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The Iceman Goeth: Politicians Ignore the Biggest Threat to American Jobs

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As the presidential candidates spout on about jobs and the economy, I sometimes wish I could put my late grandfather on the stage during the debates. Not just because he had a low tolerance for blather, although he did, and I think the politicians would find his comments, let's say, bracing. The real reason is that his experience has more relevance to the jobs debate than most of what the politicians are talking about.

My grandfather had a job that doesn't even exist anymore. In fact, most people may never have heard of it (except via Eugene O'Neill). He was an "iceman," delivering big blocks of ice to homes and businesses in the era before refrigeration. Back then, if you wanted to keep things cold, you kept your food in an insulated icebox (essentially a big cooler). Ice men like my grandfather were daily visitors, just like the milkman or the paper carrier.

Eventually technology came out with something better, but my grandfather knew that wasn't necessarily going to be better for him. As my father used to tell it, the family was once invited to dinner during the 1930s; a dinner that ended with ice cream out of a refrigerator. An electric refrigerator.

My grandfather didn't say anything, but there was no way in hell he was going to eat that demon dessert, no matter how hard my grandmother kicked him under the table. Finally, when the hostess' back was turned, she switched dishes, putting her empty one in front of grandfather and eating the second one herself.

That kind of defiance wasn't going to hold back the refrigerator, any more than John Henry could hold off the steam hammer. By the 1950s, 80 percent of American households had refrigerators, and my grandfather was out of the ice business and back to his farm.

My grandfather was an example of the "creative destruction" of jobs that economists (and lately presidential candidates) embrace. Technology both creates and destroys jobs, usually at the same time, and ideally because a superior product came along. Refrigerators were better than iceboxes. Eventually even my grandfather admitted it. If you look at the overall economy, the loss of ice routes was more than made up by new jobs making refrigerators.

The key word in creative destruction, however, is "creative." Now we're living in another time not unlike the 1930s, with a jobs crisis that's partly a massive failure of financial markets and partly a huge technological shift in the nature of work. There's no question the Great Recession slammed the global economy. But one reason why the jobs market has been so slow to recover is that technology is enabling us to do more work with fewer people -- or with people anywhere around the world.

Ah, but your grandfather was a blue-collar worker, you may say. Those kinds of jobs are begging to be automated. If he'd gone to college, that would have been a different story.

And that's very true: if my grandfather had gone to college he probably wouldn't have been an ice man, or a farmer. But an education isn't the guaranteed haven from technological change it used to be. The working assumption that most people have -- that technology favors the smart, the creative, and the well-educated -- may not hold up any more.

Figure it this way: it's about the difference between repetitive tasks and those that require analysis. If you're working on an assembly line, picking vegetables or handling deposits and withdrawals over a bank counter, a machine might do your job better. If you're in charge of making sure those jobs get done, or marketing them, then a computer may help you, but it can't do the job for you.

Unfortunately, the definition of "repetitive" is going to keep shifting. "E-discovery" software, which can sort through email and documents looking for suspicious patterns, is already taking on a job traditionally done by paralegals and junior associates in law forms. IBM's "Watson" computer, which can respond to questions well enough to play "Jeopardy," is really designed to take over tasks from nurses and doctors, like taking medical histories. But you'll still need a human being to write a brief, argue in court, or conduct your surgery.

The jobs crisis is the first priority for most Americans, and rightly so. If you don't have a decent job in America, your entire life can unravel. Yet in the early stages of a crucial presidential campaign, we're spending far too much time asking the wrong questions: can we "hold onto" the jobs we have? Should we cut taxes? Does a college education pay off?

What we really need to do -- and what our political candidates better start doing -- is talk about what kind of jobs technology is likely to create, and what kind it destroys, and how our national policy can get ahead of that curve. The economy will work these issues out in the long run, but it'll be a lot less ugly if we actually start planning for the changes we know are coming. Anything else is like refusing to eat the ice cream from the refrigerator: a stand that doesn't change a thing.

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