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The Last Election of the 20th Century

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I spent yesterday with the great liberal journalist John Nichols. We brought him on campus to speak to our students and the general public about inequality and politics. I was pretty amazed that we were able to get him a week before the election. How timely. And he’s an incredibly entertaining guy to talk to as he has more stories about politicians of the last 4 decades than you could possibly imagine. Not only Bernie, who is knows very well, but names you don’t hear much anymore like Fred Harris and Bill Proxmire.

Anyway, his talk was amazing and received a standing ovation from the audience of about 400-500. One of the points he made was really prescient. He said that the 2016 election was the last election of the 20th century. What he means by that is that there is a wave of radical change completely transforming the American people that is only just beginning to be understood. That is automation. None of the candidates, including Sanders, discussed this in any meaningful or useful ways, although Hillary has at least mentioned the gig economy. This is going to cause tremendous levels of unemployment. Driving, whether trucking, cabs, buses, forklifts, whatever, is the single biggest type of employment for men in many states. The trucking industry alone employs 8 million people. Three million of those are drivers. Three million people alone is 1 percent of the nation and a significantly greater percentage of the workforce. That doesn’t even get into the other driving professions. What will happen to this nation with widespread, massive unemployment or underemployment? Given the nation’s obsession with tying welfare programs to work, will the nation do anything for the millions of people thrown out of work in the next few years?

It’s worth noting here that Nichols completely dismisses those who claim the driverless cars are not going to happen soon. He notes that they are already here, have proven successful in test runs, and are great in many ways. But there’s this tiny problem of enormous unemployment. Nichols believes that by 2020, this is going to be a huge political issue. And I tend to believe him. If the lack of work is the defining characteristic of the greater 21st century, along with climate change, the U.S. political system is woefully unprepared for it and the U.S. media covering politics far, far worse.

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