Income and Equality on Independence Day

Another Fourth of July, and Independence Day in the US seems especially ironic this year since Britain, the country we won our independence from, just voted to sever ties with the European Union and is already regretting it.

Those who voted to leave said they didn’t like EU taxation — even though they had representation! Neither did they like how EU immigrants could compete for jobs in Britain. They were shocked to discover that dumping their obligations would also mean losing access to the benefits, like the EU single market and trade deals (the source of many jobs), or even that agreement with the French to stop migrants from crossing the Channel at Calais.

Leave supporters seemed particularly surprised to learn that the European banking industry that made London its capital and spent years fueling British growth no longer had any reason to be there post-Brexit. So out with the bath water go those massive companies and their employees who spent a gazillion pounds a day on goods and services, paying taxes, creating work.

I’d sneer, except that both Trump and Sanders are happily pushing for the same isolationism and anti-globalization. This is partly to satisfy garden-variety xenophobia and racism, but also as an alternative reality solution for income inequality. If you believe them, there will be plenty of good jobs at home once corporations are forced to keep them in the States.

It might even have been true at one point, but at last week’s summit among the US, Mexico, and Canada, Obama reminded us that one of the biggest reasons for job loss wasn’t outsourcing, but automation. The US is actually manufacturing more steel than a decade ago, but there are simply less jobs for humans. Robots do everything from building cars to assembling computers. They even stock shelves and pack boxes, carry and fetch, count and send.

Tech, of course, has affected middle-class jobs, too. Like bank tellers, though not bankers. Retail stores have given way to Amazon’s robots. Thanks to the Huffington Post, and other new media, journalists exist, but are expected to work for free.

For the US to create industrial-economy jobs in the 21st century, you wouldn’t just have to roll back trade deals and alliances, you would have to smash the machines and turn back time. Anything short of that, would be Brexit redux. We’d maybe gain a few jobs here and there, but we’d lose far, far more that has been created by our global service economy. And we’d also lose manufacturing jobs, because the global shock waves would devastate developing markets. All we’d create are more poor people.

The world these days is complicated and interdependent. Solutions to inequality and poverty have to be, too. Even improved means of communication can build invisible walls. These walls don’t divide the one percent and the rest, but the great bulk of our population from a bottom tier that includes a disproportionate amount of people of color and LGBT people of all races.

It’s not like the old days when the differences between the rich and middle-class and poor had a lot to do with the model of your car or the size of your TV. Even most poor people could afford a set, and no matter what size TV you had, or how many, they still broadcast the same shows. Even if they excluded you, and you were watching them from outside with your nose pressed up against the screen.

Now, money doesn’t just buy better technology or more, but something entirely different. You can’t replicate the experience of owning a smart phone, for instance, by having a cheap cell, plus spending a few hours on a computer at the library. No, without a smartphone you’re in a different universe where even the sense of time is different.

News doesn’t depend on daily newspapers but instantaneous pings from Facebook, Twitter, and newsfeeds. A question can be answered as soon as it is posed. A wrong turn in the real world can be corrected immediately by GPS and Google maps. Instead of waiting for a car service or a cab, you open up your Uber app and get a ride that is both quicker and cheaper.

And of course, you can network perpetually and instantaneously without taking the time out for coffee or meals or cocktails, reinforcing and augmenting the privileges you already have. Which helps some people when they need to do a job search. Because employers look not only at the résumé you submitted online but at your entire network of friends and followers to see if you’ll fit in with the company culture. The drawback is you may find yourself on the employment version of Grindr. No fats, no fems, no…

Maybe most troubling is how this technological divide leaves the poor on the wrong side of the tracks in the democratic process, which we are supposed to use to fix things. And even as politicians celebrate the apparent accessibility of social media and hold town meetings there, we discover that smart phones and Internet access are like entry fees. And not everyone can go.

Kelly Cogswell is the author of “Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger,” from the University of Minnesota Press.

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