Politicians of all stripes endeavor to sound serious and thoughtful about problems confronting our body politic and the future.
But much of what they say comes from talking points developed by professional pollsters working with focus groups. And while it was a forum between Democratic gubernatorial candidates which prompted these ruminations, the problem is shared by Republicans and other office seekers.
The moderator (KET’s Renee Shaw who as always was excellent) asked the candidates about raising the minimum wage and producing a workforce for what politicians all call “the jobs of tomorrow.”
Sure enough, lickety-split, the candidates are talking about the high-tech jobs of tomorrow; the need for specialized education “to get out ahead of tomorrow’s” economy and such trends as the growing use of robotics. One candidate explained the engine to his farm pickup had thousands of parts while the engine to an electric vehicle had only 18.
The advantages of using robots are many and clear, especially in industries like auto manufacturing which plays such a large role in Kentucky. Parts are patterned, fit and installed in much more uniform, precise and reliable ways. Robots are more efficient.
They cost less and are a lot less troublesome than humans.
This is the spot where some readers will jump off, complaining I’m about to engage in free-market, profit-making bashing. Others will respond that my worries may be justified but the correct response is not to wring my hands but to “get out ahead of the new economy and train people to prosper in it.”
Again, I want to underscore I am not picking on the three Democrats for criticism; spend 30 minutes around the state capitol and you’ll hear similar statements from Republicans, conservatives and liberals as well as Democrats. They are to be commended for worrying about the future and its impact on our children and their children as the world changes with such speed we hardly recognize it. (Remember when there were no internet or cellphones?)
Have you noticed just how automated your world has become? In some McDonald’s Restaurants, you can order your food electronically at a kiosk, then pick it up and pay for it at the counter without having to engage a living person.
You can do the same at many department stores and groceries through a self-checkout counter (which I refuse to use for two reasons: one, I don’t know how; secondly, I don’t want to know which I’ll explain below). We’re told this is for our convenience and to save us time. But you know those aren’t the real reasons.
Just like those robots on the assembly line, this technology replaces a human worker, someone who makes mistakes; calls in sick now and then; must be paid a competitive wage and benefits. And often gets it wrong.
That’s the reason I don’t want to learn how to use those things. Each time I think about it, I think about taking someone’s job. Of late, when visiting one of the giant box stores (another modern innovation which has cost real jobs) I think I’ve noticed fewer employees.
What happens when robots and artificial intelligence prove more or less capable of managing most labor intensive jobs, things like manufacturing and even some services such as retail checkout? Where do all those displaced workers go? Who will purchase the goods produced by the robots which replaced the workers — and their wages formerly used to buy those products? History suggests unpleasant reactions — from Robespierre to Lenin.
Maybe we’re asking all the wrong questions. Maybe we should ponder what G. K. Chesterton, the 20th century British writer and lay theologian said: “Too much capitalism does not mean too many capitalists; but too few capitalists.”
Those of us who can recall the economic beehive of the small town square prior to the sell-everything box store out on the by-pass understand perfectly what he was saying. Sometimes progress only looks like progress.
Ronnie Ellis is the former statehouse reporter for CNHI Kentucky and writes a weekly column. Follow him on Twitter @cnhifrankfort.