Weekend Reading: Judge Kozinski: More Stories

R.I.P. Joseph N. Froomkin, 1927 Harbin, China - 2017 Chevy Chase, MD

Joseph N Froomkin 1928 2017

From the perspective of a child growing up in D.C.'s upper northwest in the 1960s and 1970s, Joe Froomkin seemed to have a very different kind of job then did other dads:

There were lobbyists, whose jobs seemed to be some variant on: “What do you want to hear?”

There were lawyers, whose jobs seemed to be some variant on: “What is the best argument that could be made for this position?”

And there were economists, of which Mr. Froomkin was always the one I saw most closely, whose jobs seemed to be: “This is what is going on, and I know you do not like to hear me say this now, but in the future you will be glad you heard this”—always backed up by arguments that were counterintuitive but seemed powerful when you thought about them.

Mr. Froomkin’s existence raised the possibility that an economist was something one might become, and made it an attractive possibility.

Anyone knowledgeable in the history of economic thought knows that a great deal of the time economics does not seem to progress in any normal way. Instead, the solution to this decade’s urgent economic problem leads to changes that induce another urgent economic problem, which is then solved by policies that produce yet a third... and by around five we are back to our original problem, although hopefully we understand it at a deeper level this time through the cycle. Thus it is at least as much intellectual and policy firefighting as standing on the shoulders of giants and seeing further.

Back in 1968 Joe Froomkin wrote a book with A.J. Jaffe: Technology and Jobs: Automation in Perspective. It could have been written today. Indeed, I am going to draw upon it in some parts of my contribution to Berkeley’s research project on “working, earning, and learning in the age of intelligent tools”.

What Froomkin and Jaffe recommended in 1968 would have been good policy to adopt then and would be good policy to adopt now:

  • They were right to say that we did not and do not need to fear large scale technological unemployment.
  • They were right to say that we do need to fear profound problems of adjustment.
  • It would be good to have a large Job Corps to assist the transition into the labor force and the acquisition of useful skills by those 16 to 21.
  • Their proposal for more generous permanent 39 week unemployment insurance benefits with automatic extensions when unemployment is high would have gotten and would get us better matches between workers and jobs.

And there are two passages toward the end of the book that ring out loud and clear:

Our investigation... has led us time and again to the same conclusion: the proper management of demand could obviate many of the problems of adjustment...

The major part of this volume was devoted to what may be called the short-run view of technological change and its relationship to the working force.... These short-run problems... are recurring ones. They have appeared many times in the past and will appear even more frequently in the future. Every time the unemployment rate moves up, “cures” will be advanced and a “great debate” will ensue. That most of the discussion will be regurgitation will not stop the proliferation of polemics. Indeed, it is probable that between the time a speech in this “debate“ is delivered and the time it appears in print, the unemployment rate will have changed... and the talk will appear outdated. But let the speaker wait a while, and then he can reuse his talk, barely introducing the most recent statistics...