We are all dust motes, floating through the air, buffeted by forces far far beyond our control. But as human beings we don’t want to believe it. We want to believe that we have some degree of control over our lives and the world we live in.
I thought about this as I watched the most recent Republican Presidential debate. They were talking about the economy and about how their plans would revive the economy. I’ve listened to politicians most of my adult life talk about how their policies will impact the economy, and I’ve spend as much time watching and wondering at how little impact government policy has on the economy. In the last six years or so we have heard Republican politicians confidentially claim that the health care reform law known as Obamacare was going to stifle job creation and crater the economy. It flat out didn’t happen. And it didn’t happen because government policies like that have only marginal impact on the economy. They do have some impact, but it is never as much as most politicians say.
The reality is that government policies have surprisingly little impact on our day to day lives. There are certainly some cases where government policy does have a major impact. If you are gay you were denied the right to marry until the recent Supreme Court decision. Now you can marry. That is a significant impact on the lives and happiness of a great many people. But the other reality is that if you are not gay the Supreme Court ruling has no impact on your life.
The reality is that the world is a big complex place with lots and lots of moving parts. The government can have an impact in certain areas, but a great deal of those moving parts keep moving without, or perhaps even in spite of, government action. The economy is made up of millions of consumers buying things and millions (or perhaps only hundreds of thousands) of businesses making and selling things. Government rules can have an impact, but the reality is that things keep getting made and bought because people want things.
The American consumer economy is a vast chaotic place. Products come and go, fads come and go, tastes changes. The ideas of a few tech geeks can have a greater impact on our lives that the ideas of the world’s most powerful politicians.
When I began my legal career most attorneys had their own secretary, and large firms actually had secretarial pools of secretaries. Now they don’t. Most law firms have a few secretaries/legal assistants assigned to each section. I would hazard a guess that in the last twenty years the legal market has eliminated a couple of million legal secretaries. Why? Computers and word processing software. Most attorneys now do their own writing, on their own computers. They no longer draft a letter or memorandum by hand then have a secretary type it up, then review it, etc, until the final product is produced. Attorney’s now do it all themselves. Bill Gates and Paul Allen had a greater impact on the American workplace that every politician and every law since the popularization of the personal computer and word processing software.
Most of us realize, deep in the pit of our stomach, that we have almost no control over the world we live in. We are buffeted by eddies and currents, tides and winds. Apple unveils a new phone and our world changes yet again. It is a disquieting feeling. And, in my opinion it is getting worse. We all know that the industry in which we work can change overnight. Some computer geek in Silicon Valley can create a new program that will make our job obsolete. Secretaries have been replaced by computers, factory workers have been replaced by industrial robots. Amazon is talking about shipping packages by drone, which will eliminate the jobs of thousands, if not tens or hundreds of thousands, of delivery drivers. Welcome to the brave new word.
It’s a new world and we don’t like it one bit. We want to feel like we have some control over our lives. And the one place where we do have some control is over our government. We elect the people that run our government. Our votes control who is President and who is in Congress. So we, to some degree, do control the government.
But, here’s the thing, the government doesn’t really have as much control over things as we would like to think. If Amazon decides to ship by drone, no government policy will save those delivery jobs. Just like no government policy can save those factory jobs replaced by industrial robots, or those secretarial jobs replaced by Microsoft Word. Or, quite frankly, those retail jobs replaced by internet retailers like Amazon. But we don’t like that, so we lash out at the one place where we do have some control, which is the government. We are mad at government for not protecting us from a changing world. But the government can’t do anything, because the government did not cause those changes. And so our anger gets deeper and deeper.