Democrats Must Not Repeat The Mistakes Of Globalization
Last September, tech’s biggest names trekked to Capitol Hill for a forum on artificial intelligence. In a meeting closed to journalists, executives briefed nearly two-thirds of the Senate on the future of A.I. A few respected labor and civic leaders were present, but the tech titans dominated the headlines.
There’s an assumption in Silicon Valley that the first trillionaire may well be an A.I. entrepreneur, so tech leaders were eager to share their thoughts on some rules of the road. They warned of killer robots and the “Terminator” scenario, of misinformation and fake videos but gave short shrift to broader issues of economic fairness and wealth disparity that are of more urgent concern to most Americans.
Watching Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and Sam Altman lead a confab on the ethical principles and regulations that should guide A.I. development was reminiscent of Davos conferences in the 1990s and early 2000s.
You remember the story that those Davos conferences broadcast to the world: Everyone will be able to get a knowledge job. Consumer goods will become cheaper. Globalization coupled with the internet will lead to prosperity for everyone.
Well, it didn’t quite work out that way.
What these Davos participants missed was how unfettered globalization hollowed out the working class here at home. We are all familiar with the consequences now: shuttered factories and rural communities that never saw the promised jobs materialize. As the American dream slipped away from them, many people developed deep and justified resentment. They saw the obscene concentration of wealth and opportunity in districts like mine in the heart of Silicon Valley. The evangelists for the new economy were prescient about the wealth generation that globalization and the internet would unleash but wrong that it would increase economic opportunities for all Americans.
Like globalization, A.I. will undoubtedly bring benefits — tremendous benefits — to our economy, with higher productivity, personalized medicine and education and more efficient energy use. Generative A.I. has the potential to help those with fewer resources or experience quickly learn and develop new skills. The real challenge, though, is how to center the dignity and economic security of working-class Americans during the changes to come. And unlike the Industrial Revolution, which spanned half a century at least, the A.I. revolution is unfolding at lightning speed.
Today the Democratic Party is at a crossroads, as it was in the 1990s, when the dominant wing in the party argued for prioritizing private-sector growth and letting the chips fall where they may. The criticism of this approach offered around that time by Senator Paul Wellstone, Senator Russ Feingold and Representative Bernie Sanders (as he was then) — that the offshoring globalization debacle was not helping the working class and was, in fact, hurting it — was largely ignored.
When it comes to A.I., the fault lines for the Democratic Party similarly run between business and labor, between donors and grass-roots activists and between those concerned foremost with our global competitiveness and those concerned with the economic well-being of the working class.
The tension between business and labor became clear in the battle over proposed legislation in California, A.B. 316, which divided me and many California legislators from Gov. Gavin Newsom. The bill would have required, for at least five years, a human driver on board self-driving trucks weighing more than 10,000 pounds that are transporting goods or passengers.
Tech companies argue that replacing human drivers with A.I. is feasible, will reduce labor costs and will therefore make it cheaper to transport goods and services. They lobbied heavily against the bill. The bill nonetheless passed overwhelmingly, with support from more than 80 percent of the California Legislature and more than 70 percent of California voters. Unfortunately, Mr. Newsom sided with the business advocates in September and vetoed the bill.
I supported A.B. 316 because drivers say it’s currently an unnecessary risk to have large trucks on public roads without a human on board. This is especially true if there is extreme weather, hazardous conditions or heavy cargo on board. No one understands the safety risks at play here better than the drivers themselves, and it’s both foolish and insulting to suggest they would make up such concerns to keep jobs that do not add value. We wouldn’t trust planes to fly without pilots, even with the most sophisticated and well-tested autopilot systems, and we shouldn’t trust large trucks to drive without operators.
It’s not just the A.I. concerns of truck drivers that are causing divides in the Democratic coalition. Last summer, some California politicians were hesitant to support the Writers Guild of America strike publicly, given Hollywood’s cultural importance and fund-raising power. I was proud to join the picket line. As in the case of self-driving trucks, the issue comes down to giving workers a say.
Writers were intrigued by the ways A.I. could help as a research tool and unlock new potential for movies and TV but were concerned that studios might rush to use A.I. to write cookie-cutter scripts and sacrifice imagination and creativity on the altar of profits. It’s better for writers, not executives, to slowly discover the best uses of A.I. in entertainment. In their new contract with the studios, the writers won important A.I. guardrails concerning credits and compensation — protections that can evolve over time. Even though writers’ jobs are very different from truck drivers’ jobs, labor solidarity is one of the few countervailing forces that can blunt the dehumanization of work motivated by short-term profit maximization in a world where A.I. is capable of suddenly disrupting both blue- and white-collar work.
That said, workers need more than just a voice and guardrails. They should also share in company profits, whether they are working for a trucking company, a production studio or a car manufacturer. Like many chief executives, workers should receive compensation based on profits and the company’s performance, not solely hours worked. It’s the only way workers can fully thrive as A.I. increases America’s productive capacity.
Of course, there are Beltway skeptics of pro-labor policies. What about the threat that leading A.I. companies will flee to China if we pay workers here more? they ask. Don’t raise worker bonuses or have them share in profits, or we’ll lose the global race, they warn. We caved to that blackmail in the 1990s and 2000s, and look where it has landed us. Ordinary Americans are tired of hearing about abstract notions of our global competitiveness while their pay doesn’t keep up and their costs of living rise.
There are already reports that A.I. could displace tens of thousands of jobs this year at big companies, potentially causing damage to their culture and their local communities — and starting a concerning trend. A work force committee at each company should weigh in on how A.I. could help employees better do their existing jobs, whether new hiring should slow down and what new credentialing or roles for affected employees could look like before restructuring and letting people go.
This is not to dismiss the need for dynamism, fluidity and flexibility in our markets. American companies must continue to adopt cutting-edge technology. These technologies can unleash a manufacturing revolution here at home — which America should celebrate, in part because jobs in the trades that require craftsmanship appear less likely to be eliminated. It’s a development that can reverse the decline of new American factories. Even so, federal policy should require public companies to have active worker participation when making decisions on how A.I. will change jobs that have functions that might be automated and provide tax incentives to companies that give workers a direct stake in their profits.
Here’s the balance we need to strike. We should encourage disruptive innovation at our universities, start-ups and even large companies but prioritize the perspective and earnings of workers in the adoption of any such technology that develops. This is a vision for democratic innovation that will still allow us to compete economically and militarily but not at all human costs. Democratic innovation recognizes that the need for social cohesion may be the ultimate determiner of the success of the American experiment and American leadership.
The Democratic Party cannot claim to be the party of the working class if we allow A.I. to erode the earnings and security of the working class. The party can be forgiven once for the mistake of abetting globalization to run amok, just not twice.
Technologies — our technologies — are meant to complement and enhance human initiative, not subordinate or exploit it. We must push for workers to have a decision-making role in how and when to adopt technologies, and we must insist on workers’ profiting from the implementation of these technologies. Our generational task is to ensure that A.I. is a tool for lessening the vast disparities of wealth and opportunity that plague us, not exacerbating them.
Ro Khanna, who represents the 17th Congressional District in California, which includes Silicon Valley, is the author of “Dignity in a Digital Age: Making Tech Work for All of Us.”