Democracy in all its imperfect forms has dominated for centuries, saving the world from tyranny more than once. Capitalism and the industrial age created economies at all levels from local to global. This resulted in a large, thriving middle class, spread of higher education, and myriad career fields to provide employment opportunities as well as entrepreneurial opportunities. The system worked well and ensured an overall peaceful world. What will happen in the face of modern challenges including climate, resources, labor, et al? These issues should be front and center in the 2020 election, along with national security and other crucial areas.
In the 20th Century, the people imposed critical social justice protections that were necessary to maintain a viable system. These included things such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, etc., that ensured that while most could thrive, there would be minimal safeguards for those who would inevitably struggle or be left behind. During the debates over passage of these programs, they were labelled as Socialist as the focus of the opposition, attempting to portray them as contrary to Capitalism or Democracy. Decades later they were entrenched in society, having fulfilled their intended promises. Agencies such as the EPA and OSHA were also created as another important check on the industrialists to ensure other necessary protections for society as a whole. The harmony of the system worked incredibly well, ensuring peace and prosperity. Democracy rose, Authoritarianism declined, and society prospered.
Partly due to the rollout of Representative Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal (remember, this was intended as an aspirational statement, not as legislation to be enacted) that opened the door, Republicans will strive in 2020 to recreate old fashioned identity politics and a battle between Capitalism and Socialism. This is the wrong debate to have for many reasons but would likely ultimately work in Republicans’ favor as it would help them avoid their record on substantive issues. Providing basic protections for society may have roots in Socialism, but the impact of these programs has served to strengthen Democracy and Capitalism, allowing corporate interests and earnings to soar; the resulting trade and stability helping to keep peace around the world.
The past few years has seen an alarming rise in Authoritarianism around the world, often disguised in disingenuous Populist tones. The movement feeds upon the growing frustration of people who feel left out or left behind from the increasingly complex economy. Some blame globalization and support withdrawal from international associations. Some blame immigrant populations that they claim steal jobs or result in increased competition. Most object to wealth inequality and see the divide between wealth and poverty growing, threatening their own livelihood and ability to provide for their families. For the first time in our history, Americans are not optimistic that the next generation will have things better than the current.
Playing to a more extremist base, Republicans continue efforts to cut Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and agencies such as the EPA. They foment fear, hate, and xenophobia to keep their base in check. However, the bigger threat to our future stems more from the natural evolution of our Capitalist economic systems. Don’t get me wrong, I am a confirmed Capitalist. I also believe there is a role for government to ensure certain minimum protections and fair opportunities for its people. The point here is that economic developments occurring today will soon risk negative repercussions worldwide, will threaten the future of Capitalism, and likely lead to more Authoritarianism as a means to control power. We must prevent this possible future.
Here are some examples. We love technology. I do not know anyone who seriously believes we should regress to the days before electricity, cars, appliances, etc. Life centuries ago was extremely difficult and progress allowed many important innovations and improvements to daily life. Disgruntled working families in the U.S., many of whom voted for Donald Trump, were frustrated and scared because of dwindling job prospects. They blamed immigrants for taking their jobs. They blamed corporations for moving overseas, taking their jobs to cheaper markets. The latter is certainly true to some extent. However, most jobs were made redundant by technology. Automation is improving at a rapid pace, making human workers more and more obsolete. The day will soon arrive where there are no actual manufacturing or industrial jobs, but for the technical people to monitor the automation systems.
Fulfillment centers, from Amazon and others, are forcing the closure of traditional brick and mortar stores. People are shopping from home via their laptops and phones resulting in traditional stores closing, even the large, legacy chains. Shopping malls replaced main street and fulfillment centers are replacing them. However, rather than transferring jobs from stores to the large warehouses, the warehouses are becoming almost entirely automated. Giant robotic arms race along the shelves stocking and retrieving items with the ability to carry significantly more weight than a human being. Humans will soon be relegated to few quality control, technical maintenance, and management jobs. There is even a move to develop driverless vehicles and employ drones to make deliveries, eliminating another category of human jobs.
Higher education, always considered the great equalizer in providing opportunities for professional careers, is also contributing to the problem. We have witnessed the onset of private, online schools that sell degrees. Students can take classes from home no matter how far away they may live and can do the work at any time that is convenient. By not having dedicated class sessions, the schools do not have to restrict class size in the way they would if there were live classes. The trend is expanding with traditional campus schools offering online and distance learning courses. If the trend continues, ivy-walled campuses may fall the way of brick and mortar stores.
It is true that in the past we have experienced eras of change that have spurred their own series of challenges and fears among people. We have survived those transformations and for the most part continued to thrive. However, this new era of change poses an existential, more encompassing challenge to society, specifically the workforce. People are rightfully concerned about where they will find future jobs. If all there is left to do is order things online or publish personal blogs, how do people earn enough money to buy a home, groceries, clothing and all of life’s necessities? The Pixar 2008 animated film WALL-E offers a fictional but intriguing glimpse. As the planet declines to one giant trash heap unable to sustain life, human kind escapes on a spaceship version of Noah’s Ark. They live on a never-ending cruise with nothing to do but eat and engage in recreational activities. Interesting concept, but the problem is people need to earn money in the real world or they don’t eat.
If the economy proceeds on this path and the job market steadily dissipates, does the population dramatically decline? Will people come together to survive collectively? This is not simply a U.S. or western civilization challenge. Automation will spread worldwide, so corporations will not be sending jobs anywhere. Dwindling resources from climate issues resulting in droughts, storms, fires, floods, famine, etc., will have global impact. Will governments change the status quo towards Authoritarianism to control the populations or Communism to ensure division of limited resources? We must address the need to improve our modern Capitalism now to avoid these potential consequences and minimize these threats to our future.
The world community must address climate and environmental challenges immediately before the consequences become irreversible. Clean and sustainable energy create jobs. That’s Capitalism and we need innovators to lead the way with the full support of government. Technology has done far more good than bad, but as a society we must not allow technology to threaten our future in an existential manner. This needs to be the economic debate we have in 2020. National security concerns continue to be paramount to protect our freedom from Authoritarian adversaries threatening our government to enable them to exploit world resources while we scramble internally. It was never U.S. policy to condone repressive tyrants, but now more than ever we need to stand together as a community to fight the rise of Authoritarianism, fear, hate, and division. The world depends on our collective success.