89 What is the cost of progress? 3 Nov 2020

Stories of costs


Senator Adlai Stevenson III told us that it was easier to send a man to the moon than to rebuild a neighborhood because there was no housing to tear down on the way to the moon. Do you ever avoid the pain of parting with the old to make room for the new?

 The great interstate highway system rolled through my hometown of Hood River, Oregon on its way to linking the whole country with upgraded transportation. The old highway to Portland required two hours to traverse; the new, just under one hour. There was pain of parting. The old road had been carefully crafted to maximize scenic beauty and preserve natural features such as trees and streams. Indeed, the highway commission saved most of the old road and called it the scenic highway. Some stretches are still maintained.

 If some of the nostalgia is preserved, why is there pain? The answer is purely economic. Local merchants were said to oppose the construction because it brought the discount merchants in Portland into direct competition with them. People could easily drive there to do bulk shopping for fall and school clothing and other items. On the positive side, easy travel opened opportunities for short business trips and other economic errands between the cities. Money was still flowing, and more of it was earned because of the increase in overall trade.

 Today’s title respects those who lost business to larger competitors. It reminds us that a national boost can disadvantage some individuals. As in the article 82 discussion of featherbedding, I always ask us to remember those who bear the cost of progress. According to proverb, an ill wind is uncommonly bad if it does not blow some good to someone, that is, if nobody at all benefits. The reverse applies: Almost no change is so successful that nobody at all suffers from it. In that sense, essentially all progress is a mixed bag.


Adopting standards is considered important to science. The practice ensures uniformity of the conclusions we reach and the facts we share. A quick illustration is a line in the movie Apollo 13 where the engineers must jury-rig a connection between a square conduit and a round tube. One of them says, “Tell me this isn’t made by the federal government.” Planning is important to keep all the ducks in a row.

 Our next transportation example is the fascinating story of Malcolm McLean 1913-2001 whose name appeared on over-the-road trucks before the company name Maersk replaced it. He is ranked just under Robert Fulton in importance in the shipping industry because of his dedication to standardizing. Rising from truck driver to multi-millionaire (with bankruptcy included in the sequence), he knew hands-on the importance of making the parts fit together. It was his vision to make containers that could ship end to end, not requiring reloading by hand at each transfer point. Thanks to his genius and perseverance, going from truck to rail to ship and back to rail to truck all happened with only one loading and unloading of a container. The most difficult part of his success was a whole decade spent persuading the industry to settle on standard dimensions.

 Mr. Mclean’s success is not to be measured in how much money he saved everybody. He did not merely make a process more efficient. His revolutionary concept created an entire new containerized shipping industry that made the whole world more efficient with better productivity, distribution, and simplicity.

 Almost everyone grew richer. Not everyone, you ask? Before the breakthrough, every box and crate was put into a truck, then a train, then a ship by people such as stevedores. Today, forklifts are still used to load trucks, but after that point, gantries and cranes transfer these uniform containers (truck trailers) onto rails and from rails onto ships. The world-benefitting change eliminated longshoremen. We are compelled to view their loss with due respect.

 Other costs were less harmful because they increased employment instead of eliminating it. The freight handling equipment needed to be fabricated and installed. Ports and freight yards required rebuilding. Trucks, trains, and ships had to be reconfigured and retrofitted to the standards of compatibility. There were costs of retraining. Before realizing the savings, the industry advanced huge investments. Even the best of change can start out painfully inconvenient! This is the price of progress.

What do we do about it?

Mental realism

I am deeply thankful for improvements that touch all our lives. However, today’s thesis is not praise for invention. Today we are discussing how humans respond to changes. Of course, we ask Luddites not to stand in the way. Beyond that, there are other pressing issues besides “stubbornness.”

 Some birds are said to hop and fly from branch to branch as they approach the nest in a memorized pattern. If one of the segments is blocked, the bird must search for the missing nest. It has no function for spatial reasoning that would mentally construct an alternate path.

 Humans have similar limitations. If a change is too radical, it exceeds our capacity to adapt. Decades ago, I proposed in a class discussion that if an infant were placed in the family group of a different species every day, that infant would never develop stable self-recognition and personhood. A medical doctor pointed out that a person who suffers change of spouse, career, and religion all within one year is at serious risk of breakdown.

 The Red Guard under Chairman Mao in China was severely criticized for imposing change faster than the populace could accommodate. For example, they decided unilaterally that pets consume resources needed by humans. They set about slaughtering all pets in the towns, causing long-term detriment to the people. In contrast, Cuba, with its intimate understanding of humans in hurricanes, led the US in including family pets in evacuation plans. We are slowly recognizing the mental health function of pets, and “efficiency” to the contrary is now avoided.

Social realism

Next, we recognize a mixed bag of benefits as exemplified by the longshoremen above. We weigh effects relative to populations. How severe is the cost imposed on how many people? Historical Luddites likely saw themselves as preserving (fixed) livelihoods. Today we recognize that taking away coal mining jobs increases the life expectancy of the miners, but we do not instantly terminate them with no replacement of income. We move slowly enough so that the new clean economy can absorb them into its workforce. Progress is a blessing if taken at the right speed.

 This is the familiar refrain stating that happiness requires cooperation. A mad rush to the finish line is selfishness. Coordinated accommodation is happiness sharing. We accept that we are not free until we are all free. Let us likewise accept the same approach to progress: when change creates clear suffering, it is the duty of those who benefit to spread their advantage and alleviate that suffering.


A fence separates a pile of food from three animals: a monkey, a dog, and a chicken. Several feet away from the animals is a large hole in the fence. The monkey finds the hole and reaches the food. The dog follows the example of the monkey. The chicken persists in banging against the fence.

Sometimes the phrase “monkey mind” refers to a penchant for mischief, but I suggest minimizing the “unsettled and capricious” connotation and instead referring the phrase to the capacity for creative invention. Combining today’s monkey story with the sharing chimpanzee story in article 73, I am appealing to us to be the “monkeys.”

We may always have to deal with humans who persist in denying the fence. The above explanations help us empathize with the mental limitations that are brushed off as “stubbornness.” By recognizing shortcomings including our own, we can build the behaviors that set us free from our self-limiting beliefs and implement progress to our common benefit. We distribute the cost of progress.

Maersk Photo by Andres Canavesi on Unsplash

Hamburg gantry Photo by Axel Ahoi on Unsplash

Audio file

 Cover email:

Can we make progress even when it hurts? Does it always hurt? How do we protect those who suffer?

To breathe clean air, do we become responsible for the retraining of polluters? They might be innocent because nothing better was available when they learned their jobs. On the other hand, we should not all suffer so that they keep their jobs.

The cost of change should not fall exclusively on one side. We all benefit. We all share the cost. That is what makes us great.

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