Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Destroying jobs is progress

This week the Maine Public Utilities Commission stood up to organized labor and supported installing "smart meters."

Central Maine Power wants to use federal stimulus money to install the new smart meters around Maine. Currently, members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers drive around the state to read the meters in person. The smart meters are able to send that information directly.

But the union says this will destroy 141 meter reading jobs. They argue that the stimulus plan is supposed to save jobs - not destroy them.

There's a lot of bean counting on the national stage about how many jobs are filled in America. Unfortunately, the focus is simplistic. Unproductive jobs like meter readers do not help the economy. Smart meters are expected to lower Maine's electric bill by $25 million over the next two decades. Does it make sense to keep paying that money to avoid destroying jobs?

Imagine that there is a community somewhere in New England that still employs milkmen. Instead of buying milk at a store, customers get home milk deliveries in glass bottles, and leave the empties on their doorsteps.

What would happen if a large dairy wanted to start selling plastic jugs of milk in this community?

You would expect the milkmen to complain that they'll be out of work. However, destroying outdated jobs is a part of progress. Milkmen, wagon wheels and diving bells have all dried up in a process called creative destruction. The customers who buy milk at the store will save a lot of money with the new system.

What would happen if the plastic jugs came in, and a group of milkmen started a social movement to bring back the old system? You would expect them to dig up some argument about plastic jugs being unhealthy. You would then hear that banning plastic jugs will create jobs - milkmen jobs - in the community. Some of their arguments would be indistinguishable from the "Buy Local" movement. They would argue that using milkmen will keep money in the community, instead of going to an out-of-town dairy corporation. Side industries, like glass bottle making, would flourish. They would say this would create a local flavor and give consumers more choice over where their milk comes from.

But we know it's not sensible to have people truck bottles of milk around in fragile, glass containers. We know its cheap and convenient to use plastic jugs. Likewise, it makes perfect sense to use smart meters instead of paying people to drive around and read them in person. It's been 200 years since the Luddites argued that machines will destroy all of our jobs and it still hasn't happened. The money people save creates new industries and new jobs.

Suppose the smart meters were already in place, would it make sense to reinstall the old meters in order to create 141 meter reader jobs? If that doesn't make sense, it doesn't make sense to avoid installing them now.

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