No, Robots Don’t Kill Trumpism

R.U.R vs. M.A.G.A.: The New York Times suggests that Trumpism is undone by robots:

Donald J. Trump told workers like Ms. Johnson that he would bring back their jobs by clamping down on trade, offshoring and immigration. But economists say the bigger threat to their jobs has been something else: automation.

Sure … but while it may be true that over time automation has been eating up unskilled (and skilled) jobs by the millions, that doesn’t vitiate Trump’s point.

a) For most unskilled jobs shipped offshore (like assembly line work) maybe robots would’ve “eventually eliminated those jobs anyway.” But not for all of them. Call centers, for example, haven’t been completely automated out of existence. Yet they can be (and are) offshored. Bringing them back would bring back some un-robotized jobs.

b) Even if all jobs global trade has sent offshore were instead done by robots, there will still be some unskilled jobs left that have to be performed here. Do we let undocumented immigrants stream into the country to do those jobs more inexpensively? Or do we tell American employers they have to hire from the finite pool of citizens, legal residents, and legal immigrants? “Clamping down on immigration” suddenly becomes more important, not less, as automation makes unskilled jobs less abundant.  If stopping outsourcing no longer has much impact (when robots take all the once-outsourced jobs), controlling immigration may be the main lever we have left if we want to tighten the labor market (and raise wages) for the unskilled jobs that remain.

In the not-so-distant future we may even come to regard unskilled jobs as precious assets, to be reserved for our fellow citizens and residents. After all, the alternative for those who can’t easily acquire marketable skills is unemployment or some kind of dignity-sapping dole (e.g. disability, or the much-discussed universal dole, or UBI).

That seems like an alternative to be avoided as long as possible. ….