December 14, 2016
Trump And Blue Collar Workers

I am amazed at what gritty realism the Wall Street Journal will publish from Peggy Noonan.

Life has been famously cruel to some good people the past few decades. The past few years it seemed the progressive left and the Democratic Party, confident in what they called the coalition of the ascendant, were looking at the old American working class, especially the white working class, and saying: “Here’s your disability check, now go take your opioids and get lost while we transform our country. By the way, we have friends on Wall Street.” From the right and Republicans it was: “Take your piece of the dole, we are importing an entire new people from other countries to take your place, could you please sort of pass away? We’re replacing you! Why can’t you get the message? By the way, we have friends on Wall Street.”

The upper classes are visibly annoyed that people who aren't like them selected a leader who isn't the one they wanted. My guess is that this outcome will only increase upper class disdain for the people in fly-over country.

Do the elites win in the end? Is the Trump presidency just a bit of a speed bump for them?

The less cognitively able are having a tough time of it. Will America's recent surprising Presidential election change their fortunes? Count me among the skeptics. Even if Trump follows through and implements some of his promises aimed at helping the lower classes (e.g. to stop and reverse illegal immigration) I think at best these policy changes will slow a trend that is not at all favorable to the lower classes. Automation, outsourcing, imported labor, and contemptuous attitudes developing in the upper classes are all cutting into the labor market value, status, and political power of the lower classes. So I do not think the lower classes have a bright future.

Factory jobs could be outsourced and automated. But some other types of work for blue collar males have survived. Take, for example, long haul truck driving. Can't be outsourced. It also has the very big advantage that it allows workers to live where housing is cheap. One doesn't need to live in an expensive city or suburb if one is going to drive back and forth across the country. One can easily drive an hour or two or three to wherever the trucks get parked to start on a journey that will take days. But long haul truck driving will be automated out of existence.

Agriculture is another industry where its workers can live in rural areas and therefore another where the workers can enjoy the benefits of lower cost of living. But farms have been getting more automated for decades and that trend seems on course to continue much further. Tractor driving and crop picking will become very nearly fully automated by mid 21st century if not sooner.

It is hard to guess how effective Trump will be at this point. Will he cave in and try to garner a strange new respect? Will he get blocked in Congress on issues where elites disagree with him the most? I have no idea. But even if Trump turns out to be highly effective in getting policies implemented that are aimed at improving the status of blue collar workers I'm fairly skeptical that the result will be a reversal in their fortunes.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2016 December 14 10:08 PM 

Brett Bellmore said at December 15, 2016 3:04 AM:

Warning, Will Robinson! Dismissing Trump supporters as the less cognitively able is a mistake, maybe the exact mistake that led to the Democrats doing so badly.

I mean, take me: 155 IQ National Merit Scholarship finalist, dual major in college, (Human biology and computer engineering.) only don't have a degree because I had to drop out of college in my senior year to take care of my mom after she got busted up in a bad auto accident. I'm a Trump supporter, am I less cognitively able?

The great sort is not nearly complete. Democrats have huge numbers of sub 100 IQ supporters in urban centers, Republicans plenty of very smart supporters outside urban centers.

Indeed, the real independent variable here is probably population density, not cognitive ability. Cognitive ability just looks like the independent variable because so many of the jobs that demand degrees are clustered in cities. But there is no Eureka, Oregon. Even in college towns, most people are within a standard deviation of normal IQ. These areas don't go Democratic due to cognitive ability, indeed the most Democratic precincts of the country feature populations whose average IQ is well below 100, with educations to match.

But, they're very densely packed in there. And there seems to be something about living at high population densities that drives people into the Democratic party. Make no mistake, the Democratic party has noticed this, and pursues policies aimed at further urbanizing America to exploit it. Yet to be seen is whether the newly ascendant Republican party has the sense to do the opposite. But they might.

OK, that out of the way...

You're probably right, while there are some things Trump could do to slow, or even reverse for a while, the decline of the less clever, this is not a trend we should expect to be reversed long term.

However, the economic ascendancy of the urban centers over rural areas is not nearly so inevitable. Factories and schools are perfectly capable of functioning in the hinterlands. Teleconferencing renders distance not irrelevant, but less important. You should realize that the concentration of jobs in the cities isn't automatic. It's a result of deliberate policies, and policies can be changed.

Trump, and the Republicans, can't make the stupid successful. They can free the smart of the need to live in urban hives, and spread job opportunities around more evenly.

James Bowery said at December 21, 2016 5:29 PM:

How can an elite win that has persistently and quasi-religiously exhibited a worse grasp, than the working class, of the difference between the evolution of symbiosis and the evolution of virulence?

Even if they win, they lose.

Wolf_Dog said at December 21, 2016 8:54 PM:

If the robotic workers that are displacing the human American workers are also American, then some of their productivity can be allocated to take care of the unemployed.

The only problem would when the robots are not American because if the robots are foreigners abroad, their work cannot be taxed by the US government to take care of Americans who lost their jobs. Right now it will be difficult for Apple to set up a truly efficient computer factory in the United States, but in a few decades as automation becomes more complete, building factories in the US won't be a big problem, except that an American elite work force of engineers and mechanics must be trained to take care of the robot ecology inside the US.

chris said at December 26, 2016 7:15 AM:

Make universities open source with national examinations determining professional competence (ike with lawyers and their bar exams). If people do not need to spend 4+ years in College to receive an education and status, then you would see increased family formation and an increase in right-wing values. It's kind of difficult to believe sex is only for reproduction (as many right-wing values spring from this source) if you are in College and desire sex yet cannot currently reproduce. The only choice to avoid cognitive dissonance and have sex and not reproduce is to not believe sex is not for reproduction. Thus you get birth control and feminists delaying reproduction yet sleeping around and all the social ills that follow.

aleahy said at December 27, 2016 10:07 AM:

You keep harping on long haul trucking and, having driven the desolate 500+ mile stretch of I-80 between Salt Lake and Reno a couple times, I can tell you there are some places where robotic truck driving already made sense a long time ago. But, overall, my guess is that the most dramatic changes in the trucking labor force have already taken place--largely due to changes in technology that aren't on your radar screen. If you watch just about any freight train today, it's almost completely intermodal and "piggyback":

The Wikipedia page gives a great description of how developing standards and technology made all of this possible. It's not as sexy as robotics and AI, but in effect intermodal means a couple of railroad engineers are being used to haul hundreds of trailers really long distances, thus displacing hundreds of long-haul truckers in the process . . . and it all happened with hardly anyone even noticing. (Of course, the real question is, if truck driving is ripe for obsolescence, why hasn't it already happened with the railroad engineers? Having a computer control something which is limited to a pair of rails seems orders of magnitude easier than having a computer drive a truck on an uncontrolled road.)

The same thing happened with farming. Because of technology, the farmer sitting up in his tractor cab is already relatively productive today. The 'social' cost is thousands of hollowed out towns across the Midwest (one about every ten miles--the distance a farmer could travel on a horse-drawn wagon in a day) with more people in the graveyard than above ground. But most people don't care, because they or their parents or their grandparents moved on to better opportunities elsewhere. Now you could replace that farmer on a tractor with an AI guided by GPS, but I don't think you're going to cause much disruption. If you look at the time series on the percentage of the workforce in agriculture, the big changes happened decades ago. Besides, much of the labor in farming today is in support roles that aren't going to go away no matter what is driving the tractor. (Those diesels don't fix themselves, etc.)

Rural areas do have cheaper costs to a certain extent (e.g., in housing), but they also have a lot going against them. E.g., the labor markets aren't very fluid: if the shift to Chinese manufacturing has taught one thing it's that a major employer packing up and leaving can be catastrophic on small towns. In an urban area, this would typically mean staying in the same house but working another job with a potentially longer commute. Not so in a rural area, and this problem is compounded in dual-income families. Also, real estate costs are a big chunk of a typical paycheck--see, e.g., this graph

but they aren't everything. Water and sewer plants have to be up to the same EPA standards, no matter the population that supports it--and the same goes with every other state and federal regulation (and the associated costs) that you can think of. Rural and urban doctors graduate from the same medical schools with the same debts and social aspirations, and medical procedures don't differ from county to county. (In fact, costs are likely to be higher in rural areas because of lower competition.) All of the packaged products on stores shelves come from the same factories, and Amazon doesn't offer them any cheaper to rural customers :-)

That said, I'm rather surprised that the internet hasn't led to more of a renaissance in cheaper, less densely populated areas of the country. Much creative work can be done just about anywhere with the right virtual connections. My engineering friends tell me about teleconferences with colleagues in India and Korea, where design costs are presumably much cheaper. Yet much of our country's engineering and design talent is parked in some of the most expensive real estate in the country, which a priori doesn't make a lot of sense from a corporate cost perspective.

James Bowery said at December 28, 2016 6:31 AM:

aleahy those are good insights as far as they go but you're missing two key concepts that, by the way, escape _all_ of The Great and The Good down to the lowly bloggers like Randall:

1) The most important cost is the cost of replacement reproduction and that has left even the rising cost of housing in the dust. The reason is the bidding war for young women -- a bidding war between the economy and the family -- that the economy wins, hands down. Yes, this is, in part, due to the rising cost of housing and the concomitant need to enter the "two income trap", but there is also a trophic cascade involving women becoming addicted to the things money can buy, the destabilization of families, the betaization of males rendering them less reliable, etc. It's a fucking nightmare. It's genocide and its genocide that targets the very things demanded by the economy.

2) The lag in telecomputing renaissance in the rural areas is a consequence of the corruption of the private sector. There is way too much network externality (network effect) value being left in place in companies like Microsoft, Facebook, Paypal, etc. and it has resulted in a gold rush to Silicon Valley from older cultures that have evolved highly adapted rentiers. That's why Silicon Valley is now 75% foreign born and anything resembling nonobvious innovation at a technical level has ceased -- and a great deal of highly valuable technology in software has been deep-sixed. These rentier cultures are from high population densities, for reasons that I hope are obvious, and they like lots of bodies crammed together. The morons like Jared Diamond will do everything in their power to draw attention away from the fact that civilizations collapse under the weight of elites that figure out they can socialize the cost of property rights enforcement by taxing everything except liquidation of net assets. Once they achieve that, it's basically an irrecoverable situation for civilization.

That's why I'm recruiting "gun nuts" with this political economy:

James Bowery said at December 28, 2016 7:27 AM:

Oh, by the way, "gun nuts" get it _immediately_, in stark contrast to the utterly uncomprehending elites who can't comprehend the simplest things about political economy, such as how Trump could have gotten elected unless it was due to Russian Hacking or something.

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