As Google continues to develop a driverless automobile it's no surprise that the company is lobbying lawmakers in Nevada to legalize the robotic marvel. But it is disheartening. The forward march of technology all but guarantees that we will one day scoot around Jetson-like, in mid-air and on auto-pilot. We’ve been getting glimpses of that possibility for some time. Cars exist today that can park themselves, alert drivers that they are falling asleep or have had too much to drink. The vehicles will soon be able to find their way from Austin to Baltimore, maneuvering the streets on their own with the help of a new microchip.
It’s a nifty vision. You race out the door to work, grab your newspaper – or iPad, more likely – settle into the back seat and finish breakfast while your Chevy Volt into traffic and delivers you to your office, fresh and ready to tackle much more challenging assignments.
Wait….what assignments? As more and more heavy lifting is done by machines, people are left with less and less to do. Americans are up in arms over outsourcing of manufacturing, and now white collar work, to China and India; but what about the increasing numbers of jobs stolen by technology?
This question comes up every time I land at Kennedy Airport and face a seemingly inconsequential choice. Do I swipe my credit card through the machine that delivers a trolley for my luggage, or do I sign up one of the baggage handlers waiting patiently nearby? In the past, the decision was simple and like so many others, purely economic. The price of the cart was $2.50 or $3.00 and the amount owed a person would presumably be $5 to $10, depending on the number of suitcases. Today the price of the cart is $5 and my guess is the fellow helping out wouldn’t expect much more. After all, things are tough.
This sort of calculus faces Americans across the country, but has not yet risen to the level of national debate. Of course not, you are thinking – who cares about your suitcase? The answer is that everyone should, because that kind of decision should underlie all kinds of policies. The choice, more broadly defined, is this: do we want as a country to choose jobs over efficiency? Is there a need for, or is it the time for, a full-employment program?
Some legislators have decided to make jobs their number one priority. For instance, in Oregon and New Jersey you cannot personally fill your own gas tank. Every station is full service. Think how many people have jobs by dint of that regulation. In New Jersey, the rule dates back to 1949 – a time when some thought that messing with a highly flammable substance dangerous. There are roughly 4,000 service stations in the state; each has one or two people who would probably be fired if legislators allowed automation. Governor Corzine attempted to change the law in 2006, but faced an immediate backlash. New Jerseyans, it turns out, like to have someone else do the dirty work. What if every state adopted that stance? How many minimum wage workers – the kind most desperately looking for work today – would be employed?
Many will argue that blocking progress, or efficiency, will dampen our country’s competitiveness. I am beginning to think that having an increasing portion of the nation unemployed and on the government dole is a much more corrosive influence. At the least, our leaders need to recognize that there are some circumstances where it might behoove the country to put labor ahead of capital, like getting rid of those luggage trolleys in airports.
But wait, you argue. What about the people employed making the carts? Wouldn’t they be laid off? My guess – the trolleys are made in China.