An American Hero Dies

A blog about business and economics.
Oct. 7 2013 1:54 PM

An American Hero Dies

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SAN FRANCISCO - JANUARY 29: Freshly pressed shirts.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The New York Times has an obituary for a woman whose name I'd never heard but has now become my hero—Ruth Benerito, a U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist who did some of the key work that allowed the creation of mass-market non-iron shirts.

Read the obituary for more on the science. I want to linger a bit on the fact that ironing sucks. It's a huge boring waste of time. And anything anyone can do to reduce the amount of socially necessary ironing is a huge win. And it's worth dwelling on this particular triumph of the human spirit because it relates to some general issues. Ironing that there is a market for getting someone else to iron your shirts for you. Some fancy people presumably have maids taking care of their ironing, and when you send your stuff to the dry cleaner it comes back nicely pressed.

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So in a sense, innovations in the realm of non-iron apparel are job killers. But in a more important sense, they are leisure restorers! In a modern service economy, an awful lot of formal market employment is more or less directly in competition with DIY unpaid labor. For most people most of the time, the alternative to eating out isn't starvation it's cooking for yourself.

But if you think about something like the future robot taxi utopia, then naturally one political impediment is going to be the fact that human taxi drivers and human taxi license holders don't want to see their industry destroyed. Yet it's crucial to see that in important respects the autonomous taxi wouldn't be competing with the human-driven taxi, it would be competing with car ownership and driving yourself in just the way that non-iron shirts mostly displace DIY ironing not maids-for-hire.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.