Does President Obama Want to Live in a World Without ATMs?

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Does Obama only like receiving money when it's handed to him by a human? Photo: Roger L. Wollenberg-Pool/ Getty Images

Here's kind of a silly thing that President Obama said in his interview with Ann Curry yesterday, in a discussion about the slow pace of the employment recovery:

"[T]he other thing that happened, though, and this goes to the point you were just making, is there 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."

ATMs were probably a bad example, since they were ubiquitous for a long, long time before the current unemployment quagmire was set in motion. But there's no doubt that human employees are increasingly being replaced by machines, which don't need health insurance or pensions and never send passive-aggressive e-mails. It's been the story of industrialization for more than a century, and the incentives for using technology over sentient beings have only grown since the recession. As the Times reported last week:

Indeed, equipment and software prices have dipped 2.4 percent since the recovery began, thanks largely to foreign manufacturing. Labor costs, on the other hand, have risen 6.7 percent, according to the Labor Department. The rising compensation costs are driven in large part by costlier health care benefits, so those lucky workers who do have jobs do not exactly feel richer.

One business owner the Times quotes sounds like he practically hates the human race at this point:

“I want to have as few people touching our products as possible,” said Dan Mishek, managing director of Vista Technologies in Vadnais Heights, Minn. “Everything should be as automated as it can be. We just can’t afford to compete with countries like China on labor costs, especially when workers are getting even more expensive.”

So the ATM example notwithstanding, Obama's larger point is a sound one. Unfortunately, the ATM thing has caused something of a mini-hubbub, particularly with the notoriously prickly ATM lobby. Mike Lee, the CEO of the ATM Industry Association, vented to the Washington Examiner today:

President Obama should never use ATMs as an example of how technology replaces human labor because ATMs today play a critical role in providing extensive employment in the ATM and cash-in-transit industries. In addition, ATMs provide an indispensible [Us: Odd word choice there] range of services to customers, including all-hours access to their own banked cash. With over 400,000 in America alone, ATMs have become the main distribution channel for the distribution of cash in all modern economies and cash remains by far the most popular form of payment by US consumers. The whole purpose of the invention of the ATM back in 1967 was to make cash available outside of bank hours, liberating citizens to access their banked money 24 x 7, a huge increase in convenience. Given these major roles of the ATM, it would be quite irrational to turn the clock back to the 1960s to a time before ATMs.

Quite irrational. Obama didn't say anything like that, but if he had, it would have been quite irrational indeed!

O on ATMs [Political Punch/ABC News]