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A dream passes

Something peculiar has been happening with that abstraction known as the American Economy, and the grand viziers known as economists are puzzled. It seems that unemployment is not rising, as had been expected; jobs, instead of becoming fewer are becoming more plentiful. It has dawned upon a few of these economists that perhaps the phenomenon is to be accounted for by the fact that energy has grown expensive and may become scarce. Is labor, they ask in their quaint jargon, "a substitute for energy?" They construct models, examine statistics, and argue among themselves in an effort to find out.

Far be it from me to pose as an economist, but I think I can throw some light on the question. In my experience, I walk a lot more than when gas was sixty cents a gallon; my wife will wash a few dished by hand rather than run the dishwasher; and we may stay home and read a book rather than attend a movie in a theatre that is either too cold or so expensive to heat that the cost of the show becomes exorbitantly high. In short, honest labor ism a substitute for reliance on high-cost fuels. Or, to put the matter differently, human energy is a substitute for the energy that lies buried in fossils or captured in a tank of gas.

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None of these particular shifts in living habits creates jobs, I admit. But if we translate personal trends into the wider sphere of industry and commerce, we begin to see how the job market is affected. If labor becomes less expensive than high-cost energy, then a manufacturer will tend to employ more men and women rather than install new machines. I have read that out West ranchers are employing numerous cowhands to drive their herds to market, rather than transport their stock by truck. In my part of Maine they are hiring bus drivers to bring employees to work, as individual driving becomes prohibitively expensive. And so in a thousand ways, in new industries that are created to minimize the energy crisis and in old industries that save on fuel, the pattern of American life and work is changing.

All this has its good side. I, for one, like to think of human beings in the role they played for so long in history: making things by their own strength and craft, and productively engaged in the world's work. I am convinced that nothing is so demoralizing as joblessness. If the drive to make technology the master, and man in this quarter. Yet it is well to realize that with the sudden reversal in the energy situation, our civilization is abandoning a dream that has long possessed it -- a dream that may have been illusory but was not ignoble.

That dream was the advance of science and technology to a point where men and women would be freed from the age-old compulsion to work, and where they could spend their days in a state of philosophic leisureliness. The utopians of the modern period really believed that labor-saving devices would reduce and perhaps finally eliminate the daily toil of men and women. They saw machines as the great liberators and benefactors of mankind.

To be sure, something was turning sour in this dream before the costs of energy began to soar. The freedom from work which the philosophers held out as their goal received the ugly name of unemployment. For politicians and economists the maintenance of "full employment" -- the creation of jobs no matter how socially unproductive -- became an overriding objective. Meanwhile, millions of men and women began to perceive that without some useful work life empty indeed.

So now we are back on the road to more jobs -- perhaps jobs for everyone after a long and troubling dearth. If so, it is the silver lining in the cloud that soaring oil prices have cast over the country. Not all the people will like the jobs that come their way. Many will hanker for the days when every difficult chore was to be accomplished by pushing a button. There will be a mixture of good and bad in the new situation. But then, life itself is a mixture, and the fate of man is always to escape from one dilemma to be cast into the midst of another. In this strange way progress is achieved and hope is kept alive.


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