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Donald Trump

White House comedy distracts America from the age of automation and looming job losses

Niall Ferguson says with the White House reduced to providing fodder for late-night comics, and all eyes on @realDonaldTrump, the spectre of human redundancy amid a speedy tech revolution is being ignored

PUBLISHED : Monday, 31 July, 2017, 12:37pm
UPDATED : Monday, 31 July, 2017, 6:58pm

The US presidential election last year was a choice between two second world war acronyms: snafu (situation normal, all f***** up) and fubar (f***** up beyond all recognition).

American voters faced a choice between a candidate who personified the political status quo, and a candidate who promised the disruption of that status quo. With Hillary Clinton, there was the certainty that nothing much would change. With Donald Trump there was the chance of quite a lot of change, but the risk was that it would be change for the worse. Twelve months ago, it was dawning on me that there might just be enough voters willing to gamble on Trump, knowing full well that the outcome might be fubar.

Since Trump’s election, I have tried to swim against liberal opinion. The more commentators proclaimed the advent of tyranny and the end of the republic, the more I tried to argue that the Trump administration belongs firmly in the tradition of American populism. The more journalists cried “Watergate”, the more I tried to show that Trump isn’t Richard Nixon: with his dynastic approach and louche personality, he more closely resembles John F Kennedy.

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My goal has not been to defend Trump, but rather to expose the inconsistencies of his critics. However, the time has arrived to break the bad news to those who voted for Trump.

You wanted change. You got it. But the result is a political system that I can now officially certify as fubar. This is not politics. This is fubatics.

Seven months ago, House Speaker Paul Ryan was proclaiming the “opportunity of a lifetime” for Republicans. Having achieved “unified government” – control of the White House and both Houses of Congress – their party was poised to enact a transformative legislative programme: repeal and replace Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, comprehensive tax reform and a roll-back of economic regulation.

Yet,the Senate could not even agree on a “skinny” bill to repeal just parts of Obamacare. The same week, the Republicans abandoned all hope of passing the border adjustment tax, without which there can be no permanent cuts in corporate and income tax. As for deregulation, this was also the week when Steve Bannon, the chief presidential strategist, said he wanted to regulate Google and Facebook like public utilities.

Wait. Right now Google and Facebook are free. By contrast, I pay hundreds of dollars every month to the utilities.

Fubatics is to politics what comedy is to news. Ever since Americans began to get their politics from comedians such as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, the danger was that the politicians would respond by providing their scriptwriters with material for gags. We have now reached that point.

Watch: Stephen Colbert channels Scaramucci

Newly appointed White House communications director, Anthony Scaramucci, last week told a New Yorker journalist that his colleague, chief of staff Reince Priebus, was a “f****** paranoid schizophrenic, a paranoiac ... I want to f****** kill all the leakers and I want to get the president’s agenda on track.” He took to Twitter to imply that Priebus was guilty of a “felony” in leaking details about his finances. By Friday, Priebus was gone. The previous week’s casualty was press secretary Sean Spicer. Next on Trump’s hit list: Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Unified government? These guys are unified the way the cast of Reservoir Dogs were unified. Or maybe Goodfellas.

Meanwhile, in Silicon Valley, the plan to render most Americans, and most humans, unemployed goes forward. If you don’t live in northern California, you tend to assume that it will be decades before self-driving vehicles are the dominant mode of transport.

Nearly half the jobs in America are at risk of being automated over the next decade or two

Michael Gove, the British environment secretary, announced that the sale of new diesel and petrol cars would be banned in the UK by 2040 to encourage people to buy electric vehicles. This surely underestimates Tesla founder Elon Musk, not to mention the car makers chasing him in the race to bring e-cars to the mass market. Gove’s worries about diesel fumes remind me of The Times’ 1894 editorial warning that by the mid-20th century every street in London would be buried under horse manure. Despite evidence of the accelerating pace of technological change, we humans remain chronically bad at making realistic projections about our economic future. The American Trucking Association says the number of jobs for truck drivers will be 21 per cent higher in 2020 than in 2010. Yet self-driving vehicles are already on the road in several US states.

There are 3.5 million professional truck drivers in the US. It is the most common job in most states. But they sit where drivers of horse-drawn carriages once were: on the brink of unemployment. Nor are they alone. Nearly half the jobs in America are at risk of being automated over the next decade or two, according to Carl Frey and Michael Osborne of Oxford University. Looking at global employment, the McKinsey Global Institute has concluded that “half of today’s work activities could be automated by 2055, but this could happen up to 20 years earlier”.

Trump voters thought it was globalisation that destroyed the good jobs in American manufacturing. In reality it was globalisation and technology. Now technology is getting ready to destroy the not-so-good jobs too.

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As an economic historian, I cling to the hope that predictions of the impending redundancy of humanity, like similar predictions at earlier stages of industrialisation, will turn out to be wrong. As a reader of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, I also expect bloody-minded humanity to put up more of a fight against the automation of the world than Silicon Valley expects. This is why Google and Facebook are the new targets of Bannon’s populism.

Yet, as I watched my son play gleefully with a toy robot called Robosapien, the Action Man we gave him for Christmas forgotten, suddenly I felt a sense of kinship with that poor, discarded doll.

The goings-on in Washington are the comedy politics of a distracted age. But the more attention we give @realDonaldTrump on Twitter, the less we pay to the economic revolution all around us. The future belongs to robotics, not fubatics.

Niall Ferguson is a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution, Stanford