Americans are justified to be angry about the economic recovery. As President Obama enters his final year, good-paying jobs remain scarce, and family incomes are down about $1650 on his watch.
Since Ronald Reagan ran the country, the availability of attractive employment has been trending down and slowing economic growth is often blamed—during Obama’s recovery, GDP has advanced at a 2.2 percent annual pace, whereas the comparable figures for Reagan and Clinton were 4.6 and 3.7 percent.
But that puts the story backwards—the lack of workers adequately trained for a more technological demanding workplace is slowing growth, not the other way around.
Automation has been an enduring theme throughout American history. First, reapers and tractors consolidated farms and sent workers to factories. Then machines replaced workers in manufacturing, pushing them into more highly paid professions in medicine, education and technology but also less well paid occupations in restaurants, retailing and other services.
Until recently, computer-programmed machines could be taught strenuous and repetitive tasks like attaching a heavy, rigid fender onto an automobile. Going forward robots will increasingly replace people in activities requiring more-subtle manual dexterity—like making shirts and harvesting fruit—and those requiring more complex cognitive processes like masonry construction, driving limousines and building new robots that adapt to changing environmental conditions.
The drug store I visit in Washington no longer has cashiers—just a group of checkout machines and one clerk to assist technologically flummoxed patrons. Over the next two decades, robots will be capable of unloading pallets, stocking shelves, filling prescriptions, and generally running the store with minimal human intervention.
By 2030, it will become technologically possible to replace 90 percent of the jobs as we know them by smart machines. The real challenge will be training most Americans to engage in intellectually demanding and creative work, or the globalization of technology and competition will relegate most of us to very low paying work better left to androids.
In 2016, Americans should be skeptical, not merely of false promises to restore prosperity made by Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump but also outraged by the handiwork of mainstream politicians.
The latter’s efforts to make a high school diploma universal have made it a nearly worthless credential. Less than 40 percent of 12 graders are ready to read or learn math at the college level, and many fewer have skills to enter technically demanding positions without post-secondary training.
A college diploma is not much better. After pushing millions of unqualified students into universities through affirmative action and government loan programs, four in ten graduates lack the complex reasoning skills needed for white collar work—as it exists today, never mind as it will be after machines equipped with high-level artificial intelligence can replace armies of stockbrokers, insurance adjusters and restaurant managers over the next several decades.
Meanwhile the president and his presumptive heir, Hillary Clinton, remain obsessed with sexism in education and the workplace. That nearly 60 percent of college degrees are now awarded to women and females often earn more than males in comparable positions are inconvenient facts when there are voters to be misled to extend a political dynasty.
The future lies in educating Americans, not to be angry about false injustice or an omnipresent state, but rather to build and teach the machines that will do the work that has burdened humanity since the first branch was shaped into a hunting implement.
Without young people trained and encouraged to do that sophisticated work, the locus of prosperity will permanently shift from America to Asia, where pragmatic leaders urge children to study engineering, not the superstitions peddled by pious academics and deceitful politicians.
Peter Morici is an economist and business professor at the University of Maryland, and a national columnist. He tweets @pmorici1