June 30, 2018


The War on Normal People--A Review: A review of The War on Normal People: The Truth About America's Disappearing Jobs and Why Universal Basic Income is Our Future by Andrew Yang (Uri Harris, 6/30/18, Quillette)

The sectors where "normal" people tend to work--administration, retail, food service, transportation, and manufacturing--have high levels of repetitiveness and are highly susceptible to automation. Since competition in these sectors is quite fierce, companies are sooner or later forced to automate to keep up with their competition. Once a single competitor automates, the others must follow. In many cases, automation is not only cheaper, but also produces better products or services. The natural result is, as Yang relates through conversations he's had with people in the tech industry, a race to make "normal" people redundant.

This is not science fiction, it's already happening. Millions of jobs have been automated away in the manufacturing sector. Many are disappearing in the retail sector, partly due to in-store self-service and partly due to e-commerce. Next up is the transportation sector, as self-driving technology will soon replace millions of truck drivers. The food service and administration sectors are likewise vulnerable. Even many white-collar jobs will disappear. The Fed categorises 44 percent of all American jobs as routine, which makes them susceptible to automation. A White House report predicted that 83 percent of jobs where people make less than $20 an hour will be subject to automation or replacement.

The effects of automation are self-reinforcing. [...]

Given this trend, it's not surprising that many non-elites feel a certain amount of animosity towards the elites. And as Yang demonstrates through several anecdotes, this animosity is not entirely unjustified. There really is a sense in which elites are working towards the immiseration of regular people by automating away their jobs. This is what Yang provocatively refers to as "the war on normal people."

If it is a war though, it's entirely one-sided. Elites go through top colleges together, start companies together, share knowledge through informal networks, and take on complementary jobs as software developers, financiers, consultants, and lawyers. New automations are effectively the products of a wealth of shared knowledge and co-operation. Non-elites, on the other hand, especially those who don't go to college and live in declining communities, are almost entirely atomised. Union membership has declined significantly, as has participation in other social organisations. Many jobs are temporary. This means that workers have little recourse, or even warning, as their jobs disappear. The power differential between elites and non-elites could hardly be greater.

Yet, as Yang points out, most elites don't actually want it this way. Studies show that even the wealthiest people are less content when there's too much inequality in society, and many of Yang's friends are reluctantly "buying bunkers and escape hatches just in case." The real problem is ideological. America suffers from market fundamentalism, Yang argues, reflected in a veneration of the notion of meritocracy and an uncritical belief in simplistic economic theories.

This must change, Yang believes, and everyone has a stake in it, even the elites. He describes himself as an "ardent capitalist," but believes that capitalism must evolve to the next stage. The market is a tool society should use to its advantage, not something it must be a slave to.

Posted by at June 30, 2018 7:18 AM