Jun 11, 2017 - Economy

Calling all Roosevelts

Lazaro Gamio / Axios

We seem to get outsized politicians just when we need them — such as during economic upheaval, when such figures gave Americans the 40-hour work week, weekends and Social Security.

But who is prepared to tackle this era's crises, brought on by globalization, automation, and artificial intelligence? These aren't ordinary difficulties. Speaking to Axios, Larry Summers, the former US treasury secretary, said we are talking a problem-solver of the scale of Germany's Otto von Bismarck, England's William Gladstone, or Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt. But he said he doesn't yet see a figure of such size to tackle them.

This is not surprising: One of today's most polarizing issues among Americans is their contrary appraisals of their leaders. They worship and loathe President Donald Trump, and admire and hate Hillary Clinton. There's almost no overlap — except the broadly held yearning for an all-knowing personality to pull apart the partisans, and resolve the crises.

It's worth hearing Summers out:

The transformation from a world towards the end of the 19th century, where half of people worked on farms, to the world of the last two generations, where closer to 1 percent of people worked on farms, was a spectacular and huge technological change . . . it forced a huge change in our public institutions, the institution of substantial social insurance, the institution of substantial support for agricultural communities, the institution of a government committed to maintaining a level of aggregate demand so that we wouldn't see a repeat of the Depression.
And, you know, you can discuss where that came from — Bismarck in Europe, Gladstone in England, Wilson and the two Roosevelts in the United States. But what we have to hope for is that kind of transformational leadership in the years ahead because I think it would be a gross misreading of history to think that a laissez-faire, preserve-what-is, and don't-add-anything-new in terms of public institutions and public programs will be sufficient to enable our societies to deal with these trends, which are very much under way.

He isn't the only leading thinker suggesting the need for an outsized answer — if not an outsized personality to carry it out — to the radical economic and social changes around us:

  • Elon Musk has suggested a universal basic income, a guaranteed living wage to all citizens, because automation technologies will create so much unemployment.
  • Former President Obama has also weighed in on the subject, saying "As AI gets further incorporated, and the society potentially gets wealthier, the link between production and distribution, how much you work and how much you make, gets further and further attenuated — the computers are doing a lot of the work.
  • Jaron Lanier, the futurist and inventor of the term "virtual reality," argues that the mere act of using products like Google, Wikipedia and Facebook creates economic value, and that everyone should claim ownership over the value of their contributions to the Internet.
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