Is Resistance Futile?

In the wake of the 2016 Presidential election, we saw a battle among figures in what the late Molly Ivins called “the chattering classes” over the nature of Trump’s support. Nice people who want to think well of their fellow Americans identified economic insecurity, while not-so-nice others (including me) attributed the bulk of Trump votes to racism.

The ensuing research validated the racism connection, but of course, neither interpretation explained all votes or described all motives. It turned out that most Trump voters were not economically insecure, and researchers confirmed that “racial resentment” was the most robust predictor of Trump support, but there was one group for which economic insecurity was a motivating factor–prior Obama voters who switched to Trump. And the source of that insecurity was the steady increase in automation and AI–artificial intelligence.

Thomas Edsall reports on a recent study of –as he puts it–an “era in which vast swaths of the population are potentially vulnerable to the threat — or promise — of a Fourth Industrial Revolution.”

This revolution is driven by unprecedented levels of technological innovation as artificial intelligence joins forces with automation and takes aim not only at employment in what remains of the nation’s manufacturing heartland, but increasingly at the white collar, managerial and professional occupational structure.

The technological innovations we’ve experienced have ushered in an economy that rewards college-educated workers and disadvantages others, contributing to economic inequality. The scholars Edsall quotes predict that these advances in technology are likely to create additional social upheaval as they steadily affect the future of jobs.

Researchers find that exposure to automation correlates with support for Trump.

The strong association of 2016 Electoral College outcomes and state automation exposure very much suggests that the spread of workplace automation and associated worker anxiety about the future may have played some role in the Trump backlash and Republican appeals.

The study Edsall cites found that so-called “heartland states” like Indiana and Kentucky, both of which have heavy manufacturing histories and low educational attainment,

contain not only the nation’s highest employment-weighted automation risks, but also registered some of the widest Trump victory margins. By contrast, all but one of the states with the least exposure to automation, and possessing the highest levels of educational attainment, voted for Hillary Clinton.

That gets us back to the relationship between populism and automation. Edsall quotes an economist at  Harvard’s Kennedy School, who studied those Obama-to-Trump voters.

Switchers to Trump are different both from Trump voters and from other Obama voters in identifiable respects related to social identity and views on the economy in particular. They differ from regular Trump voters in that they exhibit greater economic insecurity, do not associate themselves with an upper social class and they look favorably on financial regulation. They differ from others who voted for Obama in 2012 in that they exhibit greater racial hostility, more economic insecurity and more negative attitudes toward trade agreements and immigration.

In my last book, I addressed the threat automation poses to millions of jobs, and cautioned that humans tend to get meaning and purpose from employment. Edsall quotes from a 2017 paper in which economists Anton Korinek and Joseph E. Stiglitz  went further, warning that artificial intelligence has the potential to create a high-tech dystopian future.

Without extraordinary interventions, Korinek and Stiglitz foresee two scenarios: both of which could have disastrous consequences:

In the first, “man and machine will merge, i.e., that humans will ‘enhance’ themselves with ever more advanced technology so that their physical and mental capabilities are increasingly determined by the state of the art in technology and A.I. rather than by traditional human biology.”

Unchecked, this “will lead to massive increases in human inequality,” they write, because intelligence is not distributed equally among humans and “if intelligence becomes a matter of ability‐to‐pay, it is conceivable that the wealthiest (enhanced) humans will become orders of magnitude more productive — ’more intelligent’ — than the unenhanced, leaving the majority of the population further and further behind.”

In the second scenario, “artificially intelligent entities will develop separately from humans, with their own objectives and behavior, aided by the intelligent machines.”

Unlike the Borg, Korinek and Stiglitz do not conclude that resistance to these possible consequences is futile. Instead, they advocate for government intervention and redistribution to counter the threats, leading Edsall to conclude with “the” question:

If fully enacted, could Biden’s $6 trillion-plus package of stimulus, infrastructure and social expenditure represent a preliminary step toward providing the social insurance and redistribution necessary to protect American workers from the threat of technological innovation? Can spending on this scale curb the resentment or heal the anguish over wrenching dislocations of race, culture and class?

I guess we’ll see.


  1. Professor-I love American history, especially recent American history. Because of that, I am discouraged that a main focus of our news is on a former POTUS, (I refuse to use his name) a person who lost the House, lost the Senate and lost the White House is not left to rot in the pile of trash he created, nameless and forgotten.

  2. Man and machine are already merging in many areas. Cochlear implants are one example where it’s possible to hear more sounds than a normal ear can. Cell phone usage shows we can access information quickly and it’s a step towards integration of the cell phone with our brains.

  3. With all due respect, the heartland people have been fed the B.S. line about automation since I worked in automation beginning in the 60s. During the Viet Nam war era, our unemployment rate was almost as low as WW II.

    The anti-union rubbish from the Reagan/Regan administrations created this job loss meme. Included in that “action” was the defanging of anti-trust laws and allowing corporations to shift their jobs overseas and leave nothing behind but rotting factories – which have been stripped of useful materials and sold to China and the other countries that received all this new business.

    It isn’t IT or AI that is the real problem right now. The new jobs on the horizon for saving what’s left of our planet and our (American) industrial/infrastructure base will come soon and remove all this pearl clutching. Yes, it is/was, after all about racism. Nixon’s “race card” strategy started that fetid ball rolling.

    Perhaps more crucial to our republic is the next iteration of Republican idiocy: VOTER LAWS AND VOTE SUPPRESSION/INVALIDATION. Trump created so much racial fear among those not paying attention to the facts, that they are eager to destroy the Constitution and our democracy for the sake of their fears. Hitler did it by activating the aggrieved non-Jews in Germany – and elsewhere. Trump and the Russian propaganda/disinformation initiatives that he allowed are now sending the message of hate and distrust to the weakest minds among us.

    If they are successful at destroying our national trust and democracy, what will the Republicans do about the dystopia they created? My question will be: WHO WILL BE OUR NAVALNY?

  4. “If fully enacted, could Biden’s $6 trillion-plus package of stimulus, infrastructure and social expenditure represent a preliminary step toward providing the social insurance and redistribution necessary to protect American workers from the threat of technological innovation?”

    Like President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, President Joe Biden is putting his trust and faith and his $6 trillion-plus stimulus package in the American people by putting them to work strengthening the entire infrastructure. Machines cannot rebuild bridges, dams, roads or make the decisions to hire the workers to save the foundation of this nation. I won’t hesitate to name the former POTUS Donald Trump who has trust and faith in no one but himself and is trying to strengthen the Republican party only to save his ego. Trump only stayed in the shadows during President Joe Biden’s first 100 days before returning to the public stage with the supporting GOP he had gathered to return to his MAGA rallies with new hats and tee shirts. During this time did the government’s resistance to prosecute Trump’s insurrectionists weaken? What actions have been taken and are being taken as we watch the continuing “transition” of government from words to action?

    Since the technology of automaton became our reality; people began to become obsolete and the infrastructure maintenance and repair has become only a topic of conversation and promises of progress but no sign of action. “Is Resistance Futile?”; we are only seeing the resistance of the Republican party to any form of progress from the Trump deconstruction and so far it doesn’t appear to be futile for them.

  5. I am not convinced that AI is the primary event affecting the non-college workforce today – although it may be a factor in the future. As Paul Krugman often points out, if AI and automation were the prime movers they would show up as productivity improvements – more production per worker. In fact productivity increases have slowed. Others, including Dean Baker, trace the assault on our manufacturing workers to other causes. Trade deals that put our manufacturing employees in competition with low-wage countries (while leaving protections in place for physicians, lawyers etc.). All without meaningful trade adjustment programs. Allowing the gig economy to treat what are essentially employees as at-will, benefit-less individual private contractors. Allowing protections such as minimum wage and required overtime pay to deteriorate to the point of absurdity. Allowing companies to acquire competitors so that they have both pricing power and monopsony positions relative to employees.
    The diagnosis of the problems is important. Blaming AI before it is actually the problem may mean that we don’t address the real problems in any meaningful way.

  6. I have come to realize if we are amidst an industrial revolution, are we really aware of its implications as if historians looking back with fresh insight 50 years from now. We will know then who our Navalny is. I do not see or really know now who that is for us as Navalny has become for Russia today. The revolutionary does not need to be Einstein capable of inventing and designing the central server of automation. But the revolutionary will require a compelling case from his/her heart and soul for the future of the American worker integrated into one small important role that makes something useful from automation. This revolutionary knows the political and private sector will required to recapture industrial sectors for domestic sovereignty of more goods made in America. It is a rebalancing of domestic and global manufacturing of essentials that make our country strong at home and abroad.

  7. So the real question is: Can humans adapt to a new reality once again? I think we can, but we have to stop looking at the intelligence revolution as the end of the world. Jobs change. Training needs to change, too. There will be work, but it will be different from the work that most of us have done. Maybe we’ll have more artists, actors, and musicians. Maybe the new work will be recreationally centered. We don’t know yet.

  8. Dave makes a compelling argument and so does Peggy. The definition of work will be changed as the people (mainly the younger generations) are seeing our country for what it truly is and they don’t like it one bit. Especially, the US of A.

    As I mentioned recently, a global survey shows citizens are more concerned about the USA than Russia or China. That’s reality.

    What we primarily see in the USA is American Exceptionalism propaganda produced by mostly Hollywood. It’s fake.

    Workers are being cut off from unemployment because the so-called job creators can’t find minions for their low-paying jobs that offer no benefits. It’s a well-orchestrated campaign coming from our oligarchy and many Americans are supportive of it.

    “If there are so many help wanted signs and nobody is applying, then the workers must be lazy.”

    Again, the far-right is leading that banter and the silent majority are nodding their heads in approval.

    Did anybody (the free press) check the anticipated jobs number set by economists for April? It was astronomical. What did they base that number on? Nobody is asking that question — instead, they are blaming it on the unemployment package approved in Washington.

    When AI starts replacing workers, the oligarchy, politicians, and the media will all work in unison.

    Meanwhile, workers will get more and more organized. As I said, many of them are calling themselves proud socialists and communists. Religion won’t stop them and neither will the media because they are experts with the internet. It will be a global movement like Greta has done with climate as a teenager.

    The Boomers are dying off and won’t be around to dictate their old solutions on new problems. 😉

  9. Life changes go on all around us all of the time and are mostly caused by people and conditions out of reach of our senses much less our intellect. It’s been going on for a long time now at an ever-increasing rate until now it is exploding even faster than human population growth is. Why is anyone surprised? What most of us are though is unprepared; we did not see this all coming and it’s frightening to be so out of control.

    There are two totally human reactions to our dilemma; blaming others or accepting personal responsibility, neither of which is a resignation to going on alone. Drop the blame, it never fixes a thing. Learn about what’s coming as much as possible and prepare to live there, every day that you live, and accept what you can control with as much help from others as possible, and take as much advantage of what you were born with and into as you can attributing it all to only your good fortune.

    Notice how opposite this is of the way that Trump and all of the little Trump’s have lived? They can’t even understand much less live this way. That’s why they are so failed and so blaming of everyone else. No adaption by the US to what’s coming occurred during his four years of power. We as a country are much the worse off as a result. Yes, I blame him because how he failed the job he signed up for was extraordinary. but now we have work to do in order to adapt to the realities of the world we are already in, not what the one we or he wished for.

  10. I too agree with Peggy. The changes incurred by AI and the merging of technology with existing systems have been going on for decades. Machines have already replaced workers in many areas of construction and manufacturing. Draftsmen have been replaced by computers, and you don’t need a gunsmith to make a gun, you need a special computer operated printer. The trucking industry is experimenting with driverless trucks. Some medical surgeries are now done by a robot. Yes, it takes people to make the machines and program them, but those same machines then replace X amount of workers for Y amount of time.
    It isn’t if it happens; it is already happening. The question is, “How do we sanely use this new world for all of mankind’s benefit?”

  11. There is plenty of meaningful work waiting to be done:

    – climate change mitigation
    – teaching critical thinking
    – public service
    – taking care of our aging population
    – social entrepreneurship
    – etc.

    Most of the above are not incentivized and most pay mediocrely, at best.

    In the ever-intensifying “me” culture, the coming generations are more likely to go for a “fast buck” and self-gratification.

  12. There are a lot of compelling comments on today’s blog post. I would like to add to them. I worked my entire career in IT. I was the one of those people that was helping automate those jobs. What automation enabled was higher productivity. Occasionally automation eliminated jobs (power company installing meters with radios in them that could be read remotely), but smart companies offer good employees opportunities to relocate within the company to other jobs. In health care I saw automation greatly increase the patient care documentation and allow the company to capture charges on every band-aid that was dispensed. It never cut down on the amount of nurses needed, but it did increase revenue per nurse. As a network engineer, my job was pretty hard to automate because I had to touch cables and connections on a routine basis.

    But, that said, with all of the systems I monitored, I always had items on my task list to develop automated scripts and other tools that would relive myself of routine tasks to make myself more productive. Getting rid of the busy work allowed me time to make myself more productive in other ways that helped the company.

    Jobs do change. IPL shutdown a 80 year old coal fired power plant in Martinsville that employed 100+ people, and for $600 million, replaced it with a gas fired combined cycle gas turbine power plant that employed 35 people and was mostly automated. Fuel efficiency went from 40% to 90% as well. But that plant employed a whole fleet of contractors who monitored and maintained the new automated equipment. Capitalism is brutal. If changes invalidate your skill set, you are going to be out of a job. IPL offered early retirement to many of the displaced workers, but many companies would not have.

    We are not to the point where jobs flat out go away, but they do change and different skill sets are required. Unless you go into business yourself, gone are the days where a high school education will allow you to raise a family. Change is hard and people resent change, but mostly I think they want someone to blame, because it is easy. Republicans seem to have latched on to this segment of the population that is easy and open to manipulation. In any time there there is great societal change, there is going to be political and social upheaval and there are going to be people that take advantage of of it. The question is do we remove all of the guard rails and allow mass suffering, or do we make sure there is a social support structure in place to catch the people that fall to the bottom.

    To quote a learned professor, “We all do better when we all do better” and should not blame the “other” for our shortcomings.

  13. I think we had this discussion a while back about taxes and artificial intelligence.

    Corporations who start to replace flesh and blood workers with artificial intelligence should be taxed per individual until the economy and economic impact has been absorbed into the new system.

    Taxation, with that money being put into a pot along with free college and vocational training should take the sting out of being replaced by a robot! In other words, a person would still be paid the wage they were making even though they’ve been replaced by a robot. Of course all future generations would have to be retrained in positions not related to those specific jobs.

  14. ive been in trucking , driving and the other,workin on them since 1972.i’ve watched the change of vehicle systems and followed it,by leaving driving for shop time to renew the process. at 66 the shops now pass on my exp. driving truck is a mind blowing issue. myself, i can flow with the needs and the BS traffic. others,cant. in a demand today(so called demand) drivers are not, entering the career. but, corp American of investor owned trucking enities,i.e. swift/england/prime/usexp and many more, now want 18/20 year olds to fill the void..that’s the investor owned companies,and the ATA..smaller companies who give a driver a wage and security, and respect. in my 6 million miles of paid driving,this is totally stupid. today with even the best tech,you have to foresee the issue before it happens.. no tech will override a mental mistake/deliberate attempt, by someone else. now throw in teens driving 40 tons at speed,and ya get the picture.. if AI wa s suppose to determine the outcome,it didn’t determine the issue before it happened. no AI yet in trucking,other than a few idiots who see driverless vehicles as a godsend.
    if i was to relate,try to under stand,the average driver today,for,these big companies ,make minimum wage,and they wonder why no one wants to drive a truck,and live in its box for 4/500$ a week take home,and the cost of living also. we’re here discussing the shortfall of demand,and supply. and how Ai and the like is making its self present. you can have all the automated everything,but where does the human,get dignity for its presence? working mainly,and providing. seems the courts are out on this issue,as is the big trucking companies paying lawyers to keep,the wages low.why i make a living wage, almost every driver who i walked with,do a job without interference from a computer or its developer. real time sense of the issue before it happens is still key. some have it,others will never develop it. now let’s see them develop that? unless of course, you change driving in every aspect, from the car to the M/C and pedestrian traffic. ( tell the BMW class to stay outta the left lane eh?)but like any corprate need, their hand is out first,and we are always second..warehouse the ones who don’t work(prison),provide ignorance and false gods,and never give the working class a living wage,and you will see the change..

  15. Since technology is already replacing many jobs and no one knows for sure when AI becomes a major worker replacement method, we are in need of a staged national strategy to cope with the reality when it arrives. Like climate change, it’s a process that will happen over a long period of time, but like climate change the time span limiting adaptation is already upon us. And like climate change, this is an existential problem.

    Of course the responses must be built into our K-12 school system. There are countless people like the HVAC man (and me) who recently visited and who did not know they had technical interest or skills until they gave it a try. Now he’s delighted with the results and the compensation. Most people I’ve met in my lifetime had a certain set of smarts that, while not necessarily academic in nature, showed an underlying intelligence able to cope with life’s curve balls. If we use schools to teach what’s coming in the real world, young people can build the type of confidence that is most needed in tomorrow’s workplace. They can graduate knowing that they re adaptable to whatever work challenges confront them.

    AI will advance and automation will proliferate as long as lower costs are appealing to capitalists. We can cope with the changes if we can keep the luddites and the populist politicians at bay long enough to develop a workable strategy.

  16. A couple of items that would make a transition easier would be Universal Health Care or a Single Payer Health Care System. Employees would no longer be at the mercy of their employers for health care coverage.

    The second item would be tuition free higher education or trade school training. If education is one key to higher paying job then we should not force people seeking a higher education or a trade to go into debt to pay for it. At the end of the day a better educated work force is a plus for all of us.

    Unfortunately, we have not only the Reactionary Republicans who would resist these two items but also Corporate Democrats.

    As Bob Dylan sang in the song, “The Times They Are A Changing” :
    Come senators, congressmen
    Please heed the call
    Don’t stand in the doorway
    Don’t block up the hall
    For he that gets hurt
    Will be he who has stalled
    The battle outside ragin’
    Will soon shake your windows
    And rattle your walls
    For the times they are a-changin’

    We seem to have no shortage of those who stand in the door way and block up the hall.

  17. The military are skilled at teaching people who may not be intellectually gifted to master technological tasks. They must be included as part of the solution.

  18. Ah….so people in the military are not “intellectually gifted”…no doubt, police officers, too. Who are: hedge fund folks, Facebook influencers, etc.? Don’t we love putting people in “slightly shaming boxes” and then complain about those who look down on “others”?

  19. Starting with Vernon Turner and several other responders. Was a Manufacturing Engineer(provided processes and equipment to improve production and quality) for 40 yrs. During that time Automation and computerized material handling systems revolutionized manufacturing. V.T. called it, corporations/banks quit building in the USA yet garnered huge profits becoming marketing/home financing companies in the USA. Of course, they created the BIG LIE regarding labor costs/unions being the reason to leave. Steel production in a modern mill compared the East Chicago/Gary or 50 yrs ago produces 10 X more steel per man-hour than the old Open Hearth. The flat screen TV requires 20% of the labor of the color TV of 1970(RCA hired about 20,000 Hoosiers in 1970 – ZERO TODAY. The home appliances(white goods) require less than 50% of the labor as 50 yrs ago as does the auto assemble plant. All painting and welding is now done by robots,not people. Last week the INTEL CEO was being interviewed on national TV regarding micros processors(my words for very mini computered control systems). Intel is the only company in the US making thee items. When asked why others who did make integrated circuits are no longer in the business, he basically shrugged and had no answer beyond the largest manufacturer in the world-a Taiwanese company is build a multi-billion dollar factory in the USA. The specific INTEL US factory cost $40 billion to construct and INTEL is making billions annually.
    The equipment and processes in these highly automated plants requires high tech employees, far fewer than 50 yrs ago, but the corporations would still be in the USA providing both employment and wealth no longer here. Without major social/political/economic banking changes, our grandchildren will be living in a decaying 3rd world country in 30 yrs.

  20. Monotonous Langour points in the right direction. we need to add to the items presented there the idea of a guaranteed annual income. Presumably, with that, because people tend to create/make meaning in their lives by way of career, people may be more open to trying careers most in line with their preferences, not having to maximize income in order to survive.
    One way to characterize the Biden plans is to see it as giving more people more of what they need to survive, which can ameliorate stress, and create a happier, renewed middle class.

  21. Dennis and Peggy: i’m with ya totally! Even mentioning that other guy’s name is more than too much!

  22. There is nothing more overblown than the notion that working men (and some women) changed their support rom Obama to Trump.

    In 2020, Biden had more Republicans voting for him than Trump had Democrats voting for him. That made the difference in several swing states. The Never Trump Republicans living in suburbs is why we don’t have a second term of Donald Trump.

    In 2016, Hillary Clinton did worse on crossover vote, but she was still even with Trump.

    Where Trump excelled was getting infrequent rural and ex-urban voters to go to the polls. But they were not Democratic-leaning voters. They were Republican-leaning voters who didn’t vote on a regular basis. The trouble is he turned off tons of suburban Republican leaning voters who were comfortable voting for Joe Biden, but then scratched for GOP members of Congress.

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