Presidential Campaigns Are Talking Around The Robot In The Room

From NPR:

While candidates are talking about tax rates, tax breaks and trade — they are ignoring an economic issue that soon may matter far more to working Americans: robots.

Economists and business analysts warn that before long, tens of millions of workers will be displaced by technological advances that include robots and artificial intelligence. Just one example: The most common job in most states is “truck driver.” What happens when driverless trucks replace them?

Preparing for such a massive shift will determine the health of the economy far more than whether 0.2 percent of the population will have to pay an estate tax.

The reason robots haven’t been dancing in the spotlight at campaign stops is because epic, transformational change can be hard for political leaders to discuss in the heat of a campaign. Consider this example:

In 1900, President William McKinley was running for re-election. The economic debates of that year centered on his support for both the gold standard and stiff tariffs, especially on imported wool.

Spoiler alert: The gold standard was abandoned in 1933 and the development of synthetic fibers in the 1940s dramatically reduced demand for wool. That means the hottest topics of 1900 had melted away before mid-century.

What actually mattered in 1900 was the coming transformation of the workforce. In 1900, the top occupation for men was farm laborer. For women, it was domestic servant.

So while McKinley was talking about the gold standard, he was not helping those workers brace for change; very soon, tractors would be redefining farm work while electric washing machines, vacuum cleaners and canned foods would be reinventing housework.

By 1950, farmers had been turned into urban factory workers, and domestic servants had been transformed into typists and phone operators.

Would we have had such a long hard Depression in the 1930s if McKinley …

Continue Reading