Steam and Silicon

Column by Debbie Evercloud, Ph.D.


The science of economics is filled with paradoxes and puzzles that have challenged the great minds attempting to solve them over the past two centuries. Among these perplexing questions is one that you perhaps have considered yourself, for it confronts us on a daily basis as we go about our lives as workers and consumers in Denver. It is a paradox which lies within an apparent contradiction about job creation, and it can be simply stated as follows: As individuals, we advance ourselves by having jobs, but the economy advances itself by eliminating jobs.

The reason why we enjoy such a high standard of living in the twenty-first century is that we have found a way to accomplish so many tasks through automation, thereby eliminating jobs. Farm machinery has eliminated the job of planting and harvesting crops, robots have eliminated the jobs of assembly line workers, and computer automation has eliminated the jobs of many service workers. From the perspective of the economy as a whole this is a blessing, for the labor that once had to be devoted to such tasks now is free to accomplish other endeavors.

Now, we have a labor force that can tackle needs which were previously unmet. We are pursuing cures for cancer, MS, and diabetes. We are developing highly sophisticated systems for instantaneous communication. We are designing and building vacation resorts characterized by a level of luxury unimaginable to Europe's nineteenth-century royalty. We are discovering new ways to recycle old materials. In short, we are moving towards creating a world that has been beyond dreaming for most of human history.

So the progress that arises from labor-saving innovation creates a higher standard of living for everyone. But for the individual who loses a job, he or she also loses an income. All the material progress in the world is meaningless if you don't have the means of purchasing it.

How should we in Denver view this paradox? Job news in Colorado has not been especially encouraging of late. We are accustomed to reading news reports of lay-offs, yet reports of new hiring are infrequent. How do we best support our neighbors and friends when we learn that they are among those laid off?

My suggestion is that we support them in the transition to new employment by emphasizing the infinity of opportunities ahead. The transition between jobs is always agonizingly slow for the one who is unemployed. It can be one of the most difficult passages of life. But the shift does eventually happen. Our economic growth is an engine that never stops. It was powered by steam during the Industrial Revolution; now in the Information Age it is powered by silicon. But the momentum of economic progress continues.

Jobs that have been eliminated due to automation are not coming back, but new jobs are continually being created. There is an infinity of opportunity because there is an infinity of need. We need to investigate alternative energy sources. We need to develop better measures for internet security. We need to make basic health care more widely available. We need to reverse the effects of environmental damage. We need to do a better job of educating our young and caring for our elderly. There is much work we have yet to do to create a world that bears a resemblance to our most hopeful vision.

So when I am asked about the current bleakness of the employment outlook, I respond by pointing to the endlessness of our needs. The transition between jobs is never easy, but it is important during such a transition to remember that the momentum of economic growth will continue to generate new employment opportunities. The best gift we can give our neighbors during these days of unease is our well-founded optimism that the economy will always make a place for talented, productive, energetic workers.

The great minds of economics will continue to struggle with the paradoxes of capitalism. But we, the great hearts of Denver, can ease the worries of our neighbors by lavishly sharing the most honored and simple gift of hope.



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