Walter E. Williams

In 1970, the telecommunications industry employed 421,000 switchboard operators. In the same year, Americans made 9.8 billion long distance calls. Today, the telecommunications industry employs only 78,000 operators. That's a tremendous 80 percent job loss.

What should Congress have done to save those jobs? Congress could have taken a page from India's history. In 1924, Mahatma Gandhi attacked machinery, saying it "helps a few to ride on the backs of millions" and warned, "The machine should not make atrophies the limbs of man." With that kind of support, Indian textile workers were able to politically block the introduction of labor-saving textile machines. As a result, in 1970 India's textile industry had the level of productivity of ours in the 1920s.

Michael Cox, chief economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, and author Richard Alms tell the rest of the telecommunications story in their Nov. 17 New York Times article, "The Great Job Machine." Spectacular technological advances made it possible for the telecommunications industry to cut its manpower needs down to 78,000 to handle not the annual 9.8 billion long distance calls in 1970, but today's over 98 billion calls.

One forgotten beneficiary in today's job loss demagoguery is the consumer. Long distance calls are a tiny fraction of their cost in 1970. Just since 1984, long distance costs have fallen by 60 percent. Using 1970s technology, to make today's 98 billion calls would require 4.2 million operators. That's 3 percent of our labor force. Moreover, a long distance call would cost 40 times more than it does today.

Finding cheaper ways to produce goods and services frees up labor to produce other things. If productivity gains aren't made, where in the world would we find workers to produce all those goods that weren't even around in the 1970s?

It's my guess that the average anti-free-trade person wouldn't protest, much less argue that Congress should have done something about the job loss in the telecommunications industry. He'd reveal himself an idiot. But there's no significant economic difference between an industry using technology to reduce production costs and using cheaper labor to do the same. In either case, there's no question that the worker who finds himself out of a job because of the use of technology or cheaper labor might encounter hardships. The political difference is that it's easier to organize resentment against India and China than against technology.


Walter E. Williams

Dr. Williams serves on the faculty of George Mason University as John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of Economics and is the author of 'Race and Economics: How Much Can Be Blamed on Discrimination?' and 'Up from the Projects: An Autobiography.'
 
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