A central tenet to President-elect Donald Trump’s presidential campaign was that free trade had decimated American manufacturing.
Workers across the country were having their jobs taken from them and given to lower wage workers at plants in Mexico, China, and other countries. Their lost jobs and economic success were because the amorphous establishment had failed to protect them from the future.
They are partially right. Elected leaders, both Democrats and Republicans, failed to protect and help them adapt to the changing economic landscape. However, it was not trade that did these workers in, but automation.
According to the Brookings Institution, 85% of the manufacturing jobs lost since 1980 have been as a result of technological innovations that have rendered human workers obsolete. Companies now rely on automated machines to perform the tasks of low-skilled workers. The machines never tire, can work 24/7, cost less over their lifetime than the worker they are replacing, and maximize output. For the manufacturer, automation is an economic no-brainer.
Now, we are seeing automation advance to the point that in five to 10 years, low-skilled urban workers will need to worry about their own jobs. Already, companies are gearing up for what is coming next as a result of technological innovation.
Let us take Uber as a prime example.
In August of this year, Uber launched its first self-driving cars in Pittsburgh. While these cars did have Uber employees in the driver’s seat ready to take over in case of a glitch, these are only temporary safety measures that will presumably be phased out once the self-driving technology is perfected.
This is the start of the expected push by Uber to implement a national fleet of self-driving cars. They will not compete with existing Uber drivers, but replace them. (Earlier this year, Uber showed that it will take away the jobs from its drivers in a heartbeat when it shuttered its operations in Austin, Texas, 48 hours after losing a regulatory fight.)
Imagine the economic effect of this happening in New York City, Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles? Thousands would be out of good paying jobs and need to find alternative employment to make ends meet.
Then we hear about fast food restaurants like McDonald’s wanting to shift toward automated services for its customers. Instead of ordering at a register or via a crackly speaker at a drive-through window, customers are going to be ordering and paying by using touchscreen devices. Their meals will be made by an automated process and they will also be handed to them in the same fashion.
These technological advances in automation and more are going to displace hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of American workers. Many of the displaced will have few-to-no places to go for alternative employment. We know this, but have yet to adequately prepare for the coming reality of the future.
When it comes to doing something about this potential coming calamity, officials on both sides of the aisle have their heads in the sand. Even worse, leaders on the left are actively participating in campaigns that will hasten the process of replacing workers with automated services.
The Fight for 15, which staged demonstrations on Tuesday demanding that fast food workers receive a $15 an hour wage, is not protecting the people they are advocating for, but setting these Americans up for an even more tragic fall. It’s irresponsible of these leaders to push this cause while knowing full well it will never happen.
Simply put, we are in the Titanic, see the iceberg from miles away, and have yet to change course.
To prepare low-skilled workers and potential low-skilled workers for the changing world, we will need to find solutions. This will require some courage and cajones on the part of elected leaders from the federal level all the way down to the local. They will need to do more than put their heads in the sand and hope the problem does not come on their watch.
One idea being thrown around, especially by far-left Democrats, is that of a standard-household income, or “basic income,” where each household is guaranteed a minimum annual income from the government, even if they do not work. It’s an idea that would not improve anybody’s situation and lead to a jump in the cost of living, as well as higher taxes to pay for it.
Where we should focus and do so immediately, however, is in education. We need to invest heavily in our schools and students so that we can prepare as many of them as possible for a life of ably competing for jobs that are not low-skilled. We should not assume that every single person is qualified to be or will end up a rocket scientist, so we will also need to provide alternative job training and vocational schools as options for students. All of these will help to lessen the displacement of American workers that automation will bring in the next few years.
Should we continue to ignore the gathering storm, we will have only ourselves to blame when the next wave of populist anger sweeps our nation and Americans rail against a system that has left them behind economically. We saw automation coming to disrupt the manufacturing sector, did nothing, and paid the price. Now, we see it coming for urban low-skilled jobs.
Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.