From the comments

by on August 31, 2013 at 7:38 am in Economics, History | Permalink

This is from Ted Craig:

Another way to look at the effect of mechanization is to look at how it affected the other living employees of farmers. The U.S. horse population peaked at 26.5 million in 1915. It declined rapidly after that, hitting a low of just over 3 million in 1960. While it is about 9 million now, that’s because of increased ownership as pets.

I’m not saying humans will be destroyed like horses, but it raises some questions about the ease of transition.

Marie August 31, 2013 at 9:42 am

I don’t think those horses were destroyed, they just weren’t replaced as they died out. Which is pretty much where we’re going with people, too — or at least trying to.

Went from a country full of work horses to one where everyone has two cars. Wonder what the exciting human parallel will be! Yippee!

Mark Thorson August 31, 2013 at 10:58 am

A depopulated slum. You can see the future today in Detroit. Yippee, indeed.

Ted Craig August 31, 2013 at 11:38 am

How is it that you think they “weren’t replaced?” Many were destroyed.

Marie August 31, 2013 at 12:50 pm

O.k., was under the impression they just went out to pasture and no more breeding happened. My ignorance. Don’t want to human parallel that one, then. . .

Marian Kechlibar August 31, 2013 at 6:57 pm

People who view animals as resources aren’t particularly prone to let them live (and feed them) after they stop being useful.

Marie August 31, 2013 at 9:39 pm

People who view animals as *just* resources aren’t, no, particularly if they have few other resources.

I haven’t yet run into anyone who has work or farm animals that doesn’t also have affection and a sense of responsibility towards stewardship of them. But I’m sure there are folks out there who are pretty mercenary. Also sure there are folks out there that sometimes don’t have a choice.

Marian Kechlibar September 1, 2013 at 10:03 am

Yes, I meant *just as resources*, didn’t write it, though; thanks for kind correction.

Tangurena September 1, 2013 at 2:34 pm

Before WW1, 25% of the land in a typical American farm was devoted to pasture and hay production. Once those started getting plowed, there was no room for surplus animals. If you had the capital (or ability to get loans), replacing your horses with tractors would allow you to boost your farm’s productivity by 25% right away.

TallDave September 1, 2013 at 4:51 am

As opposed to what? Being buried in a cemetery?

All horses are destroyed. It’s just a question of when.

Marie August 31, 2013 at 9:43 am

Could also draw comparisons between the way we used to view our children (resources) and the way we do now (pets? adornments? resume items?).

Paavo Ojala August 31, 2013 at 12:40 pm

I don’t think we’ve ever viewed our children as resources. People have loved ánd sacrificed for them, they have accumulated resources for their children because that biological urge to see your children thrive has always been there.

Marie August 31, 2013 at 12:53 pm

Yes, but they were resources, also. There’s a tipping point where a society stops looking upon each extra child as extra riches (e.g. once this one is older than five, he can start helping shepherd the goats) and starts looking at each extra child as an extra resource drain (e.g. one more kid to put through college).

Marian Kechlibar August 31, 2013 at 6:58 pm

*Parents* don’t view their children as resources.

Bureaucracy, well, that is something completely different.

Marie August 31, 2013 at 9:45 pm

As a human, I want to be resourceful, of use to those around me. That’s not the same as wanting to be used, I simply mean contributory. A source of abundance, rather than of want.

So I think it is a healthy thing for me to consider my children resources, rather than drains of resources, when those are the two options. Ever since Ehrlich we’ve been taught that more people means a more impoverished world, and that’s trickled down to our view of the family — more kids means a poorer family. In most places and times this is the reverse of how people felt (although there have been pockets that have felt the way our culture does). In most places and times, more children has been considered an increase in wealth.

Bob Dobbs (2nd removed) September 1, 2013 at 2:20 am

All of this reminds me Carl Jung’s analysis of north african muslims and native americans. Which, reminds me of how millions of people died in India thanks to economics (publishing census data).

I live in a small, 20 house community. It is comprised of the heads of philosophy departments (20k+ university), gay hairstylists, a coal miners daughter (who wrote a book about being raped at 5yo), the head of anesthesiology at an urban hospital, mixed race couples from asia, engineers, retires, preacher, wealthy real estate brokers, southern right-wing business owners, and, the head of PETA.

It is a warzone.

I go to parties by both tribes. The intellectuals in their 60′s w/o kids not only have absolutely no situational awareness, but, have no emotional intelligence. They strike me as being suicidal children actually.

Which brings me back to horses.

This blog, when I run NLP processing against it, sounds like the kind of shit I would expect hitler to say about human beings.

Bob Dobbs September 1, 2013 at 2:09 am

This reminds me of why economic thinking is the gift of evil upper middle class quasi-autistic white folk bestowed upon humanity. It reminds me of reading source notes from Carl Jung, traveling the world, and “studying” North African muslim “populations”, Native American “peoples”, and the millions of people that died in India thanks to the publication of “census think”.

Here is the thing, i am teaching my kin that self-centered children born to men who died during WW2 should get the nursing room hel on 2qe. I will spread my seed, homestead, and weaponize whilst you try to outdo eachother with who can out esoteric quantitative economic research theory.

In the end, those of you who didn’t have kids will die alone, in a bed of poop. If nobody is listening, were you really alive?

Marcus August 31, 2013 at 9:55 am

Andrew asked a pertinent follow-up question:

What about all the people that were replaced by horses?

david August 31, 2013 at 11:05 am

They died en masse as steppe barbarians poured into Roman Anatolia, in 300 BCE – mounted on warhorses introduced from Central Asia, which were strong enough to carry a single armoured rider and thus displace the chariot, and bringing horse-drawn iron plows with them and thus introducing permanent settlement to Northern Europe.

Happily, in this day and age we tend not to take advantage of technological strength to obliterate other nation-states.

david August 31, 2013 at 12:56 pm

*correction: the iron plow was not pulled by draft horses in Europe until a millenia later, with the spread of the horse collar. It was initially pulled by oxen, and remained pulled by oxen until their displacement by tractors, particularly in areas where oxen were additionally valued for beef (otherwise collared horses were more effective).

This doesn’t change the impact on the deprecation of humans in plowing, of course.

A related interesting question is why barge-hauling in the 19th century Volga seems to have been done by humans instead of draft horses. Clearly, in some places humans were still cheap enough to compete with horses.

Marian Kechlibar August 31, 2013 at 7:00 pm

Due to their rationality and ability to foretell possible consequences, people can be coerced into conditions that no animal would tolerate.

Yeah, slaves and serfs were always cheaper than horses, duh.

Steve Roth August 31, 2013 at 10:30 am

Machines Replacing Humans: They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

Steve Roth August 31, 2013 at 10:32 am

Sorry if repeat posting. Comment doesn’t seem to have turned up:

Machines Replacing Humans: They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

Mark Thorson August 31, 2013 at 11:03 am

For the past three weeks or so, you may have to wait a few hours for your comment to appear.

Merijn Knibbe August 31, 2013 at 11:09 am

A somewhat underrated fact: the initial decline in the number of farm horses was largely caused by the mechanization of transport (the Ford truck), not just by the mechanization of ploughing and the like.Farmers in effect shedded their transport function, comparable with the disappearance of butter making from farms, a specialization process in stead of just capital deepening. This process, by replacing fossil fuels for feed, also enhanced the biological efficiency of farming. .

Marie August 31, 2013 at 12:56 pm

There’s still a few places around here with posts for hitching up your horses.

Bill Harshaw August 31, 2013 at 11:29 am

Too lazy to look up figures, but I’d suspect the number of agricultural employees has grown in some areas as the number of farmers declined. I’m thinking particularly of dairy farming, where in the old days one farmer could milk 30 cows, maybe. Now we have 1,000 cow operations with one farmer and several immigrant laborers to do the milking.

From a recent ERS report: “Between 1970 and 2006, the number of farms with dairy cows fell steadily and sharply, from 648,000 operations in 1970 to 75,000 in 2006, or 88 percent ”

Marie August 31, 2013 at 12:58 pm

Pasteurization rules? Can’t sell unpasteurized milk any more (can consume it from your own cow, so recently an uptick in local dairies where people own milk shares).

Ronald Brak August 31, 2013 at 11:34 am

In Europe a lot of horseflesh was earmarked for millitary use. Was a significant portion of the 26.5 million peak horse figure in the US the result of military policy? Not that it changes the point. Machines replaced horses in the military as they did in agriculture, I’m just curious.

gwern August 31, 2013 at 12:25 pm

I really doubt it. Why would they have been spending tons of money to support millions of horses for military use? Who was going to invade the US, Mexico or Canada?

JKB August 31, 2013 at 12:55 pm

Interesting. There was a big event in Europe around 1915 that would have gone a long way to reducing their population of redundant horses.

In the U.S., on the other hand, we have vast areas that redundant horses could live out their life, both wild and the former acreage that was devoted to production of horse feed. Much of that latter acreage has returned to wilder states.

Comparing to human redundancy by automation signals a different problem. First, no now disused acreage or wild lands to turn the redundant worker out to live in subsistence. Second, humans now have two to three times the lifespan of the average modern horse, not even considering the lifespan of a horse in 1920. So, it’ll take a little longer to age out the redundant workers compared to prior labor force disruptions. (this seems a harsh comparison but I purposely left out the humanitarian issues)

Ronald Brak August 31, 2013 at 8:48 pm

Looking it up on wikipedia I see that the US millitary transported 182,000 horses to Europe during World War 1 and only brought back 200 while almost a million additional horses were exported to Europe during the war.

DCBillS August 31, 2013 at 12:43 pm

Plainly, the 40 hour week is and has been inappropriate for some time, and grows increasingly so. Work should be largely voluntary. Plenty of “eager beavers” would work for some kind of recognition, think a pin, special uniform, trivial additional stipend, etc. The rest of us will then engage in personal pursuits of myriad types while our basic needs and some additional will be doled out to us. Predictably, the result will be larger production than under the current system. The powers that be will of course not like this idea. This is of no concern as they will be reeducated until they accept the new reality.

Gene H August 31, 2013 at 1:09 pm

On my blog (I am just a high school econ teacher) I wrote a bit about the demise of the horse population starting in the 1920′s as it relates to agriculture and food production. Some interesting numbers from a primary source.

Found a very interesting old Census Data report (“Fifteenth”) that has LOTS of tidbits of economic life in early 20th Century. Worth a look if you are interested in the era…

freethinker August 31, 2013 at 10:23 pm

“I’m not saying humans will be destroyed like horses, but it raises some questions about the ease of transition”
Tyler, can you elaborate? Do you mean transition to a society where humans are increasingly redundant thanks to machines will be painless? Unlike humans, horses have no families to look after if they are rendered redundant.
if machines end up doing most of the tasks done by labour today, does it mean it is better not to have any kids?

TallDave September 1, 2013 at 5:04 am

“While it is about 9 million now, that’s because of increased ownership as pets.”

That’s the key sentence in your argument. We are much, much richer now.

The purpose of the economy is not to provide employment, it’s to satisfy demand. Employment is a traditional way to create income to buy things, but coercion works just as well — essentially we’re moving toward a system where we pay an ever-smaller productive class to figure out how to give us what we want — they get rich, and we take some portion of the surplus and give it to a larger and larger portion of the lower parts of the income distribution. I think it’s not objectionable as long as the transferees can vote and the transferors are afforded some reasonable respect of their property rights.

Let me illustrate: assume U.S. GDP doubles to about $100K PPP per capita, but unemployment is now 20% — the income distribution has become less flat, but the bottom half still see their living standards rise, say, 50%. Is there any way that’s not a net good?

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