Lessons in creative destruction from ‘Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel’
Religion & Liberty Online

Lessons in creative destruction from ‘Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel’

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Creative destruction can be a painful thing, particularly when you’re the one being destroyed. I’ve been-there done-that, and when things hit, I can’t say that I cared too much about Joseph Schumpeter and his fancy ideas.

Alas, even when we have a firm understanding of the long-term social and economic benefits of such destruction — that whatever pain we’re experiencing is for the “greater good” of humanity — we can’t help but feel unappreciated, devalued, and cast aside. Our work is an expression of ourselves, something we offer to society and (hopefully) believe to be of considerable worth.

Thus, when we experience such rejection, it’s only natural to react bitterly and become cynical, resentful, or fatalistic, allowing our attitudes and behaviors to correspond in turn. We’re tempted to doubt ourselves or doubt others, to sit back or plod forward halfheartedly, to feel entitled, believing that our “service” deserves a place in the economic landscape, regardless of what the economic signals might say.

Yet amidst theese competing emotions, we mustn’t forget that, in addition to concerns about productivity, efficiency, and economic progress, for the Christian, our work is ultimately service to others, and thus, to God. If someone has discovered new and better ways to meet our neighbors’ needs, it should tell us that it’s time to tweak our game and find new ways to contribute, as hard and uncomfortable as that may be. Our work is not a mere means to a paycheck, and neither are we mindless, powerless cogs in some grand machine, manufactured and predestined to spin mindlessly along only to be bypassed by the Next Big Thing and consigned to the city dump.

In her 1939 children’s book, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, Virginia Lee Burton gets to the heart of all this, tapping into the deep and profound pain of creative destruction, while ultimately pointing the way forward — toward creativity, service, and authentic human flourishing.

The book follows the journey of protagonists Mike Mulligan and his trusty steam shovel, Mary Ann, who start out at the top of their industry.

“Mike Mulligan was very proud of Mary Anne,” the book begins. “He always said that she could dig as much in a day as a hundred men could dig in a week, but he had never been quite sure that this was true.”

The book proceeds to show Mike and Mary Anne producing value in a variety of ways: digging canals, carving paths through mountains, preparing terrain for urban development, etc. “When people used to stop them and watch them, Mike Mulligan and Mary Anne used to dig a little faster and a little better,” Burton writes. “The more people stopped, the faster and better they dug.”

Yet despite their energy and efforts, destruction cometh. “Along came the new gasoline shovels, and the new electric shovels, and the new Diesel motor shovels and took all the jobs away from the steam shovels.”

As noted, destruction hurts. “Mike Mulligan and Mary Anne were VERY SAD.”

Burton then provides a powerful image of an eerie future that might’ve been, with Mike and Mary Anne peering over a pile of abandoned, disassembled, and unused steam shovels. “All the other steam shovels were being sold for junk, or left out in the old gravel pits to rust and fall apart. Mike loved Mary Anne. He couldn’t do that to her.”

Rather than pouting and prepping for the graveyard, however, Mike and Mary Anne choose to look for opportunity elsewhere. Rather than lobbying the government for a steam-shovel subsidy or an electric-shovel tax, they decide to “mobilize” in a rather different way.

After reading a newspaper, Mike discovers that Popperville, a distant rural town, is planning to build a new town hall. With little hesitation, Mike and Mary Anne move to the country to meet the need. If the Big City had no use for their services — if their existing neighbors’ needs were met — perhaps someone, somewhere still did.

Upon arriving, Mike promises the town that they’ll dig the cellar for the town hall in one day, a job that, according to a pessimistic townsperson, would “take a hundred men at least a week.” Though Mary Anne have only bragged about such a feat in times past, Mike is now pressed to demonstrate their full potential. (Notice, too, how their services in the rural town are now framed as putting 100 other folks out of work, as your run-of-the-mill protectionist might say.)

If they can’t dig the cellar in one day, Mike declares, the townspeople will not have to pay for their services. This is not an attitude of defeat.

Mike and Mary Anne then get to work.

In the city, they were rendered useless. Their services were outmatched and their potential appeared to have hit its limit, surpassed by the innovations of others. But behold, their service is connected to a need once again, and so, they begin to dig.

“Never had Mike Mulligan and Mary Anne had so many people to watch them; never had they dug so fast and so well; and never had the sun seemed to go down so fast…Dirt was flying everywhere, and the smoke and steam were so thick that people could hardly see anything. But listen! Bing! Bang! Crash! Slam! Louder and louder, faster and faster.”

The the task was soon complete. “Hurray!” shouted the people. “Hurray for Mike Mulligan and his steam shovel! They have dug the cellar in just one day!”

Yet being so inspired, Mike soon realizes that Mary Anne is now trapped in the cellar, sunk deep in the ground without a plan or a means to get out.

This time, however, the solution comes not from Mike or Mary Anne, but from a little boy, the voice of the future, offering his own innovative idea to leverage the old and supposedly obsolete machine.

Not only do Mike and Mary Anne serve their far-away neighbors without being asked, but the town proceeds to return the deed by carving out new roles for Mike and Mary Anne, welcoming them into their community and discovering new ways to add value. Mary Anne will stay put and serve as the furnace for the future town hall, and Mike will serve as the janitor.

The story concludes with Mary Anne chugging away happily, now as the furnace in the town hall basement, as Mike builds and develops relationships with the townspeople and provides value for his community.

Rather than painting the realities of such destruction with the typical protectionist brush strokes of angst, rebellion, and subversion, Burton highlights the mystery, power, and possibility of human creativity when put into the active service of others.

The even better news, of course, is that unlike Mary Anne, we are not mere machines, but creative and imaginative human persons created in the image of God, fully capable of adapting, mobilizing, innovating our modes of service to be in line with his perfect will. When the economic conditions change, the voice of God will speak, the Spirit will comfort, wisdom will come, and we can move forward energetically and with creativity, leaning not on our own understanding.

We may think that certain forms of such destruction signal our end. Yet as the story of Mike Mulligan and Mary Anne illustrates, when service and neighbor-love remain the driving forces of our economic activity, the ultimate solution may surprise us after all.

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Joseph Sunde

Joseph Sunde's work has appeared in venues such as the Foundation for Economic Education, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work, as well as on PowerBlog. He resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with his wife and four children.