The Brian Gongol Show on WHO Radio
Brian Gongol

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We've talked on many occasions about how technology is changing life, in many ways for the better. We're seeing many more people working than ever before -- today's unemployment rate in Iowa is reported to be 3.5%, which is well below what was long thought to be the natural rate of unemployment, which was somewhere around 5%. People have vastly more opportunities to work with more freedom than ever before -- you can sell things on eBay or CafePress from anywhere in the world, without having to go into a conventional workplace. As techniques like on-demand manufacturing find wider application, expect to see greater freedom than ever before, especially for people with good ideas. As of three years ago, there were almost 750,000 Americans working full-time selling things on eBay. Or you could be like MC Hammer and sell your music and commentary online. This shift has been underway for a couple of years.

That freedom for individuals to work wherever they please could be very good for Iowa. We don't face the same congestion problems that places like New York or Los Angeles suffer. We have a low cost of living, good communities, excellent schools, and a lot of other quality-of-life benefits to offer. The state could benefit if we were to concentrate on emphasizing the advantages of the Iowa lifestyle to the many workers who are no longer chained to desks in a particular place.

Technology is a funny thing. As we use more and more of it, we can become more productive and do more with less. But as we become increasingly sophisticated about the work we do, we often lose access to some of the basic skills that we might need in an emergency. For example, someone who's skilled at writing applications for Google might not be able to run a chainsaw or wield an axe. Now, 99.99% of the time, that computer skill is more useful and more profitable than the hand-tool skills. But if Internet access is cut off by a natural disaster, then the Google skill isn't of much use...but being able to use a chainsaw to clear a debris-covered street might be extremely useful.

The opposite argument, though, is that if you can put that technology to work, it could turn out to be a huge lifesaving tool. For instance, Google has added a bunch of updated maps of Myanmar to the Internet. Such tools, if applied quickly, could help us get over natural disasters more quickly and with much less human suffering. Good maps with interactive data, for example, could help relief workers route supplies quickly to the places they're needed most.

Good planning should be rewarded -- and in the case of airlines, it is. At least for now. Southwest Airlines made a very smart bet on the future of oil prices and locked in lots of fuel contracts at prices less than half what they are today. What remains to be seen is how hard rising oil prices will hit the other airlines, and whether the government will step in to "protect" them from their failure to plan ahead. If Southwest can't reap the rewards of good planning, what kind of message does that send elsewhere?

Speaking of energy, it'll be interesting to see how synfuels -- liquid fuels from sources other than regular crude oil -- will work their way into the market. It seems like sustained high oil prices might be enough to make them economical to produce.

It's too bad that a Chicago suburb's creative stop signs turned out to be illegal. They were a creative answer to a tough problem.

It's a little mind-boggling, but PETA -- the animal-rights group usually known for barely-legal or even illegal protests -- is offering a cash prize for the first person or group to come up with a way to make meat without killing an animal. What a great change of practice.

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