Automation is the topic du jour this time around.
Another hours-long primary debate is in the books. There were 12 candidates on stage last night! For another three hours! Not a great format for TV!
That said: One of these people could be in the White House in a little over a year from now, so we should probably pay a little attention, even if we're still months away from voting. So let’s boil it down. What did we notice in last night's debate?
Elizabeth Warren on trade vs. automation
Moderator: “Senator Warren, you wrote that blaming job loss on automation is, quote, ‘a good story, except it's not really true.’ So should workers here in Ohio not be worried about losing their jobs to automation?”
Warren: “So the data show that we have had a lot of problems with losing jobs, but the principal reason has been bad trade policy. The principal reason has been a bunch of corporations, giant multinational corporations who've been calling the shots on trade, giant multinational corporations that have no loyalty to America. They have no loyalty to American workers. They have no loyalty to American consumers. They have no loyalty to American communities. They are loyal only to their own bottom line.”
“I have a plan to fix that, and it's accountable capitalism. It says, you want to have one of the giant corporations in America? Then, by golly, 40 percent of your board of directors should be elected by your employees.”
Insta-Analysis: That is indeed Sen. Warren’s plan. Requiring 40 percent of all corporate boards to worker-elected is not the only part of it, but it’s a real big part. You can read about the rest here.
Is she right, though, that trade’s a bigger job-loss culprit than automation? It depends on which jobs you’re talking about. Manufacturing jobs have definitely been lost as we’ve run up trade deficits with China over the years. There’s a plausible argument to be made that import competition killed off factory employment in the United States.
The automation argument, meanwhile, doesn’t hold up to scrutiny so well. It doesn’t account for the explosion of manufacturing job loss starting in 2001 after decades of steady employment in the sector. Productivity growth didn’t explode in 2001 too; it actually slowed down a bit! And even that measurement of our productivity growth rate is a little overblown. As we put it a few months ago: It’s not robots. It’s China.
Beto O’Rourke on the USMCA (AKA NAFTA 2.0)
“(We must make) sure that if we trade with Mexico, Mexican workers are allowed to join unions, which they are effectively unable to do today. Not only is that bad for the Mexican worker, it puts the American worker at a competitive disadvantage.”
Insta-Analysis: As part of the trade deal to which it has agreed with the United States and Canada, the Mexican government passed a labor reform law this year that should make it easier for workers to form independent unions. “The new law is aimed at ending the practice of ‘protection unions,’” reported the Wall Street Journal, “in which labor leaders close to management ratify contracts without consent from the workers.”
That was a big step toward winning the approval of Congressional Democrats for the deal, which will be needed if it's gonna get passed anytime soon. But there are other issues that American labor advocates have raised about the USMCA. The AFL-CIO, for instance, has opposed the deal’s proposed dispute settlement framework, and also wants to include a measure that “blocks products from crossing the border if they are from companies accused of violating the agreement.”
Bernie Sanders on a federal jobs guarantee
Moderator: “Senator Sanders, you say your federal jobs guarantee is part of the answer to the threat from automation, but tens of millions of Americans could end up losing their jobs. Are you promising that you will have a job for every single one of those Americans?”
Bernie Sanders: “Damn right we will. And I'll tell you why: If you look at what goes on in America today, we have an infrastructure, which is collapsing, we could put 15 million people to work rebuilding our roads, our bridges, our water systems, our wastewater plants, airports, et cetera.”
Bernie Sanders on whether or not his administration will create jobs for every American that will lose their job to automation: "Damn right we will" #DemDebate https://t.co/wsFKQ4hUX0 pic.twitter.com/rhXmJ6y940
— CNN (@CNN) October 16, 2019
Insta-Analysis: We think a massive infrastructure bill is an enormously good idea, and so does everybody else. But for argument’s sake, let’s say a President Bernie Sanders signs a huge infrastructure bill as part of some sort of Green New Deal program. If that infrastructure bill is done up right – and that means with Buy America requirements – it could potentially create even more jobs, because Buy America rules generate demand in American industries and induces an economic multiplier effect in American communities. For example, workers at an iron foundry in Wisconsin, buoyed by a federally backed contract for more manhole covers, are more likely to eat in local restaurants, shop in local clothing stores, and buy more movie tickets in local theaters. Buy America rules are smart public policy, and we love 'em.
Julian Castro on Ohio losing jobs
“As I mentioned earlier, here in Ohio, in the latest job data, Ohio is losing jobs under Donald Trump. He has broken his promises to Ohio and the industrial Midwest. I would invest in infrastructure to put people back to work. I would invest in a Green New Deal to unleash millions of new jobs in a clean energy economy.”
Insta-Analysis: This is technically true! The unemployment rate in Ohio is higher this month than it was last month … but it’s still about a percentage point lower than it was a year ago.
And … Andrew Yang on what helped President Trump win Ohio in the 2016 election
“Why did Donald Trump win your state by eight points? Because we got rid of 300,000 manufacturing jobs in your towns, and we’re not stopping there.”
Insta-Analysis: Indeed, Ohio has lost approximately 300,000 manufacturing jobs since 2001. Yang, though, attributes that loss to the inevitable march of automation, which is where he and AAM will have to agree to disagree. Automation will inevitably wipe out some jobs, yeah, but the jobs we've lost were chiefly lost to offshoring and import competition.
But did this loss of manufacturing jobs help Trump win Ohio, as Yang suggested? Well, Trump would tell you it did. After all, this is the guy who went to Youngstown on the campaign trail and said “don’t sell your house; the jobs are coming back.” So, yes, this did help Trump win Ohio. He spoke right to it.