Trump's speech to truck drivers proves the GOP's economic policy is stuck in the past
It was a smart idea for President Trump to give an "economic revival" speech containing an opening shout-out to the U.S. trucking industry, as he did Wednesday in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. After all, long-haul driving, in particular, used to be a pretty good blue-collar job, a ticket to a solid middle-class lifestyle. Back in the 1970s, there was even a network television drama, Movin' On, that chronicled the rollicking roadway adventures of the men piloting the big rigs.
But an updated version of Movin' On would make for a grim and gritty reality show. Industry deregulation and the decline of union power has been good news for consumers, but not for truck drivers as wage earners. Compensation is half of what it once was and turnover is high in what was always a tough, unhealthy job. As such, the truck driving life makes for a decent short-hand illustration of what's gone wrong with working-class America, especially for men.
But in Trump's mind, truck drivers are still postwar America's knights of the road. "Nothing gets done in America without the hard-working men and women of the trucking industry," Trump said. "When your trucks are moving, America is growing. ... You are our heroes." He thought he was addressing a potentially receptive audience for a message about how his detail-light tax cut plan would eventually raise their incomes. But he was way off.
The speech was reminiscent of Trump's campaign speech last year near Pittsburgh where he vowed to resurrect the region's once-thriving coal and steel industries. In that speech, Trump oddly failed to note how Pittsburgh was now a leader in the artificial intelligence and robotics industry. With both Google and Uber building research centers there, Pittsburgh's new-economy rebirth should have been a vivid example of how the broader U.S. economy must pivot to the future rather than soak in economic nostalgia. But Trump never mentioned this.
And Trump missed the mark again in Harrisburg. He might have noted that truck drivers are frequently mentioned as some of the workers most at risk from automation. Truck drivers are certainly aware of this. The Teamsters union, which represents some 600,000 people, has been working hard to keep self-driving commercial trucks out of legislation aimed at speeding the deployment of autonomous technology for cars. Union president James Hoffa has said he wants to make sure autonomous technology is "not used to put workers at risk on the job or destroy livelihoods and chip away at the middle class."
No politicians should or can make such a guarantee. Technologists and venture capitalists, whether in Detroit or Silicon Valley, think autonomous trucking almost certainly will provide big productivity gains for the U.S. transportation industry and economy overall. Some jobs will be lost, others created, And all the driving jobs won't disappear tomorrow. As technology analyst Benedict Evans has explained, the transition might take 20 or 30 years. By that time "effectively all current truck drivers will have quit anyway — you won't replace them, but you won't necessarily put anyone directly out of work," Evans says. Already, he added, the average trucker is 49 years old, and truckers are leaving the industry faster than they can be replaced.
Government shouldn't protect current jobs from automation. Rather, it should help empower workers to fill the new jobs generated by a dynamic, technologically advanced economy. But Trump and the GOP don't even seem to recognize this as a critical issue. Just same-old, same-old agenda built around deficit-financed tax cuts. And this particular one isn't even structured to be anywhere near optimal for growth. The GOP should be giving as much, if not more, attention to education reform and worker training as it does to tax reform. As economists Daron Acemoglu and Simon Johnson recently wrote in Foreign Policy, "More people need to develop skills that will be complementary to what new machines can do."
What other choice do we have, really? Even as Trump continues to praise the important jobs of the past century, the economy is movin' on.