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Quotation of the Day…

… is from page 265 of George Will’s superb 2019 book, The Conservative Sensibility (original emphasis; typo corrected; footnote deleted; link added):

Deirdre McCloskey notes that in 1800, at least 80 percent of American workers were on farms; today, thanks to the mechanization of agriculture and hybrid crops, fewer than 2 percent are. But the displaced agricultural workforce was not consigned to unemployment. By 1910, one in twenty workers were working on the railroads. In the late 1940s, of the approximately 60 million in the workforce (43 million men, 17 million women), AT&T employed 350,000 as manual phone operators, almost all of them women. In the 1950s, hundreds of thousands of jobs operating elevators in hotels, department stores, and office buildings disappeared when elevator passengers were trusted to push buttons by themselves. More recently, 10,000 people lost their jobs when Borders bookstores disappeared, partly because of competition from Amazon. More than 100,000 people who in 2000 worked in video rental stores are working elsewhere because Netflix and other entities killed rentals. In today’s America, with about 160 million jobs, about 1.7 million jobs – more than 1 percent of the total – disappear every month as companies downsize, fail, merge, or decide that this or that job is dispensable. So about 10 percent of jobs vanish in a year. Says McCloskey, “In just a few years at such rates – if disemployment were truly permanent – a third of the labor force would be standing on street corners, and the fraction would still be rising.”

DBx: Yes. Indisputably yes. (As it happens,my mother’s first full-time job, which she got in 1958 when she was pregnant with me, was as a telephone operator in New Orleans.)

For each of us currently to have jobs that we don’t want to lose requires that each of us be willing to lose the jobs that we currently have. And note that I say “willing” rather than “happy.”

To the extent that government or tradition succeeds in freezing in place the existing pattern of employment, the economy becomes at best stagnant. To the extent that you believe that you have a ‘right’ to your current job you imply – if you also profess a belief in equal rights and dignity for your fellow citizens – that you have no right to change the ways in which you spend or earn your income.

Has the last of your four children finally become toilet trained? Sorry; you must keep buying diapers at the same rate at which you bought these for the past several years. Have those AA sessions finally worked, causing you to give up drinking alcohol? Congratulations! Please do stay off the sauce – but you must nevertheless continue to buy booze at the same rate at which you bought it when you were an alcoholic. Did you get that splendid job offer that requires you to move to Shreveport or Seattle? Sorry; you must reject it and keep your current job, for such a move by you will reduce the expenditures that you make on the outputs produced by certain workers in your current hometown. Have you gotten a very nice raise that enables you to vacation more regularly in the Caribbean or in Europe? Too bad; you must continue to vacation at the lovely sites near your home in St. Louis or Scranton where you vacationed before getting that raise.

(Please, no ad hominem remarks about me having tenure. Not only did I once voluntarily give it up – as I did when I resigned my tenured position at Clemson University to become an untenured president of the Foundation for Economic Education – I didn’t create the university-employment system and would be more-than-happy if tenure were not part of the employment contracts of any university employees.)

(By the way, there’s an interesting twist to increased use, in mid-20th-century America, of automatic elevators.)


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