an extra nice dinner (a restaurant worker’s wages and tip), a kitchen remodel project (construction material producers, contractors, cabinet makers, plumbers, etc) planning to add to their payroll at work to hire a new employee, or even donating money to their favorite charity. But these things will never be seen because some politician had the nice, though deceptive and false idea that they had the ability to “put Oregonians back to work.”

It is important at this point to understand that money is nothing more than a representation of labor, or work. We choose to work and earn money because money allows us to trade the value of something we are good at (in my case, web developement), for something we value that we aren’t good at, or couldn’t possibly create on our own (e.g. a ticket to football game. I neither play football, nor do I have the knowlege or ability to coach a team, let alone build a football stadium. Heck, I even suck at Madden…).

The point is that the sign above is clearly hogwash. It is based on the flawed notion that governments create things. To accept this idea, is to throw out the economic concept of opportunity cost. Government is force. The government is the only entity that we allow the power to involuntarily take our money and re-appropriate it. In this case – it is the opportunity for the tax dollars to have been spent elsewhere – that the government is forgoing so they can be assigned to this road project. If the sign was actually honest it would read: Taking a portion of your work, and directing it to someone or something else. Or perhaps simply, Making Oregonians pay for this road project.  

But telling the truth doesn’t matter to politicians because when there is a problem (such as a down economy) they must be seen as doing something to fix the problem. The perception that they are doing something to ‘put Oregon back to work’ is far more important politically than the actual truth, that they just moved work to a project that the voters will see. What the voters won’t see is all of the jobs that were sacrificed to make that particular road project possible.

It is important for me to mention that here, I am not necessarily arguing against road or other government projects. I am however calling out the hack politicians who think that tax-payers are dumb enough to fall for the ludicrous idea that government can create jobs by simply spending them into existence. From here, you can draw your own conclusion on whether the ‘stimulus’ bill will actually stimulate anything, other than some politician’s delusion of grandure.

Oh, and here’s the real irony of ironies: This sign is on a road leading up to the city Amtrak station. Amtrak is in business today, and its employees have jobs, only because they are subsidized with money taken from tax-payers. I suppose a sign for that could have read: Putting Amtrak back to work – which of course actually means, Forcing you to pay for Amtrak, rather than whatever else you valued more


“In the department of economy, an act, a habit, an institution, a law, gives birth not only to an effect, but to a series of effects. Of these effects, the first only is immediate; it manifests itself simultaneously with its cause – it is seen. The others unfold in succession – they are not seen: it is well for us, if they are foreseen. Between a good and a bad economist this constitutes the whole difference – the one takes account of the visible effect; the other takes account both of the effects which are seen, and also of those which it is necessary to foresee. Now this difference is enormous, for it almost always happens that when the immediate consequence is favourable, the ultimate consequences are fatal, and the converse. Hence it follows that the bad economist pursues a small present good, which will be followed by a great evil to come, while the true economist pursues a great good to come, – at the risk of a small present evil.”

That Which is Seen, and That Which is Not Seen -Frédéric Bastiat, 1850


Posted via email from Andrew Colclough

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