In America, the biggest question of our time is “How can we create more jobs?” Lately I’m wondering if the question is wrong, or at least incomplete.
First, some context.
In 1979, I graduated from college with lots of general education and no specific occupational skills. My parents loaded the meager contents of my dorm room into our Plymouth and drove me back to my tiny hometown of Windham NY, population 2,000. Opportunities were limited in Windham, but I didn’t see that as an obstacle. Step one was to move to where the jobs were. I packed two suitcases and moved to California. I had enough money to last about a month.
Plenty of big companies were hiring, and most of them offered to reimburse employees for just about any sort of training or degree-oriented external classes. The tradeoff was that the entry level pay was low – my first job as a bank teller paid $735 per month. But that was enough for a single guy with no social life and no hope of dating. I rented a windowless room in an apartment with two roommates and used public transportation. My healthcare costs were covered by the company, and I didn’t need much else. Dinner was a can of Campbell’s soup. Entertainment was two blurry channels on the six inch screen of my black and white TV. For exercise, I would do pushups and go for a run.
My quality of life was dismal, but I remained optimistic because my future looked bright. Every year I took another step up the corporate ladder. In those days, I would have chewed through a concrete wall to get what I wanted, so I recognized no limits. All I needed to do was work 60 hours per week, take business school classes at night, and the opportunities were plentiful.
I could summarize the employment environment of the times this way:
- Lots of jobs for people who were willing to relocate
- Low entry-level pay
- Company-paid healthcare
- Company-paid training, including external degree courses
- Inexpensive cost of living
- Clear opportunities for advancement
How’s that different from today? The quick answer is that every part of what I described is different. And you need the whole system in place or else the economy can’t be a sustained job creation machine. So I don’t think we can tweak the current economy, or stimulate it, enough to make much difference. What we need is Cheapatopia.
Regular readers know that Cheapatopia is my name for a future planned city that is designed from the ground up to be inexpensive and green while also providing an awesome lifestyle. I’ve described that concept before, but today I’m overlaying the employment question to make it all one comprehensive solution to every problem in the world. Literally.
The idea is to build cities in America, from scratch, that have an absurdly inexpensive cost of living, and use them as magnets to suck up the unemployed from around the country. The initial jobs would involve building the city itself.
Imagine picking your Cheapatopia location based on the best place to put huge energy projects, such as solar, wind, geothermal, and more. Companies need lots of inexpensive employees to build the factories, build the Cheapatopia housing and stores nearby, and to work in the factories when completed. That’s where the inexpensive lifestyle comes in. Workers will accept small paychecks if their cost of living is miniscule, their lifestyles are spectacular, and they are learning valuable skills. As a bonus, Cheapatopia would have low taxes to attract the big energy projects.
One of our biggest obstacles to full employment is that people can’t easily move to where the jobs are. Perhaps your mortgage is underwater. Perhaps you don’t have enough money to pay for relocation until you have a job, and you don’t have enough money to travel the country looking for one. Cheapatopia can fix the relocation expense problem in several ways.
For starters, the big energy project employers could do their recruiting and hiring on the road. No one needs to travel until a job is secured. Second, companies could afford to pay relocation expenses because – and this is the key – wages would be low. Taxes would be low too. Companies could also afford healthcare and training, for the same reason.
An inexpensive cost of living is the key to making all of the gears of the economic engine turn. We have the know-how to create an inexpensive city if we design it from the ground up with that priority.
In year one, the best housing in Cheapatopia might resemble dorm rooms, with cafeteria dining and central gathering spaces. The initial occupants would be unmarried workers and married people who are willing to put up with long distance relationships for a year. Over time, these same workers would help build more suitable (and awesome) housing for families. This is the same model that early settlers used to colonize the western part of the United States.
It would take an entire book to describe how wonderful Cheapatopia could be. The social interaction would be better than what you experience now because it would be designed that way. You’d have communal dining, lots of organized recreation, and beauty everywhere you looked. You’d have full employment, no pollution, great schools, lightning fast Internet, easy public transportation, and a relatively safe and stress-free life. There’s no reason Cheapatopia couldn’t be the best place to live at the same time as it is the least expensive.
In summary, the solution to unemployment will require recreating the entire set of conditions that were present during every other time of high employment. And the place to start is by lowering the cost of living. Cheapatopia, and its clones, will sop up the unemployed from around the country and help every town and city by doing so. Once the economic engine is rebooted, we’ll have all the tools we need to solve every other problem in the world.
Remind me again what the other presidential candidates are suggesting?