A Shortage of Labor
Every so often the newspapers produce an article containing the
phrase "manpower shortage" -- sometimes "surplus" -- in either case
characterizing it as a problem. Just today I read a piece about some
solemn ass, referred to as an 'analyst' of such matters, who has recently
calculated that the Soviet Union, as if it didn't have enough other
troubles, now suffers from a manpower shortage.
It cannot be said that the newspaper lied; the article was true.
This chap was surely an analys -- as which of us is not? -- and just as
surely did he utter the fatuities quoted. But if I were Commissar of
Truth I would still suppress such articles. Maybe I would put our
American surplus manpower to work policing these things.
In any case, 'manpower shortage' is utter nonsense. If Russia
has a manpower shortage, what should be said of West Virginia, which
has many fewer men in it than Russia? And the manpower shortage of
Brighton, New York must be truly spectacular, especially on my block,
which has rather large back yards.
I mentioned these thoughts to a friend, who objected to my levity.
If there were no such thing as a manpower shortage, she said, why
should West Germany, for example, have been importing all those Italian and Turkish laborers as 'guest workers' these past twenty years? My reply was that we in America have been importing Japanese auto workers at the same rate, though actually we save a little by letting them stay in Japan and only send their automobiles here. Is that because we have a shortage of auto workers?
What we do have a shortage of is not 'manpower' as such, but of
men who produce the kind of $6000 subcompact car we like to drive.
Such shortages are a problem, and one hopes Detroit is busy curing it.
But the cure is not to produce more babies, or to put more ignorant
teenagers on the streets, even though these are obvious antidotes to a
In other words, 'manpower shortage' as a phrase can only obscure
what might be an economic situation worth describing. It is not
the only such phrase. The Soviet Union, for example, boasts that it has
'no unemployment'. Indeed, since it is illegal to be out of work over
there, they have a crime wave instead: the crime iw called “hooliganism". Call it what you will, what they do have is inefficiency, corruption, and a low standard of living.
If we in America took as many men to produce a ton of wheat as
they do in the Ukraine, our unemployment rate would sink well below
zero. Is that the prescription for economic health? Yet there are those
among us who deplore the flight from the farm to the city, using terms
at least as idiotic as 'manpower shortage' and 'surplus' to explain their
Economics may not be an exact science, but such as it is, I would
(if I were Commissar of Education too) require all journalists to study it; or else I would wash their mouths out with soap.
Ralph A. Raimi
31 August 1982