It’s the Robot Economy, Folks

David Atkins made a good point yesterday at The Washington Monthly after former Clinton staffer Nick Merrill shot back at Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg for suggesting that economic anxiety indeed played a role in Donald Trump’s 2016 win:

So, in the argument between Merrill and Buttigieg, who is right? They both are. And the fact that Merrill doesn’t understand that point is part of the problem; and it’s a sign of what the 2020 Democratic nominee must fix.

One cannot even begin to talk about this issue without acknowledging that the white working class is quite literally dying. Mortality rates for middle-aged white Americans have been ticking upwards for nearly 20 years, led primarily by a sharp rise in “deaths of despair”—suicide, drug abuse, and alcohol abuse—among those without college degrees. According to research, these deaths are primarily driven by a lack of good jobs and the dysfunction that economic anxiety creates in the social fabric.

Buttigieg is right that Trump pretended to offer solutions for these voters specifically, and that certain aspects of Clinton’s messaging did not convey the urgency that people in these communities feel about their circumstances. It’s no accident that “learn to code” has become a scornful joke on both the right and the progressive left.

Merrill is also right that the solutions Trump offered were racist, vitriolic, and full of false promises. Trump blamed economic and social problems on immigrants, promised to use his supposed skill as a negotiator to fix trade deals and bring jobs back, and promised to use his bully pulpit to strongarm companies into keeping existing factories open and getting new ones built.

People who know me find out pretty quickly that I believe racism played a…huuuuge…role in Trump’s win. Like many populists before him he worked to define his supporters as the only part of the population that deserves political power. Many heard his stump speech rhetoric against political correctness and immigrants as a promise to return the US to a political environment controlled by white males. Trump himself does not have to be a racist or misogynist for this to work, by the way, though I believe his background suggests he probably is. Nor does this mean Trump supporters did so because of racism or bigotry, though his movement seems to have energized white nationalists.

But Buttigieg implies something that’s important to remember: the world is in in the middle of a social transformation that we need to accept and begin preparing for. There is a demographic component to this as globalization creates the incentives for migration and gives people the ability to escape dangerous conditions at home or seek new opportunities in other countries. Many people object to this and want to block movement of workers across national borders even as they work to permit goods and money to cross unimpeded.

But the rapid approach of the day when economic productivity will not depend as heavily on the physical and intellectual labor of human beings also matters. Robots and artificial intelligence will never completely replace human labor, but anyone who believes Donald Trump or anyone else can bring blue collar manufacturing jobs to Detroit should think it through. To be sure, American manufacturers abandoned the US in search of cheaper overseas workers as the 20th Century came to a close, and this transformed the rust belt states where Trump won by the skin of his nose. But if they return the new facilities will employ more robots than men and women who never went to college but can learn to operate a paint booth.

Statistically speaking the economy looks pretty good, but it delivers its benefits to a shrinking percentage of the population. I believe our tax system makes a difference here, but we see the despair Atkins brings up because automation reduces the scope of opportunities for people without expensive and extensive training. If you think using cheap overseas labor and expensive robots hurt blue collar workers, wait until artificial intelligence replaces tractor-trailer freight drivers. And because our society associates success and financial rewards with work, the people this transforming economy leaves out often lose hope as opportunities fade.

We’re rapidly approaching the point in society where the economy can easily produce everything we all need to have good quality of life without the need for nearly as many human workers. For the foreseeable future humans will have to construct and operate the robots and the computers that drive them, but “learn to code” seriously understates the problem. In a world where robots can build cars, kiosks can take both your order and your payment, and an algorithm with perfect knowledge of the law can produce a legal or financial strategy, what will humans do for a living?

Racism and misogyny matter a great deal and it’s time to end bigotry and discrimination. But the robot economy creates the conditions that allow politicians to use fear-mongering rhetoric to divide the working class. How to distribute the gains from a capitalist economy that does not depend on human labor is the question our leaders need to get their arms around. And soon.

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