Inventing jobs and a make-believe economy for our car workers could be the solution to Australia's problems. Photo: iStockphoto
WHEN Holden announced this week it was closing down, the minds of hundreds thought immediately of jobs that the thousands of skilled factory workers, particularly in Victoria and South Australia, might take up instead. There's a potential mining venture in the godforsaken middle of South Australia, for example, if only BHP Billiton would reverse a decision to defer opening. Likewise, one can hardly think of unemployed South Australians without imagining a new submarine, or set of them, to be constructed in that state at about twice the going rate, and half the quality. Before we are finished, south-eastern Australia will no doubt be teeming with call centres, broadband network sales people, engaged in building a bridge to Kangaroo Island or a tunnel connecting Geelong to ''Smifton'', Tasmania.
These are all, no doubt, worthy ventures, not least in sopping up unemployed skilled workers facing the reality that ''making things'' is not really Australia's forte these days. Indeed, there are not many things that seem to be our forte these days: mining and agricultural produce - the two ''things'' (as opposed to services) that make us most of our money overseas involve only a tiny proportion of the population, few of whom live in cities on the southern or eastern edges of the continent.
A good many things that are supposed to occupy the minds and the bodies of a large proportion of the workforce do not seem to produce anything much that could be described as a ''thing'' - least of all a thing that a skilled manual worker could make, fabricate, transform or connect. In some cases there is an output of sorts - an article, for example, from a journalist such as myself, an arrest made by a policeman, an email sent by a manager to a staffer, or an interview conducted by a Centrelink officer - but without there being any obvious link between the inputs, outputs or outcomes. There are whole industries - the finance industry for example - given to talking about economic laws, productivity and efficiency but essentially incapable of describing what they do, what value they add to the sum of things, or what would happen if they took the day off.
Hundreds of others operate as handlers, sellers, waiters, processors, shop assistants, and others involved in chains by which some good - a shoe, say, or a hamburger - is given to a paying customer without much in the way of transformation.
There are increasing armies of people engaged in paying jobs that once simply did not exist - as equal opportunity officers, ministerial advisers, customer service officers, consultants, facilitators, and fingernail technicians, some of whom make significant sums of money, if without much in the way of discernible production.
Generally, economists do not judge whether activity is objectively useful or good, before they decide to allocate it some value and weigh, count or measure it for the purpose of the national accounts. All that is required is the exchange of money, or the placing of some notional value upon the ''transaction''. If your mother makes you breakfast, it has no ''value'' and is not regarded as economic activity; if one eats at a cafe, it is. A measurable part of the increase in the gross domestic product in recent decades reflects no more than the fact that we eat out more these days. Likewise every acquisition of some useless knick-knack - a third television, a second mobile telephone, or a tattoo - is assigned a value, and, added to everything else including the declared incomes of drug dealers and prostitutes, used to decide whether the economy is growing.
Several months ago, our Public Sector Informant republished an article from Strike magazine, on bullshit jobs - created as real jobs vanish.
''Say what you like about nurses, garbage collectors, or mechanics, it's obvious that were they to vanish in a puff of smoke, the results would be immediate and catastrophic,'' the author, David Graeber, said. ''A world without teachers or dock workers would soon be in trouble, and even one without science fiction writers or ska musicians would clearly be a lesser place.
''It's not entirely clear how humanity would suffer were all private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs or legal consultants to similarly vanish. (Many suspect it might markedly improve.)''
As real jobs, such as those of car workers go, ''we have seen the ballooning not even so much of the service sector as of the administrative sector, up to and including the creation of whole new industries such as financial services or telemarketing, or the unprecedented expansion of sectors such as corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources, and public relations.
''And these numbers do not even reflect on all those people whose job it is to provide administrative, technical, or security support for these industries, or for that matter the whole host of ancillary industries (dog washers, all-night pizza delivery men) that only exist because everyone else is spending so much of their time working in all the other ones.''
If this is true, need we invent ''real'' jobs for our car workers? Could one not simply declare them all management consultants, loan managers, hospital administrators, press secretaries, occupational health and safety officers and police roster clerks and establish a make-believe economy whereby they email each other constantly, and send each other wages, bills, accounts, claims for subsidies, and demands for meetings?
It would be possible to pretend to be a ''real'' economy, albeit one propped up, as those of the Northern Territory, Tasmania and South Australian already are, by vast subsidies coming from outside. All of this could be achieved, and measured, without any need to make cars, or any other sort of widget - indeed, to pay those involved enough so they could import all of the cars they needed from China. Whenever ''output'' seems to flag, one creates another layer of people taking in each other's washing.
It is true that this could be dispiriting for some, but they could perhaps find some fun creating, causing or inventing incidents that would make this adventure seem real. At least as real, some might think, as things are anyway in this make-believe economy.
It would be of the essence of such schemes that it hire lots of pure market people to worry about labour relations, wages levels, productivity and so on. Their capacity to hector those whose lives they are ruining is an essential ingredient in the stew of happiness.