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June 20, 2017

Teach a Person to Fish and…

We all know the Chinese proverb:

“You give a poor man a fish and you feed him for a day. You teach him to fish and you give him an occupation that will feed him for a lifetime.”

Elon Musk, founder of Tesla and SpaceX, thinks that robots will do all the fishing we need so we’ll have to provide free fish daily:

“There will be fewer and fewer jobs that a robot cannot do better. I want to be clear. These are not things I wish will happen; these are things I think probably will happen. And if my assessment is correct and they probably will happen, than[sic] we have to think about what are we going to do about it? I think some kind of universal basic income is going to be necessary…”

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich agrees:

“…we will get to a point, all our societies, where technology is displacing so many jobs, not just menial jobs but also professional jobs, that we’re going to have to take seriously the notion of a universal basic income.”

I think this is elitist nonsense. “You are useless,” is what Musk and Reich are saying to many people around the world; “but don’t worry; we’ll feed you like the animals in the zoo (so long as you vote the right people into office).” It’s hard to think of any worse solution to the non-existent problem of not enough jobs than a universal dole.

Bernie Sanders, whom Reich supported in the primaries, does believe in jobs. His plan for free college, at its best, would be a form of teaching people to fish. However a degree in political correctness with minors in sloppy thinking and grievance politics doesn’t teach you how to bait a hook… or how to weld or wire circuits or plumb. Of course there are college whose students are taught to fish. Champlain in Burlington, VT (of which Mary is a Board member) teaches not only accounting but also digital forensics. Not surprisingly, almost all its graduates get jobs.

Donald Trump, whom Reich calls a fascist, also believes in jobs; that belief got him elected. IMHO the reason so many people voted for Sanders and Trump is these voters don’t like being told by elites that they are useless. I think Trump is wrong to blame unemployment principally on foreign competition (including illegal immigrants); I think he is absolutely right to support apprenticeship programs as a way to teach fishing and welding and circuits and plumbing.

Apprenticeship is also the best way to learn computer programming, as I know from experience. Two more advantages of apprenticeship as opposed to classroom learning: your teacher is a useful role model because she is practicing what’s she’s teaching and you learn that you can learn a skill. The specific skill may become obsolete; it will certainly change. But, once you know you learned how to catch trout, you will be confident that you can learn to catch tuna.

We know there is no current shortage of skilled jobs, for many of which a college degree is useless. There is no unemployment among commercial truck drivers, welders, plumbers, electricians, dispatchers, etc. etc. Anyone with these skills can find work (although sometimes relocation is necessary).

But what about unskilled jobs? Well, they certainly haven’t disappeared yet; look at the help-wanted ads. Retailers are finding they need to pay more to get workers; always a good sign. One reason why entry-level wages haven’t gone up faster, unfortunately, is that welfare benefits in many states including Vermont go down more quickly than take home pay goes up at salaries near the minimum wage.

Farmers around the country are complaining that Trump has scared away the undocumented workers who used to work at minimum wage (if that) so there’s no way to harvest the crops or milk the cows. I admire the migrant workers and their work ethic. Farm work is hard; legal residents can earn as much or more at McDonalds, which doesn’t hire undocumented workers. Farmers will need to pay more to get people who do have an alternative to take hard farm jobs. That’s a good thing even though food prices will go up some. People won’t stop eating. But there are jobs!

Will these jobs exist tomorrow or will they all be automated away as Musk and Reich seem to think? My friend Andy Kessler writes:

“This is a false premise. All through history, automation has created more jobs than it destroyed. Washboards and wringers were replaced by increasingly inexpensive washing machines, while more women entered the workforce. Automated manufacturing and one-click buying has upended retail, yet throughout the U.S. millions of jobs go unfilled…

“The economics, which they apparently stopped teaching at Harvard, are straightforward: Lowering the cost of goods and services through automation allows capital—financial and human—to attack even harder problems. Wake me up when we run out of problems.”

Milking a cow is done with a machine. Clerks at McDonalds enter orders on computers. Automation makes each human’s contribution worth more, not less. All the jobs will change; some will disappear. New unimagined and better jobs will materialize. I’ve made a living for most of my life from computer programming. The job didn’t exist when I was born.

No one is “useless”. Our affluence lets us help those who need help; we should do that generously. The best help will often be teaching a person to fish.

See also: No Job is Bad

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