I was at Great America amusement park yesterday, getting my annual dose of being dropped from towers and jolted on roller coasters. When we stopped to eat, we saw a bank of food-ordering kiosks.
As unlikely as it may seem, it is a symbol of income inequality. That kiosk allows the park to reduce staffing. Instead of having someone wait while a customer makes a decision, push the ordering buttons on the machine and then take payment, the customer can do all that work. The staff just prepares the food and presents it at the pick up window.
Those kiosks are taking away people’s jobs. A much smaller group of people at Nextep Systems has much higher paying jobs.
Those jobs are at the low-end of the pay scale. But we’ve seen it happen up-and-down pay scales as technology gets better and better.
I’ve been saying for a couple of years now that the rise in economic inequality will cause an uprising among disaffected voters. We’re starting to see that come to pass.
Faced with diminished prospects, voters are turning to an outsider who they think will address their concerns. Never mind that the person they’re looking to is a hateful, deceitful billionaire who has left a trail of bankruptcies.
I’ve been trying to put myself in the shoes of Trump voters; to understand why they support him.
I can see a lot of reasons to be bitter about the status quo, especially if you’re living in the middle of the country.
I grew up in Michigan, the son of an autoworker. My dad came to the United States at 29. His college degree from India didn’t count here, so he worked on automotive assembly lines. It was a decent wage that allowed him to bring me and my family over. While working that job, he went on to get an associate’s degree at the community college. He turned that into a job as a computer programmer.
We lucked out.
But today, people aren’t as lucky. In my lifetime, the minimum educational requirement for a middle-class job has gone from no schooling, to high school to a college degree.
What people don’t like to talk about (not politicians and certainly not tech folks) is that a lot of those jobs have been lost to technology. Walk through a car factory today; most of the work is done by machines. Jobs like what my dad did weren’t exported. They just don’t exist. Trump harps on Ford building a plant in Mexico. He ignores the fact that BMW, Toyota, Mercedes, Hyundai, Kia, Nissan, Honda and others all operate plants in the U.S. It just takes fewer people to build each car.
You used to be able to make $30 an hour without having graduated high school. In the Midwest especially, manufacturing jobs were plentiful. If you could turn a wrench on an assembly line, you could make a middle-class living.
(To be sure, there are jobs lost to China. But those jobs aren’t coming back. They’re more likely to be automated away in China as well. There are also jobs being lost to resource depletion. There’s only so much coal you can mine. Those jobs aren’t coming back either.)
We are seeing this in every aspect of society. Service jobs, once though immune from disappearance, are also being automated away.
Some tollways have implemented all-electronic tolling. You used to have to give your $6 to a few people standing in a booth on your way into the city. Those jobs used to pay $40,000-$50,000 a year. If your skill set is making change, where are you going to go to earn that kind of money?
It would be absurd to argue that we should still have toll collectors. It’s clearly better for society that we can zoom through the toll gates. We reduce our commute times. We reduce our carbon footprint. (Less time spent in traffic.) That’s a net good. Unless you’re the person who lost your job.
True, there aren’t that many toll collectors. Multiply this by hundreds of industries and you begin to see the scope of the problem.
I remember waiting in line for more than an hour to deposit my paper route money in the bank, along with all the autoworkers who’d just gotten their paychecks. Now, ACH makes that happen instantly. I don’t have to go to the bank; I almost never do. All of those tellers required to take deposits? No longer needed.
Technology like Smart Meters connect our power meters to the grid. I can log into PG&E’s Web site and see minute-by-minute usage details. By shifting some energy-intensive tasks (like dishwashing and laundry) to the evening, I can reduce stress on the energy grid and save some money. But PG&E no longer has to pay someone $40,000 a year to drive by and read my meter.
Airlines used to employ tens of thousands of people to check in travelers. You’d wait in line to speak with someone who would look at your ticket, print out a boarding pass and and staple your ticket coupon to the boarding pass. Someone would collect your ticket at boarding. Those paper tickets would be sent for reconciliation and settlement. Now, I pull up an app, click on my flight and I have my boarding pass. Reconciliation and settlement are done electronically. I no longer have to wait to accomplish a menial task.
Some of these jobs get chipped away slowly, in ways you don’t even think about. For residential deliveries, UPS will try three times before they will return the package to the sender. With technology, UPS now allows you to delay a delivery, send the package to a neighbor or have it held for pickup. No more missed deliveries. But those deliveries are fractions of someone’s job.
These examples could go on an on. In most of these examples, technology has greatly improved consumer convenience. It has also dramatically increased the efficiency of society. But, your inefficiency is someone else’s paycheck.
YouTube and Google also have an impact. In my condo building, the garage door codes had to be reset. We were all supposed to gather to have our remote codes programmed into the opener. If we weren’t there, the garage guy would have to come back again for $250. I couldn’t make it. But I Googled how to program the opener and was done 3 minutes later. I always Google first when I need to fix something.
The Jetsonian promise of technology was that it would improve everyone’s lives. We’d all have more leisure time as we enjoyed the fruits of technology. Instead, the wealth created by technology has largely flowed to those at the top of wealth distribution.
There are also attitude issues that I can see causing frustration among those have become Trump’s base. Tech elites expound on the values of 10x engineers who come from a dozen elite schools. The message to many — sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit — is that those without such qualifications aren’t meaningful contributors to society.
“Universal basic income,” the idea that everyone should be guaranteed a certain income has become popular in tech circles. A less charitable interpretation would be, “Let us have all the money and we’ll give you some crumbs.”
Neither party has presented a credible way to address these issues.
The biggest thing that has been missing from the current discussion is how to address worker training. Given that many of these jobs are never coming back, how do we train the workforce for those jobs that do exist?
One way not to do is it to rely on for-profit institutions like the University of Phoenix. To a large extent, their role is to rip off the desperate, with the federal government as a co-conspirator.
Even if you solve re-training, you have the issue of geographic concentration of jobs. Clinton suggested that coal miners could get jobs in green energy. Yes, there is a need for workers in green energy. But those jobs are in California, not Coal Country. If you were born and raised in Coal Country and all your family is there, it would be hard to pull up roots.
There aren’t easy answers to these problems. But I fear that we aren’t even talking about realistic solutions. Trump wants to blame immigrants and China. For the most part, unskilled immigrants take the jobs Americans don’t want to do.
Clinton’s proposal — increasing the minimum wage — makes things like the Great America kiosks more compelling to Cedar Fair.