As Blue Dies, What Happens To the Jobs? Part One
Published on: April 12, 2012
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  • “White collar occupations will continue to be well paid and the education premium will grow.” Dubious, in some respects. The education premium has been shrinking, not growing, in many sectors of the economy. Credentialism is due for a shake-up, too, as is the characterization of blue collar as somehow less important, less prestigious.

  • John Burke

    I think most commentary on lagging blue collar wages miss an important factor — and Mead’s is no exception. Immigration policy is that factor. For roughly 40 years from the 1920s to the 1960s, immigration was tightly controlled (in contrast to the previous century when immigration was largely uninhibited). Up to the 1970s, labor markets for semiskilled and unskilled workers were relatively tight; unions prospered and grew; wages surged. Then, a gradually increasing in flow of lower skill immigrants — legal and illegal — combined with automation of manufacturing and growing global competition weighed heavily against wage growth. Liberals and unions refuse to recognize this because of the electoral interests of Democratic politicians. But it should be easy to imagine that if 10 million recent arrivals were not in the picture, wages would leap up overnight.

  • Glen

    It this your belated commentary on Charles Murray’s Coming Apart?

  • Anthony

    The shift from blue to postblue…raises many questions that are at the core of our political debates….”

    WRM, you intimated a few consequential questions are generally passed over as we discuss/debate implications of vast economic changes. Yet, your essay at bottom imbues an unmentioned question: what are U.S. class issues – subtly avoided in general public policy discussions. Essentially, your essay is about class struggle (what James Madison termed “faction”).

    Class struggle under capitalism is endemic to capital’s destructive force (capacity). The impersonal process makes way for some (journalist, money managers, corporate executives, etc.) and others (blue collar workers, baristas, executive drivers, etc.) are displaced. So, at one level WRM what you are describing as BBC, libertarian/conservative deviation from status quo is fundamentally class struggle or at least class protest – essay implies a struggle waged by Americans to not be squeezed out of existence or into less lucrative position (stratified occupations).

    So, WRM can we free ourselves of a few economic and political myths as we look for prospects in a postindustrial America – to better avoid dead ends (real hourly wages -adjusted for inflation – being less in 2012 for non-supervisory work than 38 years ago).

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    “This debate needs to get smarter. Republicans need to incorporate a better sense of historical development into analyses that otherwise risk becoming ahistorical and platitudinous — however much reality and good moral sense they may reflect.”

    I don’t know where the jobs of the future will come from; all I know is that a properly managed economy will produce full employment. I have a saying which applies
    “There’s a reason it’s called Capitalism; it’s because Capital is what fuels it.” Jacksonian Libertarian
    Without affordable capital for consumers and businesses to borrow, jobs cannot be created. At the present time developed nations are sucking the fuel tank dry, competing for capital with consumers and businesses, and crowding them out of the market with the unfair credit advantage of a Central Government. The US Government is taking well over $1 Trillion a year from the fuel tank, and has taken $6+ Trillion since 2008. That is $6+ Trillion that would have been used to make consumer items like homes, cars, appliances, restaurant meals, or for businesses to start up or expand creating jobs to meet those consumer needs.
    Many economists have been commenting on the unwinding of consumer debt, without explaining the reason for it is Government competition for credit. It’s the old chicken or egg question, in this case the Government borrowing egg came first, and the consumer unwinding of debt chicken came second as they couldn’t compete with the Government for credit.
    So many look at the Capital markets like they are some bottomless pit of money; instead of being a limited supply of money, the demand for which determines the price in interest rates. When the Government comes in and bites off a big chunk of that capital every year, the remaining supply goes up in price in order to reduce demand. We know that interest rates can go much lower, as we can see 1% interest rates in Japan.
    It is Government greed that has killed all the jobs, and prevented a normal recovery. And it will be getting the Government out of capital markets and even pumping money into the capital markets by paying off Government debt that will give us the new jobs we so desperately need.

  • Jim.

    “A lot of people worry that we can’t all make a living planning weddings, teaching tai chi and holding therapy sessions for pets. Somebody somewhere has to be making “real stuff” or the Chinese etc. will not take our worthless money and we will all starve to death in a country that has forgotten how to produce.”

    Yes. This is true. So is this:

    “America remains an extraordinarily productive economy. We grow much more food than we did 125 years ago when half the population was employed in agriculture, and we manufacture many more (and much better) products than we did forty-odd years ago when a quarter of the workforce worked in factories.”

    And as long as we actually export enough of these products (aka “real stuff”) to cover the costs of our imports, we’ll be fine. If our trade balance goes south, so does the value of the dollar; if a foreigner can’t buy things with a dollar, what value does it have?

    This doesn’t really come across in your essay, it’s almost like you think that balance of trade is somehow irrelevant.


    Another Gender Issue Alert for you — in the past, many of the “post-blue” jobs you mention were (still are) taken on by the more talented and energetic moms, in a non-monetary (and thus tax-free) arrangement that may well end up benefiting any households / extended families that move back to that model.

  • I hope you will pay close attention to the wholly conventional definition of “a job, as measured in man hours, and to the much more basic trade-off between hourly wage rates and the total volume of employment, also measured in man hours.

    The other problem is that we have imported several tens of millions of low-skilled, poorly educated workers over the last generation to go along with those we already had. Thus the number of low-skilled people has grown dramatically at the very moment when, other things being equal, the demand for them will be less. Giving everyone a college education may not solve this problem. We could end up with a lot of low-skilled people with college degrees (and college dept to boot).

    Finally you must somehow address the paradox that the productivity of the American economy, which is measured in output per man hour, is higher than ever even as the remuneration of most workers is less.

    I personally think it is all about capital — human capital (brains) and physical capital — which is being remunerated at the expense of physical labor (hands and feet). This raises issues of class and equity and the meaning of America and the American dream.

  • Not only are all boats not rising together but some boats are rising even as others are falling.

  • You might also address this Lincoln quote:

    “Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.”

    Historically a lot of that labor was of the hands and feet variety — and the backs, don’t forget the back variety. Are the heirs of the hands and the feet to be considered less worthy than the heirs of the brains?

  • Pete Dellas

    Professor Mead, I would disagree about your assessment of those who believe we need to make “real stuff”, etc. The way you framed it, of course it seems insane. But consider the fact that wealth which was created the old way, such as in commodities (e.g., Standard Oil) has an enduring value which remains to this day, whereas wealth created in new economic terms (e.g., GeoCities or InfoSpace) has no enduring value.

    As this relates to enduring wealth, a man like Henry Flagler could spend over $50 million out of his pocket to build the Florida East Coast Railway to Key West, a sum when compared to 1915 gold backed dollars would be approaching the better part of a half trillion 2012 dollars. Warren Buffett would be almost a pauper in those terms.

  • Toni

    “The Republican debate around these issues is less focused because many Republicans think about contemporary political economy in terms of abstractions and norms rather than in terms of historical eras and the social organization of the economy.”

    Huh? Examples, please?

    The blue model is driven from the top down. “Government must DO SOMETHING. Regulate, legislate, prohibit, intervene, spend and subsidize [e.g., Obama’s green energy], spread the wealth, social & economic justice, fairness…yadayadayada.”

    The red model is driven from the bottom up. To wit:

    “There are certain truths that have to be agreed to. One is that economies
    grow when they are free from over-taxation, over-regulation, over-litigation, and they have a skilled work force. Government isn’t difficult in theory – don’t spend all the money, keep taxes low, have a fair and predictable regulatory climate, keep frivolous lawsuits to a minimum, and fund an accountable education system so that you have a skilled work force available. Then get the hell out of the way and let the private sector do what the private sector does best.”

    “If you want the capital, you have to get off the backs of business owners, period. We elect candidates who say they want to protect the taxpayer from the government, but then, after they’ve been in there for a few terms, they start looking to protect the government from the taxpayer.”

    For four centuries, the economy of what is now the U.S. has thrived and provided plentiful jobs mainly when government gets the hell out of the way. As Obama has learned — e.g., his green jobs push — government can’t force innovation. Blue top-down manipulation and micromanagement never created one private sector job. And from teachers’ unions up to the current occupant of the oval office, bromides about “small business” and “jobs agenda” aside, our blue leaders strive mainly to protect government and its employees from the taxpayer.

    Stop stewing about where the jobs will come from, and let America’s entrepreneurs and corporate innovators do what they always have: come up with bright ideas that create whole new industries and spawn new jobs in old ones (e.g., fracking).

    Republicans mostly get it about getting out of the way. They don’t have to clothe this principle in fancy talk about political economy and historical eras. This is an enduring bottom-up approach that works wherever it’s tried and has done so in America for centuries.

    In case you’re wondering, the first red-approach quote is from Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Texas has been a jobs machine for the last decade and more. The second quote is from the director of the Texas chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business, i.e., small business.

  • Eurydice

    Well, I’ll be interested to read the upcoming essays. So far, it seems that all the political groups you’ve named have one thing in common, a belief that the march of time is a problem and that something can be done about it.

  • MemphisDweller

    I don’t know where the jobs will come from, but if we continue down the path of illegitimacy and family collapse, and all of its associated pathologies, there is no doubt that our lower classes will not be prepared to perform them anyway.

  • Brent Buckner

    c.f. “The Triple Revolution”

  • Neville

    Your invocation of the BBC is bizarrely off target in relation to immigration. The BBC is married to the Labour Party in the UK, and Labour opened the gates to mass immigration over the past 40 years, especially under Blair and Brown. It was the Conservatives in opposition who kept asking ‘when did we ever get to vote on this?’

  • Kenny

    “This, expressed with Kaus’ usual good sense and balance, captures the concern that manufacturing jobs not only pay better than their successors: they give workers more self respect. ”

    Obviously Mead and Kaus are clueless of what factory work is actually like. Given a chance, people ran to get out of factory work which is demanding, typically dirty, and sometimes unsafe.

    I know; I ran manufacturing operations. And even within the factory itself, people gravitated towards office jobs if they could read, write, calculate and had some semblance of manners.

  • koblog

    Toni (#10): Right. On. My only change: go back to the traditional color scheme. The Left should be Red; the Right should be Blue. The left has desired all along to emulate Red Marxist socialism. The Media’s overt confusion of political color metaphors is yet another reason for me to hold them in contempt.

  • holmes

    Good article.

    But realize, if we’re broke, all of it is moot. And we’re broke.

  • Steve


    I disagree with “It is more dignified to make stuff than to serve people — better to make shoes than to sell them.”

    I am in sales, so obviously, I believe that my profession is dignified. In addition, I’ll provide an interesting anecdote:

    My daughter finished law school and was not going to work for the law firm that hired her for a couple of months. In order to keep busy (she is married to a professional), she took a job selling shoes at Macy’s. She was totaling the bill for a customer and noticed something amiss with the cash register total. She took out a hand calculator and re-totaled to the correct amount. She then said as an aside to the customer, “that accounting degree sure comes in handy”

    The customer then said, in a shocked voice, “you have an accounting degree?” To which my daughter replied, “Yes, and a law degree.” My point is that there is nothing “undignified” about selling shoes and “kowtowing” to customers. BTW, my daughter went on to achieve the highest score on the state bar exam.

  • Charles R. Williams

    The stuff we need to get buy requires less and less of our time. More and more of our time is spent doing things for ourselves and for others. Some of this doing happens in the marketplace and some of it happens among family and neighbors. The value of what we can do for others depends increasingly on cognitive skills and social capital.

    So while the poor live lives of hitherto unimaginable physical luxury, inequality in terms of the physical stuff the elite can command relative to others increases.

    Politicians respond by stoking the fires of envy while the ability of government to redistribute wealth is falling.

  • grichens

    “Are the heirs of the hands and the feet to be considered less worthy than the heirs of the brains?”

    No. But the heirs of the brains have substantially greater mobility.

  • fred17

    Toni said everything that needed to be said on keeping America great, Unfortunately, the government can’t stand not controlling everything. We have to stand up and stop them.

  • ThomasD

    The title question is a tautology, wrapped in a cliche, wrapped in a non-sequitur.

    The blue model was in no way responsible for the creation, or sustainment of most, if not quite all, of the manufacturing jobs. At least not the truly productive ones.

    Oh to be sure, it ‘gave’ us many more jobs, but those were mostly of the parasitic, if not necessarily outright counter-productive type. Jobs that, like parasites often do, began to destroy their host.

    Yes, there were a few exceptions, one two people at the bureau of weights and measures can certainly do much to promote industrial efficiency, but not thousands at the EPA.

    So, with manufacturing here having been driven to the ropes, it is now all those non-productive jobs that are going by the wayside, and with them much of the ‘blue model.’

    So, let’s not mistake the cart for the horse, particularly if we are to have any hope for creating a new, and truly modernized manufacturing sector in this country.

  • stan

    Total compensation for employees has not been stagnant. Employers spend far more for employees, even adjusted for inflation, than they did in 1974. The cost of benefits has exploded. These are a major part of worker compensation, even if they don’t show up on the W-2. In addition, govt regulation requires far more spending to benefit workers on items such as safety, family leave, etc. Again, not included in the W-2, but a real part of employment spending by the employer. Perhaps the employee would prefer to have some of that spending redirected to his pocket, but that’s a different argument.

  • Stacy

    Historically a lot of that labor was of the hands and feet variety — and the backs, don’t forget the back variety. Are the heirs of the hands and the feet to be considered less worthy than the heirs of the brains?

    That actually gets at the fallacy of the Lincoln quote you cited. When people say “capital” in this context, they forget about the brains. It’s “well you just paid for the supplies. What’s so special about that?” and the answer is nothing, but somebody thought of the idea of doing what was done with the supplies along with the feet and backs, and THAT is far more valuable than either of them.

    On the other hand, just because brain labor is more valuable than muscle labor, it doesn’t follow that muscle laborers are less worthy of human dignity. And unfortunately for Team Blue, the socialists have been primarily responsible for planting that false dichotomy in people’s heads over the past 160 years.

  • QET

    (1) WRM–any analysis of future prospects (and even of the recent past) must begin by abandoning the categories “blue collar” and “white collar” as these no longer have any explanatory value. I don’t know when these categories first arose but they have outlived their usefulness. New “classes” are desperately needed for analytical purposes.

    (2) @Kenny (#15)–office work is desirable only by comparison. When the manufacturing (or agriculture) jobs disappear, “office work” no longer generates a feeling of having stepped up in life. Yes, this is a metaphysical point, but people’s dissatisfaction today has to do with the metaphysical aspects as much as the straight-up economic aspects.

  • hiscross

    Caprica and Cylons

  • The Blue model was based on extrapolation into the indefinite future of the anomalous post-WWII situation, where only the U.S. emerged with undamaged manufacturing infrastructure. Until the 1970s, Democrats and unions — but I repeat myself — could get away with extortionate pseudo-economics. No longer.

  • TedN

    Professor, just a presentation-nit: You really need to come up with a different acronym than “BBC” if you reprint this. It so much didn’t make sense that I had to backtrack to find the expansion.

  • Re: Luke’s Lincoln quote…

    It’s wrong. Wages from labor might create “capital” if you view money to pay for existence as “capital,” but that it is too narrow to hold water.

    Leaving aside which is “superior,” capital and labor are on totally different levels.

    Labor is working in the field, capital is inventing a plow, and then a tractor, and then a combine.

    This is why capital, almost always a function of thought combined with management, is (IMO) superior. Absent human ingenuity, we never move beyond being hunters and gatherers.

    Lincoln was simply wrong. Capital unleashes labor, as a corporate lawyer for Railroads should have understood.

  • Karenas

    It seems to me that the Democratic party’s answer to the jobs question is to put everyone on the gov’t payroll. One benefit of this is that the petty bureaucrat (say, a TSA agent) can force his “superiors” (say, a banker) to dance attendance upon him, rather than the other way around.

  • Upon further reflection it is really impossible to deal intelligently with these issues without going back to first principles. What is the end of society? Is it the greatest happiness of the greatest number? In one country or in the whole world? (Is there any incompatibility?) Or do we assume that the natural distribution of income in a competitive market economy is also the most just? Irrespective of past crimes or the vagaries of chance? Are there inheritable differences in human endowments? Should they matter in so far as policy is concerned? Does the welfare of the next generation matter as the welfare of this one? Which is more important: the distribution of income or the distribution of consumption? Is a dollar worth more to a poor man than a rich one (other things equal)? Should reward be proportional to effort and, if so, can this be squared with the greatest happiness principle? In judging equity should liberty and leisure be included as well as income? The informal economy as much as the monetary? Is the proposition that all men are created equal an empirical statement or a moral axiom? Should it be up for debate? And finally does basic economic theory shed light on these issues and, if so, which ones?

    I submit that Mead’s question here cannot be intelligently explored without first answering these questions.

  • As a recovering liberal I can still get in touch with my inner Atari Democrat. But high speed rail…Puh-leaze! The best of the Silicon Valley Atari Democrats are doing some important stuff – listen to Leo Laporte’s TWIT podcast network to see how a smart, technically savvy Democrat can disitermediate the Fat Blue Media. Just like Via Meadia disintermediates that house organ of the Eastern Intellectual Establishment – the New York Times. Now if we can find a way to disintermediate the crooks on Wall St and their protectors in Washington we might get our country back. The road to sacking Wall St lies through Washington. Andrew Jackson did it once. Perhaps we can do it again.

  • Larry

    The shift in the low-income labor supply isn’t a function of immigration. It is happening on a global scale and is why so many things (electronics, clothing,…) have gotten cheaper. Stuff is likely to continue to get cheaper.

    I foresee a future in which the less-skilled are semi-attached to the economy. They’ll fill in the cracks job-wise working part-time/temp jobs and shop at the discount store, where the stuff is super-cheap and of reasonable quality. The EITC and government programs will help with their budget and handle the big-ticket items such as education and health care. Something like that, anyway.

    And in the long-term we’ll end up somewhere between the Matrix and Wall-e.

  • Mike Mahoney

    The stage is set for a new rendition of unionization. There will always be many people neither disposed to nor capable of higher skill sets: Good, hard working people who value the life outside the workplace who are content with sufficiency of wages. As they got squeezed by the new economy the rise of class resentments became more evident. Add to that the collapsing education bubble, offshoring of middle and upper middle class jobs requiring some higher education, technological efficiencies in manufacturing and the prospect for new jobs is bleak, indeed. The labor that went into low tech manufacturing is flooding the remaining labor markets causing stiff wage competition everywhere. Immigration doesn’t help matters, either. However, if the cost of living in developing countries climbs, their economies stagnate, the U. S. gets very aggressive in producing cheaper energy and the government doesn’t caus a calamity of some kind we could recover. That’s a lot to ask.

  • stan

    Economics defined — the study of how society allocates scarce resources among unlimited wants. As long as human wants are unlimited, there will always be a demand for scarce resources such as labor.

    BTW — the idea that making a thing is preferable to serving others must come as a shock to doctors, lawyers, ministers, consultants, brokers, salesmen, teachers, professors, politicians, and managers.

  • a nissen

    Backhanded of you, WRM, to fan the “marketing of rancor” as means to discussion of “what comes, or to do, next.”

    I recommend you set aside the parsing long enough to check out Marilynne Robinson’s, e.g., ‘When I Was a Child I Read Books.’ [American fault finders] “never include themselves, their friends, those with whom they agree.” Even worse, “Those on the other side of the line are assumed to be unworthy of respect or hearing, and are in fact to be regarded as a huge problem.”

    I come back because your commenters are manageable in number and open-minded enough to regularly sidestep the invitations to pot and kettle, e.g. Charles W. @ 20, Luke L. @ 32.

    What I like best about the piece itself is the call for stronger grounding in history (not that the professor particularly takes his advice). However, I give him some rope in that as time passes we learn anew just how multi-faceted and contradictory “the facts” can be. A better place to start than “when blue dies” would more likely be Spencer Wells’ efforts to uncover what mankind forgets in assuming the oncoming present the only natural course of action (Pandora’s Seed).

  • R.C.

    The missing observation here, which Dr. Mead would likely classify as a potentially platitudinous Libertarian or Conservative homily, is this:

    We lack the data and the data-processing power to preemptively prepare policy for the jobs of the next social model. (Sorry about the alliteration; it was unintentional.)

    The free market and strong incentives for entrepreneurial experimentation are the only thing sufficiently agile to react to changing circumstances on Main Street USA.

    Dr. Mead seems to have in mind a notion that government might anticipate the next big thing and enable the U.S. to catch that wave. But Solyndra is our exemplar of that kind of approach.

    This is not to say that government doesn’t produce things which end up being used to great advantage by entrepreneurs. The Internet is the classic example.

    But of course the Internet was ARPAnet, and then NSFnet: A commercial nonentity. Only its release “into the wild” produced results as entrepreneurial individuals — and I here include the authors of Free Open Source Software projects as entrepreneurs; I don’t wish to confine notions of gain to sales revenue or even only monetary gain — took the initiative to use networked computers in unanticipated (and unanticipatable) ways.

    The only useful policy prescriptions, then, are these:

    1. Confine government to the defense of the rights and dignity of persons through law enforcement, national defense, the encouraging of infrastructure development, and the encouraging of entrepreneurialism even to the point of mildly disadvantaging established business sufficiently to encourage new entrants to market.

    2. Consider critical thinking, entrepreneurial skills, STEM education and the free dissemination of technical know-how to be part of “encouraging infrastructure.”

    That’s about it. 400 million properly educated persons reacting with self-interest towards plausible profits will allow the U.S. to be as agile as it can be…and far more agile than several hundred crystal-ball-reading policy makers.

  • Micha Elyi

    Your invocation of the BBC is bizarrely off target…-Neville (15)

    That “BBC” stuff also confused me horribly. Paragraphs later I realized that Mr. Mead intended to abbreviate “bitter blue clingers”.

    Mr. Mead’s use of “blue” and “red” also adds to cognitive confusion. The historical accident of one US television network’s choice of colors to illustrate an election night map in 2004 should not upend a century and a half’s use of the color red to represent socialists.

  • Micha Elyi

    The cost of benefits has exploded. These are a major part of worker compensation, even if they don’t show up on the W-2.-Stan (24)

    Long ago I concluded the reason employers who belly-ache so loudly about the per-worker costs of benefits, government mandates, and government regulatory compliance don’t bother to break out those costs on the pay stub so employees can see them is that in their heart of hearts employers secretly love Big Brother.

  • John Harold

    How about you just stop crucifying manufacturers? Let contract law go back to what it was; stop environmental [nonsense]; stop treating manufacturing-based taxes like everyone is Apple or Microsoft, with 2000% markup on everything, bankrupting all in the process; stop criminalizing every employer decision while letting workers do anything they want with immunity, drunk or high, no matter?
    And send 70% of the government workforce home.
    Stop [messing] with us, and there’d be work aplenty, for almost everyone.
    Isn’t it enough that leftwing social engineering has given us stupid, lazy whiners to work with?

  • Larry

    @Mike Mahoney: Unions can’t come back until the global labor surplus is absorbed. Not right away…

    @Stan: Yes, in a functioning economy all resources can be employed. The problem is that the clearing wage may be below the minimum wage, which in the US has been rising faster than inflation, and under pressure to rise again, high unemployment notwithstanding.

  • Toni

    [email protected] asks, “What is the end of society? Is it the greatest happiness of the greatest number? In one country or in the whole world?”

    We can’t be responsible for “happiness” outside our borders, and to think we could arrange for the world’s happiness is arrogant beyong belief.

    The end of this particular society, the United States of America, has always been freedom, defined in the Declaration of Independence as “inalienable rights” which include “life, liberty and the PURSUIT OF happiness.”

    Our second founding document, the Constitution, describes its purpose as “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of LIBERTY to ourselves and our Posterity.” The only aims that might possibly relate to citizens’ happiness are to “insure domestic Tranquility” and “promote the general Welfare.” But Tranquility and the general Welfare do not equal happiness — not least because delivering happiness to a few million citizens at the beginning to 330 million now depends on those citizens’ personal definition of happiness.

    This country was at its start radical, and remains radical, for the freedoms and rights it guarantees to its citizens in a pluralistic society. The words I capitalized above show that we are free to PURSUE happiness however we define it, and “the Blessings of LIBERTY” grants each of us the right to arrange our lives as we see fit.

    Jeremy Bentham and Utilitarianism are, in my view, concepts alien to the rights and freedoms of individual Americans. Again, who gets to define “the greatest happiness of the greatest number” and how to achieve it? What about those of us who don’t want strangers deciding who will be made happy and by what means? What if those means deprive some citizens of abstract “happiness” by foreclosing their pursuit of their own definition of happiness? Aren’t latterday Benthamites are effectively anti-liberty?

    Economist and all-around deep thinker Thomas Sowell posed the issue best. “The most basic question is not what is best, but who shall decide what is best.” Hands off my pursuit of happiness.

  • DougS

    Look at everyone’s basket of mfg goods being consumed. If we woke up tomorrow morning and all of the “physical” goods: cars, computers, houses, furniture, food, appliances,could be produced with no labor input- the freed up labor could all stay home and everyone’s mfg goods consumption could remain the same. That would be a “good” occurrence, not a “bad” occurrence. That is what happened (and is happening) in agriculture. Do we want to send half our population back to the farm, so it could be like the good old times? All of these transitions have worked themselves out in the past and they will work their way out in the future. China has no future in mfg. Just like no country really has a future in agriculture. Who wants to mgf textiles? That is no future. Furniture? no future. Cars? That will not be a future either. The only future is in delivering services that people want. The great service job that everyone should train for is shoeing horses $225 a horse.– 8-10 a day. Go for it.The price is going up. And you can’t have my farrier.

  • teapartydoc

    I would just like to put in a word for good old fashioned Russell Kirk-type conservatism at this point. The one thing all of the views in the above article have in common is either an ideology that thinks it can shape the future, or a historicist’s conceit that he has read the tea leaves and will lead us to the inevitable future he knows is coming, so we might as well speed things up.
    Planning is not the solution. Planning is the problem.
    Also, the main problem with Western societies in economic terms is a prevalent notion that to be a legitimate business requires that the business be fully “plugged in” to a system of comprehensive regulations and controls that in turn suffocates innovation and initiative. In other words, we don’t have to worry about DeToqueville’s soft despotism arriving at some time in the future, because we are living in it NOW.

  • David Davenport

    Historically a lot of that labor was of the hands and feet variety — and the backs, don’t forget the back variety. Are the heirs of the hands and the feet to be considered less worthy than the heirs of the brains?

    How generations of white Americans are required to extend special privileges to blacks because of slavery in ye Olde South?

    And also, you seem to imply the heirs of ancestors with strong backs didn’t inherit strong brains. Surely you didn’t mean to let that slip?

    They’ll fill in the cracks job-wise working part-time/temp jobs and shop at the discount store, where the stuff is super-cheap and of reasonable quality. The EITC and government programs will help with their budget and handle the big-ticket items such as education and health care. Something like that, anyway.

    Something like a Greece or maybe Cuba, anyway. An unsustainable welfare state.

    Something like that.

  • TTT

    I see no evidence that ‘blue’ is dying. Why is Obama polling so well after the biggest binge of socialism the US has ever seen?

    A large portion of the population wants to be parasites.

  • Jim.

    @Luke Lea

    Add another few questions to that list — “Is government an effective tool for moving those goals forward? What sort of government moves those goals forward best? Do any types of government actually do more harm than good?”

  • re Bruno – “Labor is working in the field, capital is inventing a plow, and then a tractor, and then a combine.”

    Thanks for writing that. When we first started working in the fields there were no plows, tractors, and combines. To get them it was necessary to grow enough food not only to feed the growers and for next seasons planting but also to feed the people who invented, designed, built, and learned how to use the plows, tractors, and combines. In that sense labor is prior to capital. We don’t produce more today because we work harder but because our ancestors worked harder to give us the tools that make us productive.

  • “…the idea that making a thing is preferable to serving others must come as a shock to doctors, lawyers, ministers, consultants, brokers, salesmen, teachers, professors, politicians, and managers….”

    Probably most of these people have on their “greener grass” days yearned for the kind of life where they made something, so that at the end of the day they could see what they accomplished. I’ve certainly heard that kind of talk.

    On another topic, it’s interesting to hear some people talk in terms of “immigration” and “balance of trade.” If the trends described by Prof. Mead are global trends, then tweaking what happens at the national borders isn’t going to make a lot of difference.

    And will the concept of “full employment” have any meaning in the post-industrial economy? I’m not sure where Prof. Mead is headed with all this, but it could be that in the future the concepts of “jobs” and “employment” will not be so central to discussions of the economy as they are now.

    Think about the fuss made over Ann Romney ever worked a day in her life. She and other stay-at-home moms certainly worked, even if they didn’t have “jobs” or “employment” in the industrial sense. There are some who would like to turn all productive activities like child-rearing into industrial production, and have the govt pay parents for parenting. But maybe that would be a step backwards into an old system of economic organization that is disappearing.

    Prof. Mead says the debate needs to get smarter. That’s going to be difficult without the perspectives that can be provided by a better understanding of history and cultural anthropology.

  • Thank you Bruno and Luke Lee for bringing out that absolutely essential relationship between agriculture and the industrial revolution. I started driving a John Deere tractor at the age of 8. Even then I had a sense of the awesome power at my command and the engineering behind it.

    and R.C @ 38 I think you put your finger on a key weakness of the mentality of policy level planning. The tendency to underestimate the unanticipatable. What Rumsfeld called the unknown unknowns. I like WRM because he works hard at trying to do better than the cliched thinking about the future put forward by our leadership. That is, watching the current presidential race is like listening to two old geezers argue of the relative merits of Guy Lombardo and Glen Miller. Taken together, WRM’s articles and the comments are way better than the best the Blue media (and I don’t just mean the Times – I also mean Fox news) can produce.

  • re: stagnant wages. We need a PPP for consumption given all the types of income now in view – but not counted.

    Including some measure of our “pre-made” purchasing decisions – those purchases / acquisitions made in our name (aka regulation). Hopefully we would have made that same decision in the marketplace had we been as well informed as our betters (or the special interests).

  • MarkE

    Speaking of a “post-industrial” society can be a little misleading. We still have a very productive industrial sector and could produce much more if necessary. Even though we are said to be “post-agricultural”, we still produce enough to feed are self and some of the rest of the world and could produce more if necessary. We haven’t put them behind us. They are merely performed with much less physical labor than ever before. The present is stacked on top of these other occupations that used to consume all our effort and time.
    One requirement of the future is to keep these things going and tuned-up. They are literally life support systems. The same thing can be side for private and public utilities. There will always some jobs required by them. But what will happen if the huge number of jobs in the “highly inefficient” education, health, and other service sectors are eliminated by automation, computation, and communication efficiencies?
    Clearly we don’t know, but to allay our anxiety we may be able to fall back on the concept of “human capital”. An elegant theory of asset pricing called CAPM is self-consistent, but doesn’t quite explain stock and other capital market pricing in the real market. Black proposed that “human capital” made up the difference. He theorized that human capital was the value people placed on their present and future work. Black probably did mean “brains” versus financial capital, but what about actors, athletes, artists, and comedians? These folks can make some real money.
    Since humans get to value and create their future work, the concept of human capital really encompasses the whole human potential. The next question is what sort of conditions allows the robust development of human capital in all its forms?

  • Alot more could have been said on the hollowing-out of white-collar, middle-class jobs that used to recruit newly-minted college graduates. With the reconfiguring of whoke sectors – finance, pharma, higher ed, even IT – lots of what used to be considered stalwart positions, especially at entry-level, will no longer be there.
    And then amidst all these changes, there’s the change & pressures thrust upon middle-managers who feel the “command/control” heat from above & from shareholders (the perennial bogeymen). Will there be such a thing as management 20 years hence ?

  • Well an interesting thing happened on the way to the Revolution. Capital became free.

    I am in fact in the process of turning that free capital into free money.

    Also it should be pointed out that it wasn’t just the Government that gave us the Internet. As much as I hate to admit it it was also a product of Haight Ashbury hippies. See the link I included.

  • Jim.


    Allow me to be a contrarian for the moment…

    Eisenhower once said, “Plans are useless. Planning is critical”.

    99% and more of plans come to nothing, once those affected realize that there’s a better way. The problem we’re running into is that so many of the 99%-type plans get implemented by government. Instead of being quickly thrown away when their uselessness or malignancy is apparent, they’re enshrined in law.

    The commercial world has far better processes for winnowing away bad plans. (Though they can still use some old-fashioned virtue to keep them from crashing so often.)

  • Pat

    Whose failure offshoring for profit maximizing – Americans because of low or no standards, or Asians because of willingness to accommodate on price?

    There isn’t yet one product made better, or safer, by going offshore for manufacturing/assembly, and a darn sight many which are toxic or worthless.

    Yet, Congress continues to compromise American safety, and American quality to appease the corporate barony to fill their pockets and hedge funds unjustifiably by reducing safety standards and ignoring the bulwark of consumer law it took America decades to implement – much like the Katrina and Isaac disasters that has washed away houses from their foundation.

    Still, we defend Corporate personhood as a necessity, and as legitimate, despite all the lost jobs gone to nations that in past decades would have been enemies in international competition.

    Whose fault the substandard existence of the American economy today, and the blatant strut of Corporate America which lobbies Congress so effectively for lower regulations?

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