Robots, self driving cars, and artificial intelligence are popular topics in business publications. Depending upon the writer’s perspective, they are either the greatest thing since sliced bread or the beginning of the end of human existence. One of the advantages of a long life is remembering that most of this chatter has been heard before.
Just imagine how the average professional cook felt about pre-sliced bread. My father was a union steward, so our dinner table conversations often included news of a new bottling or packaging line “costing” Local 9 “x number” of jobs. I realize now that they were often boring or dangerous jobs, but some family depended upon that income and the planned change was viewed as a threat.
Over time, the economists assure us, these advances will make all our lives better and actually create more jobs. They will be different jobs, probably higher paying, and “better jobs.” Unfortunately, we humans are not good at anticipating an improved future. We tend to worry about the immediate effect on ourselves, our families, and our communities.
The natural response to any threat is to fight back; when possible, groups of people try to get the government to protect them from this perceived harm with a ban or regulations. We laugh at internet stories of silly laws still on the books, but those laws were enacted because somebody felt that they were needed.
If you ran a livery stable in 1900, for example, it made perfect sense to lean on your brother-in-law — the state senator — to introduce a bill limiting vehicles to 10 miles per hour unless they had warning lights preceding them. Auto enthusiasts had to organize in opposition and find ways to repeal the regulations. Or, they could invent ways to power the required warning lights.
There will always be a push/pull dynamic on “improvements” to the way we live. Here in Oil Valley many people still lament the closure of the last local refinery 16 years ago; others are trying to spread the word about the improved cleanliness of the rivers and creeks and air by promoting outdoor recreation. There are not as many jobs in kayak rentals as there were in the refinery, but the river is not subject to closure at the whim of a CEO.
Instead of trying to “solve” job loss problems by rolling back regulations or “incentivizing” the relocation of a large employer, shouldn’t governments be encouraging people to create opportunities for themselves and their neighbors? The warning light thing put plenty of people to work; the United States became a world leader in air pollution control technology because we had goals to meet. That technology not only improved life expectancy. It created jobs.