Thursday, June 23, 2011

Did we elect Ned Ludd?

Isn’t it interesting that Obama is the least modern president of memory? His policies are a throw-back to FDR and he is obviously a split-the-pie rather than a grow-the-pie type of thinker. This looking back to the good old days of government expansion and intervention along with the spread the wealth mentality make sense of his comments on technological displacement. Obama saying that employment is lagging because innovations such as ATMs and kiosks show that this smart president is woefully ignorant. Obama is Ned Ludd – the British weaver displaced by mechanized looms thought he could get his job back by smashing and burning the looms. Instead of being rehired, he was hung. Someone needs to tell the president that thousands of jobs in the horse and buggy industry were lost when Henry Ford automated the automobile assembly line. When I was in graduate school thousands of women worked in typing pools at universities – all displaced by the PC and word processing. Obama must have taken classes at Harvard from professors who were members of the Ad Hoc Committee on the Triple Revolution who predicted in the 1960s that technology by the year 2000 would cause 90 percent of the labor force to be unemployed. When they made this prediction, I took the number of horses in 1863, ran my computer and discovered that by 1975 we would all be dead having been buried under 30 feed of horse manure worldwide.
The president does not realize that the displacement of workers by technology has not created permanent increases in unemployment. Technology creates new jobs and new opportunities for the creation of entirely new industries and jobs. I have lived through periods when there were not even transistors much less no color tvs, no cell phones, no ipads, no PCs, no Velcro, no personal software, no internet, and no gore-tex. The massive layoffs of middle managers during the recession of the early 1990s spurred a dramatic growth in entrepreneurial startups.
Technology is the single greatest threat to our society today. However, that has always been the case and always will be. I'm a professor and professors love to profess. The agricultural revolution was actually a technological revolution that replaced the hunting and gathering age. It devastated the existing political structure. Where once there were tribal groupings, now there were city states and feudal kingdoms. Then came the industrial revolution (obviously a technological revolution) and with it came mass production, mass bureaucracies, mass political organizations, and countries. Swept away, often violently, were the city states and feudal kingdoms. The old structure resisted but died. Workers also resisted but failed. Ned lud and his luddites were tailors displaced by automatic looms. Their reaction was to try and stop progress by burning them down. They failed and progress marched on. But the industrial revolution also occurred in agriculture, displacing workers and driving them to the cities. Yes there were sweat shops, horrible living conditions, child labor, rampant disease. But the workers were no longer serfs and indentured laborers on the farm. They were free and would shape the political structure of the future. Technology would aid the workers in the form of the printing press. Once information was the sole province of the church and its power was related to its control of information. Indeed, St. Thomas Aquinas was considered a genius because not only could he read, but he could read without moving his lips. The printing press changed all that and with widely disseminated news came the reduction in the power of the church.
Technology does not destroy jobs. It creates them. Implying that rolling back technology will create jobs shows that this modern president is actually the reincarnation of Ned Ludd.

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