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Unemployment in a Self-Serve Economy


The gang at Fox Nation is amused that President Obama is blaming ATMs for high unemployment. But he’s right.

President Obama explained to NBC News that the reason companies aren’t hiring is not because of his policies, it’s because the economy is so automated. … “There are some structural issues with our economy where a lot of businesses have learned to become much more efficient with a lot fewer workers. You see it when you go to a bank and you use an ATM, you don’t go to a bank teller, or you go to the airport and you’re using a kiosk instead of checking in at the gate.”

I’ve been making a variation of this argument for fifteen years or more. The fact of the matter is that the number of jobs available to relatively low skilled workers is fast shrinking, with the functions that they used to do performed by machines. This has created jobs designing, manufacturing, selling, and servicing the machines but they’re not being done by the same type of workers.

The most obvious example, for those of us over 40 at least, is the self-service gas station. When I was a kid, literally every station we stopped at anywhere in the country had one or more attendants who asked how much gas you wanted, pumped it for you, cleaned your windshield, and even checked your oil. During the gas crisis following the 1973 OPEC oil embargo, we started seeing self-serve pumps which offered gas a few cents cheaper to customers willing to pump their own. My dad hated it, because the early pumps tended to get gas on his hands, but he usually did it anyway because a buck was a buck and we didn’t have a lot of them. It wasn’t long before self-service pumps became self-service stations. And, outside of a couple of states that mandate that attendants pump gas, ostensibly for safety reasons, full-service stations are a relic of the past. And a couple hundred thousand jobs went with them.

Also within my memory are the days when even junior executives had secretaries. It was perhaps the quintessential job for young women and required a significant level of skill. The rise of inexpensive and efficient personal computers, easy-to-operate photocopying and facsimile machines, voice mail, and other innovations rendered clerical workers redundant–arguably by turning all of us into clerical workers. Very senior executives still tend to have secretaries, usually with a more prestigious title, and medium- and large-sized companies still tend to employ someone to handle ancillary clerical tasks for the whole office. But, again, a very large number of jobs was lost.

The latest example of this trend is the self-service checkout lines at grocery stores. Ostensibly a convenience–stores can provide more lines and thus speed checkout if they don’t have to pay someone to man each register–it effectively turns customers into cashiers. Naturally, as they train us to do this, they essentially force us to except it by having only one manned lane open, creating an absurdly long wait for customers who refuse to get with the program. All the while putting hundreds of thousands of low-skill workers on the street to look for another line of work.

Of course, technological change has been putting people out of work and forcing them to acquire new skills for centuries. The automobile rendered all manner of horse-and-carriage related tradesmen out of work while creating whole new occupations–including the aforementioned gas station attendants. Push button elevators has eliminated the need for operators. Rolling luggage has eliminated the need for porters. Expedia has killed off the travel agent. And so forth and so on.

Our economy adapts to all these changes over time, creating all manner of jobs that didn’t exist previously. Most of them are more pleasant than the ones they replace. But they tend to require more training–and more intelligence. But it may be that the pace of creative destruction is faster than it’s ever been and that people are being displaced faster than we can create new jobs for them.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. john personna says:

    I agree that grocers are the current front-line in the transformation. We have a (strangely named) small market out here called Fresh and Easy (I thought it was a laundry). They have no traditional checkouts at all. Everything is the self-serve scanner. That gives them a competitive advantage.

    So, long term our path will be to tax corporations to pay for the cashier dole?

    (Oregon or Germany might legislate checkers back to work, but that’s hardly American.)

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  2. john personna says:

    BTW, I mentioned buying a computer cable off ebay last year, from a shop in Taiwan, and receiving it by direct mail.

    It amazed me that the only US employee to touch it was the mailman. As opposed to all those who would need to get it to the shelf of a retail store, stock it, and sell it to me in person.

    I see that as related, and can’t be quite as confident that the new techno-globalization will bring a high number of US jobs. This is new territory.

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  3. Dave Schuler says:

    Automation isn’t the only factor and the effect isn’t limited to the lower-paying jobs. Just as an example, increasingly X-rays are being read off-shore and the results reported back to the States. Radiologists and associated technical positions have been most affected but ultimately pathologists and associated technical positions are likely to to come under pressure.

    Tasks which used to require battalions of legal associates are now being performed abroad. Large law firms have been shedding lawyers at an alarming rate.

    Not automation only but automation in conjunction with serious wage differentials in places in which there are people with adequate technical skills plays a role.

    Our economy adapts to all these changes over time

    Cold comfort for those who’ve been displaced by machines or overseas competition. In the long run we’re all dead.

    But they tend to require more training–and more intelligence

    Some portion of that is by design. So, for example, there are all sorts of tasks which properly designed computer programs and machines could actually perform better and could be managed by people of average or below average intelligence. Licensing and other barriers to entry (including inadequate design) prevent.

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  4. mpw280 says:

    McDonald’s is now the leading edge of this wave with some stores trialing an enter your own order machine. Which came first the automation or consumer demand for cheaper prices? As to government policies, how much paperwork and taxes are mandated by the government for each employee, and has Obama increased or decreased these government required obstacles to employing new people? mpw

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  5. john personna says:

    mpw280, you can’t have it both ways:

    I rolled into work this morning along with many Americans for the first time in 2011. Since New Year’s Day fell on Saturday this year, those of us who work “traditional” hours (yes, my use of the term is cheeky) started our work year today.

    It’s also the start of a bit of a headache for many tax and HR professionals. You see, this week marks the beginning of the special, one year payroll tax holiday. Holiday is a bit of a misnomer since payroll taxes will still be collected for 2011 – just at a reduced rate. On the employer side, payroll tax contributions for federal purposes will remain the same. On the employee side, payroll tax contributions for federal purposes will be reduced by 2%: instead of paying in at 6.2% for Social Security taxes (up to $106,800), contributions will be 4.2% for Social Security taxes (still up to $106,800). Contributions for Medicare remain the same and there is no cap like there is for Social Security (all wages are taxable).

    The net result is that most wage earners will see more money in 2011. [...]

    Would you rather have no tax cut, or less paperwork?

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  6. Bob says:

    That is a smoke screen to cover incompetence in leadership. The change to automation was strong before Obama was elected. The question is, when will you change your distructive policies and allow jobs to be created Mr. President?

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  7. john personna says:

    Bob, if you haven’t seen the link to the Cowen piece in the “shovel” thread, you should probably follow it now.

    What sort of jobs do you think are blocked by Obama specifically? And specifically how?

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  8. Duracomm says:

    john personna said,

    What sort of jobs do you think are blocked by Obama specifically? And specifically how?

    One example is the large number of jobs lost because of obama’s drilling moratorium in the Gulf of Mexico.

    A second example is the continuing loss of jobs caused by obama’s regulatory slowdown (a continuing moratorium in practice) of drilling in the gulf of mexico.

    A third example is the Obama administrations denial of permits to shell for drilling in alaska.

    Those are three examples of obama and the democrats regulatory bloat that is killing jobs dead.

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  9. john personna says:

    That’s funny Duracomm. Carry on.

    I’m sure all those who luuuuuved the oil spill are so on your side with that one.

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  10. Franklin says:

    Our economy adapts to all these changes over time, creating all manner of jobs that didn’t exist previously. Most of them are more pleasant than the ones they replace. But they tend to require more training–and more intelligence.

    Yes, and it seems that all the modern changes require the type of people who can automate things – robot makers, programmers, etc.

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  11. TG Chicago says:

    I am amazed by the fact that people can still cling to the “regulations kill our economy” idea when the one thing that could have prevented our current economic problems was more regulation (of the financial industry).

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  12. TG Chicago says:

    One example is the large number of jobs lost because of obama’s drilling moratorium in the Gulf of Mexico.

    A second example is the continuing loss of jobs caused by obama’s regulatory slowdown (a continuing moratorium in practice) of drilling in the gulf of mexico.

    A third example is the Obama administrations denial of permits to shell for drilling in alaska.

    A fourth example is that the reduction of oil spills will mean far fewer employment opportunities for seagull washers.

    Damn that job-killing Obama!

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  13. Rob in CT says:

    It certainly seems to be a scary trend. But as you note, this sort of thing has happened in the past, right?

    To the extent that this really is as scary as it seems, perhaps the key difference now is the globalization of labor (aka outsourcing). Not only must the American worker compete with a machine/program, but also with a worker in India or wherever. Poor 3rd world workers getting decent jobs is a success for humanity, but sucks for the US poor & middle class. In theory, in the long run, we can sell more stuff to those now-richer 3rd worlders. But if they’re the ones making all the stuff, what are we going to sell (I know this is an exaggeration, as the USA’s manufacturing output has been pretty steady as a % of world output once things got back to normal post-WWII)?

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  14. Jay says:

    I don’t see how Obama is right. In early 2008, the unemployment rate was under 5%. ATM machines and self service check out lines existed then too.

    As somebody else said, Obama is using this as a smokescreen because he promised two things:

    1. The stimulus would be wildly successful.

    2. His healthcare plan would be a “boon” to the economy.

    At $220K+ per job it “created or saved”, the stimulus was a nearly $1 trillion failure. The only people benefitting from Obama’s healthcare plan are the ones who have been granted exemption waivers.

    So once again, President Obama is going to try and blame the greedy banks, Wall Street barons, “the rich” and any other moustache twisting villains he can conjure up in effort to make it appear “the little guy” is being held back by some version of “the man.”

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  15. Moosebreath says:
  16. Liberty60 says:

    Yes.

    The economy crashed in the fall of 2008 and lost millions upon millions of jobs, due to the destructive policies which would be enacted the following year.

    The housing market is still in a state of collapse, due to the moratorium on oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.

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  17. Rob in CT says:

    The long-term automation trend is what I figured James was trying to talk about. If we’re really focusing on what the unemployment rate is *right now* (as opposed to 2007), then no, it’s not really explained by automation (and, therefore, Obama is blowing smoke).

    The 2008 financial panic is the the driver of the difference between ’07 unemployment and now. While I find it plausible that some businesses may have fired a bunch of people and then discovered they could make just as much money w/o bringing those people back, far more important seems to be the loss in consumer demand.

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  18. Herb says:

    the large number of jobs lost because of obama’s drilling moratorium in the Gulf of Mexico.

    Is that “large number” equal or greater than the number of public sector jobs Republican policies seek to eliminate?

    The automation thing is certainly a factor. I used to work for a Baby Bell…until my job was automated and I got laid the F off. Now I work for a company whose business didn’t really exist 10 years ago (distributing digital content to theaters). The cruel irony, of course, is that while all of my co-workers benefit from these “new” jobs, we’re pretty much making projectionists (and film developers and assemblers and deliverers) obsolete.

    I bet everyone at my company is paid better than the best projectionist though…

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  19. Those things that Obama is bitching about and Dr. Joyner seems to be seconding are what lead to productivity improvements that make things cheaper and allow people to refocus their time and energies on other activitites. I hate to say it, but this is damn near Ludditism or maybe even a kind of protectionism for unskilled labor. Creative destruction has been an element of the industrial and post-industrial age for some time and let’s hope very seriously that it stays that way. The only constant is change, and it is accelerating.

    The gas station analogy is a poor one because it wasn’t a matter of technology but primarily the convenience of having someone else do for you what you could do for yourself, more of a cultural change really. If you really want someone else to pump your gas, and clean your windshields I think you can still find places that will do that for a fee in most big cities.

    Do you really think we would be better off with a lower standard of living if we eliminated ATMs and made everyone go up to a teller to get cash? Of course, you still can go to a teller if you want, for now.

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  20. anjin-san says:

    when will you change your distructive policies and allow jobs to be created Mr. President?

    Yes Bob, how about some specifics? And do tell us how Obama’s policies are more destructive than Mr. Bushs’ – after all, Bush had a job creation record that was historically bad.

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  21. Wayne says:

    Technology and automation allows people to be more productive therefore producing more. It increases their quality of life which they pass onto others which results in job creation. An increase in productivity has a net result of more jobs not less with a much better quality of life.

    The U.S. has turn into a service economy. Why because those that produce actual products are so efficient that it gets pass along and multiplied. The base is actually small compared to what has been built on it. Problem is the base has not only been ignored but abused. Cheap affordable energy is crucial for a sound economy. Manufacturing and food related industries are important to. Regulations and giving foreign business preference has hurt domestic production.

    Regulation has cause an energy company to plan to shut down three coal plants. This is at the same time that we are importing po

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  22. anjin-san says:

    make things cheaper and allow people to refocus their time and energies on other activitites.

    Well, I know gas is cheaper. It’s working! And guys that would have been pumping gas once upon a time have been allowed to refocus on chronic unemployment and reality TV shows.

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  23. AllenS says:

    Would you like to tell everyone, Mr. Joyner, how that money gets into the ATMs. Do you have any idea how an ATM appears on the banking scene? Did the thought ever occur to you that they might need servicing? Do you think that a robot will show up and service an ATM? Maybe, just maybe, there are people making those ATMs. Huh? Ya think? There are still 2 people working in my small bank. There were 2 people there before the installation of the ATM.

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  24. anjin-san says:

    An increase in productivity has a net result of more jobs not less

    You have not spent much time in corporate America, have you?

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  25. Wayne says:

    Satement waas cut off

    Regulation has cause an energy company to plan to shut down three coal plants. This is at the same time that we are importing power from Mexico plants.

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  26. JKB says:

    Well, yes, automation is reducing low skill jobs, even some medium skill ones. I saw an article about a Belgian machine that rolls out paving stone roads and drives. Maybe 4 guys laying a finished road at the pace of a slow walk. Tell me that didn’t put a few laborers out of work.

    But the juncture is, declining cost of machines, quality of output, and cost of employees. Machine cost and quality are a function of technology. Cost of employees, however, is sum of work skills, motivation and more directly employee costs. It is also the factor that has made the most recent, ahem, adjustment. Rising minimum wages, rising healthcare costs, rising mandated benefits, etc. all raise the cost of human labor compared to machine labor. Really with the threat of employee lawsuits, union disruption and government bias toward labor, a company would be foolish to not consider automation when starting up or after a major labor cutback. The machine is expensive but has a longer, more certain ROI, works tirelessly and in inflationary times, becomes cheaper by the day whereas labor pay adjusts with rising inflation.

    During the Great Depression, productivity rose over 30% even as employment of human labor was low. This productivity increase was greater than it had been during the Roaring Twenties (20+%). Why, the New Deal policies made labor expensive and a lock in proposition whereas, increases in efficiencies and investment in new technologies improved cost structures. Of course, that doesn’t help the guy who needs a job.

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  27. TG Chicago says:

    @Jay:

    I don’t see how Obama is right. In early 2008, the unemployment rate was under 5%. ATM machines and self service check out lines existed then too.

    True. But as Joyner said in the post, there are two factors at play: (1) The crash has motivated corporations to reevaluate the possibilities of dropping automatable jobs. And (2) technology seems to be progressing at an ever-increasing rate. Thus, low-skill workers are being left behind more and more quickly.

    So once again, President Obama is going to try and blame the greedy banks, Wall Street barons, “the rich” and any other moustache twisting villains he can conjure up in effort to make it appear “the little guy” is being held back by some version of “the man.”

    Good grief, Obama wasn’t blaming “greedy banks” any more than Joyner was railing about moustache-twisting villains when he talked about the end of travel agents. Take the partisan glasses off and re-read the post.

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  28. Wayne says:

    Financial regulations that force banks and company to not work in their best interest but that of the so call “common good” , hurts the economy. Just look at what happen when they were force to give house loans to people who couldn’t afford them.

    The EPA requirements have gotten so asinine that it is not worth building a new factory. That hurts the economy. I shake my head at those who can’t understand that there is a big difference between reasonable regulations and oppressive ones. The whole liberal argument of “if you not for all regulations then you are not for any” is getting bit tiresome.

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  29. TG Chicago says:

    @AllenS:

    Would you like to tell everyone, Mr. Joyner, how that money gets into the ATMs. Do you have any idea how an ATM appears on the banking scene? Did the thought ever occur to you that they might need servicing? Do you think that a robot will show up and service an ATM? Maybe, just maybe, there are people making those ATMs. Huh? Ya think?

    Might want to read the post carefully before going on a rant. As Joyner said:

    “This has created jobs designing, manufacturing, selling, and servicing the [ATM] machines but they’re not being done by the same type of workers.:

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  30. Rob in CT says:

    Oy. Is that an attempt to pin the financial crisis on the CRA? That’s been around since the 70s. FAIL.

    Banks handed out loans to people who couldn’t afford them because they made a ton of money doing so and figured they were insured against default.

    The government regulators were asleep at the switch, but they didn’t force anybody to make those loans. Regulation didn’t cause the crash. Failure to regulate didn’t either, but it failed to mitigate the problem.

    I agree there is good and bad regulation. Poorly thought-out, counter-productive regulation should be eliminated or re-written. No argument there.

    What, specifically, has you up in arms with regard to the EPA?

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  31. Dave Schuler says:

    The U.S. has turn into a service economy.

    Is that transition an inevitable one or an artifact of bad policies going back many years? I think that at least in part it’s the latter.

    Specifically, I’m thinking about policies like granting China most favored nation status and supporting its admission to the WTO. I think that a lot of our economic problems can be credited to China’s peg of the yuan to the dollar.

    I might add that our healthcare policies have created enormous distortions in the economy pushing us in the direction of a service economy.

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  32. Dave Schuler says:

    BTW, I think that why so many jobs were lost during the Great Recession and why jobs are being added so slowly is actually two distinct questions. Jay notes, correctly, that ATMs and automated checkout existed existed four years ago.

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  33. mantis says:

    Back when I was an undergrad in California in the mid-90s, I worked as a bank teller. Part of our job as tellers was to spend at least one hour per shift standing in the lobby near the front door to encourage people to use the ATM machines for simple transactions. I found the activity rather disturbing at the time, as I felt I was actively participating in speeding along my own obsolescence in that job. Sure enough, after working there for about a year, three other tellers and I were laid off, and two more ATMs were installed outside the same week.

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  34. mantis says:

    Wayne says:

    Just look at what happen when they were force to did everything they could to break and bend the rules to give house loans to people who couldn’t afford them so those loans could then be packaged and sold as gold bars instead of the bags of shit that they were, enriching our bankster elite betters and leaving the rest of America holding the bag.

    FTFY.

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  35. MM says:

    This comment thread is an amazing example of missing the point. Neither Obama nor Joyner were blaming anything, they were offering an explanation. And they happen to be correct. Just because something existed 4 or 8 years ago does not mean that it was adopted by all or even most customers. Adoption rates vary.

    And as long as a business is making money, they are probably not looking to radically cut jobs just to do so. But you combine an increased adoption rate with lower revenues, and the execs who said in 2007 that customers should have an option between self check-out and cashiers are going to change their tunes rapidly.

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  36. OzarkHillbilly (used to be tom p) says:

    While I find it plausible that some businesses may have fired a bunch of people and then discovered they could make just as much money w/o bringing those people back,

    It would seem so as worker productivity continues to rise so there is less need to expand their workforce (how much of this is due to automation is any ones geuss)As such bussiness continues to be profitable for a large # of companies with out hiring more workers and that will continue until they think they can make more money with more workers.

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  37. Drew says:

    NEWS ITEM

    In a hastily convened press conference President Obama today announced his latest jobs program – the Dumb Idiodic Crazy Yobs Attempt (“DIC-YA.”) Noted Mr. Obama, “by presidential order I immediately outlaw all electronic media and media processing – email, blogsites, personal computers etc – and declare that all communications must be produced on typewriters and travel by US mail. In support of this effort, I am setting aside $1B for emergency typist training in the public schools – a sort of modern day Manhattan Project if you will – and announce a $500 million grant to buid a state of the art typewriter manufacturing facility on the South Side of Chicago. To protect the enviromment, no carbon paper copies will be allowed. Duplicates will have to be typed. (Ed. Note: chuckling, its brilliant, isn’t it!? Think of all the teachers and typists employed.). Applications for letter carriers will be available at all post office locations. My new Economic Secy, Prof. Paul Krugman, has assured me that within 1 year the unemployment rate will be cut in half.

    I had hoped to also report to you today a significant green jobs program the general contours of which revolve around the horse, and buggywhip manufacturing, but alas, I have an internal scuffle I must tend to between with the gas station attendants union and the street cleaners union……….

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  38. Drew says:

    But seriously folks…….

    I’ve always thought that Dave S’s observation about the currency peg is correct and the cornerstone of its export driven policy. As for the others, I’m not sure how you keep the genie out of the bottle.

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  39. Drew says:

    Uh, in the bottle

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  40. Scott O. says:

    The whole liberal argument of “if you not for all regulations then you are not for any” is getting bit tiresome.

    That’s not really a liberal argument you’re tired of hearing. It’s that voice in your head. Medication may help.

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  41. Scott O. says:

    Drew, that was a wonderful parody of a conservative attempting to write comedy.

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  42. mantis says:

    The whole liberal argument of “if you not for all regulations then you are not for any” is getting bit tiresome.

    Name one person who makes that argument. Just one.

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  43. michael reynolds says:

    Something profound is happening here, and like James, I’ve been expecting it for many years. We no longer need everyone to work in order to maintain a prosperous and powerful country. High levels of unemployment may just be the new normal from now on.

    The problem is as noted the lack of jobs for people in the less gifted segment of the population — burger flippers. How many years until drive-throughs are automated? And there’s a problem with off-shoring of even fairly high-level jobs. I don’t think there’s much we can do about either issue. Sooner or later our radiologists’ pay and the pay of Indian radiologists will meet in the middle, I suppose, but neither will be able to compete with an X-ray reading program that is surely already in development.

    It’s going to be a different world.

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  44. bains says:

    James, what you have noted (for fifteen years), is the natural progression of human development, as you rightfully point out. That however, is not the point Obama was making. He was blaming technology for job losses without acknowledging that that very technology required a huge work force to design and develop, and requires a large work force to produce and maintain. Obama was doing what he always does (and most national level politicians do), blaming someone, or something else for his own policy failures. Your defense of him is… interesting. And revealing.

    Anecdotally, my pop (29 yr USA vet – three combat tours) voted for Obama because he detested what Bush had done re. the wars, Patriot act and such. Given that Obama has not only continued all the policies he found risable, but extended the reach of several of them, I asked whether he would continue to support Obama. He said that until someone within the GOP met his standards, he would.

    Pop was silent when I pointed out the irony that while he proudly supported Obama, an abject political nobody (who gave a good speech in 2004, and has only praised by the media subsequently), who has not changed US policies (that had my father so animated from 2002 to 2008), he is now so reticent to do the same. What folks like my Pop, and seemingly you, find different now verses then is perplexing. But this tendency seems common within the “coastal elites”; it is, in fact, an “inside the beltway” phenomena.

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  45. TG Chicago says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    BTW, I think that why so many jobs were lost during the Great Recession and why jobs are being added so slowly is actually two distinct questions. Jay notes, correctly, that ATMs and automated checkout existed existed four years ago.

    Did you read the last two paragraphs of Joyner’s post? In particular, the very last sentence? If so, what are your thoughts?

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  46. john personna says:

    bains, as someone who has helped automate away more that one job, I’ll tell you the ratio is not 1:1

    Indeed, why would they pay us programmers to duplicate just one or two laboring positions? No, it’s probably something beyond 10:1 to make it worthwhile, with all the associated costs.

    We built the gizmos, and then hundreds of gizmos went to the field and labored for many years, long after we programmers moved on to new tasks.

    Heck, as I stand here in my kitchen, I’m sure some of my robot slaves are still toiling.

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  47. john personna says:

    As I say above, I’m not sure this pervasive automation has happened before. It seems different in scale than industry by industry transformation (farming, manufacturing) and more like a cleaning up. We are getting down to shorter lists of unautomated jobs. This is superimposed on a recession that took away those non-automated house building jobs.

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  48. bains says:

    Also, you seem to be railing against the self-serve aspect of our society. I’ll only note the irony of this site, and all the political blogosphere being self-serve opinion. I live in a rural county of Colorado that is larger than the state of Delaware, in a town of just over 9000 people, served by two grocery stores. Because it is a largely tourist driven economy, it is very difficult to staff those stores in a way that satisfies all their customers. Five years ago, one of the grocery stores went the automated check-out route. It was horrible – requiring a clerk to hover over just to correct all the mistakes. The other store waited until technology advanced to the point where one clerk could service 8 self-serve check-out lanes. Yesterday, I went through the self-serve isle because the two normal lanes were packed. And even though I had many items without scanable bar codes, it was faster that the clerked lanes.

    The point being, while I certainly understand, and yearn for (some of) the nostalgic allure of driving into a service station where “[we] can trust our car to the man who wears the star”, there are practical and tangible limitations to those norms; limitations that modern technology has rendered obsolete.

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  49. Drew says:

    “Drew, that was a wonderful parody of a conservative attempting to write comedy.”

    This whole thread has been a parody……. Get a clue.

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  50. Drew says:

    “It’s going to be a different world.”

    When has it ever not?

    Go back and read historical – and angst ridden – pieces as we transformed from an agrarian economy. Its a wonder we are still alive…..

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  51. bains says:

    john p, my argument wasn’t that there is a 1:1 replacement ration, it was that James was defending a silly, but politically expedient comment by our President blaming technological advances for our current job deficit.

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  52. john personna says:

    Drew, you may not be a science fiction fan, like us geeks – but let’s imagine an extreme future, one in which a robot equal to a human for any general task sells for $10K, and lasts 10 years.

    Who works?

    Now, it is’t so much that we are there, but I think the difference between the farming revolution and the supermarket revolution is that we’re that much closer.

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  53. ken says:

    Jobs lost to productivity gains through technology are jobs that will never come back. We have a surplus of workers.

    Perhaps we should build publicly financed amusement parks that employ armies of workers to operate and maintain?

    Any other ideas?

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  54. bains says:

    Any other ideas?

    In Japan, with their astounding rail system, and I say that as an engineer in absolute awe, you can not book passage online. No, if you want passage, you have to go to a station that services whatever line, and book it in person. A government that guarantees full employment has costs.

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  55. michael reynolds says:

    When has it ever not?

    Go back and read historical – and angst ridden – pieces as we transformed from an agrarian economy. Its a wonder we are still alive…..

    That’s true. A lot of things — good and bad — that are predicted never occur. Others do. And we adapt politically and socially to the change. The question is not whether we’ll make it, I imagine we will, but whether we’ll make it with many of our treasured assumptions still in place.

    I would guess that the future is a more redistributionist place than you’d like, for example. If substantial percentages of the population are simply unemployable — as I think likely — we’re not going to let them starve or wall them off from the rest of society. Which means we’ll be expanding not contracting the safety net, and disparities in wealth will be lessened. The rich and super rich may become only wealthy and rich respectively.

    (By the way, my own bit of prophecy was a self-driving car by 2011. I put that in print in 2000, and Google is making it happen. I also take a partial credit for predicting the rapid decline of paper publishing, the rise of the enhanced book, and Amazon’s entry into publishing. Still to come: diffused, classless, web-based teaching from middle school onward.)

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  56. george says:

    It’ll be interesting to see how this develops in the next two or three decades, as expert systems (AI is a longer shot) begin replacing what is now professional work – medicine, accounting, engineering, marketing and so on. And robots will do a lot of skilled manual labor …

    The utopia is that everyone will only have to work ten or so hours a week; the dystopia is that 5% of the population will have jobs and control everything (lot’s of novels written on this … dystopias seem to make more interesting reading than utopias). The reality will probably be somewhere between, but it’ll be a huge change. Might not be a bad idea to start to plan for it.

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  57. James Joyner says:

    @bains: Obama wasn’t arguing that technological displacement is the only source of job loss, nor am I. He was asked a direct question about why businesses are being slow to hire but are spending much more money on new equipment. His explanation for that in terms of businesses seeking efficiencies through replacing expensive workers with relatively cheap machines is perfectly reasonable.

    For the most part, I think the changes have been positive. ATMs are much more convenient than waiting in line for a teller. I’ve pumped my own gas for 30 years now and have never known it another way since I started driving. I do somewhat resent having to check out my own groceries, which I find to be a giant pain in the ass with no real benefit.

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  58. TG Chicago says:

    The government regulators were asleep at the switch, but they didn’t force anybody to make those loans. Regulation didn’t cause the crash. Failure to regulate didn’t either, but it failed to mitigate the problem.

    I can agree that failure to regulate didn’t cause the crash in the same way that failing to lock your car door didn’t cause a thief to open the door and steal it. But it gave him the opening that you never should have allowed him.

    An unregulated market was the fertile soil in which the seeds of the crash took root.

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  59. Brett says:

    @Michael Reynolds

    That’s true. A lot of things — good and bad — that are predicted never occur. Others do. And we adapt politically and socially to the change. The question is not whether we’ll make it, I imagine we will, but whether we’ll make it with many of our treasured assumptions still in place.

    That should include our assumptions about what “working” and “life-style” actually mean in the 21st century. I can think of several innovations – particularly cheap, reliable 3D Printers – that could really up-end consumer spending patterns in the 21st century.

    I would guess that the future is a more redistributionist place than you’d like, for example. If substantial percentages of the population are simply unemployable — as I think likely — we’re not going to let them starve or wall them off from the rest of society. Which means we’ll be expanding not contracting the safety net, and disparities in wealth will be lessened. The rich and super rich may become only wealthy and rich respectively.

    Unfortunately, that may be the most likely possibility, assuming that they can successfully get the rich to pay higher taxes without rampant tax evasion in a globalized world. I’m holding out hope that we’ll see a move towards a lower work-week (such as 20-30 hours), which would increase the number of jobs and tend to push society towards more flexible work-shifts.

    It has happened before, when there was a successful push towards a 40-hour work-week in the 1920s and 1930s. That also happened in a period of major economic dislocation and labor strife. We’ve got the economic dislocation (albeit not as bad as the Great Depression), but not yet the labor strife (compare US labor unrest to the frequent wildcat strikes and labor turbulence in China, for example).

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  60. Dave Schuler says:

    Did you read the last two paragraphs of Joyner’s post? In particular, the very last sentence? If so, what are your thoughts?

    In an earlier comment in this thread I cited portions from the segment of the post that you’re referring to.

    Most of my comments on that are there.

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  61. Dave Schuler says:

    It has happened before, when there was a successful push towards a 40-hour work-week in the 1920s and 1930s.

    Our society is very, very different from that one. In particular, it was still possible (and likely) for many workers to fall back on subsistence farming. That’s not the case today.

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  62. bains says:

    James, I am just bewildered by why you (and Doug, and Alex) continue to defend this president?

    As I said upthread, I am perplexed. Why is this president worthy of support, conducting the very same (foreign) policies (and it was foreign policies that had you inside the beltway wonks so upset) as the last, while the last is lamentable?

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  63. I do somewhat resent having to check out my own groceries, which I find to be a giant pain in the ass with no real benefit.

    Except perhaps lower prices.

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  64. One more thing, if the President is all that worried about the impact on employment these new fangled contraptions are having, how does he deal with the cognitive dissonance of raising energy prices by having the EPA regulate coal fired power plants out of business?

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  65. michael reynolds says:

    Charles:

    Pumping pollutants into the air also costs us something. And I’m not clear on the connection to advances in automation.

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  66. michael reynolds says:

    By the way, has anyone noticed how we’re all having an intelligent conversation that has stayed on-topic without yelling?

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  67. An Interested Party says:

    He said that until someone within the GOP met his standards, he would.

    That, of course, is the key…since we have a system in place where only one of two people will be elected president, who does one vote for/support if one dislikes the GOP alternative? Now, I’m sure people like James will be more than happy to come home if Romney (you know, the RINO) is the Republican nominee, but if it is, say, Palin? Not so much…as to the seeming contradiction presented by your father, who, among all the GOP candidates, other than Ron Paul, who doesn’t have any chance of going anywhere, is going to change things drastically from what the former and current president were/are doing…

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  68. Rob in CT says:

    If our fears about the downside* to an increasingly automated & software aided self-serve society prove true, my personal preference would certainly be a move to shorten the work week (lots of wealth redistribution is a distant second), but I think the dystopia of high structural unemployment is more likely, at least in the short term. I hope I’m wrong.

    As for the President, my take is that what he said was both reasonable and yet doesn’t really let him off the hook. His answer is not a defense of the stimulus. If he was offering it as such (and I don’t really think he was, given the context), it’s a non-answer. Also, I think it’s only a partial answer to the question he was actually answering (the other part being continued weak demand).

    * obviously there’s upside too, and I don’t think anyone here is arguing a Luddite position against technological progress.

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  69. Rob in CT says:

    The reason to stick w/Obama even though Obama hasn’t been terrific is called LOTE. The lesser of two evils. Most of us vote that way. Obama has been a disappointment to liberals, conservatives hate him reflexively… and yet he stands a good chance of being reelected. Why? Because of LOTE. As far as I can tell, the GOP hasn’t changed *at all* from what it was in 2001-2008. Obama has continued most of the policies of the prior administration (while being tarred and feathered as a commie), but in my estimation still represents improvement (the healthcare reform law is not my preferred outcome, but is an improvement).

    If and when I see substantive change from the GOP, I’ll give them another look. I grew up in a Republican household. I self-identified Republican in high school. I’m all about doing a deal on the budget long-term and getting us back on a sustainable path, since I’m an actual fiscal conservative. I should be, therefore, a potential GOP voter.

    I’ve drifted Leftward over the years, but much of that was in direct response to what the Right was doing. I can drift back if circumstances so warrant. The current GOP, however, is a non-starter for me.

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  70. michael reynolds, no doubt, but there are tradeoffs. Jobs or cheap (well, cheaper) energy?

    From memory, coal costs about $35/megawatt, nuclear about $35/megawatt, gas about $50/megawatt, and oil about $500 per megawatt. Gas is cleaner than coil or oil, but nowhere near nuclear. Yes, there are issues asociated with nuclear power but none that can’t be readily addressed by adults that don’t think about radiation contamination like some sort of evil magic that must be avoided at all costs. And yes, someone will undoubtedly argue with those estimates for one reason or another.

    As I have said many times, when I see permits issued for 200 new nuclear plants we can talk. Until then one cannot talk about dealing with CO2 emissions and having a growing economy in the same sentence without being naive or dishonest, or both.

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  71. Rob in CT says:

    Charles,

    I’m up for more nuke plants. I do worry about the waste. I work with environmental contamination claims, after all. Meltdown I worry less about, and of course new reactors would be better designs that the ones we have. So, on balance, ok let’s do it.

    If we do build hundreds of new plants, and other countries do too, do we run into a fuel supply problem?

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  72. bains says:

    The reason to stick w/Obama even though Obama hasn’t been terrific is called LOTE. The lesser of two evils.

    I love honesty. “Big government” GWBush was eviscerated by a press that lauds BHObama for the very same policies..

    Barack Obama is the lesser of evils, in the minds of many, just because he is a Democrat.

    Welcome to the MSM…. and to OTB.

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  73. Rob in CT says:

    No, that’s not why he’s the LOTE. He’s the LOTE – for me – for a number of reasons I don’t have time right now to type out (I have to hit the road in 2 minutes). Basically, he has not continued the *exact* same policies. Very similar in most cases. Healthcare, the thing conservatives appear to hate the most, was a change. It was a halting half-step as far as I’m concerned, but to some others it was apparently the commie apocalypse. Not sure how that equates to exactly the same policies. If we’re talking FP, I agree, and I’m pissed.

    He’s the LOTE for somebody else for, probably, different reasons.

    I have no idea, however, why you think my LOTE comment somehow made your point for you.

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  74. michael reynolds says:

    Charles:

    I support nuclear, but in the wake of the Japan disaster, followed by Germany swearing off nukes, it’s a tough sell.

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  75. The LOTE argument falls apart if Democrats recapture Congress. Historically, we seem to have less damage from Washington as long as the party that controls the White House doesn’t control Congress.

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  76. The Japan disaster certainly isn’t a one off, but those were 40 year old plants built in a hazardous place that still took two enormously bad things to happen to fail. With modern reactors and intelligent zoning, these problems become less important to the point of being negligible. Sure a meteorite could still hit them, but at some point not having electricity is kind of a bad thing with some attendant risk as well. As to Germany swearing off nukes, let’s check and see how that works out for them in five and ten years.

    It’s funny that you are worried about selling nukes to the public when the general attitude out of Washington seems to be that they know what’s best for us so what does it matter what the public thinks.

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  77. TG Chicago says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    I’m afraid I’m still not seeing any connection between your quote below and the last sentence of Joyner’s post.

    BTW, I think that why so many jobs were lost during the Great Recession and why jobs are being added so slowly is actually two distinct questions. Jay notes, correctly, that ATMs and automated checkout existed existed four years ago.

    They are distinct questions; I don’t think anyone doubts that. But Joyner provides a possible explanation as to how they could be related.

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  78. James Joyner says:

    @Bains: I voted for Bush both times and McCain in 2008. I opposed Obama (and Bush) on most of the bailouts. In this instance, he’s making a fairly obvious point about the trade-offs that beneficial technology has on jobs. Further, he’s saying that business has every right to do this and no duty to keep employees it doesn’t need. And I agree! But that doesn’t mean the jobs didn’t go away or that it has much to do with who’s sitting in the White House. (A position, incidentally, that I’ve taken with every president in, oh, 20 years.)

    @charles austin: I haven’t noticed a decrease in prices; indeed, they seem to have gone up. It’s possible that prices would have gone up more absent the restructuring, of course, but there’s no real evidence that the efficiencies weren’t simply taken as profit.

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  79. TG Chicago says:

    @michael reynolds

    By the way, has anyone noticed how we’re all having an intelligent conversation that has stayed on-topic without yelling?

    Addition by subtraction, perhaps?

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  80. mattb says:

    @Charles

    Except perhaps lower prices [thanks to self check-out]

    As James said, at best, self-checkout has led to prices remaining at the same level, as opposed to raising. But there is little proof to show that any savings were passed onto the customer as opposed to the shareholders (this is, of course, the point of creating business efficiencies for publicly traded companies since the mid 60′s at least — the generation of “growth” in revenue for shareholders).

    The first thing to remember is that all of this “automation” technology shifts more work onto either the customer or the worker (or turning the customer into a worker). We bag our own groceries and with that is the promise of reduced food costs (if not the actuality).

    BTW, this is the thing about recessions/contractions and automation… certain jobs never return because — in a cold profit calculus — they turn out not to be needed. And each step of automation reinforces (or trains) us to use the rest. ATMs, without a doubt, helped “train” and prepared people for self checkout. Once you realize that your customers are prepared to check themselves out, then there’s less need to rehire clerks.

    Which get’s to the problem with @Brett’s hope:

    I’m holding out hope that we’ll see a move towards a lower work-week (such as 20-30 hours), which would increase the number of jobs and tend to push society towards more flexible work-shifts.

    I see little hope of that. Yes we work more efficiently, but we call do the work of multiple people. And there is little evidence to suggest that job efficiencies ever free up time.

    Worse is that we’ve been moving away from the structured 40-hour work week for quite some time. Remember that those 40 hours were still based in a (factory) hourly pay model. One of the things that we’ve seen in recent years, even in menial jobs, is the proliferation of faux “management” positions. In other works, the “elevating” of service workers into roles with “manager” attached to them, but no oversight of other people. The rational for this? To get them into a low paying salary position which removes the issue of paying for overtime.

    In fact, low level and entry level computer programmer (ad exec and legal) positions — when you do the calculation of hours worked vs. pay rate — are actually quite low paying. And the work is done in a culture that expects long hours and sacrifice.

    I see no reason for automation and improvements in efficiency to reverse that trend.

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  81. Or maybe prices would have risen were it not for the self service automation. Supermarkets are a low margin highly competitive business. Hard to believe they aren’t doin it for a reason, whether it is to save money or cater to a few people who would rather avoid a line.

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  82. MM says:

    Shorter bains: Assuming that Obama successfully breathed on his own once is support for socialism.

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  83. john personna says:

    Will Wilkinson has a good paragraph at The Economist:

    I think it’s plausible that as demand began to pick up after the recession hit bottom, many firms chose to invest in updated technology that further increased the productivity of skilled workers they did not dismiss rather than re-hiring workers whose skills are less augmented by better tech. I wouldn’t blame ATMs on our jobless recovery, but surely the general skill-bias of technological change is an important part of the issue. I suspect Tyler Cowen may be right that the recession created an occasion for firms to shed “zero-marginal-product workers”. In that case, the ranks of the unemployed are filled with wannabe workers whose labour is at present worth less to employers than the cost of employing them. This puts Mr Obama in a politically perilous position. We can expect rising aggregate demand to make it pay for some firms to once again employ some significant number of relatively low-productivity workers, but we probably can’t reasonably expect the unemployment rate to return to its pre-recession level, at least not in the absence of politically unlikely employment subsidies or government make-work schemes. Given the current creeping pace of growth, the unemployment rate may not improve very much before next fall, which would bode ill for incumbents. Mr Obama can blame it on the machines and deny Republican charges that his administration made the recession worse. But jobless voters and the voters that love them tend to blame the guy in office, no matter who’s really to blame

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  84. G.A.Phillips says:

    By the way, has anyone noticed how we’re all having an intelligent conversation that has stayed on-topic without yelling?

    I did…
    Nice to read:)

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  85. Duracomm says:

    TG Chicago said,

    I am amazed by the fact that people can still cling to the “regulations kill our economy” idea when the one thing that could have prevented our current economic problems was more regulation (of the financial industry).

    Federal government intervention in the housing market drove the housing bubble.

    You and Mantis should both read the book below to find out how.

    ‘Reckless Endangerment’ by Gretchen Morgenson and Joshua Rosner

    The book then gives examples where Fannie’s executives … used the excess profits to support government officials in a variety of ways …:

    They got jobs for friends and relatives of elected officials, including Rep. Barney Frank, who is tagged as “a perpetual protector of Fannie,” ….

    They made campaign contributions and charitable donations to co-opt groups like the community action organization ACORN, which “had been agitating for tighter regulations on Fannie Mae.”

    In the meantime, Countrywide, the mortgage firm led by Angelo Mozilo, partnered with Fannie in originating many of the mortgages Fannie packaged (26 percent in 2004) and gave “sweetheart” loans to politicians with power to affect Fannie, such as Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut.

    The authors write that “Countrywide and Fannie Mae were inextricably bound.”

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  86. Duracomm says:

    john personna said,

    That’s funny Duracomm. Carry on.

    I’m sure all those who luuuuuved the oil spill are so on your side with that one.

    Herb said,

    Is that “large number” equal or greater than the number of public sector jobs Republican policies seek to eliminate?

    TG Chicago said,

    A fourth example is that the reduction of oil spills will mean far fewer employment opportunities for seagull washers.

    Damn that job-killing Obama!

    Three perfect examples of how obama’s supporters respond when they are shown how obama’s policies are killing jobs. They try and change the subject.

    John Personna had originally asked the question.

    What sort of jobs do you think are blocked by Obama specifically? And specifically how?

    He wanted examples of how obama and the democrat’s regulatory bloat is killing jobs and I provided it.

    Changing the subject won’t bring back the jobs obama and the democrats have killed but it makes their cheerleaders feel better.

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  87. Duracomm says:

    The article below gives an idea of how obama and the democrats policy in the gulf of mexico kills jobs.

    In areas where obama and the democrats can’t stop drilling (non-federal lands) a large amount of jobs are created.

    More evidence that obama and the democrats don’t care about the unemployed people that would be helped by the job creation provided by oil and gas production.

    Drill, Drill, Drill = Jobs, Jobs, Jobs

    The whole article is worthwhile and there’s a lot of interesting jobs data, but here’s the most amazing data point:

    “In total, nine of the top 11 fast-growing jobs in the nation are tied in one way or another to oil and gas extraction.”

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  88. john personna says:

    Get over yourself Duracomm.

    All you did was name well-supported policies, across the political spectrum.

    Most people want protection from another oil spill, and they don’t believe the supported BS that there are magic drilling jobs for everyone.

    In other news, a nuclear waste advisor to the Japanese government reported that about 966 square kilometres near the power station – an area roughly 17 times the size of Manhattan – is now likely uninhabitable.

    But hey, it it wasn’t for liberals we’d have more nuke jobs, right?

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  89. john personna says:

    [un]supported BS

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  90. Duracomm says:

    John Personna,

    Pity you choose to ignore the drilling jobs data.

    But if it makes you feel better stay in the cocoon and carry on with your Epistemic Closure.

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