Oct 1, 2019

Are the robots really coming for our jobs?

Are the robots really coming for our jobs?

Also, "Texodus" and what Republicans are worried about.

Happy October.

And Shana Tova to all my Jewish readers. Today is the first day of the month, the final day celebrating the Jewish new year, and the beginning of Golden Week, a week-long national holiday in China.

Today’s read: 6 minutes.

I’m going to try to step out of the impeachment talks — and the story about President Trump’s phone call with Ukraine’s president — to make sure we aren’t missing out on too much other news. I’ll give you some quick updates via Twitter at the end of the newsletter. We’re going to jump in on Texodus, realities of automation and some big NCAA news.

Image by Pixabay.

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Head scratcher.

A couple of years ago, someone created a bot on Twitter that told you anytime someone from the Trump family liked a tweet, followed someone new or unfollowed someone. Last night, the Trump bot caught this bizarre interaction, where the president apparently liked a tweet from Rep. Eric Swalwell that was essentially comparing him to a guilty mobster:

What D.C. is talking about.

Texas. Last night, Rep. Mac Thornberry, a Republican, announced he would retire ahead of the 2020 election. Thornberry is the sixth Texas Republican to retire before the election, which comes after he served 13 consecutive terms. A quarter of the Texas House Republican Delegation has now retired. Rep. Thornberry is the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee. His district, in northern Texas, is deep red. But his retirement adds to concerns Republicans have about holding onto a state that just a few years ago seemed impenetrable. Nearly 40 percent of the 241 Republicans who were in office in January of 2017 are gone or will be soon thanks to retirements and election losses, The Washington Post reports.

What Democrats are saying.

It’s go time. Democrats have started using the term “Texodus” to describe the wave of retirements, and they believe it paints a larger picture of dysfunction in the Republican party. Lots of the retirements, in their estimation, are due to two things: 1) A lack of trust or support for the president, even if it is unsaid. 2) The expectation that Republicans will fail to re-capture the House of Representatives in 2020. Usually, in years when one party think it’s going to lose its majority (or in this case, stay in the minority), retirements come in waves. Now there’s a trickier calculation: do Democrats go for it? David Axlerod, the former Chief Strategist for Obama’s campaigns, cautioned Democrats. Going after a state as big as Texas requires a lot of money, and the fruit may not be ripe enough to pick. "To play in Texas, a huge state with expensive markets, is a costly proposition,” he told Axios. “Texas is trending purple, but maybe not purple-ish enough to make that investment in '20." Other Democrats are more gung-ho. Lucinda Guinn, the executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told the Dallas Morning News that Democrats are primed to take over. "While we steadily invest in the Lone Star State, Washington Republicans just flew into Texas to declare they'll win back the majority and jetted away without a plan to stop the Texodus," she said.

What Republicans are saying.

Texas Republicans are worried. Will Hurd, the only black Republican in the House of Representatives, announced he’d retire at the age of 42 earlier this year. "The base is shrinking. Period. End of story,” Hurd told Axios. "If the Republican Party doesn't start looking like America, there will not be a Republican Party in America.” Still, though, it’s hard to imagine that reckoning coming as soon as 2020. Democrats did pick up two congressional seats in 2018, but that was a midterm year with unusual anti-Trump enthusiasm driving voters to the polls. Beto O’Rourke came close in 2016, when he nearly upset Ted Cruz in the Senate race. But O’Rourke enjoyed a unique cinderalla time with the media and was facing off with a candidate so disliked by the nation as a whole that money poured in from outside the state to support his run. Lots of Republicans are saying the 2018 elections were a wake-up call that got them focused on 2020, and have them prepared to lock down loyalties early and preserve the Republican stranglehold on the state. And for Trump, and Trump loyalists, the retirements are seen as much as an opportunity as anything else. Lots of the Republicans in Texas — and nationwide — who are stepping down are doing so because they aren’t staunch Trump supporters. That means the Trump campaign has an opportunity to endorse and even help fundraise for new Republicans that fit the Trump mold and can run on his policies. If those retired Republicans are simply replaced by Trumpist conservatives, it’d be a big win for POTUS.

My take.

Traditional Texas suburbia still has deep loyalty to Trump, and it’s unlikely that an impeachment inquiry will shake that loyalty. Where Democrats could make up ground is in the new, developing suburbs. Texas is under a transformation like much of the country, and it’s getting more liberal and diverse. Naturally, the big question here is whether they should spend resources making a run at it or focus on the states that cost them in 2016: Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Florida.

Democrats actually have two Texas candidates already running for president — Beto O’Rourke and Julian Castro — who lots of people would rather see going for a Senate or House seat. But flipping a state like Texas is not going to happen without some serious ground game. On one hand, Democrats have a strong message for Texas Republicans: cheaper (or “free”) healthcare. They’re also trying to push immigration reform that doesn’t involve building a wall on private land or tearing apart families in border communities. That could play better than you might imagine in a state that embraces its Hispanic roots and culture, and tends to loathe big government. On the other hand, Beto O’Rourke promising to take people’s guns, or prominent Democrats pushing far-left abortion positions, or unified criticism of military funding, could be enough to scare off Texans. Whether the progressive wing of the party likes it or not, picking up Texas House seats will require a slew of more moderate candidates and a presidential ticket that doesn’t scare people off to the middle. Beto’s brand of far-left progressivism worked largely because it was a midterm election where the key was energizing the left-wing base, courting donations and turning out progressives. Even then, he came up short. In a presidential year with far more attention and far more voters, Democrats will need to run folks in the mold of Joe Biden, not Beto O’Rourke. It’s unclear if they’ll be willing or able to do that, and I suspect Texas will stay red at least through 2020.

Your questions, answered.

Tangle is about answering reader questions and making sure you don’t have to wade through the news to find the information you want. If you have a question you want answered, simply reply to this email and write in!

Q: What are the most credible predictions for job displacement from automation in the next five to ten years? The Bureau of Labor Statistics seems to indicate manufacturing jobs have already mostly taken that hit and should continue a slight rise, while the threat to trucking jobs I don't believe has been adequately contextualized (in terms of technology readiness, likelihood for companies to buy automated trucks, and impact of potential trucker job loss to the economy).

- Ari, Pittsburgh, PA

Tangle: This question could end up playing a huge role in 2020, as more presidential candidates — and obviously Andrew Yang — are using a gloomy automation future as a context to rollout policy. I’ll tell you up front that I’m not going to give you a number, but instead, offer my feedback about some of the predictions that are already out there.

By the tone of your question, I can tell that you're skeptical. And with good reason. For the last few decades, news outlets and think tanks have released breathless report after breathless report about the looming automation wave that will destroy our workforce and leave vast swathes of the country unemployed. The McKinsey Global Institute recently estimated that as many as 73 million U.S. jobs would be lost by 2030 due to automation. A popular University of Oxford study from 2013 said that nearly half of all U.S. jobs could be automated over the next 20 years. Andrew Yang, as a pitch for his Univeral Basic Income, claims on his website that over the next 12 years, “1 out of 3 American workers are at risk of losing their jobs to new technologies.” Accompanied by these predictions are admittedly jarring viral videos of robots flipping burgers or delivering packages.

All of these predictions have sent politicians, business executives and Americans into a panic. But what most of the gloomy economic predictions are actually missing is economic data to back up their claims or enough imagination to see how automation may help — not hurt — both the job market and quality of life.

Briefly, I’ll touch on the economic indicators. As automation is growing across the economy, one would expect that it would already be displacing workers. Economists call this “job churn,” the rate at which people are moving between employment. But job churn is historically low. So are unemployment and productivity, two things you’d expect to be high if automation were already beginning to disrupt of the market. Wages are rising, albeit slowly, and employers are complaining about labor shortages, not labor surpluses (i.e. they don’t have lines out the door of people looking for work — they need more labor).

That’s not to say automation hasn’t already impacted the economy. As you noted in your question, manufacturing jobs have taken a hit. One study estimated some 670,000 jobs were lost to automation from 1990 to 2017. And that’s true. But to contextualize that, between 1999 and 2011 alone, after China joined the World Trade Organization, 2.4 million manufacturing jobs were lost to China. That’s one of the biggest issues President Trump has been clamoring about that very few Democrats give him credit for (with the exception of Bernie Sanders).

There’s another surprising indicator, too, that may give you pause about your doom and gloom automation prediction: investment in automation and robotics in America isn’t actually that high. In fact, spending on automation is growing slower now than it was 10 or 15 years ago. In other words, the giant corporations and tech giants we’re told are developing robots to replace us aren’t actually pouring as much money into advancing tech and automation as you think. If they believed they could create a whole new, cheaper workforce, wouldn’t they be doing investing in it?

As I’ve read about how automation might impact the future, one example has come up repeatedly that really hit home for me: The ATM. It’s used by several different tech reporters an example of how automation might surprise us. For a couple of days, I was trying to find this WIRED piece, which I had read two years ago, as it’s the best article on automation I’ve come across. It’s also the source of a lot of my information here. Here’s how reporter James Surowiecki puts it in that piece:

“The ATM, for example, is a textbook example of a machine that was designed to replace human labor. First introduced around 1970, ATMs hit widespread adoption in the late 1990s. Today, there are more than 400,000 ATMs in the US. But, as economist James Bessen has shown, the number of bank tellers actually rose between 2000 and 2010. That’s because even though the average number of tellers per branch fell, ATMs made it cheaper to open branches, so banks opened more of them.”

That about sums up how automation is expected to impact us and how it actually might. Surowiecki also notes that only one job of the 271 jobs listed on a 1950 census has been made obsolete by automation: the elevator operator.

All this isn’t to say there’s nothing to fear. Goldman Sachs did predict autonomous cars would take away 300,000 driving jobs a year, but their timeline puts that at about 25 years from now. The Guardian published a chilling piece about how robots will exasperate wealth inequality and lead to poor people being “exterminated” by the rich. Based on some worst-case assumptions about humans and the economy, it’s not totally implausible — but requires quite a bit of pessimism.

My best prediction, based on both the optimistic and hellscape stories I’ve read about the future, is that automation will be quite disruptive. We’ve already got the tech to replace cashiers, drivers and half the jobs in the service industry. That alone could crush our economy. But I think more than destroying jobs, it will force people into new ones. Optimistically, it may even improve the quality of life by creating economic gains and eliminating low-wage, hard labor that people would rather not do. Instead, automation could help corporations expand and move people into less physically taxing positions overseeing or maintaining those same robots. There’s even been speculation about taxing robots that could help lessen the economic burden.

Whatever it is, I think the future of automation is coming. I just think it’s going to happen more slowly, and with lots more time to adjust, than people think. There are plenty of indicators and red flags that could pop up between now and 2030 to change my mind, but I find myself extremely skeptical of the most apocalyptic automation predictions out there.


The impeachment cries continue, and the story of how Trump may have abused his power in office for political gain continues to drip-drip-drip. Here are some highlights on what’s gone down in the last 24 hours:


Some very not good polling for Trump (and the so-called #BLEXIT movement):

A story that matters.

Yesterday, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill that allows college athletes to make money through endorsement and sponsorship deals. Previously, state law and the NCAA have banned the practice. It’s the first state to pass a law like this, and sets up a major legal battle with the NCAA. Some people are worried it will give California an unfair recruiting advantage, and others are cheering Cali on for taking a step nobody else would. Dozens of athletes came out in support of the bill, saying college athletes should be allowed to make money off of their gifts and likeness. If things go as planned, the law will go into effect in 2023.

Have a nice day.

All across America, so-called food deserts are becoming a danger. Food deserts are areas where fresh, healthy food is non-existent or difficult to access because it’s so far away. Some 23.5 million people are estimated to live in food deserts. Earlier this week, Kroger helped avoid there being a few more. After recently vacating a building in South Memphis, Kroger decided to donate that building to a competitor — a Superlo grocery store — so as not to leave the area as a food desert. The building was worth about $500,000. You can read more about food deserts here.

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