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12 March 2009

Making Jobs Obsolete

This is going to be one of those posts that I trudge through unable to explain many of my thoughts. I don't think I have a single friend that agrees with me on this subject. The subject is of course getting rid of unneeded professions from the labor force. That is, putting people out of work! Go to hell Logan. This seems to upset almost everyone I've ever brought it up with. I think technically it would be somewhat akin to structural unemployment.

This is the article that got me thinking about this. It talks about how a large group/organization of graphic designers is upset because companies are more and more holding design competitions for logos; that is, crowdsourcing. The result is one winner who makes very little, and everyone else gets nothing. The professional graphic designers are upset because this cuts into their work and what they can charge for work. Dear graphic designers, these competitions are not evil. They merely make the market more efficient by bringing together people with needs (companies who need logos) and designers willing to give it to them. All participants are willing and if the professionals design is really so much better then they will continue to have a niche somewhere in the marketplace.

There is often this (misguided) feeling in society that putting someone out of work because their job is no longer relevant is a terrible thing. I'm not talking about cyclical unemployment. That is, unemployment that fluctuates according to the business cycle. That should be avoidable, at least theoretically, and it has been to some degree for the last 25-30 years... let's not get into why that is. What I'm talking about is jobs that no longer need to exist. The example I always give is that of a blacksmith. Back in the day that was a highly regarded job, now they barely exist. Why? Because it is more efficient to let a machine do that work. In the short term sure that person is out of work and they need to change careers, but in the long run that person can become more useful to society by doing something else. I'm not discounting the pain that this brings on the individual. I'm merely saying that the pain imposed on the individual is less than the "pain" felt by society for allowing that person to keep their obsolete job. Milton Friedman, who right now is taking a beating (which I think is somewhat unfair in that his ideas are actually quite liberal), used the famous example of loom operators in India (near the beginning, interesting read too).

I have mixed feelings on unions. I like that they raise wages for me. Although overall I think the practice of it is a form of collusion which is illegal. That and it artificially limits the number of people who can get jobs. A union's best quality is that they act as a collection of trade professionals who train apprentices. They essentially act as a trade school. This alone may justify their existence. One of the problems I see with unions is that they sometimes employ construction techniques that purposely take more time and are not necessarily better. As an example, in Chicago you have to use conduit (conduit can have some advantages but it also adds enormously to the cost) around all electrical wire instead of romex, and copper tubing (which goes bad over time and is expensive) must be used for water over pex, a plastic form of piping that never goes bad. Both of the unused examples are employed in the South where unions are more or less nonexistent.

Protecting jobs by passing on the cost to consumers doesn't really help anyone. It hurts demand for the product and doesn't allow as many people to consume the good. If putting in pex saves installation time, is cheaper, and requires less maintenance then wouldn't using it over copper pipe allow plumbers to service more homes thus lowering the cost of plumbing... allowing more people to have it? The point is that people should be put to use in an area where their work is of better use to the collective good. Essentially, in this example technology has made it possible for one person to do the work of many, but for various reasons we hold back this technology to keep people employed. The result is expensive plumbing. Plumbing shouldn't be a luxury. It improves people's health and makes needless labor unnecessary. The problem is what to do with those unemployed plumbers. Ideally they would get retrained at another career. Possibly even something similar, but reality isn't always that nice.

Now my mixed feelings. As I talked about a while ago things change faster now (it's near the end of the post), so its not crazy to think that people's jobs could become obsolete just a few years after starting them. The Department of Labor doesn't really know (boring) how often people switch careers. They do however know that they tend to change jobs about ten times between the ages of 18-38. The point is that I'm not sure where all this is going. It could be the case that someone spends more money on their education than they could possibly make by working in that field while it exists. In the plumbers example it could also be the case that twice as many plumbers exist but they take half as many hours; essentially a reduction in work and pay. That's all good and fine, but then you have to compete with "hungry" people who are willing to work 60 hour weeks.

I found this passage by Andre Gorz in the Wikipedia article on structural unemployment, "The connection between more and better has been broken; our needs for many products and services are already more than adequately met, and many of our as-yet- unsatisfied needs will be met not by producing more, but by producing differently, producing other things, or even producing less. This is especially true as regards our needs for air, water, space, silence, beauty, time and human contact..."

Now, how to employ that in the free market... (hint: you have to change the lifestyle, opinion, and general habits and thoughts of the "average" person)

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