Despite their quite radical ideological differences, there is an interesting and significant overlap between them on this issue: both acknowledge (or at least claim to acknowledge) the growing numbers of formerly prosperous Americans who have fallen through the cracks. I never in my lifetime thought I’d hear the presidential nominee for the Republican Party call for ripping up trade deals and penalizing companies that offshore jobs. That kind of Bolshevism is not the usual stuff from which Republican presidential hopefuls are made. And to find that these positions of Trump’s tally with those of Sanders, well, we live in interesting times.
However, even within these broad areas of agreement between Trump and Sanders, there are more subtle differences. Each of them blames the problems facing the working class on different enemies. Regarding trade deals, Bernie Sanders views the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) as the devil’s right hand, while Trump views the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) as the worst trade deal in the history of the United States. Sanders blames offshoring for job losses, while Trumpian nativism tends to focus on the role of (illegal?) immigrants in supposedly taking jobs away from hardworking American-born citizens.
I read an article recently that made me think they were both missing what is — or is about to become — the biggest enemy facing the middle class, namely robots. The article was about how workers in China are being replaced by robots. The Chinese wage differential that was boosting their economy to such heights is no longer a comparative advantage. Soon, it seems, there won’t be anywhere left in the world where humans are cheap enough to hire. Embedded in the article were some statistics on the purchasing of industrial robots around the world that made for chilling reading. For the benefit of readers, I have charted the numbers and provided year-over-year percentage changes. Here is the picture worldwide:
Now, what do these numbers have to tell us about the human impact of roboticization? The article mentions a kitchen utensils factory in Foshan, China, which replaced 256 workers with nine robots. If, therefore, we were to assume that each new industrial robot represents 28 jobs lost, it would mean that some 1,232,000 North American workers are poised to lose their jobs in 2016. Of course, many of these jobs will be Mexican, which won’t cause many Trumpists to shed tears. But still…
It might be the case that the robots in the Chinese example are extraordinarily efficient. For the sake of argument, let's instead assume that on average each new North American robot only replaces five workers — an admittedly arbitrary number. In that case, “only” 220,000 workers will lose their jobs to robots in 2016. But look again at that red line, at that year-over-year increase in robot purchases. If that increase only remains where it is, another 276,540 people will lose their jobs in 2017. The damage really begins to add up. And this is not a new process. It has been going on for awhile now. Is it possible that robots have something to do with all the empty factories, boarded up shops, abandoned homes?
So far, to my knowledge, this issue hasn’t made it into the campaign speeches of either Sanders or Trump (or anyone else, for that matter). They instead blame job losses on illegal “aliens”. Or on bad trade deals. Or on offshoring. Or, in Sanders’ more vague language, on “Wall Street”. Any of these might be a contributing factor to some extent. But look just look at at those numbers above. At some point in the not-too-distant future politicians will have no choice but take notice, as roboticization advances and becomes as plain as the nose on one’s face.
It may happen sooner rather than later if roboticization moves up the income ladder and starts gobbling up white collar jobs. We are on the cusp of a brave new world of robots, artificial intelligence, and big data, a world in which a chatbot can already outperform lawyers in overturning parking tickets.
Imagine it: a world without lawyers. Maybe they can replace our politicians too. I for one welcome our new robot overlords.
It raises some philosophical questions. If we are all fated to be replaced by robots and chatbots, what do we say about a species that makes itself obsolete? Or, if we find a way to structure our economy such that "benevolent" robots have merely freed us all from drudgery to do more pleasurable things, what do we say about a species that only lives for pleasure? What is the place of work within humankind's moral economy?