On the subject of the looming Robot Apocalypse, Ezra Klein sounds a lot like a climate change skeptic. But the threat of working Americans losing their jobs to automation is much more real and present than the oceans overtaking Miami and New York. In an August 2018 Ezra Klein Show podcast, guest Andrew Yang, a Democratic candidate for president, lays out a pretty convincing case for why Americans should take very seriously the prospect of massive job losses due to automation.
“The reason why Donald Trump won the election of 2016 is that we automated away 4 million manufacturing jobs in Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, the swing states he needed to win, between 2000 and 2015, and it’s about to get much, much worse because we’re about to triple down on the most common jobs in the US economy: Administrative and clerical work, call center workers, food service workers, truck drivers and transportation, and manufacturing. Those five job categories comprise about half of American workers.”
Ezra Klein singles out the assertion that the midwest, and more broadly, areas of the country other than the coasts, have been the hardest hit by changes to the economy. This is a sticking point for Klein so he “puts a pin” in this part of the conversation so he can “push back” on it later. You have to wonder why, with all that Yang is pointing out here, that this is a problem for Klein. He asserts that people on the coasts are hurting as well, and just can’t bring himself to concede that the industrial midwest is particularly vulnerable and perhaps went for Trump in response.
Yang continues to deliver the bad news: “It takes no great leaps of the imagination to see how this is going to play out over the next handful of years. Google recently demonstrated software that can do the job of an average call center worker, and there are still two and a half million call center workers in the United States making $14 an hour….Ten percent of workers work in retail and 30% of malls are going to close in the next ten years….If robot trucks hit the highways in the next five to ten years, what’s going to happen to the three and a half million truck drivers and the five million workers that work in truck stops, motels and diners in small towns around America that rely on a truck stopping periodically. These are the changes we can see coming that are completely predictable.”
The important thing to remember is that Yang is talking about a process that is currently ongoing. He is not staring into a crystal ball. He is citing historical data, as well as economic and industry data that projects for the future. He points out that companies are making massive investments in these new technologies. These companies aren’t gambling on the future, they’re building it. Ezra Klein, however, seems unconvinced.
“I am a skeptic of this vision of the economy. The robots are coming for our jobs thesis…does not seem to be showing up in our economic data…Am I seeing something in the unemployment numbers, something in the productivity numbers, something somewhere in the economic sentiment numbers, something where I can say, ‘hey I feel this but I’m not seeing it. Everybody seems to feel this is true but we’re not seeing it.”
Here’s where Klein sounds like a climate change skeptic. He’s arguing that because the catastrophe is not yet showing up in the numbers, he doubts that it will ever take place. He’s like President Trump tweeting about a cold winter day and saying, “so much for global warming.”
Yang’s shown him that the job losses are already occurring. Many large traditional retail chains are dead or on life support. Nobody argues that American manufacturing hasn’t been devastated by automation for going on 50 years now. Many of these displaced workers have opted out of the workforce or gone on disability. As Yang says, “Almost half the displaced manufacturing workers in Michigan and Indiana left the workforce and never worked again, and about a quarter of them filed for disability and never worked again.” Yang further points out that 1 in 5 males of prime working age were unemployed over the past year. And don’t try to bring the opioid crisis into the conversation, because Klein refuses to acknowledge economic insecurity plays a role in that tragedy.
Klein argues, without evidence, that the transformation of the economy will occur over a large time scale, as if this assertion by itself undercuts Yang’s facts and projections. “One thing I see in this argument is a jump between something is going to happen over time and something is about to happen all at once.” Klein points out that the transition from an agricultural economy to an industrial based economy didn’t produce economic calamity. Fair enough, and we can only hope the same happens in this case. Perhaps our robot masters will find ways to make the humans useful, but as of right now, no one can predict where the next round of jobs will come from. What is predictable, though, are massive job losses.
As the conversation winds down, Klein returns to that pin he stuck in the discussion on the topic of midwestern states feeling the brunt of automation. “I worry that we’ve got in this narrative that everything’s great on the coasts and there’s something going terribly wrong in the center, and it just kind of flattens this very lumpy story of progress in our country way too much, and also creates a narrative of resentment that, on the one hand, isn’t helpful but, on the other, is a bit untrue. A lot of people suffer in California.”
The listener might be inclined to laugh at the hypocrisy and contradictions contained in this statement if Klein himself, hearing the cascade of bullshit pouring out of his mouth, hadn’t already beat the listener to it. During the conversation, as Klein repeatedly sings the virtues of the current economy, he eventually stops himself, chuckles, and apologizes because it sounds like he’s gushing over the Trump economy.
Regarding the unhelpful narrative of resentment, Vox Media’s bread and butter is crafting and maintaining narratives of resentment. Over the past two years, few groups have been more resented and more maligned by the elite media than the midwestern Trump voter. Klein and his crew would have everyone believe these voters were motivated by racism when they, rightly or wrongly, went for the guy who promised to bring their jobs back. While no doubt some are all about building the wall, it’s been shown time and again that many of these voters supported Bernie in the primary, and not hearing what they needed to hear from HRC, swung for Trump. It would be nice to take back Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania in 2020, maybe even pick up Ohio. But if liberal elites like Klein are unwilling to recognize people in those states that are hurting, we could be in for four more years of the unspeakable.