Historic technological upheaval demands a dramatic response, not Trump-style protectionism.
President Trump has declared war on companies that send American jobs overseas.
In just a few short weeks, he's withdrawn the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, promised tax breaks to companies that invest in domestic manufacturing, and threatened to retaliate against firms who move facilities abroad, all in the name of protecting our middle-class.
His strategy is intuitive, politically shrewd — and doomed to fail. That's because the real threat to American jobs isn't flesh-and-blood foreign workers. It's robots and computers.
In the coming years, automation, not offshoring, will be the chief driver of forced joblessness.
Alleviating the worst effects of technological unemployment will require radically new approaches to economic policy.
Reforms might include a universal basic income, a shorter workweek and a mechanism for paying individuals when their personal data is used by technology firms to turn a profit. What's clear, however, is that we can't meet this distinctly 21st century challenge with outmoded protectionism.
The effects of automation are already taking their toll on the American workforce, most notably in the manufacturing industry. Thanks to technological advances, manufacturing facilities have found ways to produce more with fewer workers.
According to a 2015 study by Ball State University's Center for Business and Economic Research, 88% of manufacturing job losses over the past few years are the result of a decreased demand for human labor.
The problem isn't unique to factory workers, or even the middle class. High-paying jobs in knowledge-intensive industries like healthcare, finance and insurance could soon be performed by machines and software. By 2025, increasingly sophisticated technologies — including robots and interconnected artificial intelligence — could take over as many as one in three jobs, according to the technology research firm Gartner.
In the long-term, the extraordinary productivity gains from automation promise to provide cheaper goods, economic growth and, yes, more jobs. But in the short-term, there is a real possibility of mass technological unemployment.
This historic upheaval in our labor markets demands a dramatic policy response aimed at smoothing the transition to a more automated economy.
Such a large-scale reform effort might include the implementation of a basic income guarantee, or universal basic income. Under this proposal, the government would replace at least some existing welfare programs with a simple system in which all adults are paid a set income each month.
With this kind of help, Americans left jobless due to automation would have the financial freedom to retrain for higher-demand positions, start their own businesses, or otherwise weather the coming economic shift. Plans to test the policy are currently under way in places like Finland, the Netherlands and Canada.
Here in the United States, thinkers on both the left and right have endorsed some form of universal income. To be sure, some conservatives may recoil at the idea of paying people who might remain idle. But many on the right — including Charles Murray, Milton Friedman, and Richard Nixon — have supported the idea as a streamlined alternative to today's complicated welfare state.
Another reform might require technology firms to provide small payments to individuals each time a company makes use of their data. After all, user data is essential to the technology sector, and particularly to companies like Google or Facebook. This policy, which has been championed by computer scientist Jaron Lanier, would simply compensate the owners of information for their contributions to such businesses.
Finally, mitigating the employment effects of automation could be as simple as reducing the standard work week to 30 hours. Since people would be on the job for fewer hours, employers would have to hire new workers to make up the time difference, increasing the total number of jobs in the process.
Shorter work weeks also carry benefits for employers, as they've been shown to reduce the need for sick days and even improve the quality of work performed. Sweden is already doing this successfully, and companies here in the United States are beginning to experiment with it. In fact, Amazon recently announced a 30-hour work week pilot program for certain technical teams at the company.
Proposals like these may seem radical, but they are precisely the kinds of innovative policy solutions that this moment demands. Trump's appeals to protectionism, on the other hand, are no match for the mass technological unemployment that awaits the American workforce.
Kevin LaGrandeur is a professor specializing in technology and culture in the College of Arts and Sciences at New York Institute of Technology. He is editor, with James Hughes, of the Surviving the Machine Age: Intelligent Technology and the Transformation of Human Work, to be published March 29.