Maybe this is paying too much attention to a mere rhetorical trope, but I really dislike the phrase “job creator” as a synonym for “businessman”. Businessmen may or may not create jobs; if they do, it seems to me, it’s very often purely accidental. Word processors, for instance, are a great benefit to mankind, but they also take jobs away from secretaries. Everyone loves their smartphone, but that love is seemingly taking jobs away from supermarket-tabloid writers. Google Search, maybe the most magical technology of my life so far, may well radically decrease demand for librarians.

That’s just what Schumpeter called “creative destruction” (“celebrated everywhere that capitalism is actually believed in”). So on the one side, it’s not at all clear that businessmen create jobs; they may well destroy existing industries.

Then, of course, there’s the fact that a successful business very often drives out the incumbents from its own industry. Google may have created some jobs, but I assume that it also eliminated some jobs at Alta Vista.

Finally, there’s the obvious point that it’s considered a good thing when businesses squeeze more revenue out of each individual employee. This is called “increased productivity”, and historically it’s how nations increase their GDP, and thereby how living standards rise. The fraction of Americans working in agriculture is 1/3 of what it was in 1970, yet total output is 91% above what it was then. Agriculture may be the foundation of a healthy people, but it’s not because farmers are job creators. Quite the opposite, in fact.

The conceptual trouble may come from businessmen’s desire to be associated with people whom we universally admire, and whom we rightly view as advancing society — people like inventors. Not all businessmen are inventors; nor are all businessmen job creators. Today, for instance, I saw Rick Steves describe himself as “a hardworking business owner who creates jobs”. He may employ people; but if he wants to claim that he created jobs by writing travel guides, he needs to show that he didn’t take away jobs from other travel guides (Lonely Planet, say). If he’s just taking jobs away from other businesses, then he’s not a job creator. He may be an *employer*, but he’s not a job creator.

This was the trouble that Mitt Romney got into during the 2012 campaign. He wanted us to think that he knew something about how to run a country because he was a businessman. (Set aside everyone’s intuition that there’s a difference between a financier and an inventor, and that Romney was a financier.) But as a businessman, he would be happiest when his companies drove all of their competitors out of business and managed to produce the same output with half the workers. But inasmuch as his competitors were also American companies, the net effect on American employment is … well, it’s not obviously zero, but neither is the effect obviously to add American jobs. (Paul Krugman made the point more eloquently back in 1996, in “A Country Is Not a Company”.)

To the extent that businessmen know which policies encourage inventors to thrive, they may know how to create jobs; but even here, I think it’s really only safe to say that creating a fertile climate for inventors aids in increasing productivity; it doesn’t say anything about guaranteeing full employment, which is what “creating jobs” has to mean. It has to mean that there are more people working today than there were before you took charge.

Actually creating jobs may be the role of the Federal Reserve. The Fed is charged with maintaining stable prices consistent with maximum employment. There’s a story according to which allowing unemployment to drop too low means that inflation will start spiraling upward; that threshold level is called the Non-Accelerating-Inflation Rate of Unemployment, or NAIRU for short, and I’ve been convinced that the concept is bunk. But in any case, the question is how to ensure that everyone who wants a job has one. It’s romantic to think that a proud fellow called a “job creator” knows how to make this happen, but the true story may be that mechanically adjusting interest rates, and occasionally pushing stimulus when all else fails, is all that we need. Not surprising that the Romneys of the world would yearn for a more heroic story. Unfortunately, that story doesn’t withstand any scrutiny.