Is Makers All Still Worth Worrying about Right Now?

I am still reeling from Trump’s election. When I think about what he and the Republicans are going to do — the lives that will be destroyed by mass deportation of undocumented immigrants and the targeting of Muslims, the people who are going to die because they’ll lose their health insurance, the rollback of Roe v Wade — the list of truly awful things that are likely to happen is so long I can’t think about it without shutting down in despair and rage. Even worse: if our side doesn’t succeed, what might come next after eight years of Trump.

In the middle of this disaster, the idea of spending time on dangers that may happen in 2025 or 2040 has been feeling like a complete waste of time. So I’ve been struggling with what part of the new fights I want to join instead.

Two things changed my mind.

First, as folks have been sorting through the wreckage of the election, one thing’s become clear: one big factor in Clinton losing was that a good chunk of white working class voters in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin voted for Obama but didn’t vote for her. Yes, racism is definitely a major, critical part of the story. But their despair about their community’s economic future was also a very big part.

Put aside what might happen to them by 2040. In 8 years — or two terms of Trump — there’s a good chance that robots/AI will start wiping out the 1.8 million jobs in the long haul trucking industry. In an amazing number of states, these truck driving jobs are most available good paying blue collar job left. And when most of them vanish, it’s going to also devastate a lot of small and rural communities as all the jobs it supports, from mechanics to waitresses to motel clerks, go with it. I doubt most of these jobs will be gone by the 2024 election. But the writing’s going to be on the wall.

And the folks in those communities who voted this time or Trump out of desperation and anger? How do you think they’ll feel in 8 years, when Trump’s going to have failed them? As bad as Trump is going to be, we could be looking at someone much, much worse two Presidential elections from now if our side isn’t paying any attention.

Second, on election day the UN came out with a report that says that up to two thirds of all jobs in the developing world are likely to get wiped out by robot/AI automation. This is about the most grim forecast that any major official body has made. On a topic like this, I would’ve expected the UN to be a lot more cautious. If they’re making this kind of projection today, they’ve got to be pretty confident about their numbers.

I have my doubts about their forecast. There are so many manual jobs in the informal economy in developing countries that won’t be easy to automate for quite some time that two thirds seems pretty high to me. But even if the overall number is too high, one thing’s for sure: they’re pretty confident that a lot of the best blue collar jobs that have helped many developing economies succeed are going to be wiped out. And given how mumbly their conclusions were, they don’t seem to have a clue about what developing countries will be able to do about it.

I’m not going to stick with my original plans of putting all of my time and focus on the future; there are going to be too many critical fights that will be happening right now to save as much as we can from Trump and the Republicans’ onslaught. But as hard as it is to worry about anything other than the horrific crisis right in front of our faces, at least somebody on our side also needs to be spending some time thinking about the potentially even worse disaster a few steps ahead. Given that I’ve got another 1-2 years before my knees injury will have healed enough that I can be seriously politically active, that somebody might as well be me.

Why Universal Basic Income Isn’t Enough

Ask an expert who’s worried about jobs being automated away by robots/AI what we should do, and almost all of them will say, create a Universal Basic Income. When millions of Americans can’t count on being able to find a job, at a minimum we need to make sure nobody starves. And Universal Basic Income has a lot of other advantages. It gives people more freedom – they can decide to spend their time volunteering, creating a small business or co-op, etc. it would give more people the kind of financial cushion they need to create a startup business or co-op. It would strengthen the leverage of workers who still have a job – treat people like crap and they can walk away because they know they have a cushion.

But Universal Basic Income isn’t just the beginning of the conversation about what we should do. Most of the time, it’s also the end of it. And that’s a problem, because although UBI will undoubtedly be a piece of the solution, it’s not enough.

1) Universal Basic Income is too Basic

Sometimes it feels like UBI advocates forget the “basic” part of Universal Basic Income. Most UBI proposals would give every adult citizen around $10,000 a year. If you’re trying to prevent people from falling into poverty, that’s not bad. But if millions of Americans are losing their jobs and have little or no hope of getting a good paying job in the future, will they really think $10,000 a year – or $20,000 a year if they are married – is enough? Considering that median household income in the Atlanta metro region is around $60,000 a year and in Baltimore, Seattle, Denver, Minneapolis, Denver, and Boston it’s over $70,000 a year, is this at all realistic? Especially when we aren’t talking about a cushion to get folks through a temporary crunch but rather for the rest of their lives and their children’s lives?

2) Universal Basic Income isn’t Politically Sustainable — And Could Lead to Much Worse

Some advocates think Universal Basic Income will be politically sustainable because Silicon Valley is into it right now, others because elites are afraid of the alternative – peasants with pitchforks.

But remember Romney’s “makers vs. takers”? The takers he was talking about were mostly people who work hard in really low-wage jobs. Now imagine a world in which more and more Americans have no hope of ever having a job or otherwise officially contributing to the production of the economy – Ayn Rand’s worst nightmare. How do you think the elites, who are already convinced today that they are the engine that keeps the economy running, will react to that? Assuming that they will simply accept it seems like a very risky bet. At a minimum, they would seem just as likely to use every pretext – such as the constant weather crises due to climate change – to chip away at it. And it could just as easily go in a very scary direction: if we have far more people than jobs, a handful of elites might decide that maybe the problem isn’t too few jobs, it’s too many people.

3) Universal Basic Income Doesn’t Address the Balance of Economic Power

The biggest problem with Universal Basic Income is that it doesn’t address the growing imbalance of power between the 1% and everyone else. In an economy where more and more of the wealth, power, and critical skills/knowledge that will be accumulated at the top, this is not a recipe for success. If the last few decades have taught us anything, it’s that our solution to the robot/AI unemployment crisis needs to change the balance of power by increasing the economic power of everyday Americans.