Providence Journal columnists Mark Patinkin has been on a roll, lately, with some of the most honest, open-minded post-election commentary in Rhode Island and even beyond. Today, though, I think his inquiries may have led him to an ideological and political fork in the road, and he seems to be looking in the wrong direction.
He goes through some of the areas in which customer-facing employers are replacing human jobs with computers and writes:
I got to thinking about this last week when I interviewed former Brown professor Darrell West, now at the Brookings Institute, on his new book “Megachange.”
He told me the American electoral upheaval springs in part from exactly that — automation. Robots.
To the extent that his essay implies a solution, I think he’s got it wrong.
Following liberal opinion, he suggests that Brexit and Donald Trump owed their victories to an impossible-to-fulfill promise to “reclaim the past.” In this view, the global elite is on the right side of history and working altruistically to move humanity into an inevitable future, while increasingly populist conservatives are promising to stop social progress.
This is a big, big topic, and one on which analysts on every side of the question can be wrong in their way, but it would be mistaken to insist that Trump is wrong, ergo the solution must be on the Left.
Consider the minimum wage and other progressive efforts to make human employees more expensive — ObamaCare, mandatory time off, and so on. The attempt to use government to impose liberals’ sense of fairness is redistributing people right out of their jobs. It simply makes no sense to maintain a line of tellers costing more than $30,000 per year each when an alternative technology is available (and government is promising not to let anybody starve).
And we shouldn’t want to force our economy to devote resources to busywork. A company and an economy functions best when it can devote its resources to the activities that will produce the most. Patinkin’s example of Home Depot is actually helpful in this regard. Most of my experience with multiple branches of the retailer is that there are very often more employees in the building than customers. Rather than being trapped behind registers, they’re making sure stock is where it’s supposed to be, helping customers to find it, and putting together orders for larger clients.
Just so, our focus should be on empowering people to find something more valuable to do in the economy, and here liberals put up more barriers. The cost of employees is one; a small retailer that can’t yet get over the technology hump will have to pay the high personnel cost that the big competition is avoiding, rather than a lower one that particular employees might accept. Moreover, the burden of red-tape regulation, fees, fines, and taxation extends not just to employees, but to every aspect of business and life.
Add to that the progressive approach to economic development that we see strangling Rhode Island: giving the government money with which to soften the economic hardship it’s imposed, which it distributes only to companies that catch politicians’ attention and fit their limited vision. Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo has made much of her ability to lure GE Digital to the state with subsidies, but what do people think GE Digital does? This is from the “stories” page on its site:
Browse our stories to learn how companies like yours can leverage digital solutions to transform and improve operations today.
Transforming operations digitally means automating jobs. In other words, to serve a political narrative of increasing the sorts of jobs that politicians want, Rhode Island taxpayers are subsidizing a corporate division whose mission is to help companies automate lower-end jobs away. So even as workers and small businesses are struggling, progressive government forces them to subsidize their further hardship.
Some people may want to return the economy to steady drudge work, but I suspect most would be more than satisfied with an economy that allowed them to find a more-interesting, more-productive way to make a living.
Those who’d rather not put in that level of work, though, we should stop treating like children and accept their adult agency and responsibility. Automation and globalization are making it less expensive to live, leaving much of modern hardship to be a matter of personal comparison. And yet, the same government that’s pushing them in the dirt to serve a narrative of “well-paying jobs” is also offering workers the soiled washcloth of “equity.”
Thus, subsidized housing can wind up subsidizing a BMW rather than a Hyundai; job-killing employer mandates wind up funding cell-phone data rather than food. Yes, some families are in the position of having to choose between heating their homes and filling their refrigerators, and we should help them, but we’re making the problem worse by trying to ensure that other families don’t have to choose between a gaming system and a big TV because somebody else has a summer mansion in Newport.
Stepping back from stated intentions, the reason for this approach is plain to see. Left-wing politicians and their supporting activists want to sell the corporate elite protection from competition and then sell workers insulation against the consequences of stagnation. The global elite doesn’t really want a future that distributes wealth to the benefit of all, but one in which their comforts are protected. If the bottom moves toward the middle and the middle moves toward the top, then those at those heights may have to start choosing between fancy vacations and comme il faut political fundraisers.
Anybody looking for an explanation of Brexit and Trump should consider that the answer may be that the people are starting to sense this motivation among those who lecture and condescend to us.