I have lots of quibbles with Joel Kotkin’s recent essay published at the Daily Beast and already echoing elsewhere. He gets numerous facts wrong, and some of his assumptions are silly. But anyone in tech better pay close attention to his thorough summing-up of the numerous ways that tech’s billionaires and their often-wealthy allies increasingly aim to influence social policy at a time when more and more Americans (and others in the developed-world middle class around the world) find middle-class life out of reach, and poverty grows among the less educated.
While it’s easy to portray many policy initiatives pushed by the tech industry as socially beneficial, even to those increasingly suffering as wealth concentrates, the fact of that concentration needs more consciously to be taken into account by those pushing for policy changes, regardless of what they seek. The hyper-aggressive efforts of FWD.us for immigration reform are crystallizing for many a perception of arrogance and insensitivity to larger issues of social welfare. While objections to the lobbying of FWD.us have focused mostly on its celebration of the anti-environmentalism of certain politicians, I’m confident that if its tactics continue, the issue of wealth, income, and the crisis in jobs will take center stage.
The most serious error in Kotkin’s essay, in my view, is how he talks about jobs. He acts and talks as if the only reason that manufacturing has escaped from America’s workers is a willful selfishness on the part of oligarchs. That’s nonsense, but extremely telling. One thing he is right about is that there will be fewer and fewer manufacturing jobs, but it has nothing to do with the selfishness and greed of tech’s billionaires. Nonetheless, they are implicated, because the main reason it’s happening is a radical increase in automation and robotics driven by the very set of technologies so fabulously enriching Silicon Valley’s .01%. Kotkin disregards the actual connection, but focuses instead on a language calculated to prod workers and those left out towards anger and resentment.
America’s real worker crisis is not immigration, it is jobs. That’s not to say that we don’t need immigration reform. We do, both for fairness and to enable the U.S. to remain a center of global innovation. But any advocacy on the part of the absurdly-wealthy bosses of tech had better take into account the most central actual consequence of the social change their industry is driving—an increasingly overarching and shocking reduction in good-paying jobs for America’s middle class. This will have political consequences—most likely, if present trends continue, by radicalizing more Americans towards the kind of resentment and anger Kotkin advocates. It will also, sadly, probably broaden, as even formerly-secure professions like law and medicine begin to see automation wash over them.
Read Kotkin carefully to see where the zeitgeist will move if tech’s leaders don’t increase their sensitivity and activism about this central crisis. I am among those who routinely celebrate the extraordinary progress tech has made in empowering individuals, enhancing access to information, and improving efficiency across society. This should be, at root, positive for just about all Americans. But wouldn’t it be tragic if all those information-aware empowered people turn their energies towards fighting against the very class that has given them these new capabilities?