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An Inclusive Autonomous Future: Resisting the Oxymoron

August 4, 2017 | By Bridget O’Neill

Automation is the driving force of today’s global economy; with much ambiguity, technology is hurtling us forward. If done carelessly, however, unintended consequences are all but guaranteed. Specifically, although automation threatens all routine jobs – from truck driving to law clerks – those armed with degrees will be reabsorbed into the adapting workforce more smoothly than those without. Inclusive conversation to produce policy that will guide automation as an equalizer and an asset is mandatory. Without it, the transition to a digitized economy is one that will devastate the poor and undereducated as wealth is funneled into the pockets of an increasingly select few.

As Martin Ford puts it in Rise of the Robots, “The problem is that the skills ladder is not really a ladder at all: it is a pyramid, and there is only so much room at the top.” Those lucky enough to have the education and creativity to mold themselves to a digitized workforce will; the rest will be left behind as the top shrinks and the bottom grows.

There is no question that America today is at a turning point. Traditional politics have left huge populations out of the conversation; blue collar America has become increasingly isolated from the political banter that saturates DC. Michigan and Wisconsin, two historically blue states that went red in the last election, have experienced by far the most job loss to automation in the country. The jobs Trump promised to revive are jobs that are continually disappearing; the threat that automation poises must be met with an innovative solution far more grounded than partisan campaign rhetoric. Fast-approaching technology is sure to turn the American economy on its head. How fast and how completely remains shrouded in uncertainty; that it will does not.

At an upcoming Congressional Tech Training, the Beeck Center plans to facilitate bipartisan discussion among congressional staffers on the topic. The lack of dialogue thus far exposes a gridlocked Congress in a dynamic Washington’s inability to think beyond the most immediate concerns. We hope, however, to present this issue as one that cannot remain on the backburner.

The weight of this grim picture is not a Republican issue, pertaining only to the blue-collar whites credited for today’s administration. It is not an issue for the Democrats, to fight for immigrants or the urban voter bases that will be upended. It is also not an opportunity to advance a democratic agenda of universal minimum wage, free tuition, or an extensive safety net: automation is far too expansive to be solved by such a one-sided approach.

To illustrate the far-reaching nature of automation anxieties, the aforementioned Congressional Tech Training will literally ‘map out’ the issue. By presenting statistics as they pertain to diverse constituencies, representatives will be confronted with their personal responsibility to straddle the local and the federal and work across class and party stratification.

First, an unsettling case study: truck driving, a crucial blue-collar job with a middle-class salary is under direct and immediate fire. As one of the few remaining class mobilizers, truckers make up to $57,000 a year (although there are large regional discrepancies) without the prerequisite of a college degree. David Alexander, an analyst with Navigant Research, anticipates that most truck companies will gradually introduce automated driving technology in the next five to ten years.

The trucking industry employs more than 8.7 million people across the country, 3.5 million of which are drivers. The congressional districts that would be hit hardest by layoffs in the trucking industry include districts in both Texas and California: both ends of the spectrum have an urgent responsibility to represent their constituents’ concerns.

Yet this conversation cannot be constrained to a case study. To contextualize, one must understand that the labor market into which these truck drivers and other displaced employees will be released is a stagnated one, at least in terms of new job creation. Death rates of startups exceeded birth rates during the financial crisis; the recovery of entrepreneurship thereafter remains feeble, especially in comparison to pre-crisis statistics. What’s more, the firms that are created today employ far fewer people than they have historically: a success story for efficiency but a potential concern for employment. Low-skill jobs are becoming automated, and the jobs created by entrepreneurship are thinning – most of which displaced workers would be unqualified for anyway. It’s happening across American geography, across skillsets, and across the polarized political spectrum.

The nondiscriminatory impact of automation is sure to be felt more immediately and damagingly by the most vulnerable. Automation has the potential to divide us if left unattended. In a highly polarized political climate, automation and the labor market presents an opportunity for genuine bipartisanship: automation threatens exclusion and desperately needs an inclusive solution built by inclusive dialogue.

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