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.