There was a commentary in the 4/9 Albany Times-Union by Philip Lord, “Jobs? For All? Says Who?” (Here’s a link.) Lord worries that we’ll never again have full employment because businesses are figuring out how to provide more and more goods and services with ever fewer workers. He sees a need for some sort of radical change in our whole economic model.
We’ve been hearing such foolishness for at least two centuries. From its beginnings, the Industrial Revolution was fought by Luddites fearing that people would become redundant. Every technological advance has encountered the same dire predictions that human beings would have no place in the future economic landscape. And meantime Malthusians have perennially warned that population growth would outrun food production.
Of course none of these fears has ever come true. The opposite has happened. World population has exploded – but human productivity has grown even faster, so that living standards have risen, not fallen. Rather than depriving people of jobs, technology frees them to do different jobs, and always creates needs for those different jobs. Luddites like Lord never learn this. A growing population does not impoverish us because, thanks to technology, most people produce more than they consume. World average incomes today, in constant dollars, are five times greater than a century ago.
Lord’s commentary rhapsodizes about the pre-industrial hunter-gatherer lifestyle, a supposedly halcyon Eden where the environment provided people’s needs “free for the taking.” Money was a convenience, not a necessity, Lord says; people worked but did not have “jobs.”
Nor much else, one might add. Nature provided, but it was the equivalent of living on less than a dollar a day. To use Hobbes’s famous line, life was “poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Its average span was around twenty years. That picture actually didn’t change much until the Industrial Revolution, enabling humanity to harness energy in our service as never before.
That has brought with it some problems, to be sure. But the bigger picture is human betterment on an almost inconceivably vast scale. And that has not come to a screeching halt in 2009. I am excited about the human future.