The Democratic Candidates Seem Bound to Clash Over Automation in 2020

Remember in 2008 when every presidential candidate was endlessly musing about jobs and employment as the unemployment rate soared? Or, 2012 when every candidate was droning on about jobs, employment, and gun violence? Or perhaps you only remember the freshest wound, 2016, when every candidate was droning about jobs, employment, and the pros vs. cons of a border wall or repeal and replace.  

See, for the last decade of American deficit, most other issues have ended up taking a backseat to matters relating to the economy or employment. But, with the 2020 election looming, the conversation surrounding jobs and their effect on our day to day lives has fragmented more than ever before. Today, socialists, tech bros, establishment liberals, and relative political unknowns each seem to have a hot take on how to approach the future of work, with some defying convention more than others.

One of the largest catalysts for this new fragmentation is the increasing prevalence of automation plus the lack of knowledge about how it will roll out. Automation is the practice by which human workers are phased out by robots or bots. The fact is no one is really clear on how this will unfold and so people are really looking side-eyed at anyone who talks of bringing back manufacturing without new caveats.

With more than 20 candidates looking to get on the Democratic ticket in 2020, it can be hard to keep track of which candidate thinks what in this mad dash for the presidency. Now, not every idea about the future of work is particularly novel, but with some estimates suggesting that around 40 percent of jobs will be lost to automation in less than two decades, the time for a real forward thinking solution is definitely now. Given the overwhelmingly large field we’re going to keep the list focused on big players and candidates with the most novel ideas (sorry Beto — explain more, sing less).  Here’s where the candidates stand.

Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Corey Booker

Despite the fact that American workers are being phased out of physical retail by the likes of Amazon and could soon be phased out of occupational driving by self driving cars, these candidates are proponents of the FDR era plan for a jobs guarantee. What this means is that no matter what happens, the US government will ensure that you have a job if you want one. The rationale is simple, if we are to combat climate change, the dwindling availability of affordable  childcare, crumbling american infrastructure, the growing number of people who aren’t being included in our unemployment statistics, and automation we need to find a way to guarantee that people who are looking for work can actually find it. As far as funding a government subsidized jobs guarantee, each candidate has roughly the same, ‘tax the rich’ ethos. As contrived and surface level as that sounds in 2019, it shouldn’t leave you believing that all of them are light on the specifics.

In fact, light on the specifics is hardly something you can say of Sen. Elizabeth Warren in particular. While she doesn't address combating automation specifically (she actually doesn’t fear it at all) her jobs guarantee puts a huge emphasis on training child care professionals, green economy workers and the economic gains that can stem from an educated population that isn’t saddled by crippling student debt. Rather than blame automation for anything, Warren shifts the blame onto an economic system that is levied against ensuring that the average American has a helpful degree of economic flexibility.

"If we put that 2-cent wealth tax in place on the 75,000 largest fortunes in this country, we can do universal child care for every baby zero to 5," Warren noted during her CNN town hall. "[We can do] universal college and knock back the student loan debt burden for 95%of our students, and still have nearly a trillion dollars left over."

Andrew Yang

In a race marked by big political names like Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, and Bernie Sanders, to many, Yang (a relative unknown before this year) hardly seems like a realistic choice. That said, he is pretty much the only candidate whose economic platform is entirely based around not fighting automation, but navigating it. Yang aptly points out that the US is the only advanced economy without a value added tax and that the companies with the highest value are benefitting the most from automation. Yang wants to tax tech giants like Amazon and Facebook and use those funds to create what he calls a “freedom dividend”, i.e a universal basic income (UBI) that gives every American over 18-years-old $1,000 a month to use however they choose. The former Silicon Valley CEO notes that reskilling people who will soon lose jobs to automation is unrealistic, and that if we want to “avoid a lost generation of workers” we have to come up with a plan that empowers every day people with the benefit of economic flexibility. Perhaps of all the candidates, Yang is inarguably the greatest proponent of changing the economic system to specifically combat automation.

Pete Buttigieg and Kirsten Gillibrand

Like most of the other candidates, Buttigieg and Gillibrand acknowledge that the world post automation will not look the same as it did before. Accurately, they note that it already doesn’t. Unlike their slightly more progressive competitors, Buttigieg and Gillibrand are definitely not considering UBI or a jobs guarantee as prospective solutions to the problem automation creates for workers. Rather, they both suggest that the government take a more active role in growing the economy and ensuring that when jobs do get automated away, workers have viable options moving forward.

As mayor of South Bend Indiana: when hundreds of garbage workers were staring down the barrel of unemployment due to automation, Mayor Pete enacted a reskilling program that resulted in many of those workers being offered new positions within the same organization: an offer that more than half of the displaced workers took him up on.

Gillibrand also put forward a bill that was specifically meant to fund the reskilling of workers who had lost their jobs to automation.

Joe Biden

Given Biden’s political clout, it’s likely that, for now, he’ll be able to finesse being as vague regarding specifics as he feels like being for about as long as he feels like being that way. What can be said for sure is that Biden’s feelings about automation can be summarized as such: Yes, he believes it’s real. Yes he believes everyday Americans are right to fear it. But, no, ideas like a jobs guarantee or UBI “miss the point.”

“What the idea of a universal basic income misses is that a job is about more than a paycheck. It is about dignity and one’s place in their community,” he wrote in a recent Medium article.  “What Americans want is a good job and a steady paycheck, not a government check or a consolation prize for missing out on the American dream.”

Like a true blue establishment Democrat, Biden’s emphasis on meritocracy seems to miss the point of what it really means to be excluded from the benefits of our economic system. Beyond that, as employment goes, he doesn’t seem to be making a real effort to work around systemic inequalities based on things like race or gender. His politic is very stuck on the fact that people should “work hard and do their part,” before they are owed anything at all.  What does working hard mean when you are competing with machines who are as efficient at 24/7 without coffee or motivation?

Sure, Biden is in support of safe solutions that are to be executed over the long term (reskilling initiatives, cheaper community college, or partnering with tech companies to teach people new skills). But, none of those things address the fact that Americans are living and working for longer, but making lower wages. If we’re being realistic, there are thousands of older Americans in the workforce right now who will not be working long enough to justify a $34 billion reskilling price tag, but whose lives will be ravaged by automation. Yes, there are hundreds of thousands of middle class families who Biden wants to empower, but there are still millions of dirt poor families who he doesn’t mention even once in his plan to put Americans to work.

The fact of the matter is that we are very much in a stage of the election process  where a lot of the candidates commitment to certain causes is subject to change.

Remember just a few months ago when a lot of the candidates vying for the nomination wouldn’t even touch the subject of reparations for slavery? That changed almost over night. Rest assured that the people who perform well in the debates will have a good chance to push the conversation in a certain direction even if they don’t win. Being able to say your piece to millions of Americans is a huge plus for virtually anyone with a point of view. That said, with proponents of both UBI and guaranteed employment taking the debate stage this Summer, the potentially devastating impact of automation on the future of work will be something we talk about for a long time.

Article by Raz Robinson, journalist and freelance writer, based in New York City and Philadelphia. Connect with him at rrob0904(at)gmail(dot)com.