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

short headcount.


     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