Op-Eds Speaking Truth to the Powers-That-Be
Moving through the 21st Century, automation, not aliens, has been the driving force in unemployment. Trump waived his magic “wall” wand over his rust-belt Cinderellas that eked out an electoral win with fears of minorities and foreigners, but can he build a wall around job automation? Will jobs be the measure of human worth in this century and beyond when machines will do more, faster, and better?
Trump squeaked into office by wooing white blue collar voters in the former industrial states and in coal country with the idea that he would kick start their manual labor-intensive economies. Factory jobs.
Even though the unemployment rate on paper is quite low, it only tracks people looking for jobs in the last four weeks. Chronic unemployment, people who have given up looking for jobs, has skyrocketed to more than 94M people, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
To put that in perspective, that’s roughly 29% of the total population chronically without a job, a staggering 28% of the adult-aged US population, when adjusted for the permanently disabled, full-retirees and students 18-24 who participate seasonally in the workforce.
It has been relatively easy for the President-Elect to sell xenophobia, the fear of outsiders and others, to American whites in states where factory labor, the engine of prosperity throughout the Industrial era for more than 170 years, has been the driving force in their lives. Cheap global labor was the driving force of economic expansion in the last century, and with new winners and losers, expanding trade and commerce generally worked.
Overall, world poverty rates, where people live on less than $1.90/day have been dropping, the World Bank notes, from 1.85B people in 1990 to 767M in 2013.
The Great Recession in 2009, and the shock waves it sent through world economies has been largely written off as the excesses of the world financial markets and the global housing boom that grew faster than the underlying economics supporting it. Yet what was lost was that the recession was the first of what will be many major resets in automation-related unemployment.
Corporations used the excuse of the Wall Street meltdown to lay off millions of low-skilled clerical and blue collar workers whose jobs had been replaced by computers and automation. Georgetown’s Center for Education in the Workforce estimates that 95% of the jobs in the recovery have gone to workers with some college education. 11.5M jobs were landed by those with college on their resumés. Only 88,000 by those with a high school education.
Computers in the white collar world, and robotics in factors have made a huge impact.
“America has lost more than 7 million factory jobs since manufacturing employment peaked in 1979,” the Associated Press reports. “Yet American factory production, minus raw materials and some other costs, more than doubled over the same span to $1.91 trillion last year, according to the Commerce Department, which uses 2009 dollars to adjust for inflation. That’s a notch below the record set on the eve of the Great Recession in 2007. And it makes U.S. manufacturers No. 2 in the world behind China.”
and while robotics is still relatively costly outside of large assembly line settings, the rising cost of wages and the decreasing costs of the robotic tech are moving it into places like the restaurant space as a pilot technology, which means its implementation is a when, not an “if.”
As computing and robotics improve, the jobs that they do only continue to improve and expand. One Oxford University study in 2013 estimates that 47% of the workforce will become technologically unemployed.
Using Bureau of Labor Statistics, financial blogger Wolf Richter factored that 4.1M jobs will be lost by professional drivers as pilotless cars and trucks, expected to be 20% of the vehicles on the road by the end of the decade, removes one of the major centers of non-degree holding employment.
Wolf, however, didn’t do the extensive math. To get an idea of how technology’s employment impact radiates, let’s focus on those cars and trucks:
We know that computers are responsible for more and better marketing and analytics, governmental and corporate intelligence, high speed financial markets, and even keeping traffic flows moving better in major cities. Robots aren’t just for assembly lines or probing space anymore. They build machines, televisions, cell phones, other robots, and even are performing surgeries with improved outcomes. Computers read radiological scans with more accuracy than their human counterparts, and artificial intelligence continues to improve the nuance and subtlety with which our thinking machines “reason” to the point that they are becoming better than us in the intuition department as well.
Who owns them, and how their societal benefits are shared by the world, is becoming one of the biggest challenges of the redefined global economy in the Age of the Machine.
There will be some future Trump who bogeymans tech like they have scapegoated foreigners and their African-Americans. And we must grow out of work as the religion of the Industrial Age especially in the United States.
As the Italians joke, Italians work to live; Americans live to work. Steeped in the Horatio Alger myth of good character, white skin and “pluck” being the magic formula for pulling oneself up by the bootstraps to a higher station in life, we have been told that work is the key determinant in our station in life. Yet it is more than that.
Our society is set up so that work defines everything about us. The way we live, the way we die, our feelings of self-worth, our ability to care for ourselves and our families: All are focused on the education and/or labor that we use to “bring home the bacon.”
Not only the 94 million people at displaced and jobless in the U.S., but the upper 1% and a good chunk of the upper third, should heartily disagree with that American dream, though.
The workforce subsidizes millions through unemployment and social benefits. And even though the 1% and their Republican wannabees complain bitterly about that, that self-same smug 1% derives their millions and billions through largely passive investment off of the backs of the workforce.
Millions more Americans struggling to hold on to their middle class existence have hard-earned capital invested in real estate and the stock market, either directly or through retirement accounts, college accounts, and/or pension plans.
So we are rapidly coming to a crossroads where we must decide: Should work really define us?
There is a discussion that is quite taboo amongst the 19th century Industrialist families like the Kochs and Coors and the nouveau riche like the Waltons and DeVos who have hijacked both our government and the American sociopolitical dialogue of a new concept:
What if we just guaranteed everyone in the United States a basic minimum income? Assured their right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness by making sure that their basic health needs were covered? If every citizen could be assured that their basic health was covered, and a roof was over their head, could they pursue the lives that they want to lead, instead of doing jobs that don’t?
There are a lot of occupations that computers will never replace, or we will decide are not worth replacing. Athletes, coaches, artists, artisans, bakers, mountain climbers, scuba instructors, and myriad other human occupations where the “being human” part, flaws and all, are what define us, will remain. So many people now work the weekday for the right to be their kids’ basketball coach, for the time to be a musician, for the ability to participate in their faith, or the selflessness of helping others in need.
Trump’s tap for labor secretary, Andy Pudzer, is already on the record as pro-robot.
Trump’s Administration, steeped in the thinking of the 19th century, is about to face down one of the biggest existential questions in American history.
They have become responsible for 94M people who have already been displaced by technology. If the academics are correct, that number will steadily rise over the next few decades to 229M people, in an accelerating timeline curve.
American jobs aren’t being taken by Latin Americans. They aren’t going to China. Productivity is soaring because robots do it better. Big business uses them for everything from assembly lines to picking product at Amazon to figuring out how best to load planes, trains and automobiles.
Computers do it better, and only those with the education to interface with the technology, or to provide services that technology will have trouble replacing, are the real winners.
So everything that the far Right has been preaching to its faithful, about work ethics and returning jobs familiar to them has been a big fat lie. If the GOP doesn’t want to face the wrath of the voters in 2018 or 2020, they are going to have to do a lot of cultural reinvention if they want to shepherd a world where work doesn’t define us anymore, or act as a measure of our prosperity.
Technological unemployment is as big a shockwave as the global warming tsunami, and it has already hit the United States’ economy.
What to do with all of those people who don’t have the intellectual or educational surfboards to catch the prosperity wave?
That is Trump’s biggest challenge after his hand leaves that Bible on Friday January 20th.