I recently called my dad on my hour-plus drive home from work. In the course of our conversation, he told me about an intriguing question he asked of Montana’s U.S. Congressman, Greg Gianforte, in a recent town hall the Representative held.
The question was this: With as many jobs as experts say automation will displace in the coming years, what are we going to do with the masses of unskilled labor coming into the U.S. illegally via our southern border with Mexico?
The honorable Gianforte stammered a bit before giving a scripted, talking-points-esque answer about the need for greater border security. There was also something about automation not taking everyone’s jobs.
In fairness to Gianforte, my dad asked a big question.
The answer is not just greater border security, however. And the concern is still pressing even if automation doesn’t take everyone’s jobs.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) estimates 44% of the workforce in developed nations will see their positions replaced or overhauled by automation. Even a fraction of that would amount to a significant disruption of our culture and economy.
Competitive Job Markets
I remember life prior to 2012, before moving back to Montana to work in the oil and gas industry. It was extremely difficult to find a decent job where we were living in southern Ohio. The 2008 recession had held on, and 12-15% unemployment rates made for a brutally competitive job market when you factored in how many people there were, how few jobs, and of what sort the available jobs were.
My and my family’s situation improved drastically in nearly every respect, and quickly, when we moved to Montana. There I entered a job market with far more jobs than workers – the opposite of southern Ohio.
And when I say our situation improved, I mean I suddenly earned three to five times as much. The improvements to working conditions and job satisfaction I cannot even begin to quantify. And before moving, I was having health problems due to stress. After moving these dissipated where they did not entirely disappear.
In the past seven years since moving back to Montana, I have talked to many men who also came out to the oilfields of western North Dakota and eastern Montana from other parts of the country. Their stories are remarkably similar. Times were tough back home. It was hard to find a job or make a living. They had no choice but to come here in order to make ends meet for their families.
Yet I wonder where such men will go when automation displaces workers across industries and across America.
If New York Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez’s recent ‘Green New Deal’ phases out fossil fuels within ten years, they will not be able to find relief where I did.
It’s the Economy, Stupid
There was a time in my young adult life when economics seemed trivial. Had you asked me then, I would have told you a dozen things in two categories I cared more about.
But is food more important than the economy? How about lodging? What about transportation? We create none of these things ex nihilo – out of nothing. We need a strong economy, both to produce these things, and to acquire the funds necessary to purchase them. More time and experience trying to provide for a large family has taught me to appreciate this fact.
But what happens when automation disrupts that balance? If a robot takes your job, perhaps they will be more productive and efficient than you were. That still leaves unanswered the question of how you specifically will earn a living wage to acquire what you need.
Anticipating this problem, many Progressives are proposing “universal basic income.” For some idea what that is, think of drawing Social Security for life, or collecting unemployment indefinitely.
Is that a realistic solution, though?
And, again, as my dad recently asked our state’s Congressman in that town hall, what do we do about the unskilled illegal immigrants pouring into our country? Would they receive universal basic income also?
Destabilization, Disorder, and Strife
For illegal immigration to continue on as it has been seems destined to result in greater destabilization, disorder, and strife.
And if the thought process was in any measure – and it certainly was at least a talking point, whether or not an honest one – that illegal immigrants were coming here to do the jobs Americans refused to, what happens when employers elect to automate instead of hiring illegals?
Will a massive throng of unemployed, unemployable foreigners simply go back to the countries they came from? Will they increase their skills by acquiring valuable training for more technical jobs? Or will they, in desperation or disinterest in the first two options, resort to looting and other crime to make up the difference?
Only God knows for certain. But I reckon any and all of these scenarios will happen in a million forms and varieties.
And all the same scenarios for how unskilled or low-skill illegal immigrants may respond will apply to American citizens as well, save one: returning to the country they came from.
The United States of America, after all, is the country we came from. Where else is there to go if there are no jobs here?
If Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez gets her way, we will see full-blown communism instituted under the guise of saving the planet. If her Green New Deal somehow becomes policy and law, the oil and gas industry which my family and many others were able to take refuge in after the last recession will be closed to all comers. That is deeply concerning, not least because my family and all others remain dependent on that sector of the economy to earn a living, and to fuel this great economy of ours.
But job killing robots, as the honorable Greg Gianforte pointed out to my father, will not take everyone’s jobs. They will, however, if estimates are to be believed, take a great many. Robots will also depress wages where their implementation can be threatened to workers demanding better pay and benefits.
It is true, as other automation technicians I network on LinkedIn with have pointed out to me, an increasingly automated economy will also develop in other ways which create new jobs.
Consider Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as illustrative of this principle. At the beginning of the film, Charlie Bucket’s father is laid off from his job at the toothpaste factory after a robot replaces his previous function on the assembly line. The Bucket home is demographically an upside-down pyramid. Two sets of elderly grandparents, a set of parents, and Charlie himself reside in a dilapidated shack.
The Buckets own nothing to boast about except their love for one another. Yet Charlie wins the ultimate prize, inheriting Willy Wonka’s candy empire, essentially by being a good kid.
More realistically, Mr. Bucket gets a new job, and a better one, at the toothpaste factory, servicing the robot that took his old job. Some variation on Mr. Bucket’s happily ever after here should be our goal as we look at a future with greater automation, not to mention declining birth rates.
We know there will not be enough robot technician jobs for everyone displaced, however. We also know the economy of the future will not run on movie magic and candy empires.
For all our sakes, I hope we do not try running it on wishful thinking.