“The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” — William Gibson
Gibson, a science fiction writer, is right. The “future”— the automated, integrated, global economy — now unevenly distributes advantages and disadvantages. Those with power and wealth have benefited to a disproportionate extent. Americans who started with less wealth and less power are often burdened by the changes and reap fewer benefits.
To some extent this tale of the haves and have-nots has always been the case (think the emperors of Rome, Louis XIV, and the aristocracies of the Old World). But historically, America was different. It was a place where opportunity and equality overcame the constraints of the past and opened the door for the vast majority to join the middle class. But over the last several decades, through rapid changes in technology, competition from the rest of the world, tax breaks that benefit the wealthiest, and the emergence of offshore banking, the old static hierarchies are returning. Millions of Americans have seen their incomes drop and their jobs disappear, all while soaring gains go to those already at the top.
On paper, and viewed from above, the American economy looks stronger than it did forty years ago. The economy is bigger than ever, profits have soared, and CEO pay has exploded. But for many, they are worse off than they had been or would have been if the economy had not changed. This is no way to operate an economy that works for everyone. And it’s no way to build or maintain a strong America.
There are three ways to approach the challenges of the new world:
The “Trump Approach” embraces technophobia, protectionism, and fear of others in a vain attempt to restore “the good old days.”
Another way of thinking celebrates “Creative Destruction” by callously cheering the loss of jobs, identities, and ways of life in the name of economic growth. (Milton Friedman and his friends never lost their jobs to automation or trade).
Our approach, the “Wisconsin Way,” proposes a different path. It accommodates policy to technological and market change so that all citizens share the benefits of progress. It is our responsibility, as policymakers, to evenly balance the rewards of a changing world. To prevent the incidental damage caused by an open, technologically advanced economy, we must harness the future to make us all better off. Of course, this dilemma isn’t new, but our leadership must be.
How did we get here? Employment in American manufacturing tended to grow — until the late 1970s, when technology, global competition, and unwise tax giveaways caused the United States economy to shed jobs in this sector. As the number of manufacturing jobs began to decline, wage growth began to stagnate. The next generation of workers with appropriate training and education moved into the so-called “knowledge economy,” many times receiving good wages in sectors like health care, business, engineering, and information technology. Unfortunately, many workers with extensive backgrounds in manufacturing were often left behind by changes in the economy, finding employment in sectors that did not offer great wages, like retail, food service, and transportation.
But now online commerce, automated cashiers, and driverless vehicles threaten many of our jobs. Advances in artificial intelligence may soon threaten employment in high-skill sectors like health care, business, engineering, and information technology, once believed to be insulated from massive technological changes. As artificial intelligence gets better and better at analyzing data and making decisions, more jobs may become redundant.
A better future, a future where benefits are more fairly shared, is within our reach — but we must make that future with intention. If technology, trade, or other forces continue to disrupt the labor market, we must be there with policies that support citizens as they make their way through life. We have an obligation to construct a future in which Wisconsinites are empowered to climb to the heights of their imagination and dreams.
We can do this by rethinking the role of government, not as a “safety net,” but as a well-built ladder. If this metaphor is made real it will enable all citizens to reach their highest potential without fear of falling into poverty, without fear of failing.
What Wisconsinites deserve is a New Deal for the 21st century, a Wisconsin Way Forward:
- First, a set of policies that assure employment for all who seek it. In Wisconsin’s Transitional Jobs program, we have the makings of this principle, but we must dramatically increase the size and scope of available jobs;
- Second, family leave policies that allow mothers and fathers and sons and daughters to care for loved ones without fear of financial ruin;
- Third, a public education system that is free, fair, and innovative enough to meet the needs of all Wisconsinites, be they traditional or returning students;
- Fourth, health care for all that is affordable, reliable, portable, and protected from abuse by insurance companies, drug companies, or anyone else;
- Finally, an affordable, high quality retirement plan for all workers;
This is not an exhaustive list, but it is a clear enough way forward toward a better future for all, a future in which the benefits and opportunities are better shared and the hopes and dreams of all Wisconsinites are within reach. State policymakers across America can follow the Wisconsin Way Forward to clear a path for the aspirations of all Americans. The future is already here, and with the right approach we can all make the most of it.
Representative Daniel G. Riemer represents the 7th District in the Wisconsin State Assembly & Representative Eric Genrich represents the 90th District in the Wisconsin State Assembly.
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