In Amazon’s warehouses, there is a beehive of activity, and robots are increasingly doing more of the work. In less than five years, they will load self-driving trucks that transport goods to local distribution centers where drones will make last-mile deliveries. (Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post)
Soon afterward, autonomous cars will begin to take the wheel from taxi drivers; artificial intelligence will exceed the ability of human doctors to understand complex medical data; industrial robots will do manufacturing; and supermarkets won’t need human cashiers.
The majority of jobs that require human labor and intellectual capability are likely to disappear over the next decade and a half. There will be many new jobs created, but not for the people who have lost them—because they do not have those skills. And this will lead to major social disruption unless we develop sound policies to ease the transition.
The industry behind these advances—and reaping huge financial rewards from them—has been in denial. Tech entrepreneur Marc Andreessen, for example, calls the jobless future “a Luddite fallacy”; he insists that people will be re-employed.
But now others, including Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Tesla’s Elon Musk and Bill Gates, are acknowledging a skills mismatch with the potential for mass unemployment. They advocate a Universal Basic Income (UBI), a payment by the government that provides for the basic wants and needs of the population.
But these tech moguls are simply kicking the can down the hill and shifting responsibility to Washington. UBI will not solve the social problems that come from loss of people’s purpose in life and of their social stature and identity—which jobs provide. And the politicians in Washington who are working to curtail basic benefits such as health care and food stamps plainly won’t consider the value of spending trillions on a new social-welfare scheme.
In a paper titled “A New Deal for the Twenty-First Century,” Edward Alden and Bob Litan, of the Council on Foreign Relations, propose solutions for retraining the workforce. They believe that there will be many new jobs created in technology and in caring for the elderly—because Western populations are aging.
The authors say that young people starting careers should be equipped with the education and skills needed to adapt to career changes; and that older workers who become displaced should receive assistance in finding new jobs and retraining for new careers. Government shouldn’t provide the jobs or training but should, the authors say, offer tax incentives and insurance, facilitate job mobility, and reform occupational licensing. To encourage employees to gain new skills, there should be “career loan accounts” from which they can fund their own education—with repayment being linked to future earnings.
To minimize the effect of wage cuts resulting from changing professions, Alden and Litan advocate a generous wage-insurance scheme that tops up earnings; enhancements to the Earned Income Tax Credit; direct wage subsidies; and minimum wage increments. They believe too that a voluntary military and civilian national service program for young people would help alleviate the social disruption and teach important new skills and provide tutoring to disadvantaged students, help for the elderly, and improvements of public spaces such as parks and playgrounds.
These ideas are a good start, but the focus was on maintaining a balance between Republicans and Democrats, on being politically palatable. The coming disruptions are likely be so cataclysmic that we need to go beyond politics.
We have already seen the increasing anger of the electorate from both the right and the left in the U.S. elections. We are witnessing the same in Europe now. As technology advances and changes everything about the way we live and work, this will get much worse. We must understand the human issues—the trauma and suffering of affected people—and work to minimize the impacts.
As Harvard Law School’s Labor and Worklife Program Executive Director Sharon Block said to me in an email: “I don’t think we can be limited in our thinking by what can get through Congress now—nothing can. We need to be using this time to come up with the big new ideas to develop a bolder progressive vision for the future—and then work to create the conditions necessary to implement that vision.” The problem here is that with this future fast approaching, not even the inventors of the technologies have a real answer. This is why there is an urgent need to bring policymakers, academics and business leaders together to brainstorm on solutions and to do grand, global experiments.
I don’t want to exaggerate Donald Trump’s importance in last Thursday’s snap election in Britain: This was an election about the British economy and the British national interest. But this was also an election that produced some very close results. Had a few hundred votes gone the other way in a handful of constituencies, Theresa May’s Conservatives would still have their parliamentary majority. And so the question has to be asked: On the margins, did President Trump help swing the British election against the Tories? I would argue yes—and in three ways.
1. May’s triumphant, lovey-dovey meeting with Trump in January, a few days after the inauguration, paradoxically made her look weak. Having wrenched Britain away from Europe, she seemed to be running to Washington looking for friends—any friends. Her quick announcement of a forthcoming Trump state visit to Britain went down extremely badly: Nearly 2 million people signed a petition against it. A film clip of May holding Trump’s hand—apparently he doesn’t like walking down stairs—featured in a pro-Labour music video and numerous cartoons, also reinforced May’s unpleasant “hard-right” image. The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, attacked May as an American puppet: “Waiting to see which way the wind blows in Washington isn’t strong leadership.”
2. Trump’s vitriolic Twitter attacks on the Labour mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, in the aftermath of the terrorist attack here a week ago made the U.S. president seem even more odious. More to the point, his tweets were denounced (and Khan was praised) by pretty much everybody speaking in any public forum, from television to social media to the local pub—everybody, that is, except May. She dodged questions about Trump’s tweets before eventually conceding, rather woodenly, that “I think Sadiq Khan is doing a good job and it’s wrong to say anything else.” This didn’t go down at all well, especially in London, where Labour’s numbers were way up.
3. Trumps’s well-known views on Europe made the Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, seem more sane and more mainstream than would once have been the case. Corbyn is famously anti-American, anti-NATO and anti-transatlantic alliance, as you would expect given his Marxist past. This should have been a strike against him in Britain, where the alliance with America has historically been popular. But now we have a U.S. president who is also publicly skeptical of NATO, who has little time for the transatlantic alliance, and who is in addition considered here to be incompetent and irresponsible.
To put it differently, it is hard for Conservatives to argue “Corbyn is wacky and dangerous” when the U.S. president is seen as even wackier and far more dangerous.
Once again: The influence of the U.S. president is not a major factor. But if European leaders facing electorates keep their distance from Trump in the future, don’t be surprised.
Probably it had a direct connection to the upcoming gubernatorial campaign, but the May 19 governor’s order to review occupational licensing in Idaho is a useful idea.
As long as everyone is prepared for some unpredictability.
Lieutenant Governor Brad Little issued the order calling for a review of the licenses during one of the (ever-increasing) days when he was serving as acting governor. The idea is to take a fresh look at all those licenses Idaho, like other states, requires of people in many occupations, from doctors to electricians to cosmetologists. These licenses are set up by the legislature, generally to be governed by specific boards—usually made up mostly of licensees—and only rarely come up for an existential discussion. Never hurts to take a good review and find out where these licensing requirements are still needed, or not, or may need some adjustment.
Those inclined toward a simplistic philosophy might take these licenses, individually or as a group, as a sign of ever-expanding government. But that’s not quite the way these things usually happen.
Consider medical licenses, among the oldest of the group. In the United States, the earliest licenses did not come from any government entity, and weren’t government-enforced; they came from associations of relatively well-educated physicians who would issue “licenses” as a kind of seal of approval. That was still the case for years after the American Medical Association formed in 1847. Formal licensing, at the state level—required licensing that permitted you to practice medicine—happened at the state level later, after strong lobbying from the physicians and their organizations. It did not happen overnight; California, for example, set up its state licensing process in 1901. In Texas, an early effort started in 1837, was killed off a decade later, then sort of revived in 1873.
These changes were accompanied by battles between those who wanted to be regulated (often, those with better credentials and reputations) and those who didn’t want to be (often characterized as, though not always, quacks). The battle was not a libertarian-type battle, but a struggle within a profession, over such issues as public safety, bars to entry (fewer licensees can mean a more favorable business position), standards of conduct and more.
Aspects of these issues have surfaced in a whole lot of the calls for licensing, practically all of which have been initiated by people in the profession or occupation being licensed.
(If you want to check out who’s licensed in Idaho, you can get a start by going to https://ibol.idaho.gov/IBOL/, the website of the Idaho Bureau of Occupational Licenses, which is devoted to helping many of the boards do their work. A number of licensing offices are located in other places around the web.)
Little noted in his call for a review, “It’s been nearly four decades since government has taken a look at many of these licenses, and with advancements in technology it’s time for us to ask: Is it needed? Can we modernize? How can the state provide better customer service? Can government get out of the way and still protect the common good? I don’t see this as a knock on government but rather as an opportunity for government to work with citizens, to roll back unneeded regulation, and make our processes more user-friendly.”
Those are all fair questions, but don’t imagine that the in-professional arguments have all gone away. That said, there may be some usefulness in resurfacing some of them.