The dark side of progress: We’re ignoring the most potent threat to working-class Americans

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During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump promised working-class white Americans in the smokestack cities and towns of the industrial Midwest that he would bring back millions of manufacturing jobs by reducing immigration, clamping down on globalization, and ending “terrible” trade agreements and currency manipulation. 

He has not delivered on his promises.

In 2017 and 2018, to be sure, the United States did add 465,000 factory jobs, an impressive, though unspectacular, number. But the vast majority of them are located in California, Texas, Nevada, Arizona, and Oklahoma (where employment was already rising before Trump took office), not Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.

Recently, moreover, the growth of manufacturing jobs has slowed to a trickle. In the last four months, the net gain has been a total of 13,000, just over 3,000 a month. The index of aggregate hours worked in manufacturing is down 0.3 percent from January. Despite the robust economy and 4 percent unemployment, the average hourly wage for workers in manufacturing has barely kept up with inflation.

The president, alas, has been more prone to scapegoating than problem solving. Immigration actually boosts employment, innovation, and productivity; it has not had an adverse impact on the wages of unskilled workers. Globalization does matter, but the Trump administration has not been effective in combatting low-cost competition from abroad. Most important, Trump and his advisers have ignored the most important cause of de-industrialization and income inequality: automation.

Unskilled workers are bearing the brunt of automation. According to a 2016 study, 83 percent of workers in occupations paying less than $20 an hour are at high risk for being displaced; 4 percent of those getting more than $40 an hour are in danger. Since the Great Recession, the number of robots in American factories has increased by 50 percent, most of them in the Rustbelt. Retail sales clerks are disappearing everywhere. Driverless cars may well replace truck, bus, and taxi drivers. In Men Without Work, Nicholas Eberstadt estimates that by 2050 as many as 24 percent of men between 25 and 45, most of them without college degrees, may be unable to find a job.

Americans, it seems clear, want politicians to do something about automation. A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2017 found that, although respondents were divided on whether government should take responsibility for assisting workers displaced by automation, 85 percent of Democrats and 86 percent of Republicans (including 7 in 10 with a high school diploma or less) indicated that automation should be limited to dangerous or unhealthy tasks, even if machines were less expensive and more efficient.

To date, however, only Andrew Yang, a former tech entrepreneur, has made automation the centerpiece of his presidential campaign. After painting a doomsday scenario of workers replaced by robots and AI software succumbing to drug use, suicide, political unrest, and violence, Yang maintains that President Trump’s approach — bringing back coal mining jobs and protectionist tariffs — is not the answer. Instead, he proposes a guaranteed national income of $1,000 a month for every American over 18 (comparable to the oil dividend received by every adult in Alaska), funded by a value-added tax on corporations.

Yang is not destined to win the Democratic nomination. In my judgment, his plan is a non-starter. That said, one can only hope a substantive public debate about automation will now take place — and that politicians will present proposals to mitigate the threat to the lives and livelihoods of working-class and middle-class Americans, including, for example, a substantial expansion of wage insurance (which is now available under the Trade Adjustment Assistance Act to workers over 50, earning less than $50,000 a year, and negatively affected by imports) paid for by corporations; tax credits for displaced workers; vouchers to be used for re-training; lower barriers to switching jobs; relocation allowances; and increased investments in kindergarten thru college education.

In the long run, automation may well benefit almost everyone. That said, if current trends continue, Carl Frey predicts in The Technology Trap, “the divide between the winners and losers to automation will become even wider.” And the anger of Americans, “trapped in places of despair,” will increase as well.

Instead of stoking that anger, it’s time to do something about the dark side of progress.

NOTE: This post has been updated from the original to correct the spelling of Carl Frey’s first name.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of Rude Republic:  Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century.

Tags 2020 campaign Andrew Yang Automation Donald Trump Pew Rust Belt Trade Adjustment Assistance

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