Automation and the Voters

by Andrew Stuttaford

Too simplistic? Quite possibly, nevertheless the conclusions from some new research out of Oxford are food for thought (my emphasis added):

A new research paper from the Oxford Martin Programme on Technology and Employment provides the first evidence that automation played a major role in voters’ concerns in the 2016 US Presidential Election.

The paper, Political Machinery: Automation Anxiety and the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election, authored by Dr Carl Benedikt Frey, Dr Thor Berger and Dr Chinchih Chen, all of the Oxford Martin Programme on Technology and Employment, looked at whether groups in the labour market that have lost out to automation were more likely to opt for radical political change. Pitching automation against a host of alternative explanations – including workers’ exposure to globalization, immigration and manufacturing decline – the research shows that electoral districts with a greater exposure to automation were substantially more likely to support Donald Trump in the 2016 Presidential Election.

The authors found that a 5 percentage points increase in the share of jobs in which workers have lost to automation in the past is associated with an increase in the share voting for Donald Trump in 2016 by roughly 10 percentage points.

Dr Frey, Oxford Martin Citi Fellow and Co-Director of the Oxford Martin Programme on Technology and Employment, said the data provided the first hard evidence of the impact of automation on political outcomes.

“Our study suggests that automation has been the real cause of voters’ concern”, he said. “The prime victims of recent technological change want anything but the status quo. The populist rebellion in America, Europe, and elsewhere, has many causes, but workers losing out to technology is seemingly the main reason.”

It’s hardly the first time that I have asked this question, but what will be the political consequences as the process of technologically-driven job destruction moves further and further up the food chain, shattering the expectations of those who never thought they would be on the wrong side of ‘creative destruction’?

Speaking of which, there’s this from The New Republic (again, my emphasis added):

The waning of the yuppie’s particular brand of ostentatious upward mobility, and the rise of its aesthetically scruffier hipster cousin’s, demonstrate the ongoing erosion of what Barbara and John Ehrenreich have called the “professional-managerial class.” The Ehrenreichs coined the term in 1977 to refer to the constellation of college-educated, white-collar, and creative workers (doctors, lawyers, journalists, artists, academics, and so forth) that hovered somewhere between the ruling class and the traditional working class. More than 30 years later, in their 2013 essay “Death of a Yuppie Dream,” the Ehrenreichs reported that the once-ascendant PMC was on its last legs, fractured by decades of technological advances, job outsourcing, and attacks on labor. Increasingly, its members have either peeled off to join a tier of exorbitantly compensated CEOs and supermanagers or suffered the collapse of their chosen professions, from the decline of newspaper journalism to the elimination of tenured academic jobs.

In this bleak new landscape, strivers haven’t disappeared—they have simply reoriented themselves around a new set of values that bolster their class position in less noticeable ways.

And they will probably continue to do, but whether they do so in a way that fits into America’s traditional free market(ish) model is an entirely different matter. 

But it’s only 2017: Much of the article merely discusses changes  in consumer choice:

This new elite is typified by the brownstone-dweller traipsing through Whole Foods with a yoga mat peeping from the top of her NPR tote….

But, it won’t stop there, particularly as squeezed salaries and eroded job security make that trip to Whole Foods ever more… daunting.

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