Dynamist Blog


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.

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