Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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Dick Palmer and Bill Dorsey died this year. We will miss them.

Innovation and Automation

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The innovator is protected by patents. To some extent, the public is harmed by them, because the public wants the innovation to be cheaper. is reported to have hated patents, because they harmed the public. But less innovation harms the public, too.

Once the inventor invents an innovation, he wants to see it work. Often he employs a craftsman to make one that works, money no object. A few rich people hire artisans to make high-priced versions for various purposes, some of them noble, some just frivolous.

So, some entrepreneur risks a lot of money to build a factory, hire cheap labor if he can find it, and mass-produces a cheaper product. He hates patents, but he loves cheap labor, and he particularly hates automation, which threatens his investment.

But automation is cheaper, so it wins. The Automator has to spend a lot of money to accomplish automation, but his cheaper product puts the earlier factories out of work, so they fight automation as long as they are excluded from it, but eventually surrenders. Corporations almost always defeat factories, family businesses, and artisans. Ultimately, automation, corporations and possibly inventors, tend to win. Hand craftsmen, family businesses and cheap labor tend to lose. High volume usually defeats high margins of profit, so the public usually wins, too. If the entire cycle is fast enough, the patent protects the inventor. If it's too slow, the investor loses. It's easy to see what side each of these participants will take in the political battles, assuming the hope of profit is what motivates each one of them. The public has the votes, so at first, they can do almost anything. In the long run, more innovation and cheaper prices will win public approval, but in the short run, patent impairment and job losses may hold things up.

So what is in the public interest? Job retraining and regional movement of labor are two things which come up, their expensiveness probably varies with the particular issue. But one universal good sometimes clashes with another. Is home ownership always a good thing? Are there not times when it would be better to be a renter, and move to a different employment location when your job disappears?

There are certainly times when it is better to own your own home. I finally sold my house after living in it for sixty years. The real estate agent was rueful. He saw it as his losing six sales commissions, over the years, because I did that.

Originally published: Saturday, May 07, 2016; most-recently modified: Wednesday, May 22, 2019