How the Tractor (Yes, the Tractor) Explains the Middle Class Crisis

A story about innovation, creative destruction, and how the mighty farm machine helped invent the modern U.S. economy.

Technology can kill jobs. Or, to put things more softly, it can replace certain jobs. Robot arms replace human arms in our factories. TurboTax does the work of tax preparers. We mourn the disappearance of these position even as we enjoy the most important consequence of the technologies, themselves: more useful goods and services at a lower price.

This is an article about an old job-killing technology. But the job that it made most obsolete wasn't the worker -- at least, not the kind of worker you're probably thinking of, nor the kind that the Bureau of Labor Statistics counts. This is an article about how the mighty tractor killed the farm horse. But it's also a story about how innovation replaces us, and how the economy can get bigger, faster, and stronger, while also making us feel obsolete.

THEY KILL HORSE JOBS, DON'T THEY?

In 1910, 25 million horses and mules -- one for every four U.S. citizens -- could roam the nation's farmland mostly free from technological competition. The tractor had been invented decades earlier, but the contemporary models were either ridiculously big or ridiculously expensive. The first commercial gas-powered units, sold in 1902, weighed more than a male elephant ... and they weren't much more affordable, either.

But this is how innovation works. First, we make new things, and then we make those things cheaper. The price and size of tractors fell rapidly over the next decade. Introduced in 1917, Henry Ford's smaller, cheaper "Fordson" was the iPad of tractors: the definitive, consumer-friendly genre-busting technology that immediately dominated a formerly desolate market. Round after round of new technologies -- power lifts, rubber tires, diesel engines -- eventually established a dominant model that made the 1940s the decade of the tractor.

That decade spelled the end of the farm horse. One tractor could replace about the pulling-power of five horses or mules, agricultural historian Bruce L. Gardner wrote in his book American Agriculture in the Twentieth Century. Richard H. Steckel and William J. White produce this epic graph which plots the accelerating rise of tractors and the decline of horses through the 1950s.

horsesandtractorsdammit.png

When a technology comes along that threatens an American worker, the solution is to have the worker work harder. This idea is central to the Great Speedup thesis from Monika Bauerlein and Clara Jeffery in Mother Jones. Amazingly, or perhaps predictably, it was the same with 1930s horses. A 1935 economic paper published in the The American Economic Review titled "Tractor Versus Horse as a Source of Farmpower" noted that the only way in which horses could outperform tractors was if you worked them day and night to exhaustion:

Where horses are used little during the year, tractor power frequently is cheaper than horse power, even if prices of feed and horses are relatively lower than the prices of fuel and tractors. The reverse situation often occurs where the annual work per horse is large. Thus, the annual work per horse becomes a more important factor than the relation of the cost of feed and horses to the cost of fuel and tractors. The saving on labor which can be made by operating tractors instead of horses is significant in inducing farmers to shift to tractor power.

It would be churlish to suggest that the most important consequence of the tractor was the elimination of farm horse jobs. But one of the key ways that technology makes our lives cheaper is that it replaces the workers required to do a certain task. That's exactly what tractors did to horses. It's also what tractors did to people.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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