How Should Technological Advances Affect the Role of Government?

“Robots will steal your job, but that’s ok.”
Federico Pistono

Anyone who has recently driven through Mountain View, in the heart of Silicon Valley, is likely to have had the memorable experience of sharing the road with a car that has nobody inside. Google’s “autonomous cars” are being tested there, and apparently they drive better than people do – they are smart, safe, sober, and tireless. They have the potential to eliminate 3.6 million full-time jobs in the United States.

Anyone purchasing materials at a Home Depot store, or their local grocery chain store, without interacting with a human cashier, has seen the future of retail employment. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 3.4 million people working as retail cashiers in the United States. Most of those jobs are also at risk.

What about agriculture? New robots are coming that can do anything a farm worker can do. As noted in this report, “Robot harvests on the horizon; farm owners predict machines will revolutionize costs,” a machine is now being tested that can thin lettuce shoots, a job that requires extraordinary precision and finesse. If machines can thin lettuce, they can do anything on the farm.

Manufacturing? Old news. Robots are on track to completely take over manufacturing. What about journalism? Can robots displace reporters? Read your local newspaper’s high school sports reports – but don’t be too sure a human composed the story, because many newspaper chains have already automated routine reporting. They crowd-source the data gathering with mobile phone applications, and let software applications produce more consistent, more comprehensive written coverage. By the way, how much would you like to bet on whether or not a robot can cook a better Big Mac?

Enough already. If you don’t think technology and automation in this era represents a fundamentally new phenomenon compared to the pace and impact of technological advances in previous centuries, I’ve got a bridge to sell you. Jobs are being relentlessly eliminated via automation. This is throwing highly skilled workers alongside semi-skilled and unskilled workers into a labor market where most of them will not find a new job that comes anywhere close to paying them what they used to earn in the job they lost.

And this is why, now more than ever, public sector unions should be illegal.

The mega-trends of automation, globalization, plummeting birthrates and an aging population are not immoral or happening by design, they are simply parts of an inevitable phase of human evolution at which we find ourselves today. The stratification of wealth that attends these trends is the effect of them, not the cause.

How governments, America’s in particular, midwife today’s epochal transformations of human civilization must not be distorted by a government class who exempt themselves from the challenges facing everybody else. If government workers, through their unions, are permitted to make a separate bargain with the shrinking pool of wealthy global elites who benefit from automation and globalization, it will be mutually corrupting. Whatever political economy must emerge to enfranchise those billions who will otherwise become dispossessed by automation and globalization, it is not feudalism, nor fascism. The growing alliance between government employee unions and the ultra-rich is a recipe for both.

Despite preaching the opposite, public sector unions, by definition, undermine the empathy that government workers feel for private sector workers. Because empathy between the government and the governed can only exist if every taxpayer funded entitlement, whether it is retirement security, or health security, or protection of civil liberties, is implemented and earned according to formulas and incentives that apply to every citizen equally – regardless of who they work for. To cite just one pertinent example, currently in the United States there are more total liabilities in the public employee pension funds – representing 17% of the workforce – then there is in the entire Social Security fund, representing everyone else. This is not a formula for empathy. This is not a valid social contract. And it is the result of collusion between powerful financial interests and public sector unions.

The technological advances that eliminate jobs at the same time as they empower the government and the super-rich raise profound questions:  How will government evolve to enable or encourage improved economic security for all citizens? How will government evolve to craft and enforce environmental edicts? How will government evolve to combat crime and terrorism? What policies are adopted and how citizens accept them will depend in great part on whether or not government employees are making the same sacrifices and following the same rules.

To paraphrase Federico Pistono, robots will not only steal your job, they will watch you. The capacity of government to employ robots for police and military applications is without practical limits. Do Americans want a government – empowered beyond any historical precedent – that is unionized and protects the interests of its members. Or do Americans want a government staffed by people who are personally experiencing the same challenges as the citizens they serve? Which government might be more likely to equitably navigate the seismic, perilous, wondrous currents of this age?

Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Policy Center.

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