California Forum

Four jobs in 10 will soon go to robots. Will we get ready, or hide?

Workers test robotic arms on a machine that will be used to perform water-based ultrasonic tests on wing parts at Boeing's 777X Composite Wing Center, Monday, June 12, 2017, in Everett, Wash. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Workers test robotic arms on a machine that will be used to perform water-based ultrasonic tests on wing parts at Boeing's 777X Composite Wing Center, Monday, June 12, 2017, in Everett, Wash. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren) AP

During the Great Recession, the United States lost about 8.8 million jobs. This represented 5 percent of all jobs in America – and it was devastating for families and entire communities.

Now imagine that we lose seven times more jobs. Imagine 38 percent of all jobs in America are suddenly obsolete and 57 million Americans are facing unemployment. These are rates of unemployment and disruption that will far exceed the job losses during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when one in five Americans was unemployed.

It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds. A recent report from the accounting and consulting firm PwC stated that 38 percent of American jobs are at “high risk” of automation in the next 15 years. Other studies have put the number of jobs at risk even higher. Right now, technological advances are nearing the day when jobs in transportation, the financial sector, retail and hospitality can be done by robots.

We need to encourage beneficial innovation while at the same time addressing the crisis and despair that will follow mass layoffs.

Given the inevitability that robots will soon be doing jobs that had employed humans, we have options: Run and hide, or get ready.

Some wealthy entrepreneurs are already opting for the first strategy. A recent story in The New Yorker featured interviews with a number of people who are worried about the civil unrest that will almost certainly follow massive layoffs and job loss. These millionaires and billionaires are buying luxury bunkers built out of former missile silos or readying getaway properties in New Zealand.

They understand that the automation revolution will naturally lead to uprisings and democratic decline if we do nothing – and rather than working to avoid or mitigate the impacts, they are choosing to run or hide. Meanwhile “regular” people are left behind to deal with the fallout.

I believe we can do better to make sure that this apocalyptic future doesn’t come to pass.

As an elected official in San Francisco, I’m currently assembling a working group to study the consequences of automation and examine policies to address it. Our first task is to shape a so-called “robot tax” – a proposal that would preserve the current payroll tax generated by a Californian currently working even when that worker is replaced by a robot or algorithm.

Our plan is to make sure all the money generated would be invested in lifelong job training, education and investments that create new high-wage jobs.

The idea behind this tax is that we must prepare now for the job displacement that will occur through automation in the next few years. This concept was recently advanced by Microsoft founder Bill Gates who knows a thing or two about technology.

Of course, the immediate criticism of a tax is that we are stifling innovation that could save lives or fight climate change. And there is a host of definitional issues concerning what types of automation should be taxed.

But the point is that we need to strike a balance. We need to encourage beneficial innovation while at the same time address the crisis and despair that will follow mass layoffs.

It is fitting that San Francisco and the Bay Area, which is the epicenter of the technological revolution, should also lead the way in innovative policy-making to fortify our communities as we move into a new economic era. We plan to start with local proposals, but we are well aware from the outset we are attempting to shape state policy.

When Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin confidently states that automation isn’t on his “radar screen” and that automation is “50-100 more years” away, we can bet that the Trump administration and Washington won’t be acting on this issue any time soon.

Automation will create great wealth for a few executives and companies. It’s only right that some of that wealth be used to help everyone else who has contributed to building a society that enabled such prosperity.

Smart investments now ensure we actually close the wealth and income gap, strengthen and grow our shrinking middle class and prepare our young people for the jobs of tomorrow.

Isn’t that better than some bunker?

Jane Kim is a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. She can be contacted at Jane.Kim@sfgov.org.

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