Jake's View

Give arts job creation plea the brush-off

Pitch for more money for culture hub needs more work if the best the turtleneck sweater set can come up with is the spurious employment line

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 August, 2013, 4:02am

… Hong Kong needs new industries that can help drive the local economy. The creative sector can do just that.

Art boosts businesses such as art transportation, storage, insurance and educational facilities as well as, potentially, jobs. And those jobs have a positive impact on society, economically and culturally. Shouldn't the government play a part in nurturing this young and growing industry?

William Zhao, art collector
Sunday Morning Post,
August 25


It's generally a sign of someone scraping the bottom of the barrel when you hear the argument brought up that we ought to do something because it will create jobs.

It also seems too late this time. Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has apparently turned down the West Kowloon Cultural District's pleas for more money and told it to get along on its existing HK$21.6 billion budget. Thus the M+ art museum will get only its allotted HK$1 billion for acquisitions.

It's so unfair. How does Carrie expect anyone to survive on a mere billion? That's hardly enough to keep art brokers … oops, excuse me, I mean curators … in turtleneck sweaters. Hong Kong will never be a world class arts centre this way.

I think someone should take the board of the WKCD to the staircase of the China Club one day. With just that limited by-the-by display space, David Tang set the standard for modern Chinese pictorial art. Every gallery in town has copied it. So, move aside, M+. Your job has already been done. You can give the money back.

But let's look at this instead from the economic argument that Mr Zhao advanced. Here is the operative rule in these matters: whenever you spend money you create jobs. The checkout clerk at the supermarket holds her job because you, among many others, buy groceries there.

But when government spends money to create jobs it must first take that money from you through taxes or other impositions, which means that you have less money to spend. And if this in turn means that you, among many others, don't buy as many groceries, then the supermarket may have to delay hiring new checkout clerks or may even have to lay a few off. Thus there is really no net gain in jobs from job creation programmes. What you gain on one side you lose on the other.

There is only a gain in appearances. It's easy to see the 100 jobs brought into existence by a government job creation promotion. It's much harder to see that 10,000 jobs that were all made slightly less viable because the money that you, among many others, would have spent on them has now gone to those much more visible 100 jobs.

But let's reduce it to absurdity. If it were true that government could create new jobs at no cost to existing jobs, then I shall once again propose my full employment programme. We shall build five parallel tunnels by hand (pick axe and spade only) from the southern tip of Lamma Island to Antarctica.

We shall never finish the project, of course, but what does that matter? We shall create lots of jobs. The tunnels will be dead useless but what does that matter? We shall create lots of jobs. Do you have any other questions about this programme? I have the answer to them: We shall create lots of jobs.

Yes, of course it's a silly idea. That's in the nature of job creation for the sake of job creation. It's a silly idea. The kinds of jobs we actually need are the kinds that bring us the goods and services we most want at the least possible cost to us.

What is more, these are the kinds of jobs that stimulate economic activity and create further new jobs, thus bringing unemployment down. Job creation for the sake of job creation in the end increases unemployment. We run out of money to pay for the work that we didn't really need and that didn't make us better off in any way we really value.

If you want pitch M+ to us, Mr Zhao, please do it on the basis that it will enrich our lives. Falling back on that tired old jobs argument just tells me it probably won't.