Is Your Suitcase Causing the Recession? An L.A. Times Special Report


Conservatives had plenty of fun and larfs at President Obama's expense recently, after the commander in chief called out ATMs and kiosks as job-killers. Here's what Obama said in a June 14 Today Show interview: 

[T]here are some structural issues with our economy, where a lot of businesses have learned to become much more efficient with a lot fewer workers. You see it when you go to a bank and you use an ATM, you don't go to a bank teller. Or you go to the airport and you're using a kiosk instead of checking in at the gate. So all these things have created changes in the economy. And what we have to do now, and that's what this job council is all about, is identifying where the jobs of the future are going to be. How do we make sure that there's a match between what people are getting trained for and the jobs that exist? How do we make sure that capital is flowing into those places with the greatest opportunity? We are on the right track. The key is figuring out, how do we accelerate it? 

Now there is some Grade A Stoopit in this quotation. I'd start with the delusional belief that a D.C. jobs council is going to identify "where the jobs of the future are going to be" throughout the 50 states and Guam. Or the ominous suggestion that bureaucrats are going to make sure capital is flowing into the appropriate places. Or the truly terrifying possibility that the economic experience of the past 30 months is about to be accelerated. 

But surely japery like this is over the top: 

I mean, ha ha, but there's no way anybody believes that. The president was drawing a lesson about creative destruction, not suggesting ATMs and kiosks have destroyed wealth. Seriously, only a drooling manchild in coveralls could believe something so preposter…uh… 

Oh, hey! It's Hugo Martín of the Los Angeles Times, with a business-page article headlined "Rolling bags cost airports millions." 

Millions? Is it the scuffed floors? No, it's the lost SmarteCarte revenue:

"That is the nationwide trend: More and more people don't use luggage carts," said Sven Stohn, chief executive of Bagport Group, which runs cart rentals at airports in Philadelphia, Boston and Phoenix. "Through the past two years, I think revenue has dropped up to 23%."

Easy-rolling luggage and airline baggage fees get most of the blame.

Wheels have been on suitcases for decades, but the design took off after Northwest Airlines pilot Bob Plath came up with the idea for a suitcase in 1987 with built-in wheels and an extendable tow handle.

"All of our luggage has wheels on them, except the small carry-on bags," said Stephanie Goldman, a spokeswoman for Samsonite, one of the world's largest luggage manufacturers.

And now that passengers are packing fewer belongings to avoid airline baggage fees, travelers say it is largely unnecessary to pay between $3 and $5 to rent airport luggage carts.

Martín gets extra points for a deliciously diabolical counterintuitive conflation: Early in the article he reveals that $1 million of this lost revenue doesn't come from rolling luggage at all, but from regulations that require vendors to provide free carts to international travelers. There's an obvious solution to that problem: Just put a new tax on international flights that will provide enough revenue to make the cart vendors whole for all the money they're losing. It's only fair. 

But is there any other bright spot in this tale of technological terrors so out of control that we actually may have to reinvent the wheel?

There is! Although the link is up above, I originally read Martín's story in a paper-and-ink version of the paper. Because if I hadn't, I would literally have been stealing money from the printer's devils, ink salesmen and newspaper carriers whose lives are being destroyed by heedless, heartless capitalism.