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November 15th, 2019

Insight

Why Is Andrew Yang So Afraid of Automation?

Rich Lowry

By Rich Lowry

Published Oct. 18, 2019

Andrew Yang, the tech entrepreneur and gadfly, has definitely cleared the bar for a successful cause candidate.

Not only has he exceeded expectations for his polling and fundraising, not only has he developed a cult following, not only has he got people talking about his signature idea, the universal basic income, he actually has other candidates expressing openness to it, as we saw during the debate Tuesday night. This is how an idea enters the bloodstream, and at least gets a chance at widespread acceptance.

It's too bad that Yang's idea is a foolish response to a nonproblem. Worse, Yang is trying to convince people to fear and oppose something that we need more of, and that is a key to economic progress and higher wages — namely, automation.

It is through technological innovation that workers become more productive — i.e., can create more with less — and society becomes richer.

To hear Yang tell it, robots are on the verge of ripping an irreparable hole in the American job market and fundamentally destabilizing our society.

He's particularly alarmed by the potential advent of autonomous vehicles. According to Yang, "All you need is self-driving cars to destabilize society." He predicts that in a few years, "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."

This one change will be enough to create Armageddon.

"We have five to 10 years before truckers lose their jobs," he said, "and all hell breaks loose." As a general matter, this is a version of a perennial fear of technological change going back centuries, and has been a constant in our public discourse. John F. Kennedy warned of the challenge of trying to maintain full employment "at a time when automation, of course, is replacing men."

We should be mindful of how innovation creates winners and losers, and do our best to mitigate the harm to people and communities that are negatively affected, but, not to put too fine a point on it, Yang's fear of automation in general and self-driving cars in particular is completely insane.

It can't be that the only thing holding our society together is the fact that cars and trucks must be operated by people. If innovations in transportation were really the enemy of all that is good and true, we would have been done in long ago by the advent of canals, then railroads, then automobiles and highways.

Of course, rather than harming us by supplanting old modes of transportation, all these innovations made us more productive, and therefore richer and better off.

At a practical level, Yang's assumption that autonomous vehicles are going to wipe out all trucking jobs, and relatively soon, is unsupported by the evidence. Progress has been made toward self-driving cars, but we've learned the jump all the way to full autonomy is a vast one that isn‘t close yet. (As the headline of a recent New York Times article put it: "Despite High Hopes, Self-Driving Cars Are 'Way in the Future.' ") The change won't happen all in one swoop, and there will be time for the sector and people employed in it to adjust.

This has been the experience of other job categories that have been affected by innovation over the years. Mark Mills of the Manhattan Institute points out how computerized spreadsheets and accounting, word processors and graphics programs have crimped employment for accountants, typists, and draftsmen. Yet the people once employed in these jobs haven't been rendered socially and economically inert, threatening the social order.

This is because, even as technology makes some jobs obsolete, it creates the space for new ones. Broadly speaking, this is the economic story of the modern world. If it's true that labor-saving innovations destroy jobs, unemployment should have steadily increased since the Industrial Revolution, indeed the ranks of the unemployable should have been growing since the invention of the first mechanical farm implement.

Instead, unemployment in the U.S. has gone higher and lower at times, but hovered roughly around 5 percent for a century (with the exception, of course, of the Great Depression). In the golden post-World War II age, productivity increased robustly, and so did employment and wages.

If we were actually to experience much higher levels of productivity now, the U.S. would be much richer, and that increased wealth wouldn't be squirreled away. The wealthier people are, the more they consume, and not just on services, but on real concrete goods like houses and cars.

To believe otherwise is to think that we have reached our maximum level of consumption and development, in which case, we might as well give up now and throwing $12,000 a year at people — Yang's idea — isn't going to save us from decadence and despair.

Studies warning of massive potential job losses from automation tend to neglect the upsides. A study from the OECD related, "Historically, the income-generating effects of new technologies have proved more powerful than the labor-displacing effects: technological progress has been accompanied not only by higher output and productivity, but also by higher overall employment."

What's most perverse about Yangism, though, is that it is based on an apocalyptic fear of an imminent revolution in productivity, when we are currently experiencing extraordinarily low levels of productivity growth. Rob Atkinson of the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation notes that U.S. labor productivity has been increasing at a dismal rate of 1.2 percent per year since 2008, half the rate of the preceding 13 years.

This is the problem that everyone should be focused on, since it is a suppressant on wage growth. But such is the state of the political debate in 2019 that even the winsome and refreshing candidate, Andrew Yang, is a net subtraction to our collective self-understanding.

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