Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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February 22, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

PHONE MAIL....In a column about outsourcing, Thomas Friedman writes:

Economists are surely right: the biggest factor eliminating old jobs and churning new ones is technological change the phone mail system that eliminated your secretary.

Friedman's broad point technological change causes a lot of job churning is quite correct, but I'm feeling nitpicky today and want to point out that his example isn't. In fact, it's 180 degrees wrong.

What really happened was that for many decades offices employed vastly overqualified women to be secretaries, paying them a fraction of what they were worth. Women took these jobs because they had no choice. Then the 60s rolled around and all these overqualified women started going to college and getting jobs as lawyers and managers and programmers.

Being a good secretary is a surprisingly high skill job, and by the time the 80s were upon us it had become very, very hard to hire someone for $20K a year who was smart enough to answer phones, figure out a good filing system, and plan meetings without more supervision than it was worth. The supply of good secretaries went down and prices naturally went way up.

And that's when phone mail became popular. In this case it was cultural change that generated job churning, which in turn made technological change cost effective. Just the opposite of what Friedman suggests.

On the other hand, I like this summary of why outsourcing is suddenly such a big issue even though it's been happening in blue collar industries for decades:

At a minimum, some very educated Americans used to high salaries people who vote and know how to write op-ed pieces will either lose their jobs, or have to accept lower pay or become part-timers without health insurance.

Quite so.

Kevin Drum 2:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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