The rise of protectionist populism in the US will speed up the robotics revolution.

Photo credit: Merrill College of Journalism Press Releases via Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC
For years people have been predicting that robotics and automation will start taking middle class and working class jobs at an alarming rate. So far, those predictions been quietly coming true and it is probably going to get much worse in the next few years.

As far as business is concerned, the rise of populism among Republicans and Democrats in the 2016 election can be boiled down to a few key points. Democrats want to make it more expensive to have human employees. Republicans want to make it more expensive to outsource jobs and to export goods. Republicans also want to clear away obstacles to replacing those human employees with machines. If robots have the capacity to do the work, and in many cases they do and the price is right. The safe bet for corporations is to stop hiring humans altogether.

My purpose here is neither to defend or attack capitalism, only to explain the realities. It is the job of executives at a publicly traded corporation to maximize profits. This is not optional for them, it is the law. A CEO can be successfully sued by shareholders for failing to do so.

This means that they have to keep costs down and get the best price they can for their products. Using overseas employees can reduce costs for a company. For most industries, for the moment, automation is more expensive than either domestic or overseas human employees. However, with each passing year robotics and artificial intelligence become less expensive, more reliable and capable of new things. Overseas workers are not really the competition for domestic workers anymore, robots are. If those jobs "come back" to North America in any significant numbers, it will probably be automated systems and not human employees that do the work.

According to a 2013 study from Oxford, half of all North American jobs will be lost to automation by 2033. President Obama got more specific with a report that said 83 percent of jobs that currently pay less than $20/hr, 31 percent of jobs that currently pay $20-40/hr and four percent of jobs that currently pay more than $40/hr will be gone in 20 years.

All of this, again, relates to current jobs and current wages. Domestic manufacturing jobs are already being taken over by robots at a rapid pace. New, modern factories have so few human employees that the company can save money by leaving the lights off. The next likely jobs to go are transportation jobs such as cab drivers, Uber drivers and truck drivers as self driving cars and trucks hit the road. Retail jobs are also going to disappear rapidly as stores like the new Amazon grocery store begin to appear. And these are just a few of hundreds of areas where robotics will begin to take human jobs. Basically, if your job is repetitive, boring or analytical it is on death row, ticking down the days.

Obviously, from a corporate/management perspective, robots are attractive. They may be expensive initially but after that there is little comparison between them and human employees. If properly maintained, they will work 24/7/365. They will never ask for a raise or any wages at all. They will not ask for benefits or holidays. They may occasionally need repairs but they do not get sick. They do not have any children that get sick or have any other sort of family emergencies. There are no federal or state workplace safety regulations for them. They are hard working but not ambitious, they will never ask for a better job or job training. They do not need to be motivated or have morale problems. They can not be hired away by your competition. They do not form unions, file complaints, leak secrets or blow whistles and if the company needs to make cut backs, production can be reduced by pushing a few buttons - no layoffs, no severance packages and no complaints.

Even if you prefer the human touch and dislike the idea of automating your business, you know your competitors at home and abroad are making the same calculations and that, in the long run, companies that automate will save a great deal of money. Those companies will make more money and will likely be able to offer their goods and services for less, while still increasing profits.

So these are the calculations and decisions that you are trying to make when the 2016 election comes along with strong populist and nationalist sentiments on the left and the right. Among the many suggestions and campaign promises are increased wages and benefits, penalties for laying off workers, penalties for outsourcing jobs overseas, increased import and export duties and demands that companies bring overseas jobs back to the United States.

Of course none of this is certain. Any proposals must make their way through committees and congress. However, for most companies, uncertainty itself is an enemy.

For now the right and its brand of nationalistic populism won, but the Democrats actually got more votes and the next election is just two years away. And on some level you know that simply not hiring humans anymore is becoming more and more of an option. It might cost more initially but some of that could be tax deductible as a capital improvement. After automation, you no longer need to worry about minimum wages or benefits or pensions or workplace safety or any of a score of other costs and considerations that come with human workers. In other words you've re-established a long term sense of certainty, regardless of election outcomes or populist legislation.

By staging a 'revolution' and fighting for more the American working class and middle class may well find themselves with nothing - at least until ideas like Universal Basic Income (UBI) gain more mainstream attention.
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