Governments Need an Answer to Automation

Countries without social safety nets face a serious risk as technology replaces jobs

(Nic Laube)

In the lead up to the 2016 presidential election, when then-candidate Donald Trump toured the Rust Belt—the region of the United States most economically dependent on manufacturing and coal—he told citizens there that immigrants and regulation were taking away their jobs. He was wrong. Robots and energy yields were largely to blame.

Jobs that are primarily accessible to high school educated citizens are vanishing due to automation. In some respects, this is a good thing. Some products will become cheaper, less humans will be at risk, and the environmental cost is likely to be lower, especially with less truckers on the road. However, telemarketers, fast food workers, cashiers, taxi drivers, and others are at great risk, and this could have a strange effect on immigration. Many immigrants arrive to North America with almost nothing, and rely on working their asses off in low-wage jobs so that their children can become doctors and engineers. Without those jobs being available, that experience may start to disappear.

While nearly everyone reading this article is in university, or already has a degree, there’s a massive part of the population that simply can’t seek post-secondary education, whether due to economic limitations or other reasons. The political right will claim that you just need to work harder to succeed, but the kinds of jobs that allow you to do so are vanishing. The left will claim that you can train anyone to do anything with enough support, but that’s also wrong. Even Marx and Engels conceded that the absolute elimination of poverty isn’t possible.

Granted, not every automated job that’s created results in a human losing their job. Some critics worried that McDonald’s allowing its customers to order through touch-screen displays would leave people out of work, but instead it enabled workers already employed by the company to focus on keeping the restaurant clean and making sure food met quality standards.

Doctors especially seem happy to adopt automation into the workplace, and not even for procedures. Many doctors in Canada and the U.S. are bogged down by paperwork, sometimes spending two hours with paperwork for every one hour with patients. Most doctors will tell you that they just want to interact with their patients. If they could have a machine that would take their notes and keep their records for them, they could be much more efficient. This is another example of how automation does not necessarily have to result in jobs lost, as long as governments prepare properly for its integration into the workforce.

Governments need a response for this in order for their citizens to adapt readily. One option for them to consider is universal basic income, an idea which shows some promise, but is an economic pandora’s box. Tests for how basic income could work have been done in small communities, as well as a pilot project in Finland, but the effects are still unclear. There’s also no agreement on what the specific model should be. Does everyone get a stipend? Just the poor?

Even if we do find a properly socialized solution to deal with jobs vanishing, we still need to contend with the fact that human beings aren’t meant to sit around all day doing nothing.

Some governments are inherently more equipped to address the problem than others. In this sense, the United States is clearly one of the least prepared, with a complicated set of checks and balances, as well as a political culture that has been skeptical of government solutions since 1776. Countries with an acceptance of social housing, socialized medicine, and low-cost or free university are far more prepared. As are those with traditional cultures of artisanship, which robots can’t replace.

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