Andrew Yang’s Misguided Obsession with Automation

January 14, 2020

When it comes to the 2020 Democratic Presidential candidates, there’s the boring and then there’s the roaring. Perennial frontrunner and former Vice President Joe Biden continues to maintain his sizable lead over opponents and hopes that he can autopilot his way into getting the Democratic nod. Aside from some cringey gaffes, Biden is nowhere near as interesting as former Silicon Valley executive Andrew Yang, who actually has a story to tell about why America is supposedly in a funk and how it can overcome its challenges. Unfortunately, that narrative happens to be dead wrong. But in order to see why, Americans everywhere must understand the seductively simple explanations that the candidate is pedaling.

Yang: “Automation is no longer just a problem for those working in manufacturing. Physical labor was replaced by robots; mental labor is going to be replaced by [Artificial Intelligence] and software.”

Yang, along with his “Yang Gang” acolytes, have a story to tell the American people. According to Yang, an increasing wave of automation is shrinking employment, killing labor force participation, and leading scores of depressed and discouraged Americans to get hooked on opioids or worse and eventually take their own lives.

But it’s important to look at working life in America is today. Most Americans, including Yang, realize that the unemployment rate is the lowest it has been since the 1960s (sub-4 percent at the start of 2020). Ah, but many Americans are discouraged from the job search altogether and these “discouraged” workers aren’t counted in the standard definition of the unemployment rate.

To quote our new favorite tech politico (Yang): “Labor force participation rate (LFPR) in the United States is 63.2 percent, the same level as Ecuador and Costa Rica.” Yang takes the LFPR for granted, and in doing so completely forgets that America is getting older real fast and our balding boomers are retiring en-masse. Fortunately, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics can account for this by looking at the “prime” labor participation rate, which zeroes in on the 25 to 54 age range. For these eminently employable Americans, the LFPR looks way better—at 82.8 percent as of November 2019. This is (ever so slightly) higher than the rate exactly fifteen years prior, within one percentage point of the rate twenty-five years prior, and two percentage points higher than the rate thirty-five years prior. There’s no evidence whatsoever of a problem with people fitting into the labor force, at least not any more so than in other decades in recent memory.

But life isn’t just about statistics; Yang has examples that allegedly back him up. From the candidate’s website: “Over 3 million Americans work as truck drivers…Self-driving truck technology is rapidly becoming sophisticated enough to replace these drivers…Some estimates have the mass production of these vehicles as occurring within the decade. This has potential for serious unrest if not handled properly.”

Except, the job of a truck driver can’t simply be boiled down to driving for long stretches on the highway. Writing in Harvard Business Review, analysts Maury Gittleman and Kristen Monaco correctly point out that drivers have an array of important roles to play, ranging, “from checking vehicles and securing cargo, to maintaining logs and providing customer service.  Many of these tasks are nowhere close to being automatable. For example, there is currently no technology available (or being widely tested) to automate the loading or unloading of trucks.”

A lot of cool new automation features are slated for mass adaption on-board trucks, such as lane departure protection and automated steering and breaking. That’s a far cry from full automation.  Moreover, partial automation simply serves to make truck drivers’ lives safer and easier. Long driving stretches lead to sleep-deprived truckers, which leads to easily-preventable traffic tragedies. The partial automation actually being tested, rather than the complete automation that lives only within Yang Gang dystopian fantasies, will likely save hundreds of trucker lives rather than lead to mass unemployment.

But what about the “deaths of despair” allegedly happening in the here-and-now due to automation? Here’s Yang again: “America’s life expectancy has declined for the last three years in a row, the first time in a hundred years, because of surges in suicides and drug overdoses.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the declining life expectancy can count among its culprits rising overdoses. Yang has focused on the opioid crisis a great deal as a byproduct of declining job opportunities and the rise of robots. But large studies by reputable institutions such as the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston paint a considerably more complicated picture. They study the opioid crisis at the county-level in New England, which lies at the forefront of the overdose and death crisis that has gripped America over the past decade. The researchers examine the relationship between fatal overdoses and prime labor force participation, AND find an interesting and opposite relationship from the one predicted by the Yang Gang.

That’s right: deaths are actually higher in counties with more labor market engagement (albeit not a statistically significant result). It’s complicated of course, but it’s easy to imagine a scenario where job gains are associated with better healthcare and greater access to things like opioids. These pain-relieving medications are a boon to around 99 percent of users, helping make life more livable amidst chronic pain. But widespread access to these revolutionary drugs also leads to the dangerous byproducts of addiction and overdose deaths, which is why it’s so critical to develop lifesaving counteractive medications such as Naloxone and comprehensive drug counseling programs.

Even in this strong economy, layoffs still happen all the time and job losses can certainly lead to depression, drug use, and possibly even overdoses. It’s important to expand opportunities for all Americans, and in particular hard-working people who are having a hard time finding work. But acknowledging that is different from kowtowing to a dystopian narrative based on zero evidence. Yes, America has its fair share of difficulties, but no, that doesn’t justify implementing a new open-ended, $2.8 trillion entitlement program that would lead to skyrocketing taxes and… less work. America’s economy can continue roaring, but that may require policies and stories a bit more boring than what Andrew Yang has to offer.

Ross Marchand is a Catalyst Policy Fellow and the director of policy for the Taxpayers Protection Alliance. He focuses on a range of issues, ranging from health-care reform to internet regulation to Postal Service-related issues. Ross is an alumnus of the Mercatus Center MA Fellowship at George Mason University, where he received his MA in economics in 2016. He has interned for the Texas Public Policy Foundation and the American Legislative Exchange Council, analyzing and blogging on a variety of public policy issues.
Catalyst articles by Ross Marchand