Time to face up to reality and stop looking for scapegoats: automation is coming

An anti-trade, anti-globalisation narrative has grown to become one of the most important political discourses of 2016. But, we hear from former European Commission president José Manuel Barroso, former president of the UN's General Assembly Mogens Lykketoft and WTO director-general Roberto Azevêdo, about a far greater problem on the horizon

On the day of the 2016 US elections, when Americans up and down the country were queuing up to vote for Donald Trump, three experts on world affairs gathered at Web Summit to discuss the reality we now live in.

José Manuel Barroso, former president of the European Commission, former Prime Minister of Portugal and now the non-executive chairman of Goldman Sachs, was joined by Roberto Azevêdo, director-general of the World Trade Organization, and Mogens Lykketoft, former president of the United Nations General Assembly and former Danish Minister of Foreign Affairs. These are men that play or have played key roles in running our world, and it’s clear that they have serious concerns about the future we now face.

“Frankly speaking, we are now in a very existential fight globally between the forces of openness and the forces of nationalism, protectionism, chauvinism, as we see in American election,” summarises Barroso.

“We are seeing all over the world a backlash against globalisation, against trade. We are seeing protectionism from the voting in Wallonia in Belgium against the agreement in Canada – that has blocked an agreement between Europe and Canada – to the positions of the candidates in the United States election against trade in the Pacific region,” he adds.

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Featured image courtesy of Web Summit

Azevêdo’s reasoning for this backlash is a familiar one. “Today in the marketplace there are feelings of uncertainty, feelings of being abandoned, feelings of being left behind and a sense of not enough opportunities out there.

“If you’re young, if you’re 20, 30 years old it’s one thing. If you’re [in your] late 40s, 50s and you lose your job, what do you do next? What’s out there in the marketplace for you? How do you support your family; where do you go from there?”

However, the focus on globalisation-driven trade and its role in job losses is not, Azevêdo argues, going to resolve the problem.

“I think that a lot of this blame on trade is just finding the easy targets, finding the easy enemy: it’s the different, it’s what’s coming from outside,” he says.

Automation is the problem

According to Azevêdo, the real source of our problems is staring us in the face; and it’s time we faced up to it.

“If we’re honest with each other and we look at the marketplace and we know what’s happening, it has nothing to do with trade,” he says.

“Two in 10 jobs that are lost in advanced economies today are due to trade and to imports. Eight out of 10 or more, it’s about new technologies, it’s about higher productivity, innovation.”

In summary, automation and other productivity gains are driving job losses and a lack of opportunities, and that isn’t something you can legislate against.

“Those things, you cannot fight them, you cannot be against them, you have to embrace them, you have to see that that is the future and to adapt and be ready for that,” urges Azevêdo, adding that there is far more to come.

“What are you going to do when you have a full-scale delivery of parcels by drones? Or when you have self-driven trucks delivering cargo?” he asked, adding that the first automated deliveries are already being made.

“Now in the US alone there are three and a half million truck drivers. Those guys are going to lose their jobs and it’s not only them, it’s all the roadside assistance, hotels, cafes, restaurants, service stations. What you going to do with all those people?

“Now don’t tell me a few years from now that you didn’t know this was going to happen. This is going to happen. And what do you do, how do you handle that?”

Politicians combating the wrong problem 

Amidst all the vitriol, politicians, the panel argues, have so far failed to face the reality of the situation, instead tailoring policies to a false cause.

If you don’t realise what the problem is, you will prescribe the wrong medicine, and the wrong medicine is protectionism

“If you don’t realise what the problem is, you will prescribe the wrong medicine, and the wrong medicine is protectionism, is stopping trade,” says Azevêdo. “You smother the chances of thousands of people.”

But ignoring trade is only part of it.

“I really believe that the missing variable is leadership, because we are seeing, including in Europe, that the leaders of the centre-left and centre-right parties are giving up to more extremist forces, including the very dark forces of nationalism, and we know in Europe what happened when nationalism was winning: the First and the Second World Wars,” says Barroso.

The panel agree that there is a trend of, as panel moderator Tom Nuttall of The Economist puts it, “the inability or unwillingness of some of our elected politicians to deliver hard truths to their electorate about the difficulties to come”.

But why are politicians failing to acknowledge automation’s impact on the job market?

“I think the politicians will get their way as long as the electorate is responding to the easy answer,” answers Azevêdo with nods of agreement from Barroso and Lykketoft.

“[Politicians] don’t want to give a complicated answer, and answer where you have to reform the whole system of education, training, skills, offering opportunities for small entrepreneurs, financing, investment for them. It’s much easier to say ‘oh it’s an import from that country over there’.

“At the end of the day they have to be held accountable and the people who can hold them accountable is the electorate. And the voter, at the end of the day has got to accept that finding the easy solution is going to cut it.”

What’s important to acknowledge, says Azevêdo, is that this is a problem that isn’t going away.

“Most of the problems that we face today are structural changes in modern society. I hear: ‘oh, the economy is going to pick up again’. That’s not going to change things. These are structural changes and you have to come to grips with that, and the political system has to respond to that.”

Globalisation for all

Whether we like it or not, globalisation cannot be stopped, and there will be job losses. But if politicians can face the fact that this is a structural change, the panel says, they can respond to the future in a way that works for us.

“Globalisation is going to happen, with the support or not [of] politicians,” says Barroso. “Of course it will be great if the political leaders try to have a human globalisation where we can defend some values, values that are dear to us in Europe: of human dignity, human rights, of social care.

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“But at the same time the point cannot be to resist the wave of globalisation because globalisation is going to take place, so we need enlightened leadership, but I believe in democracy and I believe the pressure of our civil societies is decisive for having this kind of enlightened and active leadership.”

But in order to achieve this, we as citizens need to hold our politicians accountable, and make them face the reality we’re entering.

“Hold them accountable,” says Azevêdo, “It’s the electorate who has to inform themselves, have a more rational conversation about this and say look, this answer doesn’t convince me. We need much more than that, and that’s the first step.”

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