Democrats Must Confront The Reality Of Automation

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Throughout his campaign, President Donald Trump made bringing back working class jobs a central theme. Trump said he would fulfill his campaign promise by placing tariffs on Chinese imports, cracking down on illegal immigration, and targeting U.S. companies that outsource jobs to other countries.

Trump wasn’t alone. Bernie Sanders repeatedly hammered American companies for outsourcing jobs during his campaign. Even eventual Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, who was attacked by both Trump and Sanders for not being populist enough, proposed rescinding tax breaks to corporations that move American jobs overseas.

Trump’s blue-collar job rhetoric paid off. He scored shocking victories in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin; all are states where the loss of factory jobs has hit local communities particularly hard.

Now that Trump is president, it is becoming clear that there is an enormous difference between making campaign promises and actually delivering them. Already, Trump has backed down from his tough talk on China. However, the bigger problem he faces is that the issues he pledged to crack down on are not the real drivers of the loss of American manufacturing jobs.

For all the talk during the presidential campaign about outsourcing, trade, and immigration - none of the candidates talked about automation. While the U.S. has lost 5 million manufacturing jobs since 2000, the country’s manufacturing output remains at near-record levels.

Today, U.S. factories produce twice as much as they did in 1984, but with one-third fewer workers. The reason for this, according to numerous research studies, is automation. Through innovation and advances in technology, factories are able to produce more goods at vastly reduced costs.

According to a study conducted by researchers at Ball State University, roughly 13 percent of manufacturing job losses are caused by trade, and the rest by enhanced productivity because of automation.

Another study, published in the American Economic Review, found that America’s steel industry lost 400,000 workers between 1962 and 2005. That loss represented 75 percent of its work force. Despite the significant loss in jobs, its shipments did not decline.

Automation is a tricky issue for politicians to address. Encouraging technology and innovation has long been a part of America’s culture. Yet, the consequences of automation are visible throughout large swaths of middle America.

Another issue is that, aside from the cost benefits companies reap from automation, some government regulations have unintended consequence which encourage the use of machines and robots over people.

For example, one of the final rules the Labor Department proposed before President Obama left office was aimed at protecting workers from exposure to beryllium. The rule itself is problematic – it lumps in manufacturing with abrasive blasting, which differ in beryllium exposure levels by 20,000 times – and as a result could negatively affect blue-collar employment in the abrasive blasting industry, which employs more than 400,000 workers.

The rule also suggested several ways in which companies could prevent workers from such exposure, including automation. Protecting workers is an essential part of the federal government’s job, as long as it’s based in science (which the beryllium rule is not). However, encouraging automation at the expense of blue collar jobs is not the best approach.

There is no doubt that more needs to be done to help workers whose jobs have been lost to automation.

The New York Times tackled this issue in a piece late last year which laid out the case that automation is the single biggest long-term threat to American jobs. The piece touches on some of the potential policy solutions favored by economists:

Labor economists say there are ways to ease the transition for workers whose jobs have been displaced by robots. They include retraining programs, stronger unions, more public-sector jobs, a higher minimum wage, a bigger earned-income tax credit and, for the next generation of workers, more college degrees.

Unfortunately, none of these policies are supported by either President Trump or Republicans in Congress. Instead, we are likely to see more inflammatory rhetoric from the White House scapegoating immigrants and foreign countries for stealing the jobs of hard-working Americans.

This should create an opening for Democrats to begin an honest conversation with these workers. Rather than tapping into their fear and anger, Democrats should level with them about the realities of automation and factory jobs, and offer them concrete policy solutions.

This approach doesn’t guarantee winning over the support of displaced workers. Many of them may still prefer the president’s tough talk over real solutions, but the 2016 election was decided by a total of 77,000 votes across Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. It won’t take much to tip the scales back in the Democrats’ favor.

On top of the potential political benefit, it is also the right thing to do. Many of these people worked their whole lives, only to have their job taken away by a machine. For everything they’ve given to their country, they deserve more than just empty rhetoric or, alternatively, active encouragement in the direction of automation by the federal government.

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