It is unfortunate that reporter Jeremy Turley used North Dakota State University economist Jeremy Jackson as the “voice of NDSU” in his August 7 article asking whether federal pandemic unemployment benefits hindered job placement in North Dakota. Jackson is an adherent of “public choice theory,” which basically holds that there is no such thing as society, but rather that we are all just economic beings trying to leverage as much as possible for ourselves and let the chips fall where they may.
Public choice theory says it’s just part of life that businesses like JL Beers or Taco John’s must close the place up because they can’t fill job openings, or stores hang signs on their door saying “Closed on Tuesdays” because they can’t fully staff the shop all week.
Jackson says that “the market, a product of supply and demand, has a mechanism to naturally resolve the worker shortage.” He suggests that an economic recession might do the trick. Indeed, a huge increase in unemployed people with no money to spend would certainly reduce the need to hire people to stock shelves and staff cash registers. But public choice theorists don’t take actual people into account. They disregard the quality of life that people yearn for and that should make North Dakota a really desirable place to live.
Not long ago, North Dakota marketed itself as a low-wage state in order to attract businesses. It was good for business owners, but not so good for the workers who produced the value. Now Jackson says it was right for Gov. Burgum to cut off supplemental unemployment funding, essentially twisting workers arms until they cry uncle and take poverty-wage jobs. But by now it should be clear that no matter how miserable we make people, many North Dakotans can’t afford to take those jobs. Daycare alone can cost more than those jobs pay. Are we surprised that people don’t want to move here?
Landis Larson of the AFL-CIO actually had a more viable take on the value of COVID unemployment benefits by saying that unemployment recipients were using the cash to support local businesses that were also hurting. Those recipients were probably not sending their extra $300 per week to a bank account in the Cayman Islands.
But perhaps the most perceptive contribution to the unemployment debate was offered by Mike Jacobs in his August 8 column, when he said that North Dakota needs immigrants. He rightly noted that a labor shortage is a drag on the economy and diminishes the quality of life “because people aren’t available to deliver the amenities that we all want, and that a vibrant work force would provide.” There are immigrants who would jump at the chance to fill North Dakota’s unfilled jobs and who would do them with pride. Filling those jobs would improve both their quality of life and everyone else’s.
Let us raise wages and support families to build a strong work force and help businesses reopen. And let us also find ways to welcome people in rather than keep them out. Let new immigrants do some of the unfilled jobs that can give them a ladder to greater prosperity as well as to contribute to ours. All of those things together will make a better society for everyone in North Dakota.
Paul H. Gleye lives in Fargo.
This letter does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Forum's editorial board nor Forum ownership.