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Hill: Preparing for an uncertain future

Sheridan Hill
Special to Black Mountain News

If you’re prone to worrying, just skip this column. But I’ve been listening to Andrew Yang’s audiobook, “The War on Normal People,” and he points out that small towns and large cities alike should now be preparing for an uncertain future.

Yang argues that while we in small town America have had our noses to the proverbial grindstone, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have been systematically creating robots and other forms of Artificial Intelligence, AI, that will take most of our jobs. This will begin, Yang says, not in the next decade but next year. According to a McKinsey report, one-third of American workers will lose their jobs to automation by 2030. Think about that when you choose the self check-out line at Ingles.

Just as Donald Trump’s favorite slogan is Make America Great Again, or MAGA, the former Democratic presidential candidate you’ve never heard of wears a pin that reads: MATH — Make America Think Harder. (Yang dropped out of the race Feb. 11.)

In this Feb. 7 photo, former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang speaks during a Democratic presidential primary debate at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H.

A Brown- and Columbia-educated entrepreneur, Yang became a millionaire by providing leadership to high-tech start-up companies. Running for president allows him to tout more loudly across the country his economic reform platform, which includes offering what he calls the “freedom dividend.”

This part of his plan, which he is testing now on a small scale, involves giving each person in the country a thousand dollars a month. You might hear this term — UBI, or universal basic income — associated with Yang.

In his plan, there are no strings attached. Use the money however you like.

Don’t ask me how this will be funded. My point is that, irrespective of whether or not you like Yang or his ideas, it’s his reasoning behind the freedom dividend that is both fascinating and frightening.

It’s particularly interesting if you live here in Black Mountain, where our economy is based in large part on tourism and those who live here part-time. What is our backup plan, as individuals and as a community, when the next recession comes?

Lots of folks have predicted that better AI will eventually take some jobs, but Yang (whose book and audio book come with a PDF full of fact-checked statistics) ties this reality to the timing of the next economic downturn in particular.

Not only will cashiers and warehouse workers soon be replaced by AI, but also truck drivers, baristas, surgeons and chefs can — and will — soon enough be replaced by intelligent automation.

Yang worries and predicts that when we have our next economic downturn, the labor market disruptions will be severe and longstanding. He disagrees vehemently with economists who point to the Industrial Revolution of the early 1900s and predict that all will be well.

“Next time, it’s not going to be like before,” he maintains. “It’s all different now.”

The next time the United States experiences a significant economic recession or depression, when it starts back up, Yang believes that hundreds of thousands of jobs will disappear forever. And that those workers, if they don’t think fast right now, will wind up destitute.

What then?

Furthermore, Yang maintains that those who report unemployment statistics do not yet have a method for accounting for jobs that go away due to automation.

If you lose your job because your employer is restructuring, or because you were replaced by a machine, your job essentially no longer “exists” in the employment sector — and you might not be counted as unemployed.

Americans suffer, Yang says, from “an almost magical embracing of ignorance cloaked in humility. (As if) it is unknowable what the new jobs will be; it is beyond human wisdom.”

One of the places we as a town can prepare for the next economic downturn is in our Comprehensive Plan, and the town is now gathering public comment to update the 2014 Comprehensive Plan.

According to the town website, monthly meetings will be held on the fourth Monday of the month from 3:30-5:30 p.m. at Town Hall.

You may also offer your comments by emailing the Planning Department at planning@townofblackmountain.org

History repeats itself … until it doesn’t. Let’s make sure we can see around the next curve.

Sheridan Hill

Sheridan Hill’s column explores small town charm. She is a lifelong Tar Heel, the founder of Real Life Stories, LLC, which publishes heirloom biography for select clientele, and she facilitates the Black Mountain Grief Circle.