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Jim Hightower Trips Over An Economic Truth

Green jobs make us all poorer.

By Petrarch  |  August 20, 2009

Writing for Scragged has many pleasures, but it's not tea and crumpets all the time.  One of the less appealing and yet essential duties is to wade through reams of nonsensical liberal dreck to find out what they're thinking - "know thy enemy" being the first rule of Scragged - and it's no fun.  At times, only stern professional discipline can keep the logical mind from shutting down, poisoned by the Utopian illogic of the bleeding-heart left.

In compensation, there are other times when our dutiful research stumbles upon a diamond of truth so transcendent, so brilliant in its exposition, as to inspire awe.  Just such a gem appeared in our latest edition of notorious liberal Jim Hightower's rag, the Hightower Lowdown.

It should come as no surprise that Mr. Hightower hates evil corporate capitalists, loves anything "environmentalist," and despises greedy businessmen who put profits over employees.  This month's cover article waxes eloquent over the glories of Mr. Obama's mooted new Green Economy, in which we will not only save the planet but also increase the number of good, union-wage-paying jobs which carry health benefits and pensions.

Right smack in the middle of the article, Mr. Hightower gives the clearest explanation we've ever seen of just why a "green" economy along the lines he recommends will have exactly the opposite result: the green economy will make us all poorer, not richer.  Let's listen to his explanation:

Aggressively displacing workers with computerized facilities and high-cost machinery, today's extractive-energy corporations have been making their industry extremely capital-intensive.  Green energy, on the other hand, is labor-intensive, employing not only engineers and scientists but also huge numbers of skilled steelworkers, machinists, electricians, pipe fitters, operating engineers, sheet-metal workers, carpenters, laborers, and others.  This is why such worker advocates as the United Steelworkers union are so enthusiastically in support of the new green economy.

Technology Is Wealth

For once, Jim Hightower hits the nail precisely on the head.  Modern manufacturers have, in fact, been replacing labor with technology as fast as possible.

Think of the thousands of women and children working in the Amoskeag textile mills of the 1800s, hundreds of workers employed as telephone operators, or the dozens of girls sitting at sewing machines in 1957's The Pajama Game.  No American factory looks anything like that today.  The days of mass industrial employment are over, replaced by a shining robotic factory and a handful of highly-trained engineers to keep the machines ticking over.

That's a good thing.  The whole reason our modern American economy offers luxuries such as air conditioning, central heating, and automobiles to the common man that the kings of the past could only dream of is because of the multiplying power of technology.

From the first time a caveman discovered that bashing his prey's brains in with a rock worked better than throttling the beast with his bare hands, mankind has excelled in finding ways to make his life better by using technology to get more work done more quickly, easily, and with less personal effort.

Consider one example: is it "better" for the economy to dig a ditch using a hundred guys with shovels or one guy driving a backhoe?  Obviously the first way employs more people; equally obviously, the second way is going to provide a more comfortable, better paying job at a cheaper price.

If the only goal is employment, why even provide shovels?  We could employ a thousand ditch-diggers using teaspoons!

"That's ridiculous!" you shout, and you're exactly right.  The more technology is used, the more useful value is generated per man-hour... and the better the wages can be.  In economic terms, this is called increasing productivity; and the higher the productivity, the more money there is for everyone.

Think about it: By definition, in a profit-making business, wages have to come from money earned in large part by the worker's labor.  If the worker does not produce enough in an hour to justify his pay, either he'll get sacked or, like our overburdened auto manufacturers, the company will go under.  That's why unions eventually destroy their hosts: they force wages up to un-economic levels and prevent employers from making necessary adjustments in response to competition.

The only long-term way to get higher wages for workers is to use more technology.

What sort of world would provide the best possible life for the average person?  A world of maximum technology - say, the Star Trek world of replicators that can instantly produce anything you want and the only work you have to do is push the button.

What sort of world would be the worst one?  One where there is no technology at all and anything you want, you have to make with your own hands.  That's why we worry about being blasted back to the Stone Age, an end not generally considered to be a Good Thing.  Remember, the Stone Age did not end because we ran out of stones, it ended because we found better ways to do things.

Waste Makes Poverty

Yet, in effect, Jim Hightower, Barack Obama, and the rest of the liberal Democrats who want a "green" economy are arguing that we should return to the era of lower - or at least, far less efficient and effective - technology.  They want us to stop using the powerful, automated, high-energy technologies that have made our modern comforts possible and instead solve the unemployment problem by hiring people to do what machines could do more cheaply.

If it takes a hundred times as many workers and twice as much money to get electricity from windmills instead of coal generating plants, only a fool would choose the former... but there sure do seem to be a lot of idealistic fools running around these days.

Where does this stop?  Shall we ban automatic push-button elevators and require office buildings to hire human elevator operators, as were common before computer controls?  Should we ban e-mail, instead requiring everyone to write letters so as to keep postmen employed?

What about Jim's own Hightower Lowdown - I bet he writes and composes it on a computer.  Wouldn't it be better for employment if he had it manually typeset and printed using a Linotype machine, or better yet, a Gutenberg manual press?  How 'bout those unemployed ditch-diggers, anyway?  Ban the backhoes!

Of course, our politicians and elites don't need to worry about such things.  They will never lack for minions to run their elevators or dig their ditches.  For the rest of us, though, modern technology - yes, even fully-automated factories that employ only a handful of real people - are what has given each and every one of us material wealth beyond the comprehension of any previous society in human history.

Thanks to Jim Hightower's clear explanation, we can all understand why.  If only he and his friends could understand his message.

As Winston Churchill put it, "Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing had happened."