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Automation Sneaking Into Political Discourse

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Andrew Yang isn’t going to even sniff the Democratic nomination in 2020 and nor should he. But someone getting media attention by raising alarms about automation is actually important.

That candidate is Andrew Yang, a well-connected New York businessman who is mounting a longer-than-long-shot bid for the White House. Mr. Yang, a former tech executive who started the nonprofit organization Venture for America, believes that automation and advanced artificial intelligence will soon make millions of jobs obsolete — yours, mine, those of our accountants and radiologists and grocery store cashiers. He says America needs to take radical steps to prevent Great Depression-level unemployment and a total societal meltdown, including handing out trillions of dollars in cash.

“All you need is self-driving cars to destabilize society,” Mr. Yang, 43, said over lunch at a Thai restaurant in Manhattan last month, in his first interview about his campaign. In just a few years, he said, “we’re going to have a million truck drivers out of work who are 94 percent male, with an average level of education of high school or one year of college.”

“That one innovation,” he continued, “will be enough to create riots in the street. And we’re about to do the same thing to retail workers, call center workers, fast-food workers, insurance companies, accounting firms.”

Agreed. And as I pointed out in last week’s automation thread, the panel I was on that included a conservative business professor and two physicists who work in the field had unanimous agreement that this is a massive and very scary revolution happening in society that could have enormous destabilizing effects.

Yang’s solution is a version of UBI, a $1000 month stipend from the government. I would gladly take a $1000 monthly stipend, but a) it’s not nearly enough to replace the lost income of work and b) the cultural issue of work has to be taken seriously. You may not like to work but many millions of people do value working very highly. I maintain that the creation of even low-level jobs such as gas station attendants has value to those who hold those jobs; the comparison between the conversation between the gas station attendant post and the bartender automation post the very next day was hilarious, as the very different responses to the elimination of a job reflected nothing more than how readers value service and how they interpret their personal preferences as “social value”. If bartender jobs are eliminated as service station attendant jobs have been in 48 states, in 20 years the conversation around creating jobs by reviving bartenders will be seen as antiquated and I would be called a Luddite for agreeing with the idea.

Of course, leave it to an University of Chicago economist to say that automation won’t be a big deal because computers helped advance the field of economics. This brilliance truly boosts my low opinion of economics as an academic discipline.

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