When the Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan went red on November 8, 2016, Donald Trump’s power over the electorate finally came into focus to over half a nation of naysayers. Trump won the election—and the Rust Belt in particular—how exactly? It was clear from the get-go that his message appealed to the anxieties of working-class Americans, but it seems that too few realized just how strong the appeal was. This is true especially in relation to our country’s foremost issue: jobs and the economy.
Like him or not, one thing Trump did well was offer what many Americans believed to be a solution to the lack of jobs in their communities. Families listened to President Obama talk about economic recovery, and they wondered: where is our recovery? Where is our growth? If the economy is recovered, why are my friends being laid off, and my college educated kids struggling to find work? Trump’s rhetoric worked because it targeted this deeply felt pain while also creating convenient enemies: outsourcing jobs to China and Mexico, open trade, and a selfish government establishment.
Whether Trump’s proposed solutions work, only time will tell. But while “Build it here!” and “China is winning!” may sound satisfying to the American worker, slogans alone are unlikely to satisfy their actual needs. If the blame is misplaced, the prescriptive policies could be too.
In order to fix job issues in America, one has to accurately define the problem. Think of it this way: if a doctor is trying to cure the flu when a person has cancer, he or she is almost guaranteed to fail. This is the kind of situation we’re dealing with, and ignoring the cancer won’t stop its progression. The issue is not, as Trump has claimed, outsourcing to China and Mexico—this ship has sailed; the damage is done. The real threat to jobs, especially in the manufacturing industry, is technology and automation. Intelligent software and microchips are rapidly eating up jobs both at home and abroad, and it’s no longer just blue-collar jobs at stake. In a widely-cited study from 2013, an estimated 47% percent of workers spanning over 700 occupations had jobs at high risk of automation.
A good friend of mine, Dan Arbess, talked about this issue recently on CNBC and in an article for Fortune. Arbess made the insightful point that not only is automation here to stay, but is a whole different animal than the technology-driven economic transitions of the past–farms-to-factories and production-to-services–which served to create more jobs. While some economists believe that substantial new jobs will emerge during this disruption, Arbess’ skepticism makes sense. As Arbess writes, “Applied artificial intelligence software is an equal opportunity consumer of jobs, across the spectrum of industries and abilities, from the factory floor to PhD labs.” Seeing as technology knows no borders, countries like China and Mexico are being disrupted by the same technologies. Demonizing them is entirely unproductive.
What, then, is the solution? First, it’s recognizing the issue. President Obama has spoken thoughtfully on our country’s automated future and released several reports on the issue. The Administration’s analysis may be rosier than the reality, but that it touches on AI’s impact is a step in the right direction. It won’t be Obama that has to reckon with the issue head-on, however. That privilege now falls to Donald Trump, and it is as much a challenge as it is an opportunity.
Trump’s infrastructure plan will certainly create jobs, but it’s only scratching the surface of what will be necessary moving forward. It will take many smart minds and intuitive foresight to get it right. Targeted taxation? Better training programs? Universal basic income? A private-public task force? Donald Trump, deal maker, could make the best deal of all by convening experts both in the private and public sector to set concrete solutions into motion–solutions more complex than any wall, but solid enough to help his voters and the entirety of the country prosper in an era of great change.