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Automation: an open letter to Andrew Yang

Automation: an open letter to Andrew Yang

  • Stephen Shenfield
    Stephen Shenfield
  • 17
    2022
    Jul
    7:33 am
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Dear Andrew Yang

I followed with interest your campaign as a candidate in the Democratic Party’s 2020 presidential primaries. You are widely known for advocating Universal Basic Income (UBI) as a necessary response to the massive unemployment that you expect to result from automation in the near future. I recently read your book The War on Normal People: The Truth About America’s Disappearing Jobs and Why Universal Basic Income Is Our Future, published in 2018 by Hachette Books. I have also studied the website of your new Forward Party.

I am writing this open letter in response to your book and party website and in the hope of opening a dialog. Let me start, for the benefit of readers who have not read the book, by summarizing the main arguments you make there. 

You consider automation ‘the largest economic transformation in human history’ – larger even than the agricultural and industrial revolutions. It will bring ‘an unprecedented wave of job destruction’ that you call ‘the Great Displacement.’ 

As you acknowledge, many analysts distrust such bold assessments and prefer to explain unemployment in terms of other factors (see, for instance: Jason E. Smith, Smart Machines and Service Work: Automation in an Age of Stagnation, Reaktion Books, 2020). The skeptics, you suggest, are unduly influenced by past ‘false alarms’: after all, there has been talk about automation and its potential ever since the late 1940s. But the latest advances in information technology have finally made the use of automated systems the cheapest way to perform a much wider range of tasks. This time is for real. 

It is often argued that like previous technological revolutions automation destroys some jobs while creating others. While granting that this is so, you point out that the number of new jobs created by automation is very small by comparison with the number of old jobs it destroys.

In fact, you claim, the ‘Great Displacement’ is already well underway. Four million American manufacturing jobs have been automated since 2000. A hundred thousand department store workers were laid off in 2016—17, due partly to the automation of checkout and partly to the rise of e-commerce. 

To take another example, trucking currently employs several million people in the United States. In addition to three and a half million truck drivers, there are all the workers providing them with services at truck stops, diners, and motels. However, self-driving trucks are already here. They hauling iron ore for Rio Tinto in Australia and make deliveries in Nevada and Colorado. You expect that by the end of the 2020s trucking jobs will be gone. So will jobs driving buses and cars, such as those of the 300,000 drivers for Uber and Lyft.  

How many jobs at risk?

A task can be automated if it is ‘routine’ – that is, if a set of instructions (algorithm) can specify exactly how to perform it. A routine task may be physical or mental or both, simple or complicated, but it does not require independent judgment.  

It is estimated that 62 million jobs – 44% of all jobs in the US – are ‘routine.’ These are the jobs, at medium as well as low levels of skill, that are expected to disappear. What will remain? On the one hand, ‘cognitive’ jobs requiring a high level of skill and a capacity for independent thinking, including work to design, engineer, monitor, and maintain automated processes. On the other hand, service jobs that cannot be automated because they involve ‘nurturing,’ such as care of children, the elderly, and the disabled.    

Social consequences

In the absence of decisive corrective action by government, you argue, automation will lead to a society even more unequal than what we have today. The population will be divided into a minority of ‘affluent people in a handful of megacities’ and a majority of  ‘increasingly destitute and displaced people in decaying towns around the country.’ Competition for the shrinking pool of low- and medium-skill jobs will push wages down to a bare subsistence level. 

Readers outside the United States may not realize that in this country unemployment benefits are available only for limited periods (6 months up to 2 years) and only to those who did not leave their last job voluntarily. There is no public provision for the long-term unemployed. So automation will leave an expanding ‘permanent shadow class’ without legal means of subsistence.  

You are afraid of the violent social unrest that may result from this situation. That is one of the reasons why you advocate UBI as well as other reforms such as Medicare for All. However, your own analysis of the social consequences of automation implies that such reforms are inadequate as a remedy. 

You point out that in our society – and especially for men — status, respect and self-respect, and the sense of a meaning in life all depend on having a stable economic role. But there is a shortage of such roles and the shortage will grow worse as automation proceeds. You see a connection between this trend and a widespread demoralization that finds expression in addiction to drugs, gambling, and video games, breakdown of marriage and the family, despair and suicide. Simply ensuring that everyone has the basic means of material survival will not cure this malaise. 

A puzzle

The question at issue here is this. Can the social problems associated with automation be solved within the limits of the prevailing economic system, which is capitalism? Or is it necessary to go beyond those limits and replace capitalism by some other economic system?

One of the Core Principles of your Forward Party is ‘Human-Centered Capitalism’ – also described as ‘humanized capitalism’ or ‘capitalism made to work the right way.’ In order to make sense of this concept we first need to understand capitalism in its ‘natural’ form, that is, in the absence of ‘humanization.’ How does it work? What is its inner logic? Only then can we try to assess the extent to which the functioning of capitalism can be humanized. How realistic is the goal of humanizing capitalism?

The text on the website of the Forward Party that purports to explain the Core Principle of Human-Centered Capitalism is, to be frank, not very helpful. It says that ‘the economy’ must be humanized to ‘work for us’ and enhance ‘the quality of life of each and every person.’ Fair enough, but how (apart from UBI)? The word ‘capitalism’ does not appear in the text, so ‘humanization of the economy’ might be understood either as reforming or as replacing capitalism. Nevertheless, having no serious objection to anything in the text, I clicked the button to indicate my agreement. In response I received an email message thanking me for ‘supporting human-centered capitalism.’ But this misrepresents my position: I don’t support capitalism of any kind.

Toward the end of your book I noted a number of statements that seemed to me to imply that capitalism is inherently anti-human and that it is necessary to go beyond its limits. Thus:

‘Whom do we serve, Humanity or the Market?’ you ask (p. 242). You do not ask how to serve humanity and the market at the same time. 

And you declare: ‘Capital doesn’t care about us. We must evolve beyond relying upon it as the primary measurement of value’ (p. 243). 

And on the same page: ‘We must convert from a mindset of scarcity to a mindset of abundance.’ But the market is based on scarcity, is it not?

I find it hard to figure out what you really think on this crucial issue. I wonder whether you yourself know what you think. 

Socialism as a solution   

I am a member of the World Socialist Party US. Our party, and the World Socialist Movement of which it forms a part, consider it urgent for humanity to make the transition to a higher and more democratic form of society. We call this society ‘socialism’ or sometimes ‘communism’ – but for us these words signify a human community of social equals that values people for themselves, not the anti-human bureaucratic state order of countries under the monopolistic rule of ‘communist’ parties. 

The displacement caused by automation that you have brought to public attention is one of the major developments that make the transition to socialism so urgent. We acknowledge that social reforms like those you advocate can humanize capitalism to some degree. However, the potential for humanization within capitalism is constrained by the inner logic of the capitalist system. This inner logic was first analyzed in depth by a fellow named Karl Marx. Perhaps you have heard of him. 

The essential point is that capitalism, by its very nature, is not human-centered but capital-centered. Indeed, that is what makes it capitalism. Its driving imperative is the expansion and accumulation of capital – a goal pursued endlessly and for its own sake. When well-meaning social reformers go ‘too far’ in their efforts to force it to function in a humane manner, contrary to this imperative, it ceases to function altogether.   

In socialism the means of automation, like other means of production and distribution, will no longer serve to enrich and empower a tiny minority. They will be owned in common and controlled democratically to serve the welfare of the whole community. 

Automation will lighten the workload of the community by eliminating boring and tiring tasks that people prefer to avoid. But the more interesting and satisfying work that remains will be widely shared. Every able-bodied member of society will have some useful work to do, but the short hours made possible by automation will allow ample time for other aspects of life. 

Automation basically solves the problem of production. But the ecological degradation and climate chaos bequeathed to socialism by capitalism will impose another task of no less importance and urgency – rehabilitation of our natural environment. People will undertake many activities for this purpose, some of which may be automated and others not. 

Your response to this letter will be greatly appreciated, especially if it is a substantive response. 

Respectfully,

Stephen D. Shenfield

Secretary, World Socialist Party US

July 2022