Sep 21, 2019 - Politics & Policy

Automation, immigration and fear

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

People often blame immigration and trade for destroying American work, even though automation and technological change are far more likely to take away jobs in the coming years.

What's happening: In a first-of-its-kind experiment, an MIT political scientist tested whether informing people about potential job loss from automation would change their minds about immigration and trade.

  • In three studies, MIT's Baobao Zhang got the same result — people didn't shift their beliefs. Even when presented with evidence that automation was by far the more salient risk to jobs, people continued to hold anti-immigration, anti-trade views.
  • These findings suggest that support for populist Trumpian policies may not be as closely linked to economic anxiety as is often argued.

"Right-wing populism is not only an economic story," says Zhang. "Economic anxiety might not be the main driver for support for Donald Trump. For instance, it could be people feeling threatened by out-groups" like immigrants and foreign workers.

The big picture: This narrative has been around since President Trump won in 2016 on a wave of protectionist proposals — that largely white, middle- and low-income Americans living far from coastal wealth voted in their economic self-interest.

  • But a truly self-interested person, economists say, would focus on the automation, which could wipe out millions of jobs, rather than immigration or trade.
  • The MIT research, which has not yet been peer reviewed, found that learning about automation also didn't make people more likely to support retraining programs that experts say are essential to counterbalance the disruption.

Another root problem is that it's really, really hard to change people's minds, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. Zhang previously studied reactions to information about climate change, an issue that remains polarizing despite scientific consensus.

"It may be that cultural factors play a substantial role in protectionist sentiments," says Darrell West, director of the Center for Technology Innovation at Brookings. "Workers may worry about immigrants taking their jobs as automation kicks in but also be concerned about what that will mean for American identity and the future of the country," he tells Axios.

Go deeper

The aging future of work

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The tightening labor market is opening up new opportunities for an overlooked cohort of American workers: those over age 50.

Why it matters: Ageism has long persisted within American companies, and studies have shown that workers over 50 often get turned away from jobs even if they've got the right qualifications. But the tide may be turning.

"Tectonic shift" in supply chains already happening

Cranes load freight cars with scrap metal in Dresden, Germany. Photo: Jens Büttner/picture alliance via Getty Images

Supply chains, even for companies outside of China, are in motion already as businesses rethink their strategies in a new global environment.

Driving the news: A new survey of analysts who cover more than 3,000 companies from Bank of America Securities is finding a "tectonic shift in global supply chains."

Supreme Court allows Trump administration to penalize immigrants likely to use public benefits

Photo: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

The Supreme Court ruled Monday that the Trump administration can begin enforcing new rules that penalize immigrants who are likely to rely on certain public programs, such as food stamps or Medicaid.

Why it matters: This isn't a final ruling on the rules' legality — the 5-4 vote allows them to take effect while courts decide further — but it's a significant incremental victory for the White House. It'll quickly make it much harder for lower-income immigrants to get a green card, change their immigration status or become citizens.

Go deeper: Health of immigrants at risk in changes to public assistance policies

Keep ReadingArrowJan 27, 2020