Technology real job-killer in US

by Tom Regan

As technology, like solar, continues to improve, employment in fossil fuel industries will become less viable. There will be many new jobs in these new technologically advanced industries, but only for those with the education and skills needed to develop, manufacture operate or repair their products. (Photo by Eneco, Creative Commons)

It’s not the greatest job in the world, but it’s a living. The money is good. It can be a bit boring sometimes however – you tend to do the same thing every day. But you’ve been doing it for a long time. And now that you’re in your late 40s, maybe early 50s, you can see yourself just riding this job into retirement.

Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news but there’s a very good chance that within the next 10 years, maybe even sooner, you’re going to lose your job. But what takes your job away won’t be that your company switched production to China or Mexico, it will be technology. Maybe something as simple as a piece of software, or as complex as a robot – regardless it will allow your employer to lower costs and improve productivity. And you’ll be out in the street.

Pres. Donald Trump loves to complain that China and Mexico have been stealing jobs from American workers and that he plans to bring those jobs back. And you can see why this campaign promise resonated with so many people – there are five million fewer manufacturing jobs in the United States now than there were in 2010. Bringing those jobs back is nice idea but it’s totally pie-in-the-sky and not doable. Because the truth is that even if you brought those manufacturing jobs back they would probably be taken by a machine and not a human.

There’s a lot of recent research to back this up. A study by two Ball State professors showed that between 2000 and 2010, 87% of manufacturing jobs were lost to technology and not to trade. If that’s not bad enough, a report from McKinsey showed that 49% of worker activities can be replaced by technology. And that number is only going to grow, particularly in jobs that require repetitive tasks. Jobs, for instance, like in accounting, food preparation, or even some aspects of journalism, will be replaced by machines or robots that can do the job faster and allow increases in productivity.

So why is more attention not paid to this? There are probably two answers: 1) American businesses like to make money and cut costs. Their concerns are for their shareholders and not for their employees. If making more profit means replacing humans with machines, then so be it. They just don’t like to talk about it a lot; 2) it’s much easier for unemployed 50 year-old white guys to blame foreigners or outsiders than to blame technology. The steelworker in Pennsylvania has a much easier time blaming his lost job on a worker earning less in China, then struggling with the fact that technology made his job redundant.

Yet there is a way to combat this problem. It’s called education. For instance, in late 2016 there were over 300,000 manufacturing jobs available in the United States, numbers similar to what were available before the 2008 recession. There is, however, another important factor. Most of these jobs require what are known as “high skill sets” which means that they require a level of education that will enable any worker to operate technologically advanced machinery. To go back to our steelworker in Pennsylvania, chances are he or she is not interested in returning to school to learn a whole new skill set. It’s just much easier to complain about China and Mexico.

Meanwhile, most other Americans are ignoring the writing on the wall. A study by the Pew Research Center show that 80% of Americans think that their job will existed in its current form in 50 years. It’s just whistling past the graveyard.

It boils down to this. American jobs are being lost to technology, not to trade. The answer is education and improved skills but that requires much more investment in education. And based on who Pres. Trump just named as his Secretary of Education, the befuddled Betty DeVos, there is a serious question whether that will happen or not. Pres. Trump can rant all he wants about China and Mexico but that won’t stop American jobs from disappearing. And unless he faces the real issue, it’s only going to get worse.

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The fight for facts

by Tom Regan

It’s been about 20 years since I had my first brush with the way people can twist or deny facts to suit their own political agendas.

I had accompanied a friend, an experienced reporter who had spent many years in the Middle East, to hear her give a talk to a group in Boston. My friend was articulate, balanced, and insightful in her presentation of what she had learned and seen during her many years covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and other issues in the region.

But what then happened remains with me to this day. The group, who were particularly anti-Palestinian, basically took many of the things that she had said and turned them completely around in their meaning. It was like my friend had said the color was red and her audience repeated back to her ‘you said it was blue.’ My friend tried to correct this misunderstanding, but despite her efforts, this group was only hearing what it wanted to hear. Or to put it another way, they had already made up their minds what the facts were, rightly or wrongly, and they would not be convinced otherwise.

The label “fake news” is being tossed around whenever people read, see or hear a news report they disagree with. (photo by Zeptonn, Creative Commons)

This is a dangerous time for facts. Not only because it is often difficult to sort out meaningful ones from information that just might be background noise, but the political environment in this country has become so charged and divided that both sides want to ignore the veracity of events and words and create their own interpretation that suits their own agendas.

This is particularly the case right now with supporters of Donald Trump, but it is a problem that crosses the political spectrum.

The recent excellent piece by longtime Wisconsin conservative radio talk show host Charlie Sykes in the New York Times outlines how conservative media was too gung ho in undermining the legitimacy of mainstream modern media. The idea was, in his words, to challenge the interpretation of events as depicted in much of this media, which conservatives saw as too biased towards liberals, and add nuance and understanding to the interpretation of political events so that they didn’t seem so one-sided. What happened, however, was the conservative media just denounced everything that traditional media published or broadcast as lies, misinformation or, as we would say in current parlance, “fake news.”

The result, Sykes argues, is that many conservatives now won’t believe anything traditional media publishes and as a result ignored many of the legitimate warning signs about Donald Trump’s stability, temperament and truthfulness.

As I noted above, liberals can ignore facts as completely as conservatives. Many of the same liberals who would praise NASA scientists for their work on climate change, will denounce scientists who say that GMOs won’t not harm humans, regardless of the scientific evidence, or regardless of what group of scientists wrote the report. Even reports that say we need to be careful with GMOs, but say that overall, their benefits outweigh any harm, are still dismissed. Their belief that GMOs are harmful is more important to them than many studies that would say otherwise. As well, it seems that, like conservatives, the more evidence that is presented that GMOs are overall harmless, the stronger the belief becomes that they are dangerous. Holding their position is more important than changing their view.

The battle to restore legitimacy of facts will be a difficult one. In this postmodern world in which we live, subjectivity matters above all. And there is some validity to the idea that we should not accept facts at face value, but do our best to deconstruct them to find the real truth at their core. But that requires effort, effort I’m not sure that people are willing to make. It’s just so much easier to let your cultural or political beliefs dominate your life rather than question whether or not they are true. If this continues, facts will indeed become an endangered species.

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The fantasy life of Americans

In the fantasy world of America, globalization can be stopped dead in its tracks, and blue jeans will still sell for $20 a pair at Sam’s Club. Manufacturing jobs long vanished will be returned, despite the onslaught of automation (Driverless cars anyone?). There is no need to improve education or skills

Front of a Sam’s Club. (Photo by WalMart, Creative Commons)

because all those old jobs will be coming back. Jobs that are currently filled by immigrants, some of them undocumented, will be filled by Americans eager to do the work that right now a Bangladeshi, or a Mexican, or a Chinese worker do for next to nothing. Obamacare can be wiped away, and healthcare in America won’t be a problem. Despite the rising oceans, and soaring temperatures, climate change does not exist and Americans can burn as many fossil fuels as they wish.

Oh it’s a wonderful world. Lollipops and unicorns and everybody wins the lottery under Pres. Trump. Too bad it really doesn’t exist and never will.

You have to give Donald Trump credit, however. He realized that Americans would rather live in a fantasy world than in the real one. The real one scares them with the challenges that it creates, and Trump persuaded enough Americans that he could create that fantasy world that they so desperately long to live in. But like all fantasy worlds, the point is that it never really existed in the first place. Trump is a snake oil salesman above all, however, and he knows what his audience wants to hear and what they want to believe. And so America will spend the next four years trapped in a fantasy.

But it’s still just a fantasy.

For instance, take globalization. There are some serious problems with globalization for sure, and there is little doubt that it needs some major tweaks. But get rid of it altogether? Do Americans really understand what that means? Do you really think that American workers would make blue jeans for, say, $100 a month in order that their fellow citizens could drop down to their local Target and pick up a pair for, oh, $20-$30? That American workers would be willing to live like Bangladeshi workers? I won’t even answer the question because it’s too ridiculous. But that is what they want. When the day comes will Americans happily pay $150 for the blue jeans that they want? Again, I leave that to your imagination. And let’s remember it just won’t be blue jeans. It will be shoes, clothing all kinds, televisions, cell phones, cars, toys – almost everything that we use in our everyday lives whose price is low because of globalization will rise dramatically in price once it goes away.

Let’s take climate change. Republican leaders like Gov. Rick Scott in Florida don’t even want to acknowledge it exists. Most members of Trump’s new cabinet don’t really believe in it, or at least say they don’t at the behest of the big oil and coal companies who happily support their political campaigns. But climate change is real. Just ask the American military which has named it one of the most serious threats to the country in their past two reports on the dangers the country faces in the coming decades. Increased migration caused by climate change will dwarf what we are seeing in Syria, rising sea levels that threaten to put even Gov. Scott underwater, increased incidence of bizarre weather, more damaging storms, increasing conflicts around the world over dwindling resources caused by climate change – the US military outlined it all. Seems Americans are willing to say how much they value the military but really don’t want to listen to it. Especially if it upsets the fantasy of bigger cars and lots of gas.

Or take undocumented workers. Do you really believe that Americans are willing to spend hours daily under a burning sun picking lettuce or strawberries or potatoes, or to make sure that your lawn in your garden look just right for minimum wage, or that your fast food hamburger stays cheap because the people working behind the counter are willing to work for next to nothing in often abysmal conditions for longer than a week or so. If you do believe that, then you’re a fool.

Because here’s the truth about many, many Americans. They want their lifestyle without having to work for it. And this is true of whether they live in New York City or Des Moines Iowa or on a farm in Arizona or one in North Dakota. There might be different shade to the fantasy depending upon the part of the country that you live in, and the myth you have built up yourself about how “self-reliant” you are, but it’s still basically the same fantasy. After years of being fed lies about the fantasy (by both Democrats and Republicans it should be noted), it’s now embedded in the American psyche like an iron peg hammered into the frozen ground. And Donald Trump knew it, play to it, manipulated it, and won with it.

It would be easy to write about this all day: about the Middle East, about terrorism, about our relationship with Russia and China, healthcare etc., etc. Americans do not want to deal with reality. It’s just too difficult, time-consuming, expensive and hard. Americans would need to be deeply self-reflective and thoughtful about their place in this country, the world and yes even the universe to make the decisions that need to be made into escape our fantasy lives.

But we all know that’s not going to happen, and Pres. Trump knows that most of all. The best we can do is try to find those little bits of reality that will come floating along when the fantasies he promotes start to look threadbare.

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