ROBOPOCALYPSE: The Coming Leftist Panic on The Robot Economy

Terminator (Ben Stansall / AFP / Getty)
Ben Stansall / AFP / Getty

“They’re taking our jobs! They’re taking our jobs!”

Once used by South Park to mock conservative critics of mass immigration, these lines may soon be applied to the left, as a new progressive panic over the robot economy now appears to be well underway.

Fears over the rise of the robots have existed for decades, of course. But the left has recently kicked things up a notch. Bill Gates, the billionaire progressive and founder of Microsoft, caused a stir in tech circles last month by suggesting that robots ought to be taxed in order to compensate for human job losses.

This followed a similar robot taxation proposal made by centre-left policymakers in the European Parliament.

Calls for a robot tax comes as the pace of change begins to accelerate. Last week, we reported on “flippy,” a burger-flipping robot that has replaced human fast food workers at a restaurant in California. The next day, news emerged of a new startup using robots to deliver takeout food in Washington D.C. You may have thought the automation of fast food would end at ordering kiosks, but now robots will cook your food and deliver it too. They won’t ask for minimum wage increases either!

The oncoming political panic should be concerning to Republicans, especially Republicans who consider themselves allies of the Trump insurgency. Donald Trump took the Rust Belt by promising to protect jobs from overzealous free trade policies and mass immigration. There was no need to mention robots, because robots were not yet a serious threat to human jobs. That may not be the case in 2020.

Even if robots are not a significant threat to human jobs, Democrats have every interest in owning this issue. They lost the working class because their neoliberal “New Democrat” element prevented them from seriously addressing that constituency’s concerns. They couldn’t attack free trade and the outflow of jobs from America without attacking themselves; as Hillary Clinton’s private speeches extolling the virtues of a “borderless world with open trade and open borders” attest to, the party establishment was thoroughly globalist.

If Democrats wish to claw back their lost working-class support, stoking fears over the robot economy is an attractive option. It is easy, perhaps easier, to present robots in the public imagination as a greater threat to jobs than free trade or immigration. Moreover, there would be virtually no electoral blowback from such a strategy. Robots, unlike Mexicans, do not vote.

If the left wish to exploit the panic over robots for political purposes, they won’t have to look very far. Already, alarmism is everywhere: in the same month Bill Gates called for a robot tax, Elon Musk suggested that humans would have to become cyborgs to avoid going obsolete. A few weeks later, The Guardian went full doomsday, publishing claims that an obsolete working class would be subject to a “genocidal war of the rich against the poor.”

Even if they don’t go as far as working-class genocide, predictions that robots will make humans obsolete are increasingly common. Historian Yuval Noah Harari, in his latest book, predicts the rise of a “useless class” of humans in the near future. Bestselling author and futurist Martin Ford predicts a working-class revolt against the robot economy. Moshe Vardi, professor of Computer Science at Rice University, predicts unemployment rates of 50 per cent or more.

These predictions could all be wildly inaccurate, of course. Predicting the future, whether it’s climate patterns, election results, or the future of technology, is a notoriously tricky task and frequently leaves so-called “experts” embarrassed. But the public’s fear of robots shouldn’t be underestimated; a recent poll in Australia found that 16 per cent of respondents believed their job would be automated out of existence within five years.

That number is likely to grow, especially if the left decide that protecting workers from robots should be the next great political crusade. And why wouldn’t they? The proposed solutions for robot-induced unemployment are things that the left already favoured. Gates and European leftwingers want a robot tax. Economics professor Noah Smith suggests redistribution of wealth from the robot economy. Martin Ford – the same author who predicts a worker’s uprising against robots – thinks a guaranteed basic income is the answer. These are all very left-wing ideas.

For conservatives who want to understand what’s going on, there is an obvious parallel: global warming.

Regardless of one’s opinions on the science of that topic, a very familiar pattern is emerging. First, there is the prediction of a coming apocalypse, endorsed by a consensus of experts, which feeds a smouldering public fear of what lies ahead. Then come the proposed solutions: taxation, redistribution, government intervention, and a radical overhaul of the economy.

The picture could not be more tempting for the left. Protecting workers from the robopocalypse offers them an opportunity to roll back Trump’s gains among their former blue-collar supporters. Sufficient public panic would also create pressure to implement many of the redistributive, big-state policies they’ve always wanted. Last but not least, demonizing robots allows the left to assuage their guilt over abandoning the working class without conceding any ground to the Trumpist right on free trade or immigration.

How are conservatives to respond to this? They won’t have much difficulty casting doubt on some of the more alarmist predictions of the left, i.e genocidal wars, but it’ll be hard to persuade people that robots aren’t replacing their jobs when virtually every McDonalds in the country now has an array of touchscreen waiters.

One point that conservatives should repeatedly emphasize is that progressive policies are making flesh-and-blood jobs less viable. A burger-flipping robot may be expensive, but is it more expensive than a mandatory $15 minimum wage? As noted above, at least one California burger joint doesn’t think so.

It must also be acknowledged that, left unchecked, globalist billionaires will certainly try to reap the profits of the robot economy while screwing over the little guy. As always, big government is likely to be their ally in this, not their enemy. As regulations on the robot economy increase, the cost of entry into the market for smaller players is likely to increase in tandem. Savvy conservatives will articulate this, and keep the focus on the fat cats who would benefit from such an arrangement.

Or, to put it another way: the Republican of 2012 rails against the minimum wage, and loses. The Republican of 2016 rails against the minimum wage and globalist billionaires, and wins.

The only way to really counter the growing panic over robots, of course, is to put an end to the idea that human labour is going to become obsolete. To do this, we have to look to history: every labor-saving technological advance in history has resulted in the emergence of new industries, because although the advances eliminate jobs, the “eliminated” workers are then free to do other things.

You can explain this in more concrete terms. The money saved by the California burger chain employing “flippy” can be invested elsewhere — in say, cancer research, or colonizing Mars. That investment creates new jobs in those sectors. And if a robot replaces those jobs too? That frees up investment to open a new theatre or museum or art studio.

The idea of burger-flippers becoming artists and cancer researchers sounds far-fetched. After all, art and science are prestige professions. But to a 14th-century peasant toiling in a cold field, the job of a cook must have seemed like a prestige profession, reserved for just a few favoured servants of the local nobleman. The fact that burger-flipping is now seen as a lowly profession is because the real lowly professions have been eliminated by technology. Similarly, occupations we currently see as prestigious, like science and space exploration, may in the future become common.

That sounds great, of course, but it’s still a difficult message to sell to the people whose jobs are at risk. In 2016, Democrats tried to convince blue-collar workers that the destruction of their industries would be followed by a promised land of high-tech, green jobs. Those promises fell on deaf ears — partly because they were false, but also because the message implicitly admitted that Democrats would do nothing to prevent the disappearance of existing jobs.

Again and again throughout history, there have been panics that new technology will make entire classes of people obsolete. The English Luddites who smashed mechanical looms in the 18th century did so because they believed the looms were putting them out of jobs. They weren’t wrong, but they failed to understand that that new jobs would inevitably open up elsewhere.

However, for the burger-flipper who is about to lose his job to a robot right now, that’s a difficult case to make. That’s probably why panics and backlash have accompanied virtually every major technological advance in the past two centuries.

Humans just aren’t very good at learning from history. Perhaps we should get a robot to do it for us?

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