Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Technology and Job Creation

The Wall Street Journal has a good article this morning on the role that technology plays in terms of job loss and creation. Evidently President Obama thinks that advancing technology is responsible for job losses. By his measure, however, we ought to be lamenting the loss of millions of good farming jobs around the turn of the last century.
The story goes that Milton Friedman was once taken to see a massive government project somewhere in Asia. Thousands of workers using shovels were building a canal. Friedman was puzzled. Why weren't there any excavators or any mechanized earth-moving equipment? A government official explained that using shovels created more jobs. Friedman's response: "Then why not use spoons instead of shovels?"

That story came to mind last week when President Obama linked technology to job losses. "There are some structural issues with our economy where a lot of businesses have learned to become much more efficient with a lot fewer workers," he said. "You see it when you go to a bank and you use an ATM, you don't go to a bank teller, or you go to the airport and you're using a kiosk instead of checking in at the gate."

The president calls this a structural issue—we usually call it progress. And it isn't exactly a new phenomenon. It's been going on for centuries, and its pace has accelerated over the past 50 years. Businesses relentlessly look for ways to replace workers with machines. The machines get better and smarter. We go from spoons to shovels to excavators, not the other way around.

Telephone switchboard operators lose jobs to automated switching. Toll collectors get replaced by E-ZPass. Auto workers get replaced by robots.

The magnitudes are stunning….


  1. Even in the film Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Charlie's father's job was replaced by a robot but he got a job repairing the robots.

  2. rats..posting as wife again.

  3. I think quite a bit about "what's going to make the economy work in the future." My oldest sons are going into nursing; Pittsburgh is one of the "oldest" cities in the country, and UPMC is the largest employer. So there's job security in the medical field. But I wonder what's going to happen when this Baby Boomer generation passes through and passes away.

    My concern is that "health care" today is just fixing Hazlitt's broken window.