Costs of Change

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Costs of Change

The very poor generally resist all change, because they cannot afford to take any risk [Arensberg and Niehoff, 1971, pp. 149-150J. hange is nearly always costly. Not only does change disrupt the existing culture and destroy cherished sentiments and values, but it also involves some specific costs.


Very few innovations can simply be added to the existing culture; most innovations require some modification of the existing culture. Only  recently did England replace an awkward and clumsy monetary system with a decimal currency, while the United States has been resisting a switch to the metric system of.measures for two centuries. Why have.such clumsy
systems been retained for so long ? Because the changeover is so difficult [Guillen, 1977]. England's switch to a decimal currency in 1967 proved to be far more complicated than  simply learning a new system. Changes in cash registers, coin machines, bookkeeping records, standardized merchandise sizes, and arguments over pound fractions were all involved.
Learning the metric system would be very simple, but the task of making and stocking everything from window frames to nuts and bolts in both size ranges for a half century or so is overwhelming. Railroads would be more efficient if the tracks were a foot or two farther apart to permit wider cars,
but the cost of rebuilding the tracks and replacing the rolling stock is prohibitive. The standard typewriter keyboard is very inefficient, making the left hand do two-thirds of the work, but a new keyboard would require
.typists to relearn to. type. Ne w inventions often often make present machinery obsolete and destroy the market for skills which workers have spent years developing.


The costs of social change are never evenly distributed. The industry which is made obsolete and the workers whose skill is made unmarketable are forced to bear the costs of technical progress, while others enjoy the improved produqs. Those to whom the status quo is profitable are said to have a vested interest. Communities with an army post or navy yard
nearby find that all this government money is good for business, so these communities have a vested interest in retaining these military establishments. Students attending state  niversi ies have a vested interest in taxsupported higher education. President Reagan's efforts to trim student loan funds met with strong opposition from both the colleges
and the students. Nearly everyone has some vested interests-from the rich with their taxexempt bonds to the poor with their welfare checks and food stamps. Most social changes carry a threat, real or imaginary, to some people with vested interests,who then oppose these changes. Examples
are almost endless. In 1579 the Council of Danzig, acting in response to pressure from weavers, ordered the strangulation of the inventor of an improved weaving machine; and the spinsters of. Blackburn, manland,
invaded Hargreave's home to destroy his spinning jennies [Stern, 1937]. The Japanese learned to produce and use guns in the sixteenth century but renounced them about 1637 because the warrior elite preferred to retain their sword-wielding supremacy [P.errin, 1979]. The early railroads were opposed by landowners who did not want their lands cut up and by canal owners and toll-road companies; and then in turn the railroads became vigorous opponents of the automobile and helped to block construction of the St. Lawrence seaway. Employer opposition to the organization of labor unions was long and bitter and still continues in Some places, while unions resort to "featherbedding" in - the effort to retain jobs made unnecessary by technical change. Each group is an ardent advocate of progress in general but not at the expense of its own vested interests. Those with vested interests, however, appear as promoters of change whenever they
believe the proposed change will ,e profitable to them. American corporations spend billions of dollars each year to develop new products which.they can sell profitably. Many business groups in the Great Lakes area energetically supported the st. Lawrence seaway proposed. Such government enterprises.


Although returnable beverage containers [ininstead of of throwaways) would be of eenormous benefit enormous benefit to society, practical politics Is always biased always biasedd toward the status quo. For example; the 40,000 people who would lose'jobs Ifall bottles had to be returnable have a clear idea of who they are; the 165,000 people who would acqUire jobs are not easily identified,and have no union union looking outingout for their prospeInlet Restserests. Moreover, a returnable beverage container law would cut into the profits and growth potential ofmainlandd manufacturers of bottles and cans ali~e,and the two have forged a potent sociopolitical to defeat such legislation.The problem, in this case, liesnot so much In determining what pollcieswould promote the publicinterest as Inassembling the  political muscle to overcome the opposition of those to whom change would not necessarily represent an Improvement. Denis Hayes. "The Unfmlshed Agenda: Goals for I;arth Day
'00." Environment. 22:7. April 1980. A publication of the Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation. Do most changes benefit some while injuring
others? How do we decide who e interests should prevail