Dynamist Blog


My latest NYT column looks at a real-world example of a common fear:

Suppose we lived in an economic world with no borders, where goods, capital and people could move anywhere.

We've all heard the dire predictions of what would happen. All the businesses and jobs would rush to the places with the lowest wages. The poor countries would get richer, but only by making rich countries poorer.

Eventually we'd all be roughly equal, but formerly well-to-do Americans would be a lot worse off. Many Americans are afraid that globalization and free trade will have exactly this effect.

We rarely realize that we already live in a version of that theoretical world. The United States is one giant free trade zone. Businesses can move their plants, investors can move their money and workers can move themselves from region to region without government permission.

The rest is here.


My New York Times Magazine article was not about the macroeconomic numbers of jobs. I didn't use the household survey in any of this reporting. These are not phantom numbers derived by statistical estimation from the household survey. These are real people with real jobs. We are getting a false picture of where jobs comes from 1) because the BLS survey doesn't break out some of these categories 2) because these growing occupations disproportionately involve self-employment or unincorporated partners and 3) for unknown reasons, even some employees who should be picked up on the payroll surveys aren't, at surprisingly high rates that no one can explain. The goal of my article was to provide a more accurate mental picture of where jobs might come from and to provide some anecdotal specifics to back up the general economic insight that rising productivity reallocates, rather than eliminates, productive resources, including labor. And, for what it's worth, I first started writing and thinking about this problem during the Clinton administration.

That's the reply to the serious criticisms of the article. Then there's the more common, less serious criticism, "these aren't good jobs." Says who? Not the people who have them. If you look down on these jobs, that says more about your snobbery--or perhaps your ignorance of the drudgery of factory jobs--than about the work itself.

I've been writing about the evolution of work long enough to notice a persistent pattern: If you point out the high-wage jobs being created, people say, "We can't all be brainiacs and techies. What about the average high school graduate? They'll be flipping hamburgers at minimum wage." If, as in this article, you point out the error of that assumption and demonstrate that high school graduates are in fact finding work that pays reasonably well (and is satisfying to boot), people say, "Well, what about the computer programmers?"

The economy is constantly creating, as well as destroying, jobs for people with many different levels of skill and training. My NYTM piece was concerned mostly about people without much education, but with discipline and skills--the classic "work hard and play by the rules" middle class. I could have written a similar piece on jobs that do require higher education, but high-income, highly educated NYTM readers are more likely to know about those jobs.

As for the comment on Dan Drezner's site that freelancers have trouble getting paid, that's true for people like me--it's the bane of my financial existence--but it isn't true for people in the jobs I wrote about. They mostly get paid at the time they deliver their product or service.


I'm on multiple deadlines, with little time to blog, but I do need to respond briefly to the blogosphere's reading of my NYT Magazine piece. That article is not designed to enter the ongoing, and quite partisan, debate about what the household versus payroll surveys tell us about current levels of employment.

My interest was in the question, Where will new jobs come from? A lot of non-economists are genuinely afraid that in the future there will be no jobs, or that there will be no jobs for people without large amounts of education--people like Denise Revely. From other research, I know of a number of aesthetic professions where jobs are growing rapidly. I found that in every such category the BLS counts were way under or, at best, obscured in categories dominated by losses in traditional manufacturing (e.g., paper mill workers vs. stone fabricators). Some of the undercount is accounted for by failing to count self-employed people, but not all of it. I don't, however, think that the BLS's survey errors are random and therefore unimportant if we want to understand where the economy is headed.


Productivity has risen rapidly over the past year, to the astonishment and delight of most economists. But a lot of people are still worried. What if increased productivity means that jobs disappear? Could the economy get too efficient? All over the world, even in China, factories are producing more stuff with fewer workers. On the Internet, visionaries fret over the rise of robots, while programmers denounce American companies for "outsourcing" their once-secure jobs to Indian engineers. Is this the recession -- or the recovery -- that does away with American jobs for good?

I take up this question in this weekend's NYT Magazine.


The California GOP encouraged members and affiliate groups to recruit diverse candidates to run as Republicans. The Log Cabin Club lined up a bunch, more than any other group. The San Francisco Chronicle reports.

Of course, running gay Republicans in hopelessly Democratic districts is not entirely new in California politics. I remember back in 1992, when Mark Robbins ran for Congress in my district. A pre-election LAT feature reported:

In this, an election year of almost rabid anti-incumbency, it would seem that attorney Mark A. Robbins has a real opportunity to win a plum congressional seat representing much of the Westside and southern San Fernando Valley.

Robbins, 33, is a "fiscally responsive but socially aware" pro-choice candidate waging a well-financed and politically sophisticated campaign against an incumbent forced to run in an unfamiliar new district.

As an openly gay candidate, Robbins can count on some support from progressives and gay voters in Silverlake, West Hollywood and Santa Monica. And the fact that his opponent is a veteran congressman who bounced 434 checks in the House bank scandal -- and who is at the very heart of the Capitol Hill political Establishment -- doesn't hurt either. The incumbent, Robbins never tires of saying, "represents all that's wrong with the political system today."

Yet, political analysts give Robbins and three other candidates in the 29th Congressional District race little or no chance of winning. The reason: They are running against Rep. Henry A. Waxman, one of the most recognized and well-funded liberal politicians in the nation.

Robbins lost with 26% of the vote, to Waxman's 61%. I met him at a party not long after the election. "Hey, I voted for you," I said. He responded with a smile, "I wish more people had." Now he's the Bush administration's appointee as general counsel at the Office of Personnel Management.


Thanks to a couple of postings last September (here and here), I learned that a lot of readers are fascinated by the evolution of musical instruments, particularly guitars. Has Tech Central Station got a story for you, by Ed Driscoll.

And as a special bonus, here's a cool email from reader Martin McClellan, who wrote in response to the September posts:

I had to write after reading your post about the Les Paul story. I managed a very large used-guitar shop here in Seattle for nearly 7 years. Two stories came to mind while I read the post:

1. An old timer came into the shop to get some of his guitars worked on. He told us about working at the Gibson factory in the 70's. One day he was shown a flat of Les Paul bodies with the necks already glued on. Some had finish sprayed on, some didn't even have the necks shaped and curved from the raw block. His boss told him that these were flawed guitars, and his job? Run them all through the band saw. He did, he said, crying the whole time at having to destroy something so beautiful.

2. Another day a guy came in to try some amps, and with him he a large, heavy road case--the kind designed to keep a guitar safe in any type of transit. He popped it up on the counter, opened the top, and sitting there was a '58 flame top Les Paul in pretty good shape. If this were a movie, rays of golden sunlight would have shot from the case with a chorus of angels "aaaaaahhhhhhh"-ing in the background. I asked gingerly if I could inspect the guitar, and he gave his permission. I picked it up, and looked it over head to toe. Now, in the vintage guitar world, authenticity is king. A fine guitar that has been refinished could be worth considerably less than its counterpart with badly damaged original finish. Also, guitar parts are a large part of the equation--not only for value, but dating the guitar, making sure it's authentic, stock, etc. I spent 10 minutes with this guitar, and it was perfect. Every part on it was stock, the serial number and stamping impression were right, the nitro cellulose finish aged exactly as it should. The pickups, the knobs, the tuners, the wood on the neck, the flame maple on the top, the fade of the sunburst--all perfect. I'll bet if I pulled the wiring harness and looked at the potentiometers they would have a the right date too. But then I looked up at the musician and he had a thin, wry smile. "It's a fake" he said, and unscrewed the back panel that holds the electronics to show us the stamp of the maker.

Turns out there is a guy in Canada making perfect reproductions of these guitars. He makes them, ages them and sells them to people who can't afford the real deal. His price? $5000. And he's backed up for a few years, from what this musician told me. You can get a lot of guitar for that price, but maybe not a real sunburst, and if you want the real deal, this is the next best option. I always had good radar for guitars that are fake, or have been altered, and this one sent up no warning bells. It was a dead ringer for the original.

But mostly, the idea that a secondary market for these guitars that have been priced out of the reach of most professional musicians is an interesting phenomena--certainly one we see a lot with cheap (and some not-so-cheap) factory knock-offs of famous guitars. Outside of the guitar world, I think of the mass printing of famous paintings as posters, but the interesting thing about the guitars is that these aren't necessarily replicas in the standard sense, they are as much a piece of art and craftsmanship as the original Les Pauls were. They are truly a labor of love, no matter the price. They are the work of a true artisan.

Now I'm a Graphic Designer, so I'm eager to read your book--but seeing guitars mentioned on your blog was a perfect bridge between two of my own lives. Thanks for a good morning read!

Thanks to everyone who wrote in. I love all the notes you send, even though I can't always answer them.


I've argued in The Future and Its Enemies and related work that the human drive to play is an important spur to economic progress and a model of innovation within rules. As productivity rises in other areas, increasingly play is itself an industry.

On his excellent sports-and-technology blog, Nick Schulz, who helped me research the TFAIE chapter, writes about the "perfect profession," competitive video gaming. And Jesse Walker sends along this A.P. piece on the growing discipline of "ludology."

Ever yearn to study "Tetris" as a metaphor for American consumerism? Or write a paper on narrative structure in the horror action game "Silent Hill"? How about ponder "Grand Theft Auto III," infamous for its violent bent, as an examination of the human condition?

Too bad. Someone already has.

Rejecting the stigma that games are only for kids, researchers around the world are making computer games the subject of serious academic pursuit alongside literature, music and art. They are staking out space in universities--with Ph.D. programs, research centers and online journals.

Game studies (or "ludology," as it's known, from the Latin for "game"), has spawned a new class of academics who devote themselves to analyzing how the wildly popular form of entertainment tells stories--and what it reveals about how we express ourselves....

"If we were 25 years in the history of motion pictures and the only question that was being asked was whether or not they were violent, we would think they were missing some important questions," said Henry Jenkins, a leading game researcher and head of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Comparative Media Studies program.


Thanks to all the readers who weighed in on the comfy chair issue. Andrew McKenzie writes:

When I worked at Borders in Plano several years ago, the manager removed all the chairs at one point. Too many people complained, so he brought some of them back. But every so often, he'd remove a couple more until we had almost none left. As you know, West Plano has no homeless problem, but his theory was that people bought more and bought faster if they couldn't sit down. I protested even then, but corporate management left it to the manager.

Now I live in Seattle--the downtown Borders hasn't had any chairs for years. B&N kept theirs. I've been loyal to Borders, and they unarguably have broader selection, but I find myself frequenting B&N more often lately...

I turned out to be wrong about the Westwood Borders. They do have a few of their hard wooden benches left. I even found one right under an electrical outlet. But the place isn't what it used to be. Writing from LA, Dilan Esper corrects my memory of the breastfeeding flap of a few years back:

A minor correction on the breastfeeding incident at Borders that you blogged about. It occurred in the children's section of the Glendale Borders, not the Westwood store. Here's the link.

(By the way, since it occurred in the children's section, it was probably on one of those uncomfortable "kiddie chairs" that are often in such sections, not a comfortable couch. But I can't prove that.)


Praising Jonathan Rauch's latest column, Andrew Sullivan writes, "Jon Rauch is, in my view, the most honest thinker of his generation." I support any and all praise for Jonathan, who's a great writer and a wonderful person. But, let's be honest here: He's only four years older than Andrew. That makes it our generation. Welcome to your forties, Mr. Sullivan. (Pre-order Jonathan's excellent book, Gay Marriage: Why It's Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America, forthcoming in April, here or his classic defense of freedom of thought, Kindly Inquisitors here.)

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