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  • Sheri Rivlin Allan Rivlin

Robots taking our jobs? A better answer

Artificial intelligence, workplace automation, and robots are causing concerns about the future for voters and Democratic candidates have asked us how to respond. We are taking this specific question as an opportunity to demonstrate our new method to help improve overall Democratic economic messages. Rather than seeking an elusive single economic message frame for all Democrats, we have been developing several message frames from which candidates can choose the frame, or combination of frames, that best fits their personal story, convictions, and the needs of their supporters. The answer for the robots question should follow their choice of frames to address all economic questions.

In our work helping Democratic candidates improve their economic messages, we pay a lot of attention to the worries and anxieties candidates are hearing directly from voters. One common voter concern comes in the form of personal stories or abstract fears about artificial intelligence and robots taking more and more of the jobs people rely on to achieve a middle-class life.

It is a story in the news frequently featuring automation on factory floors and in coal mines, self-driving cars and trucks, and self-service restaurants and grocery check-out lanes. More recently news stories are pointing out the threat to higher education jobs from automated stock picking algorithms, tax filing programs, and legal services web-pages. Often voters are telling personal stories of their own experiences, or those of family members or friends, that have witnessed the disruption of businesses or industries, and the dislocation of families and communities. We would like to offer the best answer we can give based on our model for Democratic economic messaging.

Our first piece of advice is to ignore the advice of any economists that dismiss this fear labeling it the “Luddite Fallacy” and marshaling academic research denying there is evidence that automation leads to long-term unemployment or inequality. This may be excellent economic analysis for policy makers, but it is terrible political advice for candidates. Given a choice between a candidate that tells voters their fears are unfounded based on data analysis done at Boston University and MIT, or a candidate that tells voters they understand their fears and know what to do about the problem, voters will choose the one that isn’t arguing against them. The concerns of voters are not academic. Technology replacing human work is a conversation people are having over coffee or beer in neighborhoods all across America. This is exactly the split between elites and the broader public that Donald Trump exploited in seizing the White House.

People, Problems, and Plans

Our model places a lot of emphasis on stories; listening carefully to the stories voters tell, and responding with a clear and compelling story of change for the better. Rather than dismissing voters’ fears we advise acknowledging and validating them, and offering a substantive approach to address them.

The robots and algorithms taking our jobs story is directly connected to the basic economic insecurities of the day; unsteady employment, stagnant incomes, high levels of debt, and narrow career opportunities for current workers and future generations. For many people, this is also connected to insecurities and concerns about their education level, age, and health. And many voters connect this to unequal access to the technology and education necessary to thrive in the economy of the future, with technology, advanced skills, and capital concentrated in a few regional silicon centers. So when candidates hear voters express their current reality or future fears about losing jobs to robots, the first response should be to hear and validate the concern, and connect it to voters’ other economic anxieties. When voters know you understand their story, they will be willing to listen to your plans to make things better.

Answer the HOW Question with Something More than a List of Policies

Our second piece of advice is to realize that we as Democrats have a lot of policies that are designed to address different aspects of this fear; whether it is education and job skills training, expanding access to broadband, strengthening collective bargaining, or expanding the EITC. Our recommendation is to resist the impulse to immediately list policies and instead put them in the context of a broader plan. In just a few words, Democratic candidates need to be able to explain their diagnosis of what’s wrong with the economy and how they plan to fix it. This is our “Listerine Test.” But we do not think there is a single message frame that all Democrats can unite behind in 2017.

We have been developing several message frames that explain various Democratic approaches to economic issues. We are offering these message frames to candidates for office in 2017 and 2018 helping them choose which frame, or combination of frames, is most authentic to their life story, personal convictions, and the needs of their constituents. When Democratic candidates are comfortable with one or two of these frames as best to reflect their overall economic views and the needs of the voters they represent, or seek to represent, they should look to that frame to answer the robots concern.

We believe all types of Democrats (progressives, populists, moderates, etc.) need better economic messaging, even if all cannot agree on a single message. This is why we have been

working to improve 1) the middle-class frame, 2) the entrepreneurial growth frame, 3) the inequality frame, 4) the stronger together frame, 5) the consumer driven economy frame, and 6) the sustainable growth frame. Our plan is to get each of the frames to the point where candidates understand them, and voters understand them, and each frame is supported with personal stories from real people and solid economic facts.

So, let’s use the economic model we have been developing to respond to this particular question: what about those robots taking our jobs? The robots fear can be addressed in the context of each of the message frames. (The list of policies at the end of each frame are merely examples. Nearly every policy could flow from nearly every frame).

If you choose the Inequality Frame, robots and algorithms are both a cause and symptom of increasing economic and political inequality. The 1% will continue to use technology to hoard the opportunities the future offers, seeking ever higher profits and vaster wealth for themselves. The solution is to harness people power to rein in the power of the millionaires and billionaires and make fair rules of the road so we can share more broadly the wonderful opportunities the future will bring. When the wealthy pay their fair share in taxes, we can strengthen the ladders of success that allow everyone to earn a living wage. Then you can list policies like making college affordable for all, training and retraining people for the jobs of today and tomorrow, guaranteeing broadband connectivity in every school and community, etc.

If you choose the Middle-Class Frame, workplace automation is another new threat to the shrinking and sinking middle class that must be reversed in order to restore the American Dream. We have the power to choose our future, and we will have failed if technological change puts even more pressure on families struggling to hold onto, or climb into, a middle-class life. When the middle class crumbles it will take the whole economy with it. We must choose a future where new technology creates new opportunity for the middle class to thrive. So we must invest in people and their skills, and broaden access to technology and infrastructure that allows more people to participate in the economic future. Then you can list policies like investing in public education, from early-childhood education, to excellent public schools, to affordable college, and worker training and retraining, stronger unions, expanding access to broadband, etc.

If you choose the Consumer-Driven Economy Frame, technology is a destructive force if it displaces the jobs and disposable income local communities need to support a growing economy. If workplace automation causes lower wages and job cuts, families have even less money and even more debt. When families cannot afford to support local businesses, this can lead communities into a death spiral as many people leave to seek better opportunities. The solution is to get more money into the community and into people’s bank accounts so hardworking families can support local businesses giving them the confidence to hire more workers and pay them more. When we invest money in roads and schools, and invest in the skills of workers, we create opportunities for higher paying jobs so people have more money and they can become the job creators in their own communities. Then you can list policies like modernizing schools, highways and energy grids and data networks, worker training and retraining, support for collective bargaining, health spending and community development, etc.

The Entrepreneurial Growth Frame is particularly challenged by voters’ concerns about technology because the heart of the frame’s solution is increasing the pace of technological innovation. Nonetheless, the frame is up to the challenge. People who want to work with this frame must point out that technological change is inevitable, but whether we approach the future with hope or fear depends on our ability to increase productivity, grow the economy faster and spread the benefits of that growth beyond just the technology centers. Even as businesses are rolling out technologies developed over the past two decades, the pace of innovation and new business formation has been slowing in part due to budget cuts in education and research and development. To grow the economy, we must support the entrepreneurs and inventors that create new businesses and whole new industries, increase investment in scientific and medical research, increase access to broadband, and train and retrain the workforce for the jobs of today and tomorrow, etc.

However the message is framed, the conversation ends with investments in people, their education, job skills, and lifelong learning. Throughout history the only consistent antidote to the threat posed by change and disruption is increasing access to education and job training. Even as Democrats have lost the advantage in polls that measure public trust in the parties to handle the economy, the Democrats’ advantage on education remains durable. By listening to people and hearing their problems and concerns, then responding with our own plans, in a way that is consistent with our diagnosis of the deeper problem with the economy and our approaches to the solution; we can regain the public’s trust that together we can choose to create a future that works for all of us.

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