Sunday, March 7, 2010

America's Development History

Courtesy of Cafe Hayek's Russ Roberts comes a fantastic lesson from NPR (of all places) about creative destructon and American wealth and innovation: "The Jobs Of Yesteryear: Obsolete Occupations." As Roberts notes, the slideshow, which includes supporting text and audio, demonstrates how most of America's jobs of yesteryear were "lost" because of technological advances, not foreign competition.

I'd add that the slideshow provides a few other good lessons. First, and as a corollary to Roberts' point, the realities of how many jobs really are "destroyed" in America - i.e., by becoming obsolete - shows that one can't focus only (or mainly) the sheer number of jobs created, but also the quality of those jobs. America could add a million jobs tomorrow by mandating the use of typists or elevator operators, but would we really be any better off? (If only someone would ask this question to the state of New Jersey, which still mandates that all gas stations be full service only!)

Second, the photo gallery shows just how predominant child labor was during America's years as a "developing country." Indeed, several of the jobs highlighted - copy boys, pinsetters, switchboard operators (before the kids' pranks became unbearable) - were done mostly by children. Knowing this reality of American development provides some much-needed context when we hear the loud concerns and judgments about child labor in places like India and China coming from people in advanced developed economies that had very similar labor practices during their development. Now, I'm not saying that such concerns/judgments are always insincere or unnecessary - that's obviously untrue - but they do require this historical context. (A point Mark Perry also makes today in discussing a very cool news story about China's workers.)

Finally, and on a more humorous note, it's quite telling that the job of "Lector" - basically a guy who would read the news aloud while people rolled cigars - hasn't been used in the United States for 100 years but, as the NPR slideshow notes, is still being used in Cuba. Ahh, Cuba: socialist paradise!

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