The real threat to the working class

My dad coming home from work at one of the big furniture factories in Grand Rapids circa 1959.

My dad coming home from work at one of the big furniture factories in Grand Rapids circa 1959.

In the endless litany of analyses over why Donald Trump was elected president, the winner seems to be the cultural subgroup known as “the working class.” All the nostalgia over making America great again was targeted to this group, people who once participated in the American Dream but have lost out to foreign manufacturing, among other things. As a working class guy and a transplant to the South, I can tell you this is serious business down here. Textile mills that used to dot the landscape have moved where labor is cheaper, leaving behind a legion of good people without a way to provide a middle class lifestyle for their families.

Mr. Trump blamed trade agreements that allowed other countries to steal the manufacturing sector out from under us, but he did so without ever mentioning two important aspects of this: cheaper products produced by cheaper labor, which benefit us all, and dramatically increased profits that didn’t have to be shared with the cheaper labor. Assuming all of that was somehow brought back to the U.S., consumer prices would skyrocket, which would not please anybody. I mean, what’s the point of a “good” job, if it means inflation and higher prices for everything from housing to a pair of jeans?

But the bigger story is what’s ahead for the working class regardless of the extent to which nationalism grows as a practical matter. Technology isn’t just disrupting hierarchies and those whose value to the economy is based on protected knowledge; technology is also stripping away working class jobs and will continue to do so at an accelerating pace. By 2019, the Labor Department projects that 40% of the labor force will be self-employed, which doesn’t bode well for those who whose parents went to the office, the plant, the mine, or whatever. No amount of “Yea, America” is going to make corporations care about the lives of their employees beyond what they can do for the bottom line.

And that means the digitalization of the kinds of jobs once thought untouchable will continue. Today, it means little that a truck can transport goods without a driver, but what about tomorrow? Anybody who drives for a living can be replaced. Robotics continue to advance in all directions, as does artificial intelligence, holograms, virtual reality, advanced military weaponry, and many, many other areas. This has brought about serious discussion about the concept of “uniform basic income” or “guaranteed basic income,” in which the government would give everybody money whether they worked or not. The election of Donald Trump, some within the basic income movement argue, may jumpstart the idea, while others, according to a Business Insider article, disagree.

“The election of Trump as president is probably not good news for the basic income movement,” Rutger Bregman, Dutch basic income expert and author of “Utopia for Realists,” tells Business Insider.

And with millions of jobs set to get displaced by robotic automation in the coming decades, Bregman could be right. As Business Insider’s Josh Barro argued, Trump doesn’t seem too concerned about the lack of manufacturing jobs in the future. That lack of clarity has experts like Bregman worried. The president-elect seems unwilling to acknowledge that humans could get booted from entire industries in a matter of decades.

That’s precisely why Trump has every incentive to cozy up to basic income, Pugh says. His fan base has serious fears about the future of the economy.

“Enacting basic income would help to revitalize parts of the country hit hardest by outsourcing and automation by spurring entrepreneurship in those areas.” Or as writer and basic income advocate Scott Santens put it, “Basic income is good for business.”

The working class faces a very difficult future, which is why it’s probably a safe bet that young people will continue to leave rural communities for opportunities in the big city. There are still innovative opportunities available to anyone within the Great Horizontal, but such opportunities demand a different mindset than one based on nostalgia and making American great (again) by going back to an era buried in the sands of human progress. The irony is that rural versus urban is an artificial barrier, for we have achieved a degree of omnipresence never even considered by the planners of old.

Personally, I’ll take small town living with a good internet connection any day of the year.

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