The Robots Are Coming and We Are Not Ready

Transcribed from the 25 March 2017 episode of This is Hell! Radio (Chicago) and printed with permission. Edited for space and readability. Listen to the whole interview:

What we’re seeing is a perfect storm of weak regulation, nonexistent policy, and highly efficient technology.

Chuck Mertz: Driverless cars and automated driving are in the not-too-distant future. And that means millions of people who drive for a living will potentially lose that livelihood. So what happens to all the people who can no longer drive for a living? Here to help us figure it out is Dr. Maya Rockeymoore. She is co-author of the Global Policy Solutions report Stick Shift: Autonomous Vehicles, Driving Jobs, and the Future of Work.

Welcome to This is Hell!, Maya.

Maya Rockeymoore: It’s my pleasure to be on, thanks for having me.

CM: Great to have you on the show.

Your study shows the median annual wages for delivery drivers and heavy truck drivers are about $34,700 a year. Bus drivers: about $21,700. Taxi drivers and chauffeurs make about $20,700. Non-driving occupations have a premium on driving occupations, in total, with those occupations earning roughly $2,800 more than driving occupations. Thus, drivers on the whole are paid less than their non-driving counterparts.

I was kind of surprised at how low that is. Every person I talked to about your report, I told them that the median annual wage for delivery drivers and heavy truck drivers is $34,700. Now, what does that say to you, either about me or anybody? Does that reveal something about the way people may perceive truck drivers? I thought they were making a lot more than that.

MR: This is a common perception of truck drivers, supermarket clerks—even, frankly, airline pilots—whose wages are being driven down and are earning less and less. But what it also signals about our professional drivers is that 93% of them have less than a college degree. And all of the jobs that seem to be the first on the chopping block, with regard to automation, are those where the workers are already lower-wage, less educated, and not necessarily unionized to a large extent. They are the most threatened.

CM: We see not only that they are threatened but that they are also already in a position of precarity. So how much could autonomous driving lead to a very large increase in poverty?

MR: Even though the wages for these workers are quite low, the fact of the matter is that they are pretty good for their level of education. With that, if these jobs go away (and we actually model a scenario in our report) when these companies actually roll out driverless technology, approximately 4.1 million US driving jobs will be lost to autonomous driving vehicles.

CM: That is a lot. But I know I’m going to get this email, Maya: “Well, those people can just get jobs now making the new autonomous vehicles!” How many of those jobs lost to autonomous driving could be made up by the manufacture of autonomous vehicles? I can already see those emails coming in.

MR: I know that we’ve been calling for manufacturing to come back to the United States. But the manufacturing that is coming back to the United States is being automated itself. The manufacturing floors of many of these firms are driven by robots. If you were to go to Amazon distribution centers and see who is actually lifting boxes and carrying them out to vehicles outside, they are robots. So not only are American workers losing jobs to globalization, American workers are also losing jobs to robots.

Estimates vary about how deep the impact of automation is going to be on the US labor force. But the higher end of the estimates I’ve seen is that approximately 47% of American jobs could be displaced within the next twenty years due to automation.

CM: That’s pretty incredible. Last October we spoke with Peter Frase, author of Four Futures: Life After Capitalism, whose work speculates about the potential long term impact of automation on employment. As he points out in his book, economists like Dean Baker and Doug Henwood say that blaming the weak economic recovery after the 2008 recession on automation is a distraction from the real issue, which is government policy. To Baker, worries about robots are both counterfactual (because productivity growth is low) and politically reactionary.

After that conversation, a listener to our show—a gentleman by the name of Grant—sent us an email saying, “As Mr. Baker has previously pointed out, this is a very sinister narrative that has taken over and been allowed to dominate the discussion as it relates to trade, because it permits policymakers and industry to escape responsibility for permitting or adopting policies that are largely responsible for the lack of wage growth and the resulting growth in inequality.”

How much do concerns over automation eliminating jobs allow policymakers to avoid responsibility for policies that lead to stagnating wages and increasing inequality?

MR: Well, I respect Dean; I respect all the economists who take that position. They are right when it comes to federal policy—that matters here. There is currently no regulation inhibiting the growth and possible dissemination and deployment of autonomous vehicles and other automated technology. Policymakers might want to consider stepping in and doing something to place limitations on that.

But I do depart from Dean Baker and other economists who argue that robots are not a threat to the American workforce, and this is why: if there is no regulation that limits—or requires human beings to be a part of—the autonomous movement (if you will), then what we’re seeing here is very different from technological advances of the past. What we’re seeing here is not just one technology deployed against one industry. It’s autonomous technology being deployed across many industries in the relatively same time period, with maximum efficiency, meaning that the autonomous technology that they have now literally requires no human beings in order to get the work done.

We know that these companies have this technology that they’re perfecting now. It’s called Level Five technology. They have the ability to deploy, within the next five years, these kinds of automated vehicles that require no human beings to drive. And that’s being seen across industries. We are seeing an era of increased efficiency at the same time we know that our governmental and educational systems are broken so we are not actually building a strong pipeline to build new jobs. We’re not investing in the education of a workforce that’s going to have the capacity to generate and regenerate the economy for new jobs. This last Trump budget actually zeroed out retraining and training programs at the Department of Labor. So if there is displacement as a result of automated vehicles, these workers, with the Trump budget, would not have anything to turn to in terms of helping to support them in a transition to another kind of employment or even upscaling to new kinds of jobs.

What we’re seeing is a perfect storm of weak regulation, nonexistent policy, and highly efficient technology.

If we’re facing a future where automation is going to be replacing workers, then we need a stronger social safety net, not a weaker one.

CM: Last year I saw a lot of long haul trucks on the highways with Trump bumper stickers on them. What’s the likelihood that Trump policies will make it so those same truck drivers are going to be out of a job?

MR: I feel sorry for these truck drivers. I feel sorry for Trump voters. Because Trump voters are essentially Trump University students. They have been taken to the cleaners by a con artist. They have bought into a man who is telling them one thing—or at least they’re hearing one thing—but he’s doing another when it comes to public policy. The budget he put out was a direct slap to all of those voters, particularly working class voters: those truckers and everybody else who depends on the average working wages that they get in this country. They have been slapped in the face by president Donald Trump; he has turned his back on them in favor of spending America’s dollars on more toys of war.

And let me tell you this: we did an analysis of the states that would lose out most in terms of these driving jobs. We found out that the states that would be the most devastated if there were a rapid transition to automated vehicles are states like Mississippi, Arkansas, West Virginia, Indiana, Iowa, North Dakota, Wyoming, and Idaho. All red states, all Trump voting states. These people would be messed over the most.

What’s even worse is that the Republican attempts to undermine and repeal Obamacare would also undermine these same workers: white men, women, people from rural states. Working class people would be absolutely screwed by the American Health Care Act, also known as Trumpcare.

If we’re facing a future where automation is going to be replacing workers, then we need a stronger social safety net, not a weaker one.

CM: Just recently I saw that truck drivers were insisting that no matter the level of autonomy trucks will have, they will not be able to navigate complicated, heavily-trafficked areas, like (as one truck driver pointed out) Manhattan—or here in the Loop in Chicago, or the downtown areas of most cities. They also argue autonomous vehicles will need a “kind-of driver,” that is, an on-road engineer who will still be necessary when it comes to over-the-road, line-haul, and regional drivers.

How much will human drivers still be needed? Are human drivers in for a surprise as to the level of technology that these driverless trucks will have?

MR: I want to make it clear to your listeners that these companies—tech firms like Google and Apple; car firms like Tesla and Honda and others—are perfecting technology that does not require human beings at all. That being said, there is a probability that they will not roll out that Level Five technology in the very beginning. What they will roll out is the kind of technology you just spoke of, the one that requires a human assist. That’s called Level Four technology.

For a while at least, there will be human beings inside these vehicles to assist the autonomous technology. Again, this relies on regulation as well. Policymakers could determine that they want human beings to assist and aid these vehicles and other autonomous technology for the foreseeable future. Those policy battles are already beginning. Just this last week I saw that Google announced that they are hiring a new vice president for government affairs, who is going to be focused on lobbying congress around autonomous vehicle technology. The unions are already paying attention, and they are also in the halls of congress sharing their views.

So this is going to be the next battle for our future, and it’s going to be interesting and important to pay attention.

CM: The report states, “Autonomous vehicle technology has the potential to save many lives, limit environmental damage, and increase productivity, and therefore improve living standards across the country if the gains are distributed equally. But it also has the potential to cause significant economic hardship at least in the short term, considering the current state of economy, culture, and politics.”

How likely is it, in your opinion, that those benefits from autonomous driving will be distributed in anything remotely resembling an equal fashion?

MR: We are now in the second Gilded Age. As you well know, the gap between the 99% and the 1% is at its highest levels in modern times. And unfortunately, with the Trump administration, and with Republicans (who have shown themselves hostile to policies that support workers) in charge of all branches of government and a majority of states across the country, I don’t think the gains will be distributed equally. You will note that Elaine Chao, the secretary of transportation, has basically been beating the bushes saying we need to deploy this autonomous vehicle technology. The lobbyists for autonomous technology are on it, and they’ve got their hands in the pot of government right now.

I have not seen any policymaker articulate any kind of policy that would make sure these gains are distributed equally. You will not see that coming out of the Trump administration or the GOP majority in congress.

If we mindlessly deploy technologies without consideration for workers or the impact on the labor market, then we’re doing our workers a double disservice, because we did that with globalization already. We had an inadequate preparation for globalization, and now you add a layer—automation—on top of that: the potential for tremendous damage is at hand.

CM: Nonetheless, if autonomous driving could be good for the environment, good for the economy, good for public health and safety…how popular is autonomous driving today? Do the majority of people in the US want autonomous driving, and do they believe the benefits outweigh the disadvantages, like job loss? One of the things I’m really concerned about is single-issue advocacy and how that will distract potential supporters of automated driver technology from the more holistic or even intersectional challenges raised by the technology.

MR: Americans are not Luddites. We appreciate new technologies that increase convenience, there’s no doubt about it. Everything that you just said, we said in the report: that autonomous vehicles have the potential to make life easier. If you’re a senior citizen and you don’t have anyone to drive you around, it would be awesome to be able to jump into a driverless vehicle and have it chauffeur you to where you need to go. Same thing for people who are disabled. Or people who like to drink and don’t want to drive. There are going to be all kinds of benefits associated with autonomous vehicles in addition to their positive impact on the environment.

But that convenience comes at a price. We need to make sure that we’re mitigating the potential for labor market devastation, even as we embrace the technology and embrace the conveniences that it brings.

CM: This is another email that I’ll be getting: won’t lower costs to the truck driving companies mean lower prices for consumers? What would you say to those investors in trucking companies who argue that the entire population will benefit from lower prices despite the fact that drivers would be losing jobs? That was one of the promises that people bought into when it came to things like NAFTA. And maybe we did see a small cut in prices—maybe—on some consumer goods, but it certainly didn’t make up for the job losses.

MR: If people don’t have jobs, who’s going to pay even for those goods that are lower priced? This is just common sense. If we’re thinking wholistically, we need to have consumer demand, which means that people need to have jobs with income so that they can pay for goods.

There is a balance to be struck here, and if we just mindlessly deploy technologies without consideration for workers or the impact on the labor market, then we’re doing our workers a double disservice, because we did that with globalization already. We had an inadequate preparation for globalization, and now you add a layer—automation—on top of that: the potential for tremendous damage is at hand.

CM: The report offers solutions that could “offset the negative effects of abrupt and widespread job losses.” Those policies include what the report calls “automatic unemployment insurance.” What do you mean by automatic unemployment insurance?

MR: It means there’s no reason to make people apply and wait and this and that and go through all kinds of hoops and hollers for eligibility standards if we already know that they fit a certain category, that their jobs are going to be lost due to automation. We know which states are going to be disproportionately harmed. These states have got to be out ahead of it. They should have the ability to have these workers automatically enroll into unemployment insurance. That unemployment insurance should be as generous as possible, to allow them to transition to new opportunities and to prevent their families from undergoing significant harm from a lack of income.

We say the same thing about Medicaid. Unfortunately, the people in charge in Washington right now seem to think Medicaid is unimportant. But when you displace drivers and other workers due to automation, they’re going to need to be healthy and their families are going to need access to health insurance as they look for new opportunities. So we think that automatic Medicaid eligibility is another important facet here.

Something that people are talking about—particularly in Silicon Valley, not necessarily in Washington—is this notion of a Universal Basic Income. We call for a Progressive Basic Income that would be administered through the Social Security Administration. That Progressive Basic Income would provide a guaranteed income for workers whose jobs have been displaced due to automation, and it would be tied to their income level, so it’s progressive, with lower-wage workers getting a bigger boost than higher-wage workers.

At the same time, there are other policy investments that are important, like (for folks who have the ability and the interest) entrepreneurship programs and incentives to help these workers transition to other opportunities.

CM: You mention social security. We’re told over and over again (despite economists like Dean Baker showing over the past seventeen years that it’s patently false) that social security is going broke, and according to a 2015 Gallup poll, 51% of non-retired Americans say they doubt social security will be able to pay them a benefit when they retire. So how can we depend on social security to help those displaced by automation, if social security will not exist?

MR: I have been beside Dean Baker for the last twenty years trying to point out that the only way social security is going away is if we allow Republicans in congress—who have been opposed to social security from the very beginning—to get away with stealing the program and privatizing it.

If the American worker leaned on their policymakers, particularly in those red states, and told them to vote for the policies that could extend social security’s solvency, then this isn’t an issue. This is not an economic issue, it’s a political issue. We can make policy choices tomorrow that would extend social security’s solvency for the foreseeable future.

Currently, there have been scare tactics deployed by Republicans saying that we can’t afford social security. They’re setting us up for the next round of “Oh my god! We can’t afford it! Let’s cut social security! Let’s privatize it!” But the fact of the matter is that if you just lift the cap on wages, you’d get a significant boost in the income coming into social security. And there are other policy fixes that will extend the solvency of social security for a very long time.

Your audience should understand that they have been the victims of scare tactics by Republicans. If 51% don’t believe it’ll be there—it’ll only not be there if you allow yourself to be duped.

These policy sociopaths who seem to think they can dismantle the social safety net and social insurance programs and who have no care, concern, or fear about the possibility of human suffering…these people need to be confronted and they have no business in public life.

CM: You mention retraining as a way to help people who lose their jobs due to automation. A couple weeks ago we spoke with Tressie McMillan-Cottom about her book on private for-profit colleges, Lower Ed. Tressie explained that some of those getting benefits from assistance programs enroll in training programs, and often the only schools they can get into are private for-profit schools. Those schools often do not give the proper training or services to place students into new jobs or services. The student then has to go pay back those loans that are insured by the federal government at no risk to the for-profit colleges. If the loans aren’t paid back, it doesn’t really matter to them, because they still get paid.

What kind of retraining assistance benefits can truly benefit the person who is being retrained and not the private for-profit college industry—an industry that Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is very much in favor of?

MR: There is good and bad in the private for-profit college situation. Unfortunately, too many of these colleges have been scam colleges. Not quite as bad as Trump University, but almost there in terms of enrolling particularly low-income students and disproportionately students of color, taking their Pell grants and other resources, and then not giving them the quality of education that’s going to result in any kind of gainful employment after they graduate. And many—most—don’t even graduate.

That scam had been recognized by the Obama administration, and they tried to shut it down by requiring that these universities prove that their graduates actually find gainful employment, and they had other regulations put in place to try and make these universities less scam artists and more actual providers of opportunities for people looking for them.

Unfortunately, you’re right: Secretary DeVos is a for-profit insider, and there are many indications that they’re going to seek to loosen the regulations that the Obama administration put into place, meaning that these for-profit colleges are going to continue to be able to scam these students.

I would argue that our community colleges are an excellent option when it comes to programs for adult learners. They have flexibility to enable the kind of training that many people seeking to transition from their current jobs or upskill into new opportunities need. We need to partner and make sure that we’re investing in our community colleges so that they can serve that important role on an even broader scale.

CM: All these solutions that you offer in your report—which I am completely supportive of—seem to have two strikes against them when it comes to politics. That is, the right can label them as socialist, or worse yet, they will argue that they mean paying more taxes. So how likely is it that job loss due to automation would change the prevailing faith in the US today in private enterprise and market solutions to a belief in the people working collectively through government to fix our problems? Could it change the almost religious belief the public seems to have in bootstrap individualism? That is, the belief that if you lost your job to automation, it’s up to you—not to all of us—to get a job with a living wage.

Can we address the problems that workers may face due to automation while still embracing those tenets of neoliberalism?

MR: I just wrote an article on this for NewCo Shift Forum last week. And I basically said that these people—I call them policy sociopaths—who seem to think they can dismantle the social safety net and social insurance programs and who have no care, concern, or fear about the possibility of human suffering…these people need to be confronted and they have no business in public life.

Neoliberalism eats at the heart and soul of our economy and of our democracy, and if left unchecked—if corporations that have no concern about people or the planet are allowed to take this to its lowest common denominator—nobody will have an opportunity to live and survive on this planet except for the über-wealthy and the robots.

What kind of world is that? If you take it to its farthest limits (which is what neoliberalism seeks to do, in terms of maximizing the profit for the fewest people in the corporate sphere), then we will not have a society that can actually exist. There will be a collapse of democracy and frankly a collapse of capitalism itself. If the proponents of neoliberalism just thought about it, they would realize that they are eating themselves if they continue to push our policies and our practices in the direction they’ve been going.

CM: Maya, thank you so much for being on our show.

MR: Thanks for having me. Take care.

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