Dozens of laborers digging and shoveling on roadways have been replaced by giant machines that smooth, grade, and lay the pavement. Farms are harvested by great machines. Mines are dug by powerful machines. Even the grading of school papers and counting election results are done by machines.
Consider the lowly garbage truck worker. At one time there was a driver and possibly several other workers who would fan out in the neighborhood, collecting trash cans, and dumping them by hand (and back) into the truck. There were a lot of injuries and problems with that method. In our municipality, the city gave out large carts on wheels. Now two workers would arrive. One would roll the cart to the truck and connect it to a mechanism that lifted the cart and dumped the contents without effort or injury. A few years later and the trucks and carts were replaced again, this time with large robot arms that pick up the cart at the curb. Now only one worker is required to collect the garbage.
Another trend supported by modern technology is mergers, acquisitions, and consolidation. Small businesses are replaced by giant corporations and coast-to-coast franchises. Although many view Wal-Mart as a company built on the backs of poorly paid workers, in reality the great success of Wal-Mart is more due to modern data processing. Giant computers in Arkansas process the previous day's sales and identify trends, order new goods, and manage a transportation system that carries these goods all across this land. The mom and pop store has been replaced by Wal-Mart, PetSmart, Home Depot, and the restaurants replaced by chains from McDonalds to Red Lobster. The service station attendant has been replaced by the self-service pump. The technology of advertising and leveraging economies of scale aided by the ever present calculating and computing machines has reshaped the commercial landscape.
― Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist
There is a place for government. Transitions of this scope are not going to be easy, and people will need protection from the negative effects of change. I'm not suggesting more government spending nor less. I'm arguing for clear priorities. There are buggy whips in some old government programs too. How can we maximize the investments made by the market and government to truly respond to these changing conditions? Some say the Pentagon is always fighting the last war. Is congress always responding to the last crisis? Is what worked in the Great Depression going to solve the Great Recession? Or is new thinking required? What should be the priorities for government spending in this twenty-first century?
How must businesses respond to these changes? How must American workers respond? Schools? Institutions? Charities? Investors? Tax payers? The news media? The public?