Posted in error. Consider this tomorrow’s post–sorry to clutter your inboxes!
I think there was a movie titled “While You Were Sleeping.” I feel as though that would be an excellent title for America right now.
While we are being governed by ideologues and fools intent upon destruction of our already inadequate social safety net, our most pressing problems go unaddressed–and in a number of cases, unidentified.
Unlike Congress and the Trump Administration, most Americans are concerned about climate change, and with good reason. Far fewer of us recognize that we are about to experience vast changes to our economic landscape. Automation and the Internet are already profoundly changing the way America does business.
A study from the Brookings Institution notes that prior automation has not eliminated the need for human work.
The Luddites in 19th Century Britain were convinced that machines would largely eliminate human work over time. Much more recently and in the U.S., anxiety appeared in the “automation scare” of the late 1950s and early 1960s, when many Americans first became aware of computers and their potential to displace workers. And, even in the previous decade, fears that technology would enable employers to “offshore” vast quantities of US jobs to China or India have also been common at certain points in time.
In each of these cases, the worst fears expressed by critics of automation have never come true; indeed, there has been no long-term trend whatsoever towards higher unemployment over time as automation has increased. As economists frequently explain, automation creates new jobs while eliminating older ones, in patterns that have held up again and again over time.
But is this time different?
The article concludes that many workers whose tasks can be automated will be displaced, but that demand for skilled employees—technicians or engineers and other tasks that the machines cannot perform, will increase.
The question is: will that increase be enough to offset the jobs lost? and what about older workers and those that lack the capacity to be retrained for more intellectually-demanding jobs? And what is our obligation to those who are permanently displaced?
One thing that is very different this time around is the ubiquity of the Internet and its effect upon retailing. Brick and mortar stores are closing at an alarming rate, displacing sales personnel, managers and others employed by those retail outlets, and reducing the need for property managers, realtors and others involved in the construction, maintenance and leasing of stores
What if this time is different? What if advances in automation and e-tailing reduce employment significantly, leaving millions of Americans permanently unemployed?
If we do nothing, we invite riots and a degree of social unrest previously unseen. Policymakers will have to consider social supports far more robust than any America has previously offered–most likely, something like a UBI, or Universal Basic Income stipend.
Mass unemployment would also require significant changes in education policy. The short-sighted emphasis on job training rather than actual education would be shown to be unwise; the jobs that remain, should this scenario become real, would require critical thinking and a broad liberal arts education.
Whether the worst-case scenario comes to pass or not, we know that the not-so-distant future is likely to bring massive change: as previously fertile parts of the globe are no longer arable, we can expect migration on a scale we’ve never before seen. Terrorism is likely to increase.
Meanwhile, as Americans are sleeping….the EPA is firing scientists, Congress is attacking healthcare and both state and local legislatures are making it harder to get birth control.