by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
No matter how much politicians promise to protect us, technology and globalization will continue to transform the American workplace, driving the U.S. economy to abandon simpler, labor-intensive production processes, turn increasingly toward more mechanized, digitized, high-value efforts, and, accordingly, demand an ever-better-trained workforce. Though these trends should generally create prosperity, they will also bring significant social disruptions. Indeed, they already have: Income disparities between rich and poor have widened, with the skilled and educated seeing enhanced earning opportunities and the less skilled and less educated finding their options constrained. Less and less is left of the old, stable middle class, the product of an era when the semiskilled could maintain security in a job for life. Unless we can better prepare workers for this dramatic economic shift, social decline will worsen.
One popular response, obviously given prominent voice in the 2016 election, would seek to block globalization and otherwise search for ways to force up wages for the less skilled. It’s an understandable reaction, but whatever Washington thinks of its powers, it can neither turn back the clock nor repeal economic laws. Trade protections and legislated wage supports will not only fail to protect the vulnerable; they will also inflict broader economic harm. Policymakers would do better to accommodate the impact of globalization and technological innovation, refocus the economy accordingly, alter the nature of the workplace, and train (and retrain) the labor force. Only in this way can the United States ease social frictions and ensure a healthy new middle class for the 21st century.