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The Jobless Future is Going to Be Great

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If Democrats are going to start articulating pro-worker policies again as central platform planks, they need to get on board real fast to the problems that automation is already causing, problems that will grow rapidly.

Robot developers say they are close to a breakthrough—getting a machine to pick up a toy and put it in a box.

It is a simple task for a child, but for retailers it has been a big hurdle to automating one of the most labor-intensive aspects of e-commerce: grabbing items off shelves and packing them for shipping.

Several companies, including Saks Fifth Avenue owner Hudson’s Bay Co. HBC +0.82% and Chinese online-retail giant JD.com Inc., JD +1.79% have recently begun testing robotic “pickers” in their distribution centers. Some robotics companies say their machines can move gadgets, toys and consumer products 50% faster than human workers.

Retailers and logistics companies are counting on the new advances to help them keep pace with explosive growth in online sales and pressure to ship faster. U.S. e-commerce revenues hit $390 billion last year, nearly twice as much as in 2011, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Sales are rising even faster in China, India and other developing countries.

That is propelling a global hiring spree to find people to process those orders. U.S. warehouses added 262,000 jobs over the past five years, with nearly 950,000 people working in the sector, according to the Labor Department. Labor shortages are becoming more common, particularly during the holiday rush, and wages are climbing.

Throwing nearly a million people out of work sounds pretty great! Hard to see any down side. Democrats should just offer some tax credits for employers to train workers. That will pretty much solve the problem!

Seriously, the real answer for this is going to need to be the right to a job, guaranteed by the government as an employer of last resort. I have no real problem with part of the solution being universal basic income, but again, I am extremely skeptical of Americans approving a welfare program that is not based upon work, as it files in the face of everything about American culture and history. Just the federally guaranteed job isn’t enough–free college tuition and the forgiveness of debt, a real industrial policy, the building of a green economy, and federal subsidies of everything from working in a farmers’ market to your local hipster bicycle shop are going to have to be pieces of the puzzle. People need work of some kind, even if self-defined. And they need a decent income and path to dignity. In a fully automated economy, they aren’t going to get it. And before someone says, “Derp, Luddite, Derp,” let me remind you that previous generations’ technological advancements worked because the increased jobs they created in an expanding economy absorbed those job losses. Today, we don’t create jobs to replace those lost through automation. They are just totally lost jobs, except for robot designers. Not solving this problem means massive social upheaval, no doubt channeled through racial violence, xenophobia, misogyny, and religious nationalism.

I have almost no faith that we will solve any of these problems.

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