Photo Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photos: Yu Haiyang/China News Service/VCG via Getty Images, Spencer Platt/Getty Images and Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Automation is one of the big sleeper issues of the 2020 presidential campaign. Most candidates aren't focusing on it by name, even though it profoundly shapes key themes in the race: the U.S. economy, jobs and friction between the haves and have-nots.

Why it matters: "If we stay on the trajectory we're on currently, we're going to have greater income inequality, less social mobility, greater political unrest and greater income insecurity," says Elisabeth Reynolds, executive director of the MIT Task Force on the Work of the Future.

The big picture: The effects of automation fit into a puzzle that includes trade policy. But while trade and China hog political attention, automation gets passed over, leaving a gaping hole in critical preparations for the future of work.

Where it stands: The 2020 field is split on automation, and not just along party lines.

There's a lack of "original thinking" on the issue from the candidates, says MIT economist Daron Acemoglu.

  • The debate gets muddy because automation is tied up with other massive forces threatening the economy, including trade. Plus, it's hard to disentangle the potential upsides from the pain, or put hard numbers on either.
  • But Warren's hard-line trade-only argument is "too extreme," says Reynolds. "I think we know that it's both automation and trade."
  • "There are high levels of uncertainties here and that only makes it a more queasy issue," says Brookings' Mark Muro. "Some will benefit; some won’t. Parts of jobs could go away, but other new parts emerge."

Voters, too, may be underestimating the importance of automation. Instead, their views are largely a litmus test for their politics.

  • When Gallup and Northeastern University asked Americans to rate the seriousness of various threats to jobs earlier this year, 56% of Republicans said immigration is a major threat, compared to just 5% of Democrats.
  • By contrast, 60% of Democrats said increased trade barriers are a major threat, versus 17% of Republicans.
  • AI, which underlies automation, was less important for both parties: 35% of Democrats and 34% of Republicans said AI was a major threat.

The bottom line: For the gravity of the changes it's bringing, automation deserves more emphasis than it's getting.

Go deeper:

Go deeper

Updated 7 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Global: Total confirmed cases as of 1:30 a.m. ET: 19,861,683 — Total deaths: 731,326 — Total recoveries — 12,115,825Map.
  2. U.S.: Total confirmed cases as of 1:30 a.m. ET: 5,044,864 — Total deaths: 162,938 — Total recoveries: 1,656,864 — Total tests: 61,792,571Map.
  3. Politics: Pelosi says states don't have the funds to comply with Trump's executive order on unemployment — Mnuchin says Trump executive orders were cleared by Justice Department.
  4. States: New York reports lowest rate of positive coronavirus test results since pandemic began
  5. Public health: Ex-FDA head: U.S. will "definitely" see 200,000 to 300,000 virus deaths by end of 2020. 
  6. Schools: 97,000 children test positive for coronavirus in two weeks — Nine test positive at Georgia school where photo showing packed hallway went viral .

97,000 children test positive for coronavirus in two weeks

A boy has his temperature checked as he receives a free COVID-19 test in South Los Angeles in July. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

At least 97,000 children tested positive for COVID-19 in the final two weeks of July and there's been an estimated 338,000 cases involving kids in the U.S. since the pandemic began, a new report finds.

Why it matters: The findings in the report by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association comes as schools and day cares look to reopen in the U.S., with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) announcing Friday that school districts in the state can reopen in the fall amid lower coronavirus transmission rates.

Updated 3 hours ago - World

Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai arrested under national security law

Media tycoon Jimmy Lai at the Next Digital offices in Hong Kong in June. Photo: Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images

Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Jimmy Lai has been arrested for "collusion with foreign powers" and the offices of his newspaper raided, said Mark Simon, an executive at the tycoon's media firm Next Digital on Monday.

Why it matters: He was arrested under the new national security law that gives Beijing more powers over the former British colony. Lai is the most prominent person arrested under the law, which prompted the U.S. to sanction Chinese officials, including Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam, over Beijing's efforts to strip the territory of its autonomy.