august 4, 2019
A 2020 presidential candidate says the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ looms large for Rust Belt cities, which could face labor catastrophes bigger than the fall of steel. Is anyone listening?
By Sarah Earle // Photos via The Associated Press
Illustration by OLSON MCINTYRE
The Saturday morning coffee rush is in full swing at one of the many Dunkin’ restaurants sprinkled acrossManchester, New Hampshire’s most populated city, as Khrystina Snell seta up her campaign materials at a table near the counter.
Crew members wearing brown aprons and headsets pivot and jostle as they fill orders for customers in Red Sox caps and flip-flops and tend to the drive-thru line.
This pink-and-orange coffee shop straddles a metaphorical line between tradition and progress: Customers can order the same types of donuts that have been on the menu for decades, but they can now order them using phone apps. Other changes are coming. The 70-year-old chain rolled out a rebranding initiative and announced its intentions to embrace automation last year, which means at some point customers may be able to order through a robot.
No one can predict exactly what will happen to employees like these as automated systems increasingly displace workers. But on this overcast morning in a fairly typical New England working-class neighborhood, a handful of activists try to get people talking about what they believe is a critical and overlooked topic, less than a year before the New Hampshire presidential primary on February 11, 2020.
They call themselves the “Yang Gang.” — supporters of entrepreneur Andrew Yang, a Democrat and one of about two dozen Democratic presidential hopefuls lined up with hopes of snagging the nomination next year. Snell, who serves as New Hampshire state director forYang’s presidential campaign, expects just a half-dozen people at two weekend canvassing events planned in the state.
That’s hardly surprising. Even here in New Hampshire, where politics loom large, it’s too early to get people to commit to a candidate. And of the many candidates vying for attention in the February 2020 primary, Yang, 44, a former tech executive campaigning on the splashy promise of a universal basic income to support workers displaced by technology, is one of the least known in a field that includes Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders; Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg; and former vice president Joe Biden.
But Yang has a message that should resonate for people in Manchester — once a manufacturing hub with a textile mill employing more than 17,000 people — as well as cities in the Rust Belt and Appalachia with similar stories. Just as the robots of Dunkin’ will automate away cashier jobs, Yang sees that employment in mining sectors, for example, and manufacturing have vanished with technological innovation. He doesn’t want to tamp down the innovation, but he sees his Universal Basic Income proposal — which he calls a “Freedom Dividend” that would pay $1,000 per month to everyone in the country over age 18 to take care of basic expenses — as an answer to it, a way to encourage entrepreneurship in areas where innovation has lead to job loss.
In a few years, “we’re going to have a million truck drivers out of work…. And we’re about to do the same thing to retail workers, call center workers, fast-food workers, insurance companies, accounting firms.”
“All you need is self-driving cars to destabilize society,” he told the New York Times in February, as an example of the kind of work that will be lost when automation progresses. In a few years, he went on, “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 … And we’re about to do the same thing to retail workers, call center workers, fast-food workers, insurance companies, accounting firms.”
Those who consider the implications of technology on the workforce say they believe Yang’s presidential bid — long shot or not — serves a critical purpose.
“He’s playing an important prophetic role,” said Ray Offenheiser, director of the Notre Dame Initiative for Global Development at the Keough School and distinguished professor of the practice. “I think it’s an invaluable contribution.”
Yang, who was not made available for an interview with Postindustrial, was born in New York to Taiwanese immigrants. After graduating from Brown University with a degree in economics and political science, he attended Columbia Law School and took a brief dip in corporate law, then dabbled in various startups (including a test-prep company acquired by the testing company Kaplan for several million dollars in 2009) before launching Venture for America, a non-profit organization that grooms recent college graduates to start businesses, particularly in regions hit hard by the decline in manufacturing.
It was in this role that Yang says he realized automation was nipping at the heels of even the most successful and innovative job creators.
“I became convinced that the reason why Donald Trump is our president today is that we automated away four million manufacturing jobs in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Mississippi, Iowa …” he said at a campaign event in Plymouth, N.H., in March. “We’re about to do the same thing to millions of retail jobs, call center jobs, fast food jobs and, most disastrously, truck driving jobs in the years to come…. We need to wake up Americans to the fact that it is not immigrants that are causing economic problems. It is the fact that technology has advanced our economy to the point where more Americans are having trouble finding a meaningful path forward.”
Yang’s campaign platform addresses in detail topics as broad ranging as gun safety, student loans, and funding for journalism. But the centerpiece of his campaign, and the policy that’s attracting the most public attention is the “Freedom Dividend.”
To pay for it, Yang would work to impose a value-added tax on the production of goods and services, along with closing tax loopholes on top earners and creating a carbon tax. He estimates that added revenue generated from a universal basic tax and cost savings in social programs would fund the remaining balance.
“We’re the only advanced economy that does not have a value-added tax,” he told an editorial board at The Concord Monitor in July. “If you have a value-added tax at even a modest level, because our economy is so vast at $20 trillion plus, a modest value-added tax generates about $800 billion in new revenue.”
Offenheiser, who helped organize the Future of Work 2019 Conference, held in June at the University of Notre Dame, agrees with Yang’s assertion that we are embarking on the “fourth industrial revolution,” an era in which new technologies will transform virtually every aspect of life. The coming revolution has the potential to devastate the middle-class workforce nationwide, much in the same way automation and outsourcing have already weakened manufacturing regions, he said.
“In many ways, this issue is somewhat akin to climate change,” Offenheiser said. “Automation is now coming at an accelerated rate.”
In the not-too-distant future, Offenheiser said that automation and artificial intelligence will result in a “new kind of low-wage proletariat,” in which people who lack 21st century skills will be locked out of the economy.
“If you believe that a democratic society relies on a solid middle class, this is worrisome,” he said.
But not everyone is convinced that Yang’s apocalyptic message is accurate. Mike Skirpan, a specialty faculty member at Carnegie Mellon University and consultant for ethics in technology, said he believes that technology poses a serious threat to the rote-type jobs that dominate the retail, food service, and to some degree the manufacturing sector, as well as to workers’ rights in those sectors: The push for a higher minimum wage, for example, may lead companies that rely on low-wage workers to add more automated jobs rather than comply, he said.
Skirpan isn’t sure the technology takeover is a foregone conclusion, however, even without government regulation.
“Is every sector and every automation task acceptable by consumers?” he said. “Whether the public will accept automation in every form, I don’t know. I think that’s the uncertainty that this is built on.”
To the extent that it generates support for forward-thinking concepts such as universal basic income, though, Skirpan said that Yang’s message is valuable.
“If automation is a red herring that can shock people enough that they buy into UBI, I’m for it,” he said. “We need to give people a basic building block so they can get the basics taken care of…. The main thing it does is give people that backbone, that padding, that foundation. I think it also allows people to have the option to invest in themselves, which is absolutely necessary if you want to be part of the technology industry.”
Universal basic income is not a new concept. Introduced by 16th-century philosophers as a solution to theft, it’s been floated throughout history and proposed by economists as a countermeasure to automation since the 1960s.
Proponents of universal basic income say it has broad appeal across the political spectrum. In fact, it was a Republican governor who rolled out the Alaska Permanent Fund — the most notable example of universal basic income — in 1976 as a way to fairly distribute the revenue from oil mining.
But while the concept holds more promise across political parties than, say, free college, skeptics say it lacks the power to unify the masses and pits different groups against one another.
“I really see UBI as polarizing,” said Courtney Ehrlichman, principal of Ehrlichman Group, a Pittsburgh-based organization advancing transportation-based solutions to workplace challenges. “You don’t want to be divisive. You want to be inclusive.”
Nor does universal basic income address the root problems wrought by technology, said Ehrlichman.
Solutions that incorporate community infrastructure and re-education of the workforce will go much further in mitigating automation’s effects, she said.
“In many ways, this issue is somewhat akin to climate change,” Offenheiser said. “Automation is now coming at an accelerated rate.”
“(UBI) does not put enough emphasis on where we still actually need workers,” she said. “How can we, instead of handing people money, hand them a ticket to employment?”
Yang’s “freedom dividend” may be the most striking feature of his platform, but it’s not the only proposal in his arsenal that addresses the effects of automation. Healso wants to create a department of technology that would draw leaders from the public and private sector to monitor and regulate advances in technology that impact the workforce.
That type of partnership could facilitate conversations that are critical to re-imagining the workplace in the artificial intelligence. era, experts say.
“Who is benefitting from automation? How do you share its benefits? What is the American notion of shared prosperity in the future?” Offenheiser said.
“Technologists should not be tasked with solving for social justice and the masses,” Ehrlichman said. “That’s like asking a baker to be a mechanic. … If (Yang) wants to create a mechanism that serves the people and take automation and technology and its impact into consideration, he needs something that lays across different departments. There needs to be a conversation about, what are these human-centered principles?”
Technology, of course, is a double-edged sword. Internet forums, somewhat ironically, are creating the space for conversations about automation in the workforce.
Andrew Brennan, who showed up at Dunkin’ to get campaign signs for his yard, said he became politically active on the internet before embracing activism in real life.
The ability to engage in political and philosophical discussions is itself a luxury, he said.
“I’m able to care about more than myself because I don’t have to be worried about putting food on the table,” said Brennan, who drove to Manchester from Leominster, Mass., with his parents.
Brennan said Yang’s ideas for “human-centered capitalism” appeal to him because they help level an uneven playing field and give everyone a seat at the table.
“I’d say universal basic income is a first step,” said Brennan, who works at a warehouse and is taking classes at Mount Wachusett Community College, where his mother, Michelle, works in a non-profit K-12 program. “People need a way to progress.”
As Brennan and his parents discussed the first round of Democratic debates over coffee and breakfast sandwiches, Shannon Jeanes and Jodie Chabot pulled into the Dunkin’ parking lot in a small black pickup truck outfitted with huge wooden panels declaring their loyalties: “Not Left. Not Right. Forward. Andrew Yang. Yang 2020.com.”
Picking up a highlighted clipboard from Snell and tucking brochures into their pockets, the Bedford couple crossed the busy intersection to a residential street lined with large vinyl-sided homes, some immaculately maintained and trimmed with summer’s first blooms, others carved into budget-rate apartments with sagging porches and dingy windows.
Jeanes, a construction supervisor for a roofing company, and Chabot, a high school English teacher, said they were first attracted to Yang’s campaign through social media. Universal basic income intrigued them but wasn’t really the main selling point. Rather, they like Yang’s well-articulated vision of an economy that could work for everyone.
“My main concern is, I want my child to live somewhere where he has a future,” said Jeanes, a wiry man wearing Dickies and Yang’s signature MATH hat.
Both Jeanes and Chabot said they believe that the key to facing an automated future lies in education. Jeanes likes Yang’s ideas for making community college affordable as a way of attracting more young people to viable trades. Chabot, who’s witnessed increasing anxiety among her students in the age of social media and cell phones, appreciates his emphasis on life-skills education.
“(Technology) is reducing one of the most important things that children need to learn, which is working with other people face to face,” said Chabot, who sported turquoise knee-length shorts, close-cropped gray hair and rows of silver earrings. “Kids are too busy trying to fill in boxes,” she said.
Criss-crossing Beech Street in long, brisk strides, the couple got only one person to answer the door, and she turned them away with a robotic “I don’t talk politics,” softened by “I hope you do have a nice day.”
Experts say Yang and his supporters are doing a service to the swath of the middle class that’s subject to increasing automation in the workforce.
“I really see Andrew Yang as an advocate for the workforce and those that have been left behind,” Ehrlichman said. “I may disagree with how he’s tackling it, but as a presidential level conversation … I do think there’s a lot of value to it.”
Sarah Earle is a reporter at The Valley News, based in Lebanon, New Hampshire. This is her first article for Postindustrial.