A liberal fantasy

I occasionally watch The Five on Fox.  Recently, the discussion concerned Trump’s effort to return manufacturing jobs to the United States, and Dana Perino opined that perhaps what is needed is a federal job training program for workers.

Lots of nodding conservative heads around the table.

For a liberal fantasy.

Because government has no more idea what new and emerging technologies to train people for than it knows what genetic characterization will emerge in the next strain of influenza.  And going back in time, we see that governments had no clue which stirrups would emerge to revolutionize horse handling, no clue how fore and aft ship rigging would emerge and revolutionize shipping, no clue about the emergence of steam engine, heavier than air flight, the computer, or the latte.

And only yesterday not the slightest clue about the emergence of Donald Trump.

Because while they might work in the palaces taxpayer money hath wrought, they don’t own a crystal ball.

So what makes Dana Perino think they will magically know now what new skills someone should acquire in the twenty-first century?  Indeed, you can make the case that government is good at only spotting a trend that has peaked and funding it in a colossal waste of resources  more or less in the manner in which many community colleges and other government entities suddenly started offering courses in the spreadsheet program LOTUS at almost the exact moment people starting switching to EXCEL.

BBC News online published a marvelous article the other day about the emergence of a new technology.  The title is "The Simple Steel Box That Transformed Global Trade."  It’s the story of Malcom McLean, the man who more than anyone else solved the problems connected with standardizing the steel shipping container and in the process overcoming the reluctance, obstruction, indeed often the sabotage of government in order to reduce the costs of shipping across the Atlantic from hundreds of dollars a ton to fifty.  It's a development no government predicted or, for political reasons, wanted to allow but that had more to do with the expansion of world trade than almost anything else we can think of.

Still, as much of a seer as Mr. McLean was, he could no more tell you how people were going to spend or invest that saved money than your congressman could.  Indeed, it’s only the few private geniuses guessing wrong and guessing wrong and guessing wrong until they guessed right (which is why they’re called geniuses) who can make any sense out of the issue.

Except that we can be pretty certain something would emerge, because we’ve been automating for a couple of hundred years and have many times the number of jobs we started with.

And we’re always richer after people like Mr. McLean work their magic, because we get two things where there was only one before  in this case, goods shipped to Europe and maybe an air conditioner or a weekend away with the wife.  It's just like when steel went from $7.00 a pound to two pounds for three cents in the nineteenth century, and we could afford to buy many new things, better things, or when tires went from lasting 10,000 miles in the mid-twentieth century to lasting twenty, thirty, even forty, and so the money our parents would have spent on replacements would then buy a color TV.

But again, the point is that none of us can ever be certain that he would buy that TV or what else a free market might produce.  That’s the wonder of America.

And to think that government can, because they can hold committee meetings, pass laws, and spend money, is a liberal fantasy.

Indeed, the best government can do is train people in LOTUS just as the market is shifting to EXCEL.  Always behind the curve.  Always driving forward while looking in the rearview mirror.

And so what it should do is just get out of everyone’s way when Trump, if he does, returns millions of manufacturing jobs to the U.S.  And stop with the liberal fantasies about tinkering with people’s lives.

Richard F. Miniter is the author of The Things I Want Most, Random House, BDD.  See it here.  He lives and writes in the colonial-era hamlet of Stone Ridge, New York, blogs here, and can also be reached at miniterhome@gmail.com.