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  • The MIT research, which has not yet been peer reviewed, found that learning about automation also didn't make people more likely to support retraining programs that experts say are essential to counterbalance the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.

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