In the basement of the newspaper where I worked during the summers of my youth was a prodigious printing press, a rumbling monster that looked like the engine of a Mississippi River steamboat. Pressmen, their faces and hands smeared with ink, swarmed over it with screwdrivers and wrenches to keep it running. On the floor above them, operators typed at keyboards to produce the actual metal type from which the paper was printed. Those jobs and the printing press itself are gone now, destroyed by technology. Newspapers — and journalists themselves — are also endangered species, their existence threatened by the Internet.
High school nerds in those days brandished devices known as slide rules, which facilitated mathematical calculations. Electronic gadgets have made slide rules obsolete, depriving nerds of their symbolic weapons and slide rule makers of their jobs. The Manor Bread man, who delivered baked goods to our house in a horse drawn van, is also gone, and so is the milkman, gone the way of the dodo. (The gallows and the guillotine have yielded to the gas chamber and the electric chair, though some might not call that progress.)
Numberless trades and businesses have vanished in my lifetime, throwing millions out of work. Where have the makers of buggy whips gone? For that matter, whatever happened to Studebaker, Packer, Nash, Hudson, Stanley Steamer, Kaiser, Frazier and all the other automobile makers who drove buggy makers out of business and are now themselves defunct? Why didn’t the government bail them out as it recently bailed out GM?
“Capitalists quite often invent the technology that destroys their own business,” according to an essay in “The Economist.” Kodak, which built one of the first digital cameras and was “the Google of its day,” has filed for bankruptcy. President Obama recently grieved over the loss of bank teller jobs to the ATM machine. The average life of American businesses is supposedly forty years. Jobs are destroyed, and new jobs are created. That’s progress. But it’s also part of the “creative destruction,” which gives capitalism a bad name.
Which brings us to poor Mitt Romney. He couldn’t possibly have picked a more unfortunate profession than “private equity manager” to decorate his resume for a run to the presidency. Job Destroyer! Vulture Capitalist! Predatory Corporate Raider! To top it off, he blurted out, “I like being able to fire people.” He might as well have said, “I enjoy watching children starve to death.” What gaffes might he issue from the Oval Office: “I like to drop bombs on hospitals”?
Regardless of how many jobs Romney created or destroyed at Bain Capital, no matter if he was engaged in charity on behalf of mankind, there’s just no way to sell the benefits of capitalism to the tender-hearted American public. “Voters and politicians don’t believe jobs should ever be destroyed,” one writer observed. If jobs were protected from destruction, we’d still be making buggy whips and enjoying a mirage of “social justice” — along with a lower standard of living. But wouldn’t buggy whip jobs help solve the unemployment problem? Sure, just like the “green jobs” our entrepreneurial government has promised to pull out of its magical hat.
I have no opinion on Romney’s fitness for the presidency. But I am certain that none of the candidates, including Obama, has any intention of addressing our economic problems, including our Byzantine tax code, unsustainable entitlements and regulatory briar patch. Politicians aren’t going to reform anything — and we would howl if they did. Reform would cost the politicians votes and endanger our precious entitlements. We’d rather console ourselves with promises that can’t be kept than face the music and tighten our belts.
Not to worry, though. Global competition will do for us what we lack the courage and unselfishness to do. Either we undertake the changes necessary to survive and prosper, or we go the way of the buggy whip, the slide rule and the dodo.