Automation's assaults: Listen to Woody Allen

Excerpted from the Oct. 15 "Digital Diary'' on GoLocal 24

Many politicians, most notably Donald Trump, have talked about international trade’s destruction of American jobs. But there’s been far too little discussion of how to respond to automation’s assault on well-paying jobs. The losses have been concentrated in such places as factories and many other places employing blue-collar workers, as well as in office support staffs and middle management.  But now computerization and such sidekicks as artificial intelligence and algorithms are destroying work further up the chain, including in such places as the law, retailing, travel and the news media.  (Of course, even in heavily automated factories, you need a few highly skilled people to run “smart machines.’’ For now.)

The automation greatly benefits the holders of capital, which include the people in company C-suites who are richly rewarded for laying off as many people as possible.

What to do about the many millions of workers who either lose their jobs or, to stay employed, must take frequent pay cuts?

Do we tax the holders of capital more in order to do such things as giving everyone a base income whether or not they work and/or to help pay for training for new jobs? Of course at the rate that automation is going, those jobs might soon be destroyed by automation, too.  (Uber has been one way for otherwise unemployed people to make money in the past couple of years. Will self-driving cars soon eliminate that option?)

The idea, promoted by Hillary Clinton and many other politicians, that we can cure  many of these problems by creating expensive newfederal programs to send lots more people to college in delusional.  Bigger and more vocational apprenticeship programs, not only for young people starting out but also for workers every few years in their careers to keep them competitive in the world economy, might help but as automation rolls on, perhaps not all that much.

Complaining about trade deals is good politics, touching as it does on elements of patriotism and  even xenophobia. But as much as globalization, in which American workers are pitted against much lower-paid workers abroad, especially in China, gets attention, automation poses the bigger problem. It’s past time for politicians and other policymakers to come up with some fresh ideas to address its effects.

So what sectors are safe? Among them will  probably be nursing (to which will flow a lot of work now done by physicians),  food service, house repair, personal service, such as maids andbabysitters for the affluent, some graphics work and such trades as plumbing and electrical work. Plumbers and electricians should continue to do very well. And as Woody Allen said: “Not only is God dead, but try getting a plumber on Sunday.’’

-- Robert Whitcomb