Donald Trump loves trucks, I guess. Also, the trucking industry is poised to be decimated by technological change. Here we have an opportunity.
There is no better example of an industry teetering on the precipice of destruction than truck driving. Trucks themselves will be fine; it’s just the jobs that will go away. There are about 3.5 million professional truck drivers in America. All of those jobs can and will disappear when self-driving truck technology is fully rolled out. The trucking industry itself expects that to start happening in earnest within five years. That may be optimistic. Last October, the Uber-owned startup Otto successfully demonstrated its self-driving delivery truck. We are now just in a countdown until the technology is tested and perfected and permitted and approved and widely distributed. If such technology costs $40,000 per truck, as one researcher estimates, its widespread adoption will be a no-brainer from a business standpoint. It will pay for itself within a year. Morgan Stanley has estimated that this technology could save the trucking industry $70 billion a year on driver salaries.
Whether the automation of trucking jobs happens in five years or ten years or slowly over the course of twenty years, it is going to happen, whether we like it or not. It will become just the latest industry to be disrupted by technological change, subjected to the “creative destruction” that capitalism employs to produce its wondrous bounties. Millions of jobs will be lost in one area of the economy, productivity will (presumably) be gained, and more, different jobs will (hopefully) appear elsewhere in the economy to make up for the losses (at some point). In aggregate, this process tends to produce gains for everyone if you average it all out. For specific people, though, there are clearly big winners and equally big losers.
What were the economic reasons that Donald Trump elected president? After all, in aggregate, the U.S. economy is pretty strong, and Barack Obama presided over a steady economic recovery from the depths of the recession. Why, then, all the anger among those storied “white working class” voters? One reason—a reason identified by both the right and left wings of the political spectrum—is that the aggregate benefits of our economy have not been distributed fairly. Inequality is rampant and has reached truly astounding heights. And the gains produced by globalization and technological change have overwhelmingly been sucked up by a small portion of winners, as the losers—the manufacturing workers, the coal miners, the former middle class who found themselves forced to take shitty, low-paid service jobs when their former jobs were automated out of existence or shipped off to cheaper shores—simply suffered.
Because of this suffering of those left behind, we have seen quite a backlash against this traditional sort of capitalist “progress,” which has plunged us back into nativism and protectionism and xenophobia and other long discredited and dangerous views that tend to arise when people get frustrated. But the problem is not the existence of globalization or improved technology; the problem is that we have utterly failed to take care of the people who find themselves on the losing side of creative destruction. Where neoliberals, conservatives, and corporatists alike all saw globalization as an unalloyed good because of its benefits to the balance sheet, they failed to factor in the cost to Americans whose jobs were destroyed by the march of progress. What we should have been doing from the beginning was to set aside a fair portion of the gains from these practices to create a safety net for the losers. Instead, we allowed the gains to be almost completely hoovered up by the winners. So the losers, quite reasonably, got mad, and now we find ourselves in risky territory, with a large group of people angry enough to do things that we will all regret a few decades from now.
The good news is that it is not too late to fix our mistake. It is not too late to use some of the benefits of capitalist progress to take care of those who are by necessity progress-ed out of their stable positions in the economy. Widespread clean energy use would save our economy hundreds of billions of dollars. Earmarking $50 billion of that for a jobs and development program in coal country would go a long way towards muting the concerns of workers who voted for Donald Trump with the vain hope of getting their coal jobs back. In essence, we need a tax on the economic benefits of globalization and technological change that is specifically earmarked for the workers in sectors being upended. Leaving this to the “free market” has simply caused all the gains to go to the investment class. It has not worked. False promises about rolling back globalization or moving technology backwards likewise will not work, and are stupid wastes of time. The government is the entity capable of designing a tax to target these gains to create a real safety net to prevent a replay of the situation that currently afflicts much of middle America. This is a matter of political will. It is also a matter of fairness. Finding yourself in the midst of an industry that is suddenly destroyed by vast economic forces far beyond your control is a matter of bad luck, not lack of initiative. Just ask the old newspaper writers.
Now, back to trucks. Here we have a perfect opportunity to put this safety net into practice. We are staring at an industry with more than three million jobs that everyone knows are in imminent danger of being automated out of existence. The disappearance of all these jobs will not be a surprise to anyone. We also have a presidential administration that came to power partly due to the belief of many working class voters that it would protect such workers from the inevitable forces of change. Donald Trump apparently loves trucks, like all big boys. Does he love the humans who drive trucks, as well? The traditional Republican way to help out beleaguered industries is to funnel tax breaks and corporate welfare to their owners, which benefits CEOs and investors far more than workers. If the Trump administration wants to show that it can actually do something to counteract the enormous forces of creative destruction that have left much of the former American middle class behind, he could right now plan and roll out a government program—jobs, health care, education, the basics—that would automatically kick in and pick up truck drivers as they are laid off in the years to come. Tax the gains that accrue to the investors in these new technologies to pay for it. (Capital gains taxes are unconscionably low already.) It’s a simple, direct way to both allow progress to take its course and take care of the specific people who are left behind, without resorting to hysterical nationalism and racism and scapegoating. It could be a model that could be applied to any number of vulnerable industries in the future. All it takes is the political will to take from the lucky winners to provide for the unlucky losers.
On Friday, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said that the idea that American jobs could be lost to automation is “not even on my radar screen.”
Sorry, truck drivers. At least the president likes wearing trucker hats.