Dynamist Blog


I'm watching Century City again--for research's sake. It's still flat, but I was struck by one nice little detail: yuppie parents named Bertha and Sidney. Now that's futuristic. There's only one problem: Those 2030 parents would be little kids today. Real 2030 yuppies will be named Daniel and Jessica. Check out the most popular baby names over time here, and my column on baby names as a form of fashion here.


In one of the best-written pieces I've seen on the subject, Ted Balaker of the Reason Public Policy Institute looks at the ever-looming threat to jobs:

But from the save-our-jobs perspective, the new protectionists have more to fear from machines. After all, those soulless slaves to efficiency have stolen more American jobs than any foreigner. Hollywood visionaries use films like The Terminator and The Matrix to warn us of the coming war against the machines. Well, the war is here. Actually, it's been here for a long time.

The printing press swallowed human scriveners and the photocopier and personal computer destroyed countless office jobs. Machines like the tractor have overrun agriculture so much that, during the last century, farmers' share of the American workforce has fallen from 40 percent to 3. Just weeks ago a Kentucky city mourned when a machine replaced its last human elevator operator, and even the recently resolved Southern California grocery strike may turn out to be another victory for machines. Here man and machine used to work together in peace— human checkers appreciated how scanners would remember thousands of prices for them. But now some stores have begun phasing in automated checkout machines, which means human checkers work alongside machines that may eventually take their jobs. An analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data notes that—even without outsourcing—technology would have eliminated most of the jobs now going overseas. Sometimes it seems like our society is so mechanized that there's almost nothing left for us humans to do.

Of course, cursing machines misses the point because it tells only half of the story. Hyperventilating pundits can point to a specific sector or a narrow time frame and tell a tale of woe. And the quest for efficiency does kill jobs; but in the long run it creates more than it destroys....Taking a broader view reveals that—even with all the dips and churns—creation dwarfs destruction. At the end of World War II, there were about 138 million Americans. Today, 138 million Americans have jobs. Clearly, an efficient market is the best jobs program.

Still, can we connect the dots from efficiency gains to job growth? Some imagine that CEOs fire humans, hire machines, and then throw the extra cash on their money pile. This view may not be far off the mark in assuming ambition—perhaps even greed—motivates the CEO. However, the truly greedy won't simply stash the cash—they will reinvest it and dream of an even bigger payday. Since reinvestment spurs job growth, in order to accept the efficiency gains-job growth link you simply have to assume that corporate greed is alive and well. For most of us, this isn't a huge leap.

As the market evolves, we don't just exchange fewer jobs for more, we also trade up for better jobs. Since today's office mates squabble over a couple of clicks on the thermometer, it's a good thing few of them will have to find out how they'd survive in, say, a mineshaft. During the past 50 years we've lost over a quarter-million mining jobs, but we've gained 78 million service sector jobs. Today, 19 times as many Americans work in finance as in mining; 22 times more work in hospitality, and 54 times more work in heath and education.

It's often difficult to track job growth by a particular occupation, because many of today's jobs were created recently. Today's jobseeker has more choices than ever, which means that we are more likely get paid to do something we enjoy. Americans hold millions of jobs that did not exist a century ago. For example, our nation is home to 758,000 software engineers, 299,000 fitness workers and 128,000 aircraft mechanics. And many of the old-style jobs—far from being outsourced into oblivion—are more plentiful than ever. Our nation has 6.5 million teachers, 718,000 hairdressers, 281,000 chefs and 112,000 biologists. The chance for work to aid rather than hinder our quest for fulfillment is a truly historic development. How many miners stuck deep within the earth would rather have been video editors, web designers or car customizers?...

Protestors rarely wave angry signs at protectionist politicians who would jeopardize future jobs, but it's not fanciful to fight for jobs without knowing what they are. After all, when they were in third grade, today's 30-something web designers could not have dreamed of what they would end up doing. Likewise, today's third graders have no idea what's in store for them.

As a look at the good old days, it's hard to beat George Orwell's description of miners' lives in The Road to Wigan Pier.


Looking for something else, I stumbled on this interesting report on the Bangladeshi restaurant trade in London:

The restaurant business in Tower Hamlets (and elsewhere), in contrast to the garment industry, has been very much a growth sector. The 'Indian' restaurant sector has traditionally been dominated by Bangladeshis and this is still very much evident. For example, of the 9,500 Indian and Bangladeshi restaurants and takeaways in the UK, employing over 72,000 personnel (more than the coal, steel and shipbuilding industries combined) and with an annual turnover of some £2.3 billion, approximately 85% are exclusively owned by Bangladeshis. A recent Labour Force Survey conducted in 1997 discovered that over 60% of male Bangladeshi employees and self-employed worked in the restaurant trade compared to 40% of Chinese but only 2% of Indian and 1% of white males. The origins of the contemporary pattern of ownership and employment can be traced to the nineteenth century when Sylheti seamen recruited by shipping companies gained a virtual monopoly of work as cooks and galley hands aboard British ships. When they came ashore, some of these men established tea houses and cafes near the waterfront. These businesses slowly grew in size and popularity and provided the basis for the Indian restaurant trade in the UK.

The massive growth in the 'Indian'/Bangladeshi catering sector (and, indeed, in other forms of cuisine) can be directly linked to the inexorable rise in multiple and differentiated forms of consumption after the Second World War. As the anthropologist Jack Goody notes in his seminal book 'Love and Food'

The old homogeneous 'canteen culture' in the UK had been highly socialised form of feeding, carried out collectively whether in the army, in the factory or in communal restaurants (called British restaurants) which showed the restrictions of the limited restaurant culture, with its supplies being rationed and its prices being controlled. That system was highly egalitarian and began to disappear, under pressure of economic growth, expanded supplies, consumer choice and — it has to be said — boredom with uniformity, with egalitarianism (1998:165).

In Tower Hamlets, the number of cafes (mainly Bangladeshi but a few Pakistani-owned) as well as an infrastructure of retail outlets expanded considerably in the 1960s, especially in the west of the borough, on Brick Lane and surrounding streets, to meet the demands of single Bangladeshi men living and working in Spitalfields. In the 1980s with the change in household structures and domestic routines triggered by the reunion of males with their wives, children and other dependants, some of these cafes were transformed into restaurants where the décor, cuisine, availability of alcohol and prices were specifically aimed at members of the white middle-class who worked and studied at the nearby London Hospital and university and polytechnic colleges.

In 1989, there were 8 cafes and restaurants in the Brick Lane and Hanbury Street area. A few more outlets were added to this number of the early 1990s but the main expansion has taken place in the last five years, so that today the area has 44 cafes and restaurants (with 18 businesses opening since 2000 and 6 or 7 more due to open in the near future and with an annual turnover of about £20 million) which means that Brick Lane is home to the largest number of Indian/Bangladeshi restaurants anywhere in the UK — the Rusholme area of Manchester, for example, has 42 while the Southall Broadway area has 27 comparable outlets.


My friend Jeff Taylor, whom readers may know as the writer of Reason Express sends this link to an absolute category-killer of an article on the introduction of DIY checkout services in Albertson's. It's not the world's best writing, but if you're at all interested in how information technology is changing retailing, it's well-worth a read. Jeff points out this fun "creative destruction" fact:

Albertson's is installing 4,500 NCR self-checkout terminals in its 2,300 stores at an estimated cost of $16 million to $20 million. The machines normally cost about $20,000 each, but the company snagged the first 4,000 "for pennies on the dollar" from lessor GE Capital, which had picked them up from bankrupted retailer Kmart.

Of course, that very fact illustrates that technology alone can't save a struggling retailer.


More evidence that there's no one best way to deal with the name game, from reader Stanley S. Forrester:

My wife choose to keep her last name after we were married. As an active duty service member (at the time) she had already gone through two name changes first for her first marriage and the ensuing divorce. No more of that.

We decided our child would carry both family names,
First Name: Timothy
Second Name: Frederich
Family Name: Gunechtel Forrester. (no hyphen)

Society assumes Timmy's last name is Forrester and treats his matrilineal name as a middle name. Had my son been a daughter she could both bow to societal expectation by dropping Forrester at marriage and still maintain the matrilineal name. If he chooses Timmy can do something similar with Gnuechtel or come up with something even more bizarre.


A number of readers wrote in response to my post about hand-held scanners that let you ring up your groceries as you shop. The ones in my local Albertson's are an extension of the popular self-service checkout lines installed last year.

From reasder Janna Joseph:

I, also, look forward to more tech innovations to make in-store shopping more self-service. In my rather small town, our WalMart this year put in self-service lines. For a while few customers availed themselves of them. Free checkers cast a disparaging eye with a fearful warning, "You won't be able to figure them out," if they saw you approaching the self-serve counter. A few months later I see increased usage of these self-check lines. Also our Home Depot has them, but so far no grocery stores,

Two difficulties I have noticed are purchasing items like glue, paint products and anything else the kids like to sniff. The machine stops the check and calls for someone to intervene to approve the sale. Here, I think they could add a drivers license scan (my license from Arizona has a bar code on back) to indicate an adult is the purchaser. The second is the annoyance of the weight-sensitive packing area. Pick up a bag to put in your cart for departure and the machine scolds you and stops the check. Other than this, I love the self-serve lines and will welcome the scanners when they get here.

Janna's note points to the many details and quirks that any new system has to master, some of which, like approving restricted purchases (alcohol, tobacco, and spray paint), still require human intervention. After many trials with the weight-sensitive self-checkout, I've learned that if you ignore the little voice it will shut up and let you continue checking. But reader Charles Compton points out the good reasons behind that sometimes-annoying feature:

A fascinating piece today on your hand-held scanner experience.

Here in Tenessee, the Ingle's supermarket chain last year began installing automated checkout stands, which I find work quite well.

Items are passed over a scanner, then placed in bags on a carousel.

The computer, it turns out, knows not only the item scanned, but the weight of each item. If you scan a half-gallon conatiner of orange juice, the computer expects something weighing roughly 64 ounces to be placed in the bag on the carousel.

That makes it just about impossible to cheat, even accidentally.

The system accepts cash and coins, and credit/debit cards. You can get up to $100 cash back if you use a card.

It also lets you scan your discount card to take advantage of in-store specials.

There was a brief problem with acceptance of the newly redesigned $20 bills, but that's now been fixed.

Overall, the system works so well that for most grocery trips, I don't even have contact with a live person.

It's pretty clear that grocery checkout clerks are going to go the way of bank tellers. They won't disappear altogether, but there will be many fewer of them. Grocery employees will have to add value to the customer's experience, not simply process their purchases.


Recalling his own dad's '61 Falcon, reader Sandy Smith notes: "I think as much food is eaten in cars now as then, it's just that people insist they need to drive while doing it, requiring cup*holders* instead of cuprests. If they would do that instead of cellphones I honestly wouldn't mind." I'm with Sandy--drinks, OK, cellphones, bad.


Reader Paul Hager writes:

Thought I'd toss in my family's approach to naming. My wife's parents followed the traditional approach -- the male surname became the family name. In their case, the original name in Germany was Weihrauch (incense or, literally "holy smoke"). When they made in to the U.S. (the family barely made it out of Germany in 1938), they changed the name to Wyle.

In patrilineal descent, the family name is passed down through the father's line. The idea of the female's family name disappearing when the woman marries has always seemed grossly unfair to me. I don't see matrilineal descent as being any better, though it has never existed in the U.S., as far as I know. The hyphenate name approach -- I don't know what to call it -- is problematic because if you want to keep the family names through multiple generations, you end up with ridiculously long names. The alternative would have to involve some sort of complex formula for dropping one of the hypenates when the hypenate marries.

Back when I was studying cultural anthropology, I came across a different approach called bilineal descent. In bilineal descent, sons take the father's name and daughters take the wife's name. This made a lot of sense to me. I suggested this approach to my wife, who kept her family name -- I also pointed out that the Wyle line in the U.S. had produced many more females than males and I thought it particularly appropriate for a Jewish line that had escaped the Holocaust to continue whether it produced males or not. So, we adopted bilineal descent.

We now have two daughters -- Liana Valentina Wyle and Alissa Lise Wyle -- and no sons. Works for me.

Additional note on the middle names, which I picked. Valentina is for Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space. Lise is for Lise Meitner, who was robbed of a Nobel Prize in physics for the 1938 discovery of fission in uranium because she was (1) female and (2) Jewish.


The United States has a politically influential religious right and a cultural tradition of distrusting government intervention in private affairs. (That's "distrusting" not "never allowing.") Canada has neither a politically influential religious right nor any cultural tradition of distrusting government regulation. Guess which country has banned cloning human cells for research? From the Wired News report:

Canada last week passed a bill that bans human cloning but permits research using stem cells derived from embryos -- research that scientists hope will lead to therapies for many of the worst human diseases. The bill states that "No person shall knowingly create a human clone by using any technique," which would include therapeutic cloning, a technology researchers believe could lead to revolutionary treatments. The bill still requires "royal assent" from the governor general before it becomes law, but that is considered a formality.

The U.S. also has political gridlock--the best way to block new forms of regulation.

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