YANG: Now, I studied economics. And according to my economics textbook, those displaced workers would get retrained, re-skilled, move for new opportunities, find higher-productivity work, the economy would grow. So everyone wins. The market, invisible hand has done its thing. So then I said, “Okay, what actually happened to these four-million manufacturing workers?” And it turns out that almost half of them left the workforce and never worked again. And then half of those that left the workforce then filed for disability, where there are now more Americans on disability than work in construction, over 20 percent of working-age adults in some parts of the country.
DUBNER: So the former manufacturing workers, a lot of them are on disability, a lot of them are also — especially if they’re younger men — they’re spending 25 to 40 hours a week playing video games.
YANG: Yeah so it did not say in my textbook, half of them will leave the workforce never to be heard from again. Half of them will file for disability and then another significant percentage will start drinking themselves to death, start committing suicide at record levels, get addicted to opiates to a point where now eight Americans die of opiates every hour. When you say, “Am I for automation and artificial intelligence and all these fantastic things?” of course I am. I mean, we might be able to do things like cure cancer or help manage climate change more effectively. But we also have to be real that it is going to displace millions of Americans.
People are not infinitely adaptable or resilient or eager to become software engineers, or whatever ridiculous solution is being proposed. And it’s already tearing our country apart by the numbers, where our life expectancy has declined for the last two years because of a surge in suicides and drug overdoses around the country. None of this was in my textbook. But if you look at it, that’s exactly what’s happening. The fantasists — and they are so lazy and it makes me so angry, because people who are otherwise educated are literally wave their hands and be like, “Industrial Revolution, 120 years ago. Been through it before,” and, man, if someone came into your office and pitched you in an investment in a company based on a fact pattern from 120 years ago, you’d freakin’ throw them out of your office so fast.