An Economics Writer’s Lament: Commentary

A New York Times article is a perfect caricature of a worldview that looks to government as an almost magical provider of solutions

Youth unemployment is reaching epic proportions in Europe–one of many symptoms of economic malaise is Western economies. But how thought leaders view the problem and potential solutions goes far to explain why global economic problems stubbornly persist.

No one can doubt the severity of the problem. The youth unemployment rate in Spain, highest among EU countries, is now 49.6%, meaning half of all young people actively seeking employment cannot find a job. Greece is close behind at 46.6%, and Slovakia, Lithuania, Portugal and Italy are all somewhere in the 30% range. This compares to 22% in the U.K.–one of the better rates among EU countries–where rampaging youth were behind August riots that claimed five lives and hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage. The U.S. rate for young people ages 16 to 19 is more than 20%. For those 20 to 24 it is 13.3%.

An article in The New York Times this week highlighting the problem was a perfect caricature of a worldview that looks to government as an almost magical provider of solutions and people as powerless victims of crass corporations. The article cites a London School of Economics expert source, described as a specialist in vocational training, who points out that “Britain lags far behind countries like Germany, Austria and the Netherlands in its use of training programs to introduce young people to permanent work.” The article also cites an OECD official who says these three countries with more developed apprenticeship programs “managed to sustain robust manufacturing and export industries.”

Nowhere does the Times article consider the possibility that these three countries are employing youth in higher proportions because they have relatively robust economies. Apprenticeship programs seem like a fine idea, and they are certainly part of a long tradition in Germany and other northern European countries, but it is unlikely that even the best apprenticeship program will lead to a job if jobs are scarce.

The Times article also evinces a sense of victimhood on the part of youthful jobseekers that suggests attitudes of youth may themselves be a barrier to their achieving employment. One young woman, whom the Times describes as “well spoken and self-possessed” is quoted as saying: “If you are not working, in training or in college, you might as well be a thief–employers just do not take you seriously.” Another young man is more forgiving, but still manages to portray employers as heartless sugar daddies wielding power over job-seeking victims: “I don’t blame them [employers ignoring his resume]. They just don’t want to train you.”

The fact of the matter is that British corporations are heartless–that is true of any corporate entity, even those that give shareholder money to all the most fashionable causes. Only people have hearts, but corporations are organized to make money, and will eagerly fill any vacancy they have if doing so will increase the profitability of the firm.

But bureaucratic fussing is not likely to provide those jobs. A delegation of EU experts is now on a whirlwind tour of eight European countries to explore how to use unallocated structural funds to increase youth employment. That’s good for the employment of the kind of people who went to college with New York Times writers, but it is probably a waste of effort if the goal is to increase employment.

The EU has lots of social programs of the kind the Times article advocates but has not exactly been a jobs-creating machine. What elite thinkers are missing–and perhaps British youth as well–is an increased respect for policies that promote economic growth and jobs.

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