Congress Beware: Automation Inevitable

One of the most salient issues in the 2016 election was America’s changing manufacturing landscape, which arguably handed Donald Trump the presidency. However, all the half-truths about “bad trade deals” sending jobs overseas distracted from the real culprit behind the death of the American factory worker — automation. Research suggests that up to 85 percent of all manufacturing jobs lost over the last several decades were lost to technological strides, not globalization.

In an interview with Mike Allen of Axios, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin’s comments on the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) were completely and utterly baffling, particularly in light of the Trump administration’s labor-centric rhetoric. When asked about AI’s threat to human workers, Mnuchin said, “it’s not even on our radar screen …. [for] 50-100 more years.”

The disruptive potential of AI doesn’t just threaten individual livelihoods — it has the power to fundamentally change the structure of western economies. Typically, we only really discuss job automation in the context of minimum wage increases. We are all familiar with the standard conservative reprise: raising wages simply leads to self-checkout lines at the supermarket, making undifferentiated mass labor a thing of the past. While the jury is still out on the veracity of this claim, one premise holds true: machines are coming for your job. This trend will transcend sector or wage. A recent study suggests that up to 47 percent of existing United States jobs are at risk of machine replacement.

Given the current technological trajectory, the West will soon be facing widespread structural unemployment in both blue- and white-collar industries. We’ve already begun to see the impacts of automation in manufacturing and the service industry. Increasingly at-risk is the trucking industry, responsible for the employment of 8.7 million Americans. With self-driving auto technology advancing rapidly, 3.5 million drivers will be unemployed, in addition to millions currently relegated to support roles. When shipping and logistics companies are offered the opportunity to cut both liability and costs immensely, they invariably accept. In the world of banking, sophisticated trading algorithms already perform tasks once done by Ivy League analysts. Even the most slippery of professionals, the lawyers, may not be able to escape as AI becomes increasingly capable of performing legal research and sourcing.

The time to act is now. The U.S. needs proactive planning, and it is for exactly this reason that the federal government must revive the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA). For over two decades, the OTA was an invaluable branch of the federal government, providing objective and authoritative analysis to policymakers on the impact of scientific and technological advancement. Ultimately, it was deemed an unnecessary government agency by the GOP in 1995 and defunded under Speaker Newt Gingrich’s “Contract With America.” Since its demise, a massive deficit in technical knowledge plagues Congressional decision-making.

Future generations can be groomed to deal with change — educational systems can be adapted and new skills taught. The more pressing question is, what happens to the generation suffering from the initial employment shock? While the OTA can provide guidance to legislators, they cannot actually make change — that requires political will from those in power. Members of Congress must first acknowledge there is a problem, acknowledge it as a bipartisan issue, and then proceed to consider ways to prepare the workforce for change. Perhaps this comes in the form of federally-funded worker retraining programs, like those taking place in the former coal-mining towns of Appalachia. Perhaps, way down the line, this manifests as a universal basic income.

The fervent denialism seen over the last two years is beneficial to no one except those seeking electoral clout in the Rust Belt. Lost manufacturing jobs are never coming back, no matter what the president tells you. When dealing with an impending economic crisis of this magnitude, action cannot be sacrificed for political expedience. There’s no doubt that these are complex problems to solve, but they’re even more difficult when addressed retroactively. Let’s take the lead and start giving them some thought.
Matthew Ribel is a College sophomore form Chantilly, Va. 

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