For reasons I choose not to disclose-under the unwritten privacy provisions identified as emanations and penumbras radiating unseen from the fourth item in the Bill of Rights-I found myself in the back seat of a parked car in the multi-acre parking lot of a cluster of big-box stores outside Greenville, Tenn.
The only sign of life visible from my car window was a rapidly moving truck-sized motorized sweeper, whose single operator was systematically cleaning up the pavement to prepare for the coming day's arrival of customers.
In a score of minutes he (or was it she?) was done and gone, having spent maybe 30 minutes doing what would have required many hours of hand labor from platoons of men (oops, make that persons) with brooms-and not particularly mind-challenging labor at that. Coming just after dual news reports-one of a new record high in unemployment, the other of a new high in industrial productivity-it was a striking little vignette illustrating the old economist joke about the policy tactic for full employment, in, say construction: to scrap backhoes and issue shovels.
Actually, it wasn't always a joke. During the Great Depression, the Works Progress Administration was famous for using shovel-wielding (as well as shovel-leaning) brigades of hand labor in lieu of the mechanized equipment available even back in the '30s. The WPA's underlying Keynesian-stimulus design intent wasn't to get actual work done, it was to distribute spendable economic-survival income.
The underlying economic paradox-the more primitive your level of technology, the more likely your achievement of full employment-has always meant that increases in productivity, essential for long-term improvements in standard-of-living, will usually bring what economist Joseph Schumpeter called "creative destruction" in his 1942 book "Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy". (That's short-term, temporary unemployment as, say, displaced buggy-whip makers become computer chip designers.)
One reason food is as historically cheap as it is in the urban Northeast is that there are no more coal-shoveling firemen feeding the fireboxes of steam locomotives.
Somewhat more recently than the Great Depression-indeed, in the early '60s just as then-computer-industry-leader IBM was briefly forecasting that the new machines would never be practical for individual use-public education was, like every other industrial sector, rhapsodizing over the new technology's ability to capture productivity gains and reduce labor costs while individualizing and improving product -for schools, instructional quality.
On the building space-requirement-and-building-layout side, we young designer-draftsmen were attending conferences at which consulting experts told us how much space would be needed for the coming wave of personal-computers-in-the-classroom. The then-standard prescription (indeed, it is still on the books, although now disregarded in actual classroom design) of 30-square-feet per pupil , minimum room size 750 square feet for a 25-student class, even though such once-average-size classes are quite rare now) they told us authoritatively, would have to be doubled so that each student could have a conventional writing surface to his (her) front as well as a computer table to his (her) rear, just as we then had drafting boards forward and reference tables aft in our individual work stations.
All this would be a taxpayer bargain because school building space is typically a quarter as expensive as staffing costs, and the great educational-economics promise/reward of the Computer Age was to be inexpensive student self-instruction rising as expensive staffing requirements fell.
Just as the diesel locomotive self-fed its fuel, the new schools' students would self-feed and self-test their own instruction, at their own individualized and customized pace and scope.
In the actual event, it never happened. Public education unions made the brigades-with-shovels choice in the '70s and '80s, rejecting PCs just as they were slowly becoming available, diametrically opposite to the technology-embracing choice the UMW's John L. Lewis had made in the '40s and '50s. lewis had declared that with the welcome mechanization of coal-mining there would be fewer miners, but better mining conditions and wages and productivity gains would benefit the standard-of-living of both consumer and producer.
The results of these historic decisions show up now in both costs and quality. In 1950, homeowners paid $56 per ton for anthracite coal in year 2000 dollars. By 2000, coal was down to $47 per ton according to the Energy Information Administration. In 1950, taxpayers paid $2,000 per pupil in year 2006 dollars. By 2006 it was up to $10,000, per the National Digest of Educational Statistics.
Today's coal, we old-timers can testify, is cleaner, better-graded, and more handleable than it was in 1950. However, today's education, as measured by test scores and curriculum, is-oh well, let's not go there this week.
Retired Vermont architect and planner Martin Harris lives in Tennessee.