Sunday, December 2, 2012

Free stuff kills jobs.

Finally someone said it!

I’ve been catching up on some reading lately and saw an article in the Sunday New York Times from November 18, 2012, entitled, “In Apps Boom, Few Are Realizing Wealth in a Crowded Field.”

One sentence shook me at the core. An MIT economist explained how technology was eating up employment. “Technology is always destroying jobs and creating jobs,” said Erik Brynjolfsson, director of the M.I.T. Center for Digital Business. “But in recent years, the destruction has been happening faster than the creation.”

I’ve known this and blogged about it for some time. I’ve discussed it with my big brother, who is an engineer and retired Navy captain with an expansive life experience in technology, including missile defense systems. “I feel like we’re reaching a state of entropy,” I told him. “We’re getting to the point where technology is becoming socially counterproductive. It’s eliminating jobs and performing some functions that are not really adding value, while at the same time providing remarkable advantages.”

Simultaneously, we’ve reached an era when the world expects so much for free, and it just isn’t working. For example, Automobile Club members used to receive trip directions as a courtesy for their premiums and travel agents worked on commission from airlines and hotels. Now we use Google and MapQuest at no charge and no one requests a triptik from AAA. But we also make our own travel arrangements and hunt for deals.

Computers enable customers to do all kinds of jobs for free. Shoppers check themselves out; consumers pay bills and bank online; travelers book airline tickets; drivers pump gas and pay for it at the pump, and investors buy and sell with the click of a mouse. In some cases, like Internet stock trades, automation saves us money. In most cases, it spares us nothing, while costing us jobs and making corporations huge profits.

Recently my wife, Ellen, and I flew out of Detroit Metro airport on a weekday morning. The Delta agent stood with nothing to do, while she pointed dozens of passengers to kiosks so they could process their own boarding passes. We lifted our luggage onto the scale while we paid the airlines $85 in luggage fees. Think about it, we paid extra to work as airline employees.

I predict in time there will be no boarding/baggage agent at all. Think I’m foolish? Is there a teller at the ATM? Who checks your oil and windshield solvent at the gas station? And now, you pay to put air in your tires.

“But,” you protest, “computer technology is creating enormous job opportunities for software developers.” Indeed, there has been an explosion in the sector of computer engineers, according to the latest government data. The New York Times reports there are now more than one million geeks, outnumbering farmers in the United States.

These are highly technical jobs that few can do. How profitable are they? Well, that depends. The New York Times suggests a minority of geeks are making a living by writing  smart phone and tablet applications. Yet, independent developers often put up a life’s savings to develop and promote their ideas.

Meanwhile, Apple is making a fortune on the work of these brilliant inventors, taking 30% of every buck spent on some 700,000 apps that work with the iPhone and iPad. And Apple doesn’t invest a penny for development. They simply wet their beaks at the App Store. It’s a monopoly. Anyone who wants to write an app for Apple’s devices has no choice.

We’ve reached a time when free is an expectation of big business, except when it comes to the prices they charge for consumer goods and services. Yet, creative people continue to be pressed to give away their services and inventions while we chase our tails in search of a better economy.

We used to develop and make things for a good day’s wage. Now we give them away in hopes of a false promise of sharing in some future success. For example, when our sons were young, we spent $2,000 with Encyclopedia Britannica to ensure they had valuable information at their fingertips. Now, there’s Wikipedia, a free, online resource that begs for contributions, because it’s “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit.” That also means no one can genuinely rely on it, at least not with the confidence Britannica provided. By the way, you can now buy the final print edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. It’s becoming a free online reference. When you search a topic, you’ll see ads alongside content. Commercially-sponsored education.  

We have bought into a virtual world where nothing is real, because it can change in a moment. The same is true for the facts in our record of history. As newspapers eliminate print editions, the final edition is never filed. And this trend will continue as long as we can read electronic newspapers for free.

Free has a price, and sometimes the costs are hidden until they pile up in the backroom, like so many unemployment claims and foreclosures. Every time your grocery store gets you to pay them for the privilege to bag your own groceries, that’s a job you’re killing.

In support of the real world where all work has value that should be rewarded, this is my final, free blog for the Dearborn Press & Guide. I will not write for free, unless it’s for my church or a charity. To my family, friends and business colleagues, I’ll continue to post via Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. But I can’t support a system that kills jobs.

Thanks for taking the time to read my thoughts. You deserve paid, professional journalism and commentary.