Opinion

Opinion | Niall Ferguson

From fubatics to robotics

South Boston, MA -- 1/4/2017 - NuTonomy's driverless car takes a spin around Drydock Ave. (Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff) Topic: 05driverlesscar Reporter:

Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/File

NuTonomy’s driverless car took a spin around in South Boston.

It was this time last year that it first occurred to me that the U.S. presidential election was a choice between two World War II acronyms: SNAFU (Situation Normal All F***ed Up) and FUBAR (F***ed Up Beyond All Recognition).

In essence, American voters faced a choice between a candidate who personified the political status quo under an arrogant and detached liberal elite and a candidate who promised the disruption of that status quo. With Hillary Clinton there was the certainty that nothing much would change. With Donald Trump there was the chance of quite a lot of change, but the risk that it would be change for the worse.

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This week, the time has arrived to break the bad news to those who voted for Trump. You wanted change. You got it. For only the second time since 1955, Republicans control both the White House and Congress. But the result is a political system that I can now officially certify as FUBAR. This is not politics. This is fubatics.

Fubatics is to politics what comedy is to news. Ever since Americans began to get their politics from comedians like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, the danger has existed that the politicians would respond by providing them and their scriptwriters with material for gags. We have now reached that point.

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On Wednesday, newly appointed White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci told a New Yorker journalist that his colleague, chief of staff Reince Priebus, was “a (expletive) paranoid schizophrenic, a paranoiac.”He took to Twitter to imply that Priebus was guilty of a “felony” in leaking details of his financial disclosures. Meanwhile, their boss was also tweeting that he had lost faith in his “very weak” attorney general, Jeff Sessions.

Unified government? These guys are unified the way the cast of “Reservoir Dogs” were unified.

Meanwhile, in Silicon Valley, the plan to render most Americans — and indeed most humans — unemployed goes smoothly forward.

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If you don’t live in northern California, you tend to assume that it will be decades before self-driving vehicles are the dominant mode of transport. Last week, British Environment Secretary Michael Gove announced that the sale of new diesel and petrol cars would be banned in the UK by 2040, to encourage people to buy electric vehicles. This time frame surely underestimates Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla, not to mention the established car manufacturers currently chasing him in the race to bring electric cars to the mass market. Gove’s worries about diesel fumes remind me of the Times editorial in 1894 warning that, by the middle of the 20th century, every street in London would be buried under nine feet of horse manure.

Despite overwhelming evidence of the accelerating pace of technological change and its diffusion, we humans remain chronically bad at making realistic projections about our economic future. According to the American trucking industry, the number of jobs for heavy-truck drivers and tractor-trailer drivers will be 21 percent higher in 2020 than in 2010. The Bureau of Labor expects that growth to continue until 2024. Yet self-driving vehicles are already on the road in several states in the United States. The Tesla Model S that takes me to the airport is already fitted with an autopilot mode.

According to the American Trucker Association, there are 3.5 million professional truck drivers in the United States. It is the most common job in the overwhelming majority of states. But the stark reality is that truckers are sitting where the drivers of horse-drawn carriages were sitting a century ago: on the brink of unemployment. Nor are they alone. Nearly half of jobs in United States are at risk of being automated over next decade or two, according to Carl Frey and Michael Osborne of Oxford’s Martin School. Looking at global employment as a whole, the McKinsey Global Institute recently concluded that “half of today’s work activities could be automated by 2055, but this could happen up to 20 years earlier.”

Trump voters thought it was globalization that destroyed the good jobs in American manufacturing. In reality, it was globalization and technology — and now technology is getting ready to destroy the not-so-good jobs too.

As an economic historian, I cling to the hope that current predictions of the impending redundancy of humanity — like similar predictions at earlier stages of industrialization — will turn out to be wrong. As a reader of Dostoevsky’s “Notes from Underground,” I also expect bloody-minded humanity to put up more of a fight against the automation of the world than Silicon Valley expects. (That is probably what Steve Bannon is thinking, too.)

Yet I watch my son play gleefully with a new toy robot called RoboSapien. The G.I. Joe we gave him for Christmas lies forgotten in a corner of his bedroom. Suddenly I felt a sense of kinship with that poor, discarded doll.

The goings-on in Washington that I follow so closely are the politics of a distracted age. But the more attention we give to @realDonaldTrump on Twitter, the less we pay to the economic revolution going on all around us. The future belongs to robotics, not fubatics.

Niall Ferguson is a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.
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