Mercedes-Benz wants to develop a driverless car. Google already has one. This is exceedingly bad news for auto body shops, ambulance-chasing lawyers and others. Soon, truck drivers might be replaced by driverless trucks. What then will happen to the nation’s 3.5 million truck drivers, not to mention truck stops, of which there are 276 in Texas alone? (You can Google anything.)
The conventional answer is retraining. Truck drivers will become something else, maybe teachers or dental hygienists, which is, of course, possible. It’s also likely that many of them will sink into the funk that is the loyal companion of unemployment. Family life will shred, and possibly an army of former truck drivers will enlist with others of the digitally ditched and wreak political havoc. Shippers will sing “Happy Days Are Here Again.” For truckers it will be, “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?”
It’s clear by now that the fruits of automation, computerization and outsourcing are being reaped by the top 1 percent — in this case, shipping companies and not drivers. The old bell curve with the middle class bloating comfy in the middle is being replaced by what’s called the power curve, in which something called the 80/20 rule applies: 20 percent of the participants in an online venture get 80 percent of the rewards. Think Uber. It’s not the drivers who are getting rich. Something new and possibly awful is happening.
Many books have been written about this phenomenon, and in 2012, the Aspen Institute convened a meeting on this topic, with the resulting report bearing the jaunty title of “Power-Curve Society: The Future of Innovation, Opportunity and Social Equity in the Emerging Networked Economy.” One participant was Kim Taipale, a leading thinker in this field. I quote from the Aspen report on its summary of Taipale’s thesis: “The era of bell curve distributions that supported a bulging social middle class is over. . . . Education per se is not going to make up the difference.”
What will make up the difference? President Obama is giving it a shot by proposing to raise taxes on the very rich and relieve the tax burdens of the middle and lower classes. This makes so much sense that the Republican Party recently rose as one to oppose it, denouncing the proposal, as always, as a nonstarter. The GOP’s monomaniacal mantra is always to lower taxes because that supposedly produces jobs (Oh, yeah, where are they?), as well as billionaires. (No problem finding them.) Many of the jobs currently being produced are part-time and low-wage, but even when the pay is good, the jobs are often evanescent — gone in a year or so.
For the past several weeks I’ve been accosting captains of industry and asking how the American economy is going to both raise incomes and retain jobs. One told me that the rich are going to have to carry the not-so-rich — a vast and expensive welfare program. Another suggested make-work of the sort that FDR tried during the Depression: goodbye self-service gas stations, welcome back attendants and someone to wipe the windshield.
Still others insist that all this worrying is about nothing particularly new under the sun. The United States and, indeed, the industrialized world, has weathered this sort of thing before — the assembly line replacing all those cool artisans making carriages, horseless or otherwise. New jobs are just over the horizon. Innovation and education will create them. Just you wait and see. The app, as Google’s executive chairman Eric Schmidt pointed out in a recent talk, is only six years old.
To my ears, the optimists sound Panglossian. I have watched Uber (which I use) chew up the taxi industry. Office buildings are being erected for a new age of fewer employees. The law library is online, the back office is overseas — and steno exists only in old movies. (“Miss Jones, take a letter . . . ”) The middle class has flat-lined; unemployment is down but wages aren’t up.
Much of this is ultimately supposed to be good. The term “disrupter” has become an accolade, like first-responder or something. Yet there could be an awful political and social price to pay, and that, for the moment, is being discussed only in whispers — largely limited to forums like Aspen and not the political arena. The stirring will likely have severe political repercussions. After all, what is being disrupted is not the occasional industry but the American Dream. The disrupters disrupt sleep itself.
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