During the last Democratic debate, in Ohio, there was a moment that stood out. Elizabeth Warren and I got into a debate over the impact of automation versus trade on the elimination of manufacturing jobs. Joe Biden also chimed in, agreeing that the fourth industrial revolution is costing jobs, so it’s important to deal with the root causes.
Immediately, fact checkers were quick to point to a study showing that 88 percent of factory job losses from 2000 to 2010 were caused by automation. Yet, in the days following that debate, some prominent media figures asserted that the threat of automation is not real. The Times columnist Paul Krugman even called it “a sort of escapist fantasy for centrists who don’t want to confront truly hard questions.”
It’s easy to cite incomplete statistics that ignore the full picture and the situation on the ground, but I’ve done the math while spending time in struggling communities. Venture for America, the nonprofit I founded, sent me across this country, to Detroit, St. Louis, Birmingham, Ala., and other communities, where we attempted to spur entrepreneurship and create jobs. It was during this time when I spoke with workers who had lost their jobs to automation and couldn’t find more work. My organization was helping to create jobs, but automation was displacing tens of thousands of workers in these states. We were pouring water into a bathtub with a giant hole ripped in the bottom.
On the campaign trail, I’ve spoken with workers in Michigan, Ohio and western Pennsylvania, workers who are worried about the inevitability of their jobs falling victim to automation.
Automation doesn’t just affect millions of factory workers and truck drivers. Bookkeepers, journalists, retail and food service workers, office clerks, call center employees and even teachers also face the threat of being replaced by machines. These are some of the most common jobs in America. According to the Council of Economic Advisers in 2016, 83 percent of jobs paying less than $20 per hour could have substantial parts of their work given over to automation. And advanced degrees won’t protect you from this threat — doctors, accountants, and even lawyers face the same risk.
Around five million manufacturing jobs have been lost since 2000, with automation being a main factor. Many of those jobs were in Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Iowa — states that swung to Donald Trump in 2016. In 2000, manufacturing employment started to plummet, the same year disability applications began surging. Around the same time, about half of the Michigan workers who left the labor force may have filed for disability and many might never get off it, as the rate at which people come off disability benefits is extremely low. We then saw surges in suicides and drug overdoses to the point where life expectancy has either declined or stayed flat for three years in a row, something that hasn’t happened since the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918.
We have to stop denying the effects of automation on our people and focus on 21st-century solutions to these problems. Looking at gross domestic product, the stock market and unemployment is a very 20th-century way of measuring the economy. Self-driving trucks will be great for the G.D.P.; they’ll be terrible for millions of truck drivers.
Our economic numbers need to measure what matters. We know stock market prices don’t mean much to the 78 percent of workers in this country who are living paycheck to paycheck or the 40 percent of workers who are a $400 bill away from financial crisis.
We need to move to a human-centered capitalism, where the market serves us instead of the other way around. That starts by investing $1,000 per month in every adult so that we can build a trickle-up economy, as I have proposed, with the proper measurements and incentives.
Human-centered capitalism would ensure that people are more important than money and that markets exist to serve our common goals and values.
My vision calls for new top-line measurements that take into account indicators like: health and life expectancy, mental health, substance abuse, childhood success rates, average income, environmental quality, retirement savings, labor force participation and engagement, infrastructure and homelessness.
These are the type of metrics that truly measure the quality of our lives. How many Americans woke up this morning excited about G.D.P.? We would all be more interested in knowing that four in 10 people in the United States live with unhealthy air or that nearly three in five adults with mental illness do not get treated. When we put these measurements at the center of the economy, we’ll be able to make the big changes we need to in order to improve our lives.
When I first started running for president, I was the only candidate talking about these big solutions for our economic problems. But the Democratic Party is realizing that automation worries many Americans. This vision and message drove the economic portion of the debate on the Democratic stage last time.
It’s because voters know that the system is rigged against them. Big companies are automating their jobs, sucking value out of our local economies and paying little or nothing in taxes. Our G.D.P. is over $20 trillion, and yet the average American is struggling.
It’s only getting worse. A millennial has only a 50-50 chance of doing better than their parents. For someone born in the 1940s, the likelihood was 90 percent. The American dream is dying by the numbers.
We need to talk about the real causes and solutions of these problems instead of blaming the current occupant of the Oval Office.