Is It That Technology Changes Too Fast, Or Is The Government Holding Us Back?


There are two mistaken ideas about economics that, throughout history, significant numbers of people make again and again.

One is the Malthusian idea about diminishing resources. This has been around since Thomas Malthus wrote about humanity outgrowing its ability to produce food, which would inevitably lead to widespread famine according to Malthus. Of course, that proved not to be true. What Malthus didn’t account for was our capacity to get better at farming. New technology and new techniques have allowed us to grow food in places it wouldn’t grow before, and get more food out of each acre planted.

So, Malthus was wrong, but that didn’t stop a significant number of scientists, economists and political-types all wound up about “peak oil,” which was the idea that we would outgrow our capacity to produce energy. “Peak oil” was the impetus for a lot of the government spending on things like wind and solar, but it turns out the peak oil people were wrong too. Because, much like with farming, we’ve simply gotten better at finding and tapping into oil and gas reserves. Now America, which once had declining oil and gas production, is poised to become the top energy producer in the world.

The other idea is the idea that technology destroys jobs. Believe it or not, this one has been with us for about as long as technology has. Today we call people who are averse to embracing new technology “Luddites,” but historically that term refers to a labor movement in 19th century England. As the Industrial Revolution (which was less “revolution” than a gradual confluence of technological innovations) made manufacturing less labor-intensive, laborers were upset. Their jobs were being usurped, they believed, by new technologies. And, unfortunately, like labor movements they turned to violence to save their jobs. Ned Ludd, from whom we get the term Luddite, is supposed to have risen to fame by destroying manufacturing machines.

Of course, Ludd and his adherents were wrong. Technology didn’t steal the jobs, it just changed the jobs. Which is why we’re not still suffering from an oversupply of buggy manufacturers now that the automobile has made horses obsolete as a primary means of transportation.

Still, though, we have modern Luddites who argue that our current economic woes stem from the proliferation of new job-stealing technologies. In attempting to explain why this Great Recession we seem mired has been more protracted than previous recessions, the Associated Press blames technology:

Most of the jobs will never return, and millions more are likely to vanish as well, say experts who study the labor market. What’s more, these jobs aren’t just being lost to China and other developing countries, and they aren’t just factory work. Increasingly, jobs are disappearing in the service sector, home to two-thirds of all workers.

They’re being obliterated by technology.

Year after year, the software that runs computers and an array of other machines and devices becomes more sophisticated and powerful and capable of doing more efficiently tasks that humans have always done. For decades, science fiction warned of a future when we would be architects of our own obsolescence, replaced by our machines; an Associated Press analysis finds that the future has arrived.

What’s interesting is that the AP actually acknowledges this lengthy history of falsely blaming technology for job losses, but argues that this recession is different:

Technological innovations have been throwing people out of jobs for centuries. But they eventually created more work, and greater wealth, than they destroyed. Ford, the author and software engineer, thinks there is reason to believe that this time will be different. He sees virtually no end to the inroads of computers into the workplace. Eventually, he says, software will threaten the livelihoods of doctors, lawyers and other highly skilled professionals.

Many economists are encouraged by history and think the gains eventually will outweigh the losses. But even they have doubts.

“What’s different this time is that digital technologies show up in every corner of the economy,” says McAfee, a self-described “digital optimist.” “Your tablet (computer) is just two or three years old, and it’s already taken over our lives.”

Peter Lindert, an economist at the University of California, Davis, says the computer is more destructive than innovations in the Industrial Revolution because the pace at which it is upending industries makes it hard for people to adapt.

Is it really the technology that’s different? Is it that we’re developing new technologies faster now than ever before, or is it something else?

I think the sheer pace of modern technological innovation is no doubt a contributing factor, but shouldn’t we also be looking at government? It’s true that technology has never changed so quickly before, but it’s also true that our government has never been this big.

When I see the AP write that it’s “hard for people to adapt” to changing economic conditions, I can’t help but think all the new laws and regulations those trying to do the adapting must contend with.

“[B]y most estimates, there are at least 4,000 separate criminal laws at the federal level, with another 10,000 to 300,000 regulations that can be enforced criminally,” writes Radley Balko. “Just this year 400 new federal laws took effect, as did 29,000 new state laws.”

Maybe what’s making it “harder for people to adapt” to changing economic conditions isn’t so much how rapidly things are changing, but how much red tape is holding them back from adapting. Because what’s the idea? Attempt to slow the pace of technology to allow the economy to catch up?

Wouldn’t you rather unshackle the economy from the millstone of government so that it can keep up?

Rob Port is the editor of In 2011 he was a finalist for the Watch Dog of the Year from the Sam Adams Alliance and winner of the Americans For Prosperity Award for Online Excellence. In 2013 the Washington Post named SAB one of the nation's top state-based political blogs, and named Rob one of the state's best political reporters.

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  • mickey_moussaoui

    Good things will happen when the next Reagan comes along. Until then we must suffer under the “Angry Little Man w/ a chip on his shoulder CarterObama Curse”.

  • WOOF

    Bust trusts.
    Technology advancement is hobbled by corporate control of gov’t.
    That’s why you pay more for cable TV, internet access, cell phone
    and pharmaceuticals.

    • Kevin Flanagan

      All those things are subsidized by the government. Government subsidies distort the free market.

    • mickey_moussaoui

      Where is it written that any of those items should be free?
      woofy, we live in a market based world, like it or not. Move to North Korea to live your leftist utopian dream

      • WOOF

        Your cable, cell phone, land line and internet bills are not free market priced. All those technology industries have worked law to stifle competition Edith.

    • Rob

      So your solution to government getting in bed with corporations is…more government?

    • Thresherman

      Uh yeah. That is why when Obamacare was crafted, the Democrats gave sweetheart deals to certain big pharmaceuticals and others in exchange for public support. As usual, you have it bassackward. The government, especially Democratic controlled ones, peddle favoritism to corporations in exchange for campaign donations and support of policies. Look at John Corzine, he stole millions from his investors, but because he was one Obama’s largest bundlers he has not even seen the threat of prosecution from the feds. Somehow you on the left can ignore things like this that happen right under your noses and yet believe the BS the Democrats peddle.

  • Snarkie

    A paragraph of political rhetoric isn’t quite what you need to muster to take down Malthus.

    • two_amber_lamps

      A sentence of Doubting Thomas silliness isn’t quite what you need to muster a take down of the truth of what Mr. Port elucidates, how’s it feel representing the movement of Neo-Luddism….?

      Now run along little alcoholic… I can smell the booze all the way over here.

    • zipity

      Malthus is self-refuting. He needs no take down.

    • Rob

      So…now you’re going to defend Malthus?

      Good grief.

  • zipity

    And what exactly is the new technology that exploded on the scene in 2007/2008 that is responsible for the lack of new job creation today?

    The Internet?

    Cell Phones?




    Talking pictures?

    Horseless carriages?

    Indoor plumbing?

    Seriously, the apologists for the Obamessiah and his destruction of the American economy are some of the lamest, dumbest, most credulous cretins to ever crawl upon this rock.

    • Thresherman

      Don’t forget that Obama tried blaming ATMs for job losses.

    • WOOF

      Apparently you have forgotten 2007 when the economy collapsed and who was wielding the levers of power. Voters haven’t.

      • Steve

        And now, with obama wielding the levers of power….

        First, national debt has increased more than $50,000 per household under Obama:

        ( – During Barack Obama’s first term as president
        of the United States, the debt of the federal government increased by $5.8 trillion, which exceeds the combined debt accumulated under all presidents from George Washington through Bill Clinton.

        The new federal debt accumulated in Obama’s first term equaled approximately $50,521 for each of household in the country.

        Second, the number of Americans not in the labor force has increased by roughly 8.3 million:

        The number of Americans age 16 or older who decided not to work or even to seek a job increased by 8,332,000 to a record 88,839,000 in President Barack Obama’s first term, according to the Bureau of Labor

        Third, there is now one person collecting federal disability for every 13 American workers:

        During President Barack Obama’s first term, the number of Americans
        collecting federal disability insurance increased by 1,385,418 to a record

        As a result, there is now one person collecting disability in this county for
        every 13 people working full-time. Forty-two years ago, in December 1968, there were 51 people working full-time in this country for each person collecting disability.

        Fourth, food stamps enrollment has grown 75 times faster than jobs:

        Fifth, health insurance and health care costs are growing faster under Obamacare than before the law was implemented:

        Spending on health care rose 4.6 percent in 2011 — up $4,500 per person, on average — according to the nonpartisan Health Care Cost Institute. That’s up from a 3.8 growth rate in 2010.

        Health insurance premiums for individuals and families also climbed
        year-over-year, up 3 percent ($186) on average for an individual and 4 percent ($672) on average for a family, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

        During Obama’s term, between 2009 to 2012, premiums have climbed $2,370 for the average family with an employer-provided plan – a rate faster than the during the previous four years under President George W. Bush, according to Kaiser.

        • WOOF

          Nobody wants to see the face of GW. or his ilk. The nation weighed and measured and it’s four more years.

          “looking at hiring by businesses, the gap is actually much wider — the
          private sector has actually added 415,000 jobs since Obama took office.
          But it had cut 1.6 million jobs during a comparable period of Bush’s
          first term. The difference is that budget-strapped state and local
          governments have slashed their staffs over the last four years while
          they were adding workers when Bush was in office.”

          • Steve

            In the first 4 years of obama, an average of 370,000 people lost their jobs EVERY WEEK from the private sector. How does that compare to adding 415,000 jobs in 4 years?

            GW hasn’t been President for over 4 years, try to catch up. By the time obama is done in 4 years, you’ll be begging republications to fix the mess that the Muslim Marxist leaves behind. Unless you enjoy being dependent on the government for everything. But, you being one of the slackers and moochers, you’ll yell for more.

          • WOOF

            Check your numbers 370K a week. 1.1 million a month. 52 million unemployed 4 years ?

  • silverstreak

    I knew that there was a logical explanation for the anemic job growth.
    After all… businessmen just love dealing with complicated tax codes and government regulations,that are subjuct to change at the drop of a hat.
    Doesn’t everybody?

  • camsaure

    And todays Luddites like to call themselves “progressives”.