Dean Barber

Appalachia, Trump and the Coming Automation Bomb

In Corporate Site Selection and Economic Development on August 14, 2016 at 1:39 pm

I am back home in Texas, after an extended road trip that had me spending much time in Appalachia, a part of the country that I have long been drawn to.

For eight days, I camped near Clifftop, W.V., attending the Appalachian String Band Festival. Several thousand people, most of them musicians, gathered to play old-time music, mostly traditional American fiddle tunes.

Think old, not bluegrass, but the parent music to bluegrass. I brought a banjo and guitar with me.

The camping musicians came from all over the country, from Canada and Europe as well. As a group, the music makers were highly educated and liberal in their politics, unlike most of Appalachia.

In the “New Texas Camp,” where I stayed, there was a mixture of friends from New England and Texas, with “Camp Canada” nearby. We all got along just fine.

A Statement that Stuck

When we weren’t playing tunes, we were laughing and joking and talking about everything. There was an understanding to avoid talking about politics, knowing that could put a damper on the fun.

Despite that, the conversation occasionally did drift into the presidential campaign, if ever briefly, before someone, seeing what was happening, steered it back.

Still, a banjo player from North Carolina, a new friend, said something that stuck with me. And I thought about it on my long drive back to Texas.

“They’re scared,” he said, referring to white, rural, working-class people who were supporting Trump.

My People

On my way back home, I drove through “Trump country,” historically dominated by white rural people of limited means.

“My people” (family) are from East Tennessee and western Pennsylvania, mountain folk, and while I cannot claim to have lived in Appalachian poverty, I’ve seen it up close and in personal, having lived in Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia. And I am the first in my family to go to college.

Even with the advent of interstate highways and the internet, many, particularly those who did not pursue an education beyond high school, have an isolated, local view of the world. I think the terrain and the history of poverty leaves its mark on people.

The white rural working poor, probably not unsimilar to black working poor in urban environments, strain to imagine a future for themselves, particularly one with a good paying job.

One of Us

For these blue-collar mountain folk, Silicon Valley or Manhattan might as well be on another planet. And in this void, where there is distinct notion that nobody, particularly in Washington, is listening, Donald Trump is viewed in almost tribal terms.

“He’s one of us,” a waitress in Southwest Virginia told me.

“Really?” I responded, almost spilling my coffee.

Of course, Trump has never worked with his hands, has never experienced want, but they do not care. Nor do they care how outlandish his rhetoric might be. What they care about, what they believe, is that Trump is with them.

And that is what matters in Appalachia. That’s all that matters.

A Different Lens

I’m not sure many of my musician friends, who gathered in West Virginia to emulate the traditional music of the mountains, get that. In their vitriolic contempt for Trump, they lack an understanding of the local people who view him as a protector.

That’s not a big shock. I think most people living in urban and suburban metro surroundings have little understanding of the pain and chaos of the working poor in much of rural America. They are not exposed to it. They see the world through a different lens.

Suburbanites, most of whom could not fathom a Trump candidacy possible, exacerbate the gulf by labeling his tens of millions of supporters as angry, racist rednecks. Uneducated hillbillies.

I know different.  I know most are good people, and they resent how they are portrayed. And for that very reason, maybe it’s their Scots-Irish heritage, they will dig in their heels. It becomes a matter of honor, clan loyalty.

Trump, promising to wage no war on coal and to bring back factory jobs, but stick it to Wall Street, and stick it to China, and stick it to Mexico, is their man. At least this time around.

My banjo-picking friend from North Carolina was right. They are scared. Hell, I’m scared, even if I can’t bring myself to vote for Trump.

A recommended read: Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance.

More Losses to Come

Job insecurity remains a central theme of the 2016 campaign, but it will likely fuel political debate for decades to come, as advancing technology will spur bigger job losses in the future.

“The deeper problem facing the United States is how to provide meaningful work and good wages for the tens of millions of truck drivers, accountants, factory workers and office clerks whose jobs will disappear in coming years because of robots, driverless vehicles and “machine learning” systems,” wrote David Ignatious of The Washington Post.

“The political debate needs to engage the taboo topic of guaranteeing economic security to families — through a universal basic income, or a greatly expanded earned-income tax credit, or a 1930s-style plan for public-works employment. Ranting about bad trade deals won’t begin to address the problem.”

An Inescapable Reality

Last month, the White House hosted a Facebook Live roundtable called “Automation: How Robots Will Change the Ways We Work and Live.”

Speaking at the event, technology entrepreneur and Zipcar founder Robin Chase and author Martin Ford (Rise of the Robots) said automation will eventually make universal basic income an inescapable reality.

“For the last 100 years we’ve been chasing productivity,” Chase said. “Suddenly, these productivity improvements come without labor. So it’s not clear at all these productivity gains will result in the everyday person having a better life. If they don’t have a job, they don’t have a better life.”

Automation Bomb

According to a study last year by the consulting firm McKinsey & Co., the “automation bomb” could destroy 45 percent of the work activities currently performed in the United States, representing about $2 trillion in annual wages.

The McKinsey analysts draw a frightening picture of the future. In manufacturing, 59 percent of activities could be automated, and that includes “90 percent of what welders, cutters, solderers and brazers do.”

In food service and accommodations, 73 percent of the work could be performed by machines. In retailing, 53 percent of current jobs could go by the wayside.

If white-collar workers think they’re safe, they are mistaken. When computers understand speech as well as humans do, and that day is coming, 66 percent of jobs in finance and insurance could be replaced.

A Nagging Thought

Technology has always been a great force in overturning the status quo. It has long created and destroyed jobs. But with the sheer pervasiveness of technology and the rate of unprecedented change, people are confused.

There is this nagging thought that many of our assumptions about how the world works are just wrong. Yep, like our brethren in Appalachia, we have every right to be a little scared, no matter what our backgrounds are.

I’ll see you down the road.

Dean Barber is the president/CEO of Barber Business Advisors, LLC, a location advisory and economic development consulting firm based in Dallas. He can be reached at dbarber@barberadvisors.com or at 972-890-3733.  Mr. Barber is available as a keynote speaker.

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  1. This is the elephant in the room. And its been on the table for a solid 3 decades now, and you will never here a single politician of any persuasion address this topic with the urgency it demands. This robotic drone computerized world is, in m opinion, a new slave economy… Units that can perform work, are completely owned by employers, never get paid 1 cent for their work, occasionally get sick, but are easily replaced and/or discarded without thought… Its a ceo/ board of director/ owners dream. And I haven’t heard any real public statement from anyone that paints a rosy picture for humans in this impending and already-here scenario.

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