Volume VI, #14
It’s funny how weird things seem normal when you grow up with them. Toronto in the 70s and 80s was no exception. Like only being able to buy beer from a government store that wouldn’t have been out of place in the Soviet Union. Like the fact that two of the eight teams in the Canadian Football League shared the same name: the Ottawa Rough Riders and the Saskatchewan Roughriders. And like the fact that the church some of my friends attended every Sunday seemed to be named for Her Majesty’s top spy: St. James-Bond Church.
I was reminded of this as UK voters opted out of the European Union, shocking markets and throwing both Conservative and Labor Parties into turmoil. The referendum vote – a commitment taken by David Cameron over a pizza dinner at O’Hare Airport (a reminder that world-changing decisions can benefit from solemnity) – was a protest against the status quo: against the London political elite to be sure, but also against the UK’s opening to European and global markets.
It is an economic truism that trade and migration produce more wealth in aggregate. It is equally true that globalization dislocates workers in less competitive industries. Dislocated workers become disgruntled voters. The Brexit vote – and the pending nomination of Donald Trump as the Republican nominee for President – seems to demonstrate that leaving the economy prostrate to global forces while failing to retrain, reskill and perhaps relocate workers who have been left behind is no longer a sustainable approach. As a result, we face a fundamental choice: Will we retreat from free trade and humane immigration policies à la Brexit? Or will we help dislocated, disgruntled workers join the global economy.
With the UK first to choose, there’s only one man for the job. Whenever the UK is in peril, James Bond gets the girl and saves the day (in that order). So I wonder WWJD: What Would James Do?
Bond: That looks like a woman’s gun.
Largo: Do you know a lot about guns, Mr. Bond?
Bond: No, but I know a little about women.
007 has a knack for cutting to the heart of the matter. And the heart of the great globalization debate isn’t necessarily that left-behind workers are unskilled. Many could well have the necessary skills to work productively in a competitive and growing sector of the economy. We don’t know if they have the skills because employers in competitive and growing sectors don’t take the time and care to assess skills. They use a shorthand we call credentials. It wouldn’t take long for Bond to discover that virtually all left-behind workers are uncredentialed; he’d only have to go as far as last week’s Georgetown report showing that college graduates took 11.5M of the 11.6M jobs added since 2010. And when governments support, promote, regulate or legislate minimum credentials for jobs, they are doing real harm to uncredentialed, left-behind workers.
Requiring a government license in order to work used to seem normal to me. Growing up in Canada, you practically needed a license to cross the street. But it has gotten out of control. Today, nearly 30% of U.S. jobs require a license to work – about the triple the rate of a generation ago. As the New York Times recently noted, one now needs a license “in Florida, to sell a yacht. In Montana… to be an egg candler; in Utah, to repair upholstery; in Louisiana, to be a florist.” In addition to florists, states are requiring licenses for bartenders, auctioneers, pastoral counselors, exotic dancers, locksmiths, tour guides, personal trainers and hair stylists.
While states have a legitimate interest in setting standards for professions that impact health and safety, “Why in the world do we regulate barbers?” asked the lieutenant governor of Nevada, quoted in the Times. “A bad haircut is the last thing that a person is going to put up with and return to. It is the ultimate example of self-regulating industry.”
Q: Every now and then a trigger has to be pulled.
Bond: Or not pulled. - Skyfall
The problem, of course, is that licensure combines a qualifying exam with the requirement of a postsecondary credential. And this is the trigger that Bond would tell governments not to pull. In attempting to mesh with the existing degree monoculture, states are imposing high costs (and low completion rates) on those who can least afford it. While licensure ostensibly protects consumers and definitely protects incumbent (i.e., credentialed) workers, increasing their wages by approximately 15%, it is furthering a two-tier economy: killing uncredentialed workers and jeopardizing the entire globalization enterprise. It is truly a License to Kill.
The licensure impulse can be viewed as an understandable reaction to globalization. There’s a sense of being inundated by a flood of low quality imported manufactured goods. But we also can't imagine living without cheap electronics, toys and other manufactures. So short of ensuring that imported products don't kill us immediately or overtly, government’s quality control impulse – one legitimately derived from numerous seminal experiences over the course of the 20th century (e.g., Thalidomide, Ralph Nader) – is increasingly manifested in services as licensure creeps from profession to profession. This explains why the states killing the most left-behind workers with licenses are the anti-globalization states most likely to vote Trump this fall.
State governments need to stop killing dislocated, disgruntled and uncredentialed workers via licensure. Doing so may be key to avoiding the mistake of Brexit and averting a Trump presidency – a weird thing that would not be funny or normal.
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