Star Trek & Buggy Whips: The Truth About Vanished Jobs

It doesn't take toiling thousands to make goods anymore.

When people talk about progress and change, they often bring up the example of buggy whip manufacturers.  Around the turn of the century, there were manufacturers who made buggy whips.  They specialized in buggy whips and that's all they did.  A buggy whip was designed to make a crack, getting your horse (or horses) to go faster.  It was the 19th century version of a gas pedal.

As motorized vehicles became more popular and eventually supplanted horse-drawn modes, buggy whip manufacturers disappeared.  It was a natural progress in manufacturing and economics from one product through its obsolescence to other products.

We talk about how the buggy whip manufacturing lobby didn't exist, because if they had, and circumstances were similar to today's, this special interest group would lobby for special protections.  They need jobs, they know how to make buggy whips and buggy whips have been an important part of the economy.  We can't lose this manufacturing base!

Of course, the whole discussion seems absurd.  We don't need buggy whip manufacturers because we don't drive horse drawn buggies.

Unfortunately, the protectionists among us are using the same arguments trying to prop up American manufacturing and the perception that our jobs are being exported around the world.  If you don't believe this, just substitute "buggy whip" for whatever job it is that's being exported.  It becomes clear that the arguments are similarly wrongheaded.

In Gene Roddenbury's Star Trek future, a device called a "replicator" has been invented.  This device allows anything to be created from energy.  You want a steak, press the steak button and a machine creates a steak from energy.  In theory, nobody has to manufacture anything.

The loss of buggy whips pales in comparison to the loss of most manufacturing jobs.  What does everyone do?  Well, in the Star Trek universe, people are able to spend time on more lofty pursuits.

This same thing is happening in our world today.  All countries with traditional manufacturing strengths are losing jobs.  Even the Chinese, who we think are taking our jobs, lost 24% of their industrial jobs from 1995 to 2002.

What's happened?  If we're losing jobs and the Chinese are losing jobs, where are they going?  At home and overseas jobs are being destroyed and recreated.  This has always happened, and will continue to happen.

Obviously, it isn't that we've invented replicators, yet.  But we have automated processes and this is what's driving most of the job loss around the world.

We need fewer people to make more stuff.  Even the Chinese need fewer people to make more stuff.  The truth is that there will be an ever decreasing number of jobs as time goes on.  The manufacturing world is becoming more automated.

The robots are taking the jobs.  And, just like the buggy whip manufacturers of the last century, workers of the next century are going to need to find something different to do.

It won't matter if you're American or Chinese, it's not likely that you'll be manufacturing stuff.  The jobs will disappear.  They will go away.  It's either that, or we stop progress and go back to the horse and buggy and reteach the lost art of making buggy whips.

Ending on a positive note, there are things we can do.  Create.  Create new ideas, new products and new services.  New things for the robots to make.  New things for people to do.

But this will take a significant shift in our ideas about education.  Are we educating people to do a job, or to think (a subject for another post at another time).

In Star Trek, it appears humanity had escaped the drudgery of providing for existence to spend it searching the stars.  That sounds better than whining about the robots taking all of our jobs.

Fennoman is a guest writer for  Read other articles by Fennoman or other articles on Economics.
Reader Comments
"Even the Chinese, who we think are taking our jobs, lost 24% of their industrial jobs from 1995 to 2002"

Assuming that's true, the whole political debate on "getting jobs back" is a complete non issue. Jobs aren't going to someone else. They're dissolving in the wake of new TYPES of jobs. Why don't Michigan factory workers learn to do something else instead of waiting for their assembly lines to come back? Good article.
February 5, 2008 12:23 PM
Which Romney should know as a businessman and economist. So why did he promise to "get back" jobs for Michiginians?
February 5, 2008 12:33 PM
Mr. Romney promised to "get Michigan jobs back" for the same reason that everybody promises Iowa corn growers that they'll force the rest of us to buy ethanol - they need the votes. You can call it pandering, huckstering, or lots of other things including whoredom, but it all rolls up into "politics."

Mr. Romney has created thousands of jobs in the businesses he founded or funded; he knows how it's done. He KNOWS full well that only Michigan can create Michigan jobs. They have to fix their education system, tear down a lot of anti-business rules and taxes, break the unions, and get Detroit a decent government. If he says that, they won't vote for him.

As Adlai Stephenson said, "When there's a choice between disagreeable reality and agreeable fantasy, the American people will go for the agreeable fantasy every time." On a more optimistic note, Winston Churchill said, "We can always rely on the American people to do the right thing, but not until after they've tried everything else."
February 5, 2008 12:50 PM
I think Romney wasn't pandering or "whoring" himself to the Michigan voters. Catch what he said specifically - "get Michigan jobs back". He never said WHICH jobs. He only said he would help Michigan decrease its unemployment; voters can assume whatever they want. It is perfectly legitimiate for Romney to have meant that there will be different jobs that Michigan has to provide.
February 5, 2008 1:03 PM
Good points on Romney. The challenge, of course, is to check your premise before you accept the question.

The question has always seemed to have been "we need to save jobs, rather than make sure people have the tools, education, motivation, incentives, whatever to create new jobs. FedEx type jobs (you know the story - the guy who started FedEx got a poor grade in his class for the idea of FedEx. Now, we can't seem to live without overnight delivery).
February 5, 2008 1:13 PM
Robots always take jobs. Usually they're just people who can't keep up.

The analogy of the replicators is perfect. I've seen the same thing on the Stargate SG1 show on SciFi and thought the same thing before. Would the Dems blame Bush if replicators came to our planet and created whatever they wanted on the spot? Of course, they'd first blame him for not protecting the planet against alien invasion.
February 5, 2008 6:45 PM
Let's look at the discussion a different way. What if Mr. Fusion were a real product? Virtually free, clean, safe energy available to everyone. Nobody has to pay for power plants, driving their cars around (hmmm... what are they going to tax to make up for the gas tax?).

It's ease to see that the world will never be the same... it wasn't the same yesterday, nor will it be the same tomorrow. Let's accept the fact and move on.
February 6, 2008 6:14 PM

Okay, so pay everyone to do nothing otherwise everything most of you Republican clowns are saying is simply more mean spirited nonsense.

July 17, 2012 7:13 PM

Leon Green: Sad comment.

July 17, 2012 8:01 PM
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