Trump, Trade and Technology

There’s a culture and technology connection to the American decision to elect Donald Trump as President. 

In 1812, the charismatic poet Lord Byron gave an an impassioned speech in the House of Lords regarding the work of a group of men who were destroying new mechanical weaving machines which had been deployed by mill owners in Nottingham.

The machines were putting people out of work, and creating what many agreed were inferior products designed for export. Because of the loss of hundreds of jobs, weavers had taken to destroying the new technology. They called themselves Luddites, after the legend of a man named Ned Ludd, an apprentice weaver, who some years earlier had smashed a loom in a rage at the master who had beaten him.

The unidentified Luddites were breaking dozens of the machines, and the House wanted to pass a bill making the destruction of manufacturing machines a crime punishable by death.

Byron defended the actions of the men who’d lost their jobs, against the bill which sought to punish them. He was no fan of the new technology. (People whose livelihoods are dependent on the status quo typically do not favor the introduction of new technology.) In the speech, Lord Byron said,

“The perseverance of these miserable men in their proceedings, tends to prove that nothing but absolute want could have driven a large and once honest and industrious body of the people into the commission of excesses so hazardous to themselves, their families, and the community.”

The law passed anyway, and the attacks increased from destruction of property to arson and murder over a period of two years, before finally dying away.

The story was largely forgotten to history, until the mid-20th century, when a new generation of anti-technology activists resurrected it as a narrative to embody their grievances against a new generation of innovation and subsequent job loss. The term “Luddite” came to mean any person who was resistant to new technology.

Today as I reflected on the election which created a President-Elect Donald Trump, I thought about the pace of technological change and the backlash that rapid change inevitably creates. (If this post seems off-topic for this blog, look here for another post on the psychology of technological change, which relate to this blog’s themes on communication, creativity and culture.)

Lord Byron advocated for a group of people who had lost their jobs to the pace of technological change. Likewise, if I understand the appeal of Trump as President, it is to stop the “giant sucking sound” (as Ross Perot once famously described what would happen with the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement) and regain the manufacturing edge which America once had.

Certainly, the loss of jobs is real. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, North Carolina has lost over 330,000 jobs – over 42%! – since the passage of NAFTA in 1992. It can be argued that net jobs have actually increased in America since 1992, but tell that to those people in North Carolina. It’s a wonder there hasn’t been protest by this constituency already.

(As for charges of racism and sexism and xenophobia in the populace who supported Trump, certainly they exist, and they are ugly and scary. However, I don’t think most people voted with racist intent; I’d argue most voted because of a class-based concern for jobs. People primarily want to feed their own families. Update: Nate Silver has a helpful post the affirms this class-based divide. At the link he shows a graph with a strong correlation between Trump support and “jobs that are routine.” The graph represents a demographic that could be characterized not income, but by class.)

The argument for manufacturing jobs in America is that it creates other jobs – I have heard on a 7×1 basis. Stronger manufacturing can help rebuild a good middle class, raise standards of living especially for the people in the 20-40% quintile, and bring people up out of economic dependence and a downward poverty cycle.

The desire for a return to manufacturing isn’t ignoble or unreasonable. The problem is that those particular jobs are not coming back – the hand weaving jobs in 1800 Nottingham and the manufacturing jobs of 1990 North Carolina and others – and it is a fantasy to believe they will. It is also irresponsible leadership to suggest they will.

Rather, new technology creates new jobs. The need is to train people to use new machines and to find different skills. The need in our age of digital innovation isn’t to create jobs working with metals and plastics and other bits of carbon but to create jobs working with bytes of code. Of course this is easier said than done, which is why so many people have experienced a loss in their standard of living and presumably why these people voted for Trump.

Going back in time simply doesn’t work. Several years ago, I read in Wired magazine that over 90% of the jobs of 1800 no longer exist. This makes sense, right? 1800 was still primarily an agrarian age. You cannot freeze time. Innovation happens. Technology happens. It is inevitable, and in fact a consequence of creativity and innovation, and a driver for growth. The leadership need in any age, and particularly in our current age of rapid digital innovation and technological change, isn’t to advocate the return to a previous era, but to do the work necessary to lead through change and to create jobs and places in society for all people.

Don’t believe any leadership narrative that advocates resurrecting the technological profile of a previous generation. This is a myth, and one that I believe is perpetuated not in sincere faith that such a return is possible but perpetuated with knowing cynicism that such a return is not possible, but is simply a hidden means to power.


About the Author

Len Wilson

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Christ follower. Storyteller. Strategist. Writer. Creative Director at St Andrew. Tickle monster. Author, Think Like a Five Year Old (Abingdon).