Derek Thompson recently wrote a piece in The Atlantic about how technology could erase millions of jobs and asked whether that would be a good thing. While Mr. Thompson explored the benefits of more Americans enjoying the freedom of more creative work or pursuits spawned when technology replaces drudge work, I wonder when this campaign season’s presidential aspirants will determine whether it’s a good thing to tell Americans about the new world order that they should be preparing for.
According to Mr. Thompson the world Americans should be preparing for a world of both cultural and economic breakdown. “The sanctity and preeminence of work lie at the heart of the country’s politics, economics, and social interactions”, says Mr. Thompson.
The major cultural impact would be that technology not only puts downward pressure on wages, but also the share of workers with full-time employment. When people ask, “what do you do for a living”, the response maybe akin to “a little of this, a little of that” for more and more people. Work is more than a paycheck. Work goes to one’s identity and place in society as a contributing and participating member of community. Idleness and a sense of not belonging are unemployment’s negative consequences.
In addition, culture will take on three distinct characteristics when it comes to work, according to Mr. Thompson. First, labor will further its losses to capital as the amount of labor demanded and income going to labor continues to decline. Second, the number of unemployed men and underemployed youth will increase as technology takes away jobs that have been best suited for men and labor markets continue hiring educated younger workers at lower wages. Third, the dexterity of machines cannot be predicted. One year your phone is just a voice communicator. The next year it’s your pocket CPA, librarian, and Yellow Pages replacement, taking three or more direct jobs with it.
Workers may find themselves in three distinct boxes: the consumption box, where some workers devote their time to leisure activities; the communal creativity box, where other workers, according to Mr. Thompson, build communities outside of work; and the contingency box, where people try to put together a living with whatever gigs they are able to find here and there.
I haven’t heard any of the candidates discuss or describe this new world order that knocks louder at our political economy’s door. Take a look at Bernie Sanders’ interpretation of American labor’s dilemma. Mr. Sanders core argument on the economy is that the middle class is not doing well because the vast majority of the country’s wealth and income is going to the top one percent of income earners. Mr. Sanders does not discuss the structural changes in the economy, particularly the current impact of technology on the workplace and how this impact is expected to be amplified over the next few decades.
Hillary Clinton does no better than Mr. Sanders. She defines America’s major economic challenge as the need to increase middle class incomes. Mrs. Clinton harps on strong growth, fair growth, and long-term growth, but again does not discuss how structural changes in the economy and work in particular will impact the three pillars of her economic policy.
Republicans are doing no better in defining the future most American workers face. Jeb Bush lays part of the blame for the malaise in the American workforce on Obamacare. He argues that Obamacare is a job killer because the mandates and taxes imposed on businesses are keeping them from hiring workers. Mr. Bush also argues that approximately 7 million American workers are stuck in part-time employment because rules issued by the Obama administration have put a damper on hiring decisions. While promising 4% growth and an additional 19 million jobs should he become president, Mr. Bush does not explain to Americans how this can be possible in an economy that apparently puts less value on full-time workers.
Donald Trump, the billionaire competitor for the Republican nomination, hasn’t provided much insight into developing a political economy for the rest of the 21st century. In neither his speeches, his websites, or social media platforms does Mr. Trump lay out a detailed plan for creating jobs in this changing structural climate.
Campaigns are typically not the forum for educating the public about economic realities. They are about manipulating the public’s existing perception of the world around them. If the public perceives their plight as a result of an upper class taking advantage of the lower classes. a candidate will seize that scenario and package a message that feeds the perception while garnering votes. Policy is the last thing on the campaigners agenda.
The approach of ignoring policy will be abandoned when one of these candidates takes office in January 2017. Based on what they are showing me today, I don’t expect them to have an economic policy addressing the new world of work ready to implement at that time.