Elvin has been one of Santa’s elves for decades. Normally a jolly fellow, he called me last week with desperation
in his voice.
“I can’t go on,” he said.
“What’s the problem?” I asked. “Is Santa making unreasonable demands on the elves this year? I’ve told you to form a union if he refuses to listen to reason. You have rights that need to be respected.”
“No,” he answered. “The old goat is just his usual self. Sitting on his throne, arbitrarily deciding who has been naughty and who has been nice. It’s depressing to see so much power over the happiness of children in his ancient hands. He has no known standards; there are no posted criteria for naughty or nice on his Web site. But, no, he’s not the problem.”
“Tell me about it,” I said in my most supportive voice.
“It’s the Amazon Kindle, the Sony eReader, and all such devices to follow,” Elvin said, sobbing.
“Pull it together, friend,” I said. “What about these machines troubles you?”
“For my entire career with Santa,” Elvin said, “I’ve made toys and other gifts that bring joy, comfort and knowledge to children and adults. It’s been a good life and I could feel good about my elf-self. I was sustaining a great tradition.
“Now, however,” Elvin’s voice cracked with emotion, “there are these devices that are direct attacks on books, newspapers and other printed matter.”
“So what’s new?” I said. “Movies, the phonograph, radio, TV, videotapes, DVDs, the Internet, also were supposed to kill books and newspapers. Yet they survive.”
“This is different,” Elvin insisted. “All those other substitutes for books and newspapers added new dimensions to the printed content. These new devices, however, merely replicate the printed content.”
“No,” I said, trying to disagree without being disagreeable. “What the Kindle and its competitors offer is convenience. Your morning newspaper is delivered in a format where you can control the font size. A young elf may not see the advantage of this, but to this old guy, it sounds fantastic.”
“Yeah,” Elvin snorted, now sounding pugnacious, “but think about the human aspects of this. Thousands of newspaper delivery guys and gals are going to lose their jobs.”
“That’s marvelous,” I said. “Every time we can free people from repetitive, low-paid employment, we make progress for the human race. Your concern for the delivery drivers is similar to the anxiety that folks had when elevator operators were replaced by self-service elevator cars.
“Your sympathies are appropriate. It should be a high priority for our society to expand the skills of workers continuously, not just when they are displaced by improved technology.”
“A wonderful sentiment,” Elvin said, “but where do you see such efforts in our economy? Were Indiana auto or steel workers prepared for job transitions as their industries made massive investments in capital that replaced labor? We act only after the fact, after the damage to the workers, after the loss of jobs, income and self-esteem. Shouldn’t physical capital investments be accompanied by relevant investments in human capital?”
“Elvin,” I said, “this is all wonderful. You’re right on target, but this is the holiday season. If we are indifferent routinely to the consequences of progress, do you imagine we could care during a time of lights and lighthearted living?”
“So,” Elvin sighed, “you do see why I’m depressed.”
“Go have some well-laced eggnog,” I said, knowing my advice was not going to be therapeutic.•
Marcus taught economics for more than 30 years at Indiana University and is the former director of IU’s Business Research Center. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.