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.
Elon Musk thinks a universal basic income is inevitable. Musk doesn't see plausible alternatives. I hope not. So here's the optimistic scenario: On the one hand, manual and low skilled work will mostly get automated out of existence. So one could imagine why demand for people at lower skill levels and lower levels of cognitive ability could just evaporate. On the other hand, automation will cut costs and boost the wealth of those still employed. Even if the pay of manual laborers is low the goods a manual laborer will need to survive should become very cheap. So any upper class people who can find a use for them might pay them enough to survive.
But I see a stronger case against continued demand for lower skilled workers. Consider the Industrial Revolution's impact on horse employment. In America "Peak Horse" happened somewhere around 2015 or 2020. After that cars, trucks, and farm tractors rather quickly replaced horses for almost all uses. Horses survive today primarily for sports and as pets. The same has happened with most working dog breeds. City dwellers do not use them for hunting and rarely for guarding. Most herding dogs are pets, not animal herders.
Similarly, in America routine human work peaked around 2001. Also, chart 4 shows that since year 2000 in manufacturing employment has increased for advanced degree holders while going down for everyone else. So manufacturing is phasing out manual laborers and this trend will continue in the decades to come.
The employment-population ratio by education level is the most astounding ignored set of social indicators in America today. The less educated are increasingly not working. So maybe we've already hit peak high school drop-out employment.
McDonald's is joining the list of fast food companies installing self serve ordering kiosks and they'll also let you order by mobile app. Start-ups are working on automated chefs. Imagine restaurants with a quarter of the current number of employees. On the bright side, ordering will be much faster with everyone doing it on their phones rather than waiting in line.. ordering before arriving will become a widespread practice. Waiting times will be slashed due to earlier ordering also due to robotic food prep.
Trucking and logistics look set for a revolution too. Automated truck loading systems and driverless trucks are coming. A few million truck drivers will be replaced with autonomous vehicles in the next 20 years. Cab drivers will similarly be replaced.
"We are approaching a time when machines will be able to outperform humans at almost any task," Vardi said. "I believe that society needs to confront this question before it is upon us: If machines are capable of doing almost any work humans can do, what will humans do?"
A highly effective human will pair with computers to guide them to combine ideas and designs to produce highly innovative creations. But I do not think most humans will be able to work with computers to make the computers more productive.