Urgent Telegram: Technology Destroys Jobs!

If we expect government to protect “American jobs” from import competition, why not from new labor-saving machines?

I was reminded again of this double standard in our public policy by a fun feature on the National Public Radio web site. Titled, “The Jobs Of Yesteryear: Obsolete Occupations,” the NPR feature describes and illustrates a dozen jobs that Americans held early in the 20th century but no longer. “As computers and automated systems increasingly take the jobs humans once held,” NPR notes, “entire professions are now extinct.”

I’m old enough to remember how the milkman would deliver a few gallons every morning to our back porch in my small home town in Wisconsin in the 1960s. Today almost everybody buys their milk at the grocery store. When my dad was starting out in the newspaper business in the 1930s, one of the skills he had to learn was that of typesetter—the person who would set individual letters of type by hand for printing. Offset printing and computers eliminated the job of typesetter decades ago.

Among the other occupations NPR describes: elevator operator, pinsetter in a bowling alley, iceman, lamplighter, switchboard operator, typist in a typist pool, and telegraph operator. One I’d never heard of before was a “lector”—the occupation of reading books and news articles aloud to workers doing mundane tasks in a factory.

We may look back on such jobs with some nostalgia, especially those of us who never had to actually do such work. But nobody with an ounce of economic sense would argue that we would be more prosperous today if we had “protected” such jobs for the next generation of workers.

I make this very point in my Cato book, Mad about Trade. Most Americans who lose their jobs are displaced, not by trade, but by technology and other purely domestic factors. The right response is not to block trade or new technology, but to equip ourselves and younger workers joining the labor force to fill the occupations that our more open and high-tech economy are creating.

HT to my Cato colleague Joey Coon for the NPR link.

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