The Luddites and the economists

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Published on September 21, 2014 with No Comments

In 15th century Holland, textile manufacturers began automating the process with gear driven weaving mechanisms. But workers fearing that the machines would replace them, threw their shoes at the looms to break them. We got the word “sabotage” from this movement because of the French word for those wooden shoes, “sabot.” But somehow textile manufacturing continued to employ people into the 19th century when the Industrial Revolution prompted textile mill workers in England to rebel against mechanization by breaking the knitting machines. This time the workers self-described themselves as “Luddites,” after the mythical King Ludd. Today the word “Luddites” continues in common usage to describe people who are opposed to automation and technology in general. Then economists entered the equation with the theory that advancing technology actually causes production to go up, which then causes prices to fall, which then causes demand to rise, which results in more workers being hired.

Frame-breakers, or Luddites, smashing a loom. ...

Image via Wikipedia

But now economists are changing that tune because it seems that as technology increases, the unemployment rate also continues to increase or remain at very high levels. Recent news from economists and The Economist contend that the unemployment rate is a direct result of increased use of technology. Technology is not just automating factory work, it’s taking away “white collar” jobs. From analyzing legal case history to reading scans and x-rays, computers can do it faster, cheaper and more accurately than humans. The e-Reader replaces printers. Amazon and eBay replace brick and mortar stores. Still, all is not lost. Humans can learn to adapt and work with the machine rather than rage against the machine – could buying be rebelling? Perhaps the future is in creating and owning the machines so we can all sit back while they do the work. Or maybe there will be some new economic theory for us to ruminate on. Regardless, it has been said, the economy depends on economists the way the weather depends on weather forecasters.

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