Automation, Anxiety And Anger

The devil, as the saying goes, is always in the details.

It’s easy to point to social change as a reason for the increased anxiety and tribalism of American voters, just as it is easy to insist that we must “resist”/”do something.” It’s a lot harder to specify the nature and consequences of those social changes, or the form that resistance should take.

A lawyer with whom I used to work was fond of saying that there is only one legal question: what should we do? That adage also works pretty well for political action.

One of the drivers of social change is technology–not just the rapid evolution of communication devices and the like, but the truly incredible advances in automation. Robots are assembling cars and refrigerators; three-dimensional printers are beginning to look a lot like Star Trek replicators.

While labor advocates are still fighting the last war–international trade–automation poses a far greater threat to manufacturing jobs. Thomas Edsall recently compared our current dislocations to the Industrial Revolution, and that sounds about right.

We may never stop arguing about which historic currents swept President Trump into the White House.

Klaus Schwab, chairman of the World Economic Forum, is unlikely to have had Trump in mind when he described the fourth industrial revolutionin Davos in January 2016:

We stand on the brink of a technological revolution that will fundamentally alter the way we live, work, and relate to one another. In its scale, scope, and complexity, the transformation will be unlike anything humankind has experienced before.

Compared with previous industrial revolutions, Schwab continued,

the fourth is evolving at an exponential rather than a linear pace. Moreover, it is disrupting almost every industry in every country. And the breadth and depth of these changes herald the transformation of entire systems of production, management, and governance.

Edsall connects the dots between seemingly unrelated phenomena and this fourth industrial revolution. For example, he points out the ways in which technology has facilitated immigration, both legal and illegal. Immigrants fly into the U.S. and overstay their visas, rather than trudging across borders. Innovations in transportation, communication, together with the globalization of politics and culture, have made the international movement of people “cheaper, quicker, and easier.”“

The IT revolution that has occurred in my adult lifetime has improved living standards and consumer convenience; but at substantial social cost. The substitution of machines for human labor is accelerating, and that reality has significant political and social consequences.

According to the International Federation of Robotics, “By regions, the average robot density per 10,000 employees in Europe is 99 units, in the Americas 84 and in Asia 63 units.”

In a March 2018 paper, “We Were The Robots: Automation in Manufacturing and Voting Behavior in Western Europe,” Massimo Anelli, Italo Colantone and Piero Stanig, of Bocconi University in Milan, found that “robot shock increases support for nationalist and radical right parties.”

The authors note that “both technology and trade seem to drive structural changes which are consequential for voting behavior.”

Some scholars even attribute Trump’s victory in the Electoral College to automation.

In their October 2017 paper, “Political Machinery: Did Robots Swing the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election?” the authors demonstrate that

Support for Donald Trump was significantly higher in local labor markets more exposed to the adoption of robots. Other things equal, a counterfactual analysis shows that Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania would have swung in favor of the Hillary Clinton if robot adoption had been two percent lower over the investigated period, leaving the Democrats with a majority in the Electoral College.

An economist at Brookings has estimated that full adoption of driverless vehicles would put two-and-a-half million drivers out of work. Others estimate that the anticipated addition of 105,000 robots to American factories will result in 210,000 fewer assembler and fabricator jobs in 2024 than otherwise would have been the case.

Edsall quotes a number of economists who explain how IT has increased inequality and reduced labor force participation, and will continue to do so. The dislocations of this fourth industrial revolution are a breeding ground for what social scientists call populism–and what most of us call White Nationalism.

The question “What should we do” is getting pretty urgent.


  1. All true stuff. But
    Elections are about a choice – which of these two people should I vote for?
    I heard a lot of people say
    “I know Trump is a jerk and a liar, but I just CAN’T vote for that #@*%#$@@.”
    Like it or not, the “D” Candidate just had two much baggage
    Too many people had and have a visceral hatred of her
    I don’t get it but it was there

    Had we run ANY other candidate, there would most likely NOT be a Trumpocracy
    And then there is automation

  2. I read Klaus’s article as well. As I read it, all I could think about was “our governments” response to our stepping into the global economy like NAFTA. What policies were put in place for the Middle Class knowing their $45-60,000 were disappearing for good?


    Instead, we get economists who point to “near full employment” so politicians can pat each other on the back. They point to Wall Street’s gains and talk about how strong our economy is so the left is stoking unfounded fears.

    The new ALICE Report came out this past week so I hope Sheila will address the findings.

    The number of Americans who are choosing what bills they can pay or what food they can eat has risen to 43%.

    BUT, “Wall Street is BOOMING”.

    NAFTA was signed by Bill Clinton in the 90’s and it gutted the Working Class. The Midwest and Heartland quickly became “flyover country”. Those who want to know why Hillary Clinton was the wrong candidate…the Working Class remembers that her husband sold them out along with the democratic party.

    Productivity has risen steeply over the past two decades while wages remain flat. Who is reaping all the gains?

    CEOs and shareholders.

    So, if we remain under the capitalistic model where free markets rule, guess what will happen with this Fourth Industrial Revolution?

    As Karl Marx and Albert Einstein pointed out, “capitalism is predictable.”

    I also believe Klaus’s speech at Davos was a warning to the Global Elite as civil unrest is rampant across the globe. We better do something quick because 99% is > 1%.

  3. “The dislocations of this fourth industrial revolution are a breeding ground for what social scientists call populism–and what most of us call White Nationalism.

    The question “What should we do” is getting pretty urgent.

    Thomas Edsall is about symptoms. There comes a time when that is not enough. Anyone associated with the “New Republic” isn’t going to do more than that.

    “What we have to do” is fight the disease itself. But fighting this NEW STRAIN OF THE HITLER VIRUS is much more dangerous than fighting, for example, EBOLA. The “ground zero” of this disease was created by HUMANS not NATURE. A majority of Trump Supporters also support the spread of the virus. How do you get around that is the “$64,000 question.”

  4. As always through history – the many give in to the few because the few are the ones offering them money to ‘make a living’. But now capitalism is showing its true colors – automation is to lessen the human factor thus adding to the cache of the owner of the automation. And the rest be damned.
    However that is not entirely the fault of the capitalists, we are to blame as well; If education is not offered – do we seek it out? I mean a world of knowledge sits in the box in front of most people’s faces reading this! Why do we not seek to become independent producers of products and ideas there are 370 plus million people among us! – ??? When capitalists killed the mom and pops – they were on the way to enslaving the populace and they knew it. Any one with a brain knows cars and the car industry and megapoly big box stores are NOT going to keep us afloat. And shoving theoretical figures into a machine is not as pleasing to a human being as doing some thing that is meaningful to THEM and helpful to someone else in their personal milieu.
    So being I have no power to change the world as we know it by myself, I think it would be wise that others catch on to the game! Because the whole thing is about to collapse, of its own ignorance and its monopolization glut!!! Well like they say – it happens.

  5. “In the case of the group in human society, as we have seen, additions and subtractions to the group may be made by CONVERSION as well as by birth and death. This fact alone gives the human group a very different character and dynamics from that of the biological species. A lion never becomes a giraffe; but a Catholic does occasionally become a Protestant [or Evangelical Christian] and vice versa, an Englishman occasionally becomes an American, and a healthy man gets sick and sick people get well. The shift from one group to another may take place for two very different reasons. In the first place, it may happen through some inner change or mutation in the dynamic processes of the person himself, quite unrelated to the outside environment. These mutational changes are probably rare in the case of changes in the image or mental structure; they may be commoner in the physical structure, where many degenerative diseases seem to be a product of the individual’s own pattern of development rather than of any contagion from like cases outside him. The SECOND TYPE of group change is through CONTAGION with one or more persons of another group. We catch measles from someone who already has it. In a similar way, people catch religious or political views from people whom they meet.”

    “Conflict and Defense: A General Theory” by Kenneth E. Boulding (Harper & Row Publishers, New York, 1962) pp. 123-124.

    As Betty suggested the other day, DEPROGRAMMING is our only option. Nothing else will change Trump’s popularity which is moving upward at the present time. This method of counterattack will have to be developed with the same determination and commitment as the Manhattan Project which developed the atom bomb.

    See my website for The Political Epidemiology Institute at

  6. Our legal system has not yet caught up with Automation, the Internet or medical science; resulting in much of todays Anxiety and Anger. When there is no obvious route or possible routes to justice and equality; confusion leads to anxiety and anger. Look at SCOTUS; once the final word on questions of justice is now led by partisanship and wealth. The Constitution has been forgotten as our source of “rule of law”; the letter of the law is questionable at best and the heart of the law no longer exists in our courts.

    As the 1% and Corporate America moves us closer and closer to robotics in all fields including medicine and the use of driverless vehicles is now being tested; the human equation is being removed from consideration and the value of human lives is becoming less and less. I repeat Alan Watts’ comment from the 1970’s, “Man is going to computerize himself out of existence.”; but not even he could see to what extent the existence and the value of all human life would no longer be relevant. Yet; there are those corporations crying for qualified people to fill their thousands of job openings for blue collar/laborer positions and farmer’s crops rot in fields with no one to reap them. How much of the blame at that level of employment must be placed on those who believe themselves to be above such physical labors?

    “The question “What should we do” is getting pretty urgent.”

  7. The news that the birth rate has dropped precipitously should come as no surprise if the evidence of a fourth revolution is true to the extent shown. More people competing for fewer and fewer jobs means that living to survive becomes a matter of making hard choices, even when religion and politics say otherwise.

  8. Klaus mentions in his article:
    >> However, I am convinced of one thing—that in the future, talent, more than capital, will represent the critical factor of production. This will give rise to a job market increasingly segregated into “low-skill/low-pay” and “high-skill/high-pay” segments, which in turn will lead to an increase in social tensions.<<<

    The idea that higher education leads to higher pay is born out by Census Data. People with a College Education have a higher income than those that do not. The higher your level of education the higher your income.

    A "free higher education" has been embraced in Europe. Here in the USA only Bernie Sanders offered this same prescription in the last presidential election. Like Heath Care a higher education is only available if and only if you can afford it. The vampires of high finance realize a "profit" can be made by financing via loans access to higher education.

    Todd, I agree with you Bill Clinton gutted the working class here in the USA with NAFTA and later permanent normal trade relations with China. It was the Neo-Liberal economic plan.

    The essence of the New Economy was captured by –

    Several years ago Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, captured the new reality when he talked of ideally having “every plant you own on a barge”. The economic logic was that factories should float between countries to take advantage of lowest costs, be they due to under-valued exchange rates, low taxes, subsidies, or a surfeit of cheap labor. Globalization has made Welch’s barge a reality. However, in doing so it has made capital mobility rather than country comparative advantage the engine of trade. And with that change, “free trade” increasingly trades jobs and promotes downward wage equalization.

    Unfortunately, competitiveness policy is not up to the task of anchoring the barge, and it can even be counter-productive. The core problem is corporations are globally mobile. Thus, government can subsidize R&D spending, but the resulting innovations may simply end up in new offshore factories. Moreover, competitiveness policy easily degenerates into a race to the bottom.

    Who would not in our prole class develop Anxiety And Anger, when faced with a Steroid- Crony-Capitalist Society?? The political establishment we have has favored the 1% for decades now.

  9. Bear with me here; as an example of local automation regarding our trash pickup system, DPW distributed to many, but not all, Indianapolis residents a 92 gallon, wheeled trash bins. We had a few weeks before use was required; due to age and disability I had great difficulty moving it around; contacted DPW who scheduled an appointment for someone to come to my home to see if I am really old and disabled. This qualified me for the smaller, 46 gallon bin. The very nice young man explained the reason for these required trash bins is to end people dumping trash along streets; so far that hasn’t worked out as they hoped. The new trash trucks have pickup arms to automatically lift and dump the bins; some trucks have two sets on the rear. The dump site is placed so that the workers who have rolled the new bins out and placed them for pickup also have to use the old fashioned method of hauling the old trash cans and dumping by hand no matter how many there are. Our property taxes pay for solid waste disposal so they are required to continue emptying the old cans. DPW did offer a second 92 gallon bin to those who called for only $7. I was out front when my trash was finally picked up late Monday afternoon; this truck had one set of pick up arms on the right side, the dump area was at the top of the truck. The driver is seated on the right side of these trucks; only one man to drive to the trash can on the sidewalk, get out to roll it to be emptied, return the can to the sidewalk then back in the truck to drive to the next can…all on one side of the street. He then turned around to drive down the other side of the street to empty those cans; I didn’t see how or if he emptied the old type cans. I also don’t see that this automation is progress but the side dump truck only needs one worker. I’m guessing there is a big turnover for this job.

    The city has contracted with Republic to provide trash pickup service east of Shadeland Avenue on the east side. Republic provided one 46 gallon wheeled trash bin so many families are still taking out other cans to be emptied. When my daughter-in-law called Republic to get a second 46 gallon bin, she was told it would cost $68. They continue carrying out all cans on pickup day.

    I believe most of us are smart enough to see that there was and is money being made by someone producing the cans, manufacturing the newer trucks and the privatization to Republic for some areas is additional cost to residents. This automation hasn’t caused anxiety but some anger due to the city increasing our taxes in many areas at this time. When there is no progress or improvement evident for any form of automation, it puts us at another level of victimization by the partisan system here in Indiana.

  10. JoAnn, as a Boomer, I remember blue collar were sort after, especially in the trades. At some point, someone needed a new Air Conditioning/ Heating system installed or repaired. Same could said of engine repairs. Technology, plus a throw away economy, put the TV repairman, and other small appliance repairman out of business, such as VHS repairs.

    One thing companies did when I was young, was trained people from day one. Some companies even offered to pay your tuition to attend trade schools. Unfortunately, some trade schools, were like Trump University, you spent a lot of money went into debt and nothing to show for it at the end.

  11. I saw article that said tha nearly half of all Americans struggle to pay for housing and food. That’s the problem. What do we do? I bet the solution will be liberating some hoarded capital/wealth from the 1%.

  12. In Rebecca Costa’s excellent book, “The Watchman’s Rattle”, she posits that humans have evolved much faster socially than we have biologically. I’ve mentioned this several times on this blog and in my books.

    This so-called 4th industrial revolution is more a function of the inevitable labor environment for capitalism. Capitalists want ALL the money and don’t want to pay ANY labor costs. It’s the system we’ve chosen, and it will eventually destroy mankind. You can see it coming.

    Meanwhile, it takes labor to build those robots everyone wrings their hands about. What about the latent industries like renewable energy and mining the moon? All these electronic toys that people fondle all day long mean nothing meaningful to anyone, and worse, they aren’t built here. It’s just the hyperconnected isolation that protects individuals from actually having to have a conversation.

    We have an infrastructure problem that iPhones aren’t going to solve. We have an acute shortage of tradesmen to re-build our cities, roads and dams. When things start breaking and falling apart, robots won’t matter, unless there are robots that can rescue cars from the river or out from under collapsed bridges. We have an acute shortage of vocational education programs. College education is great for jobs that move electrons around, but there are necessities that all these great thinkers keep avoiding: Farming. Food production. Clean water and clean air. You know, those things that allow people to live and not suffocate or starve.

    All the rest of this stuff is blather if we don’t take care of the necessities of living in a screwed up capitalist environment that keeps saying: MORE PROFIT. DAMN THE CONSEQUENCES.

  13. Vernon Turner: You quote Rebecca Costa saying “…humans have evolved much faster socially than we have biologically…” as if the TRUTH of the statement is so powerful and has been proven so often that it’s ironclad obviousness leaves NO FREEDOM OF DISAGREEMENT.

    But, thank goodness, you almost immediately discover the lie in Costa’s “truth”, and you put it succinctly in your own words when you disagree with her, saying: “It’s just the hyperconnected isolation that protects individuals from actually having to have a conversation.”

    I prefer quoting you, because I am certain that, as slowly as our biological evolution has “advanced”, humans have evolved biologically much, much faster than we have socially, which aptly accounts for our rapidly devolved social habit of avoiding “actual conversation”. Another decade may see our actual conversations hit rock bottom, a dark, dank sociological pit in which very rare conversations consist of sundry emphases on a single grunt: Ugh. Ugh! Ugh? Ugh$.

  14. Larry,

    You don’t understand biological evolution. We look the same today, in all the areas that count, as we did 200,000 years ago. Well, however you want to slice it, humans learned to communicate in great detail so that they could literally secure the tribe’s survival. Costa did not lie. I didn’t disagree with her. The communication is social. The structure of the body and mind is biological. Over the millennia, we have used the brain as our chief source of survival from making and using tools and weapons, to the drum messaging service, to the telegraph, etc. Those things are social, but are products of our biological mind.

    That all said, our obvious tribalism (Why else would we have countries, counties, states, etc.) is still rooted in our survival necessities. You see, evolution of a successful species means that it does what it needs to to keep the reproduction ball rolling. Two-hundred thousand years is a bare snap in geological or evolutionary time. The human brain, in short, was pre-adapted to do the things we do today, the things we build today and the imagination we use for our own, hedonistic pleasure. The biology and the social are linked, of course, but the basic biology is the same as it always was.

  15. I have some familiarity with the arguments made today ranging from biological to social interplay and their histories but confess that I have no bright ideas on how to conform ever more sophisticated automation in the production of assets far beyond mere goods and services with how we as social animals can most profitably interact in protecting our species. We are called upon to understand that there may be no such bright ideas available to us to avoid a robotic takeover of our former hegemony or, that there are and that some arrangement of a working relationship between humans and robots is available.

    Such issues both theoretical and practical are beyond my pay grade. Perhaps the algorithm creators can be of assistance to our physicists and sociologists in solving the problem of who should rule and under what conditions – and perhaps not. We are in uncharted territory and without a compass I am clueless and totally dependent upon those who know more than I to solve the coming conundrum, but solve it we must, and soon.

  16. Gerald,

    Capitalists won’t solve our problems. They create them. As long as these bastards are allowed to run roughshod over humanity, the problems will reach a threshold from which we cannot recover. We may already be there. Karl Marx will turn out to be the most important modern prophet.

  17. Why were no crowded women, men and children murdered by gunfire yesterday day in Windsor, England? Mental health? Not crowded enough? No National Rifle Association? Security more important for royals? No Second Amendment? No Cowboys&Indians? Schools closed for Harry/Meghan Day? More Civilized People, Fewer or No Guns?

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