Fearing the Wheelbarrow

David Crane
Lecturer and Research Scholar at Stanford University and President of Govern for California

According to the Smithsonian, researchers believe the wheelbarrow first appeared in classical Greece between the sixth and fourth centuries B.C. and could pay for itself in just 3 or 4 days in terms of labor savings. Its invention drove a massive improvement in productivity that freed humans for other endeavors.

But imagine if the laborers at risk to losing their jobs to wheelbarrows were public employees represented by a union with power over Greece’s legislators at that time. Because the wheelbarrow threatened their jobs, one might expect them to seek to limit the use of wheelbarrows.

Sounds silly, doesn’t it? But fast forward ~25 centuries and you’ll find that sort of protectionism being attempted today in California. A bill — SB 366 (Dodd) — has been introduced in the California Legislature that would mandate staffing of automated vehicles (AV’s) until 2025 by at least one public employee in the case of public transit or one employee of a private entity that receives public monies. Even though the Senate Floor Analysis says “this [subject] is typically a subject for collective bargaining” as opposed to legislative action and “by requiring an employee in virtually every AV used for public transit purposes [the] bill diminishes the benefit of using AV’s,” the Senate passed the bill last week.

SB 366 is another example of the fear that so often determines the state legislature’s actions. Public transit workers fear technologies that could jeopardize their jobs and in turn legislators fear public employee unions who could jeopardize their jobs. It’s also an example of an ignorance of history. Last weekend a Berkshire Hathaway shareholder asked Warren Buffett “what do you make of the uncertain outlook for good full-time jobs with the rise of automation?” In response, Buffett pointed out that if the same question had been asked in the 1800’s when ~80 percent of Americans worked on farms and given the outlook then for the development of farm machinery that would eliminate ~90 percent of those jobs, that outlook would be terrible. But “our economy, our people and our system has been ingenious in achieving massive job growth even though ever since 1776 we’ve been figuring out ways to get rid of jobs. We never know exactly where [jobs] are going to come from, but we find ways in this economy to employ more and more people, and we’ve got more people employed than ever in the history of the country even though company after company has been trying to figure out how to get more productive all the time, which means turning out the same number of goods with fewer people or turning out more goods with the same number.”

Meanwhile, while the State Senate acts to protect cronies from automation, it is taking NO meaningful action on the single most important contributor to the economic mobility required to sustainably enable Californians to succeed in a changing world: Education. At the same time as the protectionist legislation was being passed by the senate, the school district serving the city in which legislators passed that legislation was issuing lay-off notices to teachers even though state spending on K-12 has never been greater, now exceeding $17,000 per student and $100 billion per year. Despite a 60 percent increase in spending, student performance hasn’t changed and teachers in Los Angeles, Oakland and Sacramento went on strikes because little of the money is showing up in their salaries.

Legislators know the reasons for all those problems. Only fear prevents them from acting.

No level of protectionism can stop progress or economic change. Only education, mobility and opportunity can help Californians successfully confront a competitive and fast changing world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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