June 15, 2011 8:45AM

Barack Obama, Luddite?

In the video clip above, President Obama blames America’s current unemployment problem on… automation. ATMs and airport kiosks are singled out.

These words could only be uttered by someone who knows very little about economics or the history of human progress. In fact, they could only be uttered by someone who has never reflected on this question before in his life. Because if you reflect for one moment, you come up with this glaringly obvious counterfactual: we use a lot more labor‐​saving technology today than in previous generations, and yet we also employ far more people. Therefore, increased automation does not lead to decreased national employment.

If you do more than just think for a second — if you read an economic history book, for instance — you discover that increased automation doesn’t even necessarily lead to decreased employment in the industry being automated! The classic example is the 19th century British textile industry. The so‐​called “Luddites” smashed automated looms fearing that they would lead to rampant unemployment in their industry. But, as the new technology proliferated, textile industry employment rose. Among other reasons, increased efficiency drastically lowered the prices of textile goods, that shot demand through the roof, and to meet the new demand new workers were required to operate and maintain the new machinery.

There are other examples, of course, and the president will save the American people a great deal of hardship, and himself further embarrassment, if he familiarizes himself with them. Here’s a good brief introduction from the British Secretary of State… under Margaret Thatcher.


For those having trouble viewing the video, here is a transcript of the relevant Q&A:

Q: Why, at a time of record profits, have you been unable to convince businesses to hire more people Mr. President?

A: [.…] the other thing that happened, though, and this goes to the point you were just making: there are some structural issues with our economy, where a lot of businesses have learned to be a lot more efficient with a lot fewer workers. You see it when you go to a bank and there’s 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.