Back in the 1960’s there was a television show about people who lived in the future. In this imagined future, machines had taken over all the boring and dangerous work that people did in the past, leaving them free to enjoy lives of luxury and leisure. Well, half of this story did come true, machines did take over boring and dangerous human jobs so that humans didn’t have to do them anymore. There was a problem however, instead of enjoying wealth and prosperity, these workers found themselves unemployed with skills that have no value in the modern marketplace. Whoops.
When talking about the unexpected rise of Donald Trump, people talk about every cause you could imagine for the unrest that propelled him to the oval office. They talk about immigration, about corporate greed, about racism, but they ignore something huge. What everyone forgets or chooses not to talk about is that an enormous section of the American workforce has lost their jobs due to automation. Blue collar Americans did not lose their jobs to Mexicans. Instead these jobs were taken by robots.
There are good reasons for not publicizing this. For one thing, the corporations that directly benefit from automation represent the same interests with the most power to directly influence politics, both through lobbying and campaign contributions. Hiring human workers is expensive, involves a lot of red tape, and is increasingly being avoided by any industry that can find a way to avoid it. Hence the preference for automation.
Many bright minds are aware of this problem and they have proposed a range of solutions to deal with it. Some advocate a universal basic human income, basically ensuring that the government gives everybody enough money to ensure a basic standard of living. This would require redistributing wealth through taxation which is a very controversial idea in American politics. Another solution would be for entrepreneurs to brainstorm new and creative ways to create jobs and create new types of employment to help the unemployed.
The depressing fact remains that things are likely to get worse before they get better. The election of Donald Trump reflected the frustration of a once proud working class making a self admittedly desperate attempt to get their needs met. The current administration will be unable to live up to this promise and meanwhile, unemployment and income inequality will continue to get worse. If we keep traveling down this path, then America is headed towards another revolution, possibly a violent one at that.
The facts of the matter are what they are. Industry is not going to abandon automation and the wealthy are not going to voluntarily surrender their wealth to the poor. As a society we have got to figure out a way to adapt to the new economic reality before we find ourselves plunged into a state of civil unrest. Like climate change, there is still time to avoid a frightening future, but the imperative is for us to act now.