Friday, November 11, 2016

After Trump: reflections on mass disability in a sleepless night

I’m having trouble sleeping. There are a few boring reasons for that, but the election is not helping. So it’s time to write while sleep-impaired. I’ll try to keep this short, but I’m also going to break it into sections.


My son has a substantial cognitive disability and little prospect of self-sustaining employment. His temperament is different from mine. I am novelty-seeking and instinctively skeptical of authority, he loves routine and structure. I am Vulcan, he is Klingon.

I am elite. He is not. Obama is my ideal President, he declared for Trump (though, interestingly, he chose to abstain in the end). I used to be uneasy around police, he loves K9 cops.

My son’s growth and development has shaped my life and thought for 20 years. He has informed my thinking about mass disability, something I’ve been writing about for 8 years. Because of him I have sympathy even for the Deplorables, angry and lost in a world that doesn’t want them any more.

The Big Picture

I don’t think any period in human history has seen as much cultural change as America 1950-2016. Civil Rights. Feminism. Gay Rights. Atheist Rights. Gender Rights. I have a flexible mind, and I feel a bit awed by all I have had to unlearn and learn. It’s not just America that’s changed of course. I believe that, in addition to ecological collapse and economics, the 9/11 world is a reaction to the education and empowerment of women.

And then there’s the demographic transformation of America. There’s a fertility transition that continues to drop family size; without immigration America’s population would be shrinking.  There’s the rapid aging of the post-war boomers. There’s the transition of the euro-american to minority status.

Now add China. No period of human history has seen anything comparable to the rise of China — if only because it is nation of a billion people. The economic transformation is severe; there is a limit to how quickly economies can adapt.

And, of course, no period of human history has seen an intelligent machine. We live in the AI era. Not the sentient AI era, or at least not so far as I know. But we now have distributed, almost ubiquitous, machine intelligence. Pre-AI technologies have already eliminated much of the work that supported the non-college middle class. The service work that remains pays far less and demands strong emotional control. A control that many men, and some women, don’t have.

The AI era is the era of mass disability. An era when the work that is valued and compensated requires cognitive and emotional skills that perhaps 40% of the US population does not have. No, more college will not help.

Extreme cultural transformation. Demographics. China. The AI era and mass disability. I haven’t even mentioned that pre-AI technologies wiped out traditional media and enabled the growth of Facebook-fueled mass deception alt-media.

We should not be surprised that the wheels have come off the train.

The GOP in 2016

We will lose the consumer protections and financial regulation slowly built over the past 8 years. We will lose Obamacare. The Gender Rights movement will stall.

I’ve seen some talk of the Senate minority slowing this, but we are also going to lose the filibuster.  We are unlikely to win the House or Senate in 2018 — so this will happen.

This will be sad and it will hurt a lot of people, not least Trump supporters.

It may not be as bad as some fear though. ObamaCare was failing. It was a tough political compromise that ran into GOP hellfire; the GOP blocked the post-launch fixes any big legislation needs. It was from the start intensely corporate and bureaucratic, with a misguided focus on analytics and top-down controls. GOP Representatives and Senators are not going to risk the wrath of their constituents, especially the non-college whites who are at risk of losing coverage. There will be a replacement. It will cover fewer people but perhaps it can be built up.

CO2 control seems to be hopeless now, but I’m not so sure about that. Sure, Trump is an idiot, but not everyone in the GOP truly believes that global warming is a good idea. There’s a chance the GOP will make changes that Obama could never get past the GOP.

This was all going to happen with any large GOP victory. Indeed, with his political core of white non-college voters Trump is going to be more cautious that Cruz or Ryan.

Trump: the mass disability conversation

I once wrote a blog post titled "Donald Trump is a sign of a healthy democracy. Really.”. It was really prescient:

… I enjoy seeing the GOP suffer for its (many) sins, and it would be very good for the world if the GOP loses the 2016 presidential election, but Trump won’t cause any lasting political damage. Unless he runs as a third party candidate he’ll have no real impact on the elections.

Hah-hah. Laughs on me.

This part holds up better:

Trump appears to be channeling the most important cohort in the modern world — people who are not going to complete the advanced academic track we call college. Canada has the world’s highest “college” graduation rate at 55.8%, but that number is heavily biased by programs that can resemble the senior year of American High School …

… about 40-50% population of Canadians have an IQ under 100. Most of this group will struggle to complete an academic program even given the strongest work ethic, personal discipline, and external support…

… this cohort, about 40% of the human race, has experienced at least 40 years of declining income and shrinking employment opportunities. We no longer employ millions of clerks to file papers, or harvest crops, or dig ditches, or fill gas tanks or even assemble cars. That work has gone, some to other countries but most to automation. Those jobs aren’t coming back.

The future for about half of all Americans, and all humans, looks grim. When Trump talks to his white audience about immigrants taking jobs and betrayal by the elite he is starting a conversation we need to have.

It doesn’t matter that Trump is a buffoon, or that restricting immigration won’t make any difference. It matters that the conversation is starting. After all, how far do you think anyone would get telling 40% of America that there is no place for them in current order because they’re not “smart” enough?

Yeah, not very far at all.

This is how democracy deals with hard conversations. It begins with yelling and ranting and blowhards. Eventually the conversation mutates. Painful thoughts become less painful. Facts are slowly accepted. Solutions begin to emerge…

I guess we’re having the conversation now. Too bad we didn’t have it four years ago. Obama, my ideal president, missed that one. He wasn’t alone, as recently as 2015 I complained “Both DeLong and Krugman missed the college vs. no-college white middle-age cohort, and I think that’s the important story” (K had a false start in 2012.)

Late in the campaign Obama picked up the theme with work on labor market monopsony and “predistribution”. Some of the Bernie Sanders themes that Clinton adopted, like free community college, were a first step. Overall though my team missed this one. It was a huge miss. They should have been reading Gordon’s Notes …

Trump: white nationalism and patriarchy

Half of college educated white women voters voted for Trump. I can’t quite get my head around that one. That cohort would have given Clinton the election.


What do we understand that? We need to resurrect anthropology and fuse it with journalism. How? I’ve no idea, but we need a way to explain ourselves to ourselves. A NYT piece made a good start with an interview of some of these women. Rage about the Black Lives Matter movement and critiques of police (prime job for the blue collar) were a factor; as well as susceptibility to Facebook-fueled right wing agitprop. I suspect these women are also relatively comfortable with traditional male-female roles. They want a “strong leader”; maybe they favor “enlightened patriarchy”. (The article had one significant error, it claimed white college-educated women voted for HRC. They did not. If they had we wouldn’t be talking about this.)

The whites are acting like a tribe. It’s different from acting like we own the country. This is shades of old racism mixed with aggrievement, loss, and bitterness. Unfortunately, unlike other tribes, the white tribe votes.

Reagan pioneered the use of white racism to win power. Trump has kicked it up several notches. He has summoned  our demons at just the right wrong time. Now we live with the consequences. Trump isn’t going to beat these demons back, he is much more racist than Reagan was (more than most of us imagined).

On the other hand the GOP is going to get nervous about this. The party is not going to be comfortable with overt white racism. There will be some GOP help with stuffing the Nazis and Klansmen back in the bottle. We will need that help.

The Resistance

In my home town of St Paul Minnesota a mob has been blocking a freeway. That’s dumb team. Stop doing that. We need more leadership. There’s a guy I know who’s going to be out of a job in seven weeks…

Ok, so Obama is probably going to want to take a break. We are going to need someone though. This isn’t just one crazy election. Remember the “Big Picture”. There are huge forces at work, especially the lack of demand for non-elite labor (what I call “mass disability”). If you think we’re in trouble now, imagine what’s going to happen to China in the next few years. (Russia is toast.)

We need to oppose Trump. He’s a twisted wreck. I suspect, however, that he’s going to find a lot of long knives in DC. The GOP leadership are not nice people, and they prefer Pence to Trump (not that Pence is good news).

We need to oppose Trump, but we also need to remember why we have Trump. We need to focus on the big picture - there are solutions. We live in whitewater times; we need to hold onto each other while we try to steer the raft. Because there’s a waterfall ahead …

See also: 

I’ve been writing about this for a bit over 8 years …

KRISTOF: Watching the Jobs Go By - his weakest column in years 2/2004. Very early thoughts in this direction.

Why your daughters should be roofers — not architects 3/2004. Precursor ideas.

On redistribution 6/2004. From an article in The Atlantic: “It is doubtful that in any society with universal suffrage the majority is going to sit on the sidelines and watch, generation after generation, while a handful of investors and corporate managers reap almost all the benefits of technological and economic progress."

The limits of disaster predictions: complex adaptive systems 2/2007. We have survived doom before.

Mass disability and Great Depression 2.0 3/2008. 

"I believe that about 20% of adult Americans aged 25 to 65 are effectively disabled in our current globalized post-industrial economy. I believe this number will rise as our population ages. I believe this is the fundamental problem, along with network effects, driving modern wealth concentration.

Over time the economy will change to develop niches for unused capacity (servant economy?), but the transition need not be comfortable. In the meantime technological shocks, such as ubiquitous robotics, may induce new disruptions to a non-equilibrium economic structure — risking extensive economic breakdown."

Causes of the Great Recession: China, GPSII and RCIIIT. Now for Act III 4/2010

Civilization is stronger than we think: Structural deficits and complex adaptive systems 5/2010. Hope.

Post-industrial employment: adjusting to a new world 5/2010. College is not the answer.

Unemployment and the new American economy - with some fixes. 1/2011 “In a virtualized economy workers with average analytic and social IQ less than 125 are increasingly disabled. Since this average falls with age the rate of disability is rising as the we boomers accumulate entropy …Start applying the lessons learned from providing employment to cognitively impaired adults to the entire US population.” Looking back this is when my thinking about mass disability began to crystallize.

Mass disability goes mainstream: disequilibria and RCIIT 11/2011. I thought we’d have the conversation then, but it didn’t go forward. Unfortunately.

Life in the post-AI world. What’s next? 9/2011

The Post-AI era is also the era of mass disability One of my favorites. 12/2012

Addressing structural underemployment (aka mass disability) 5/2013 Some ideas on solutions. Good ideas by the way.

Donald Trump is a sign of a healthy democracy. Really. 8/2015

Trump explained: Non-college white Americans now have higher middle-aged death rates than black Americans 11/2015 “Both DeLong and Krugman missed the college vs. no-college white middle-age cohort, and I think that’s the important story” 

Trumpism: a transition function to the world of mass disability 8/2016

How does the world look to Trump’s core supporters? 9/2016.

After Trump: information wants to be free, but knowledge is expensive 11/2016. This feels fixable, but it’s a fundamental problem.

1 comment:

John Hovland said...

Thank you for writing this. I've been interested in this issue for a long time and have learned a lot from your postings. It's shaping up to be the main political question of our time. As the education and cognitive abilities required to earn a living in the market economy increase, what happens to the rest?