A World Divided... By Tech

I contend that this is the single most important graph in the world circa 2008 - 2020:

It explains many of the socioeconomic changes we’re seeing across the globe:

Nationalism and xenophobia in Western Democracies.

Massive growth of middle class in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

The sharp accumulation of wealth among the world’s richest.

Why is this graph shaped the way it is? Why isn’t economic growth accruing more equally? Why is there a huge dip in the 70–90% range?

In short, the answers are technology and globalization. And globalization is a by product of improvements in technology. So really just technology. The only constant in the history of humanity is the progression of technology.

Beginning around 1980, it became economically efficient to begin manufacturing jobs overseas and in Mexico. This was due to a few major advancements in technology: shipping (in particular the standardization of containers), computers to coordinate global logistics supply chains (in particular databases to keep track of this stuff), the Internet (to empower people to communicate across the globe), and falling costs of plane and sea travel.

As the computer revolution continued, more jobs moved overseas: customer support, accounting, software development, and even law jobs. As the Internet has become ubiquitous, many traditionally local services have been abstracted to an API or a web interface whereby the user didn’t care who is doing the work on the other side of the interface. Video chat, faster Internet, and general acceptance of software interfaces have compounded this phenomena across many industries and services.

As these manufacturing and services jobs moved overseas, billions of people were lifted out of poverty. That represents the massive growth on the left 2/3 of the graph. The incredible economic good of globalization over the last 30 years cannot be overstated.

Conversely, most of Western society benefited from globalization on two fronts: lower prices for goods, and greater selection of goods — the breadth of consumer goods to choose from today is simply staggering. This wouldn’t have been possible without an exponential growth in cheap and varied manufacturing capability across the globe.

Since ~2000, we’ve seen software begin to directly replace humans: Google obviated the need for thousands of local ad salesman at media organizations, Expedia/Orbitz obviated the need for travel agents, etc. In the last few years, we’ve begun to see computers take on roles and responsibilities that were traditionally reserved for humans: managing asset allocation (BettermentWealthfront, others), accounting (inDinero), law (Ross Intelligence), sales forecasting (Clari, many others), appointment scheduling (x.aiClara), logistics scheduling (Service Max, many others). And there are many jobs that are on the verge of automation: self-driving cars/trucks (and their massive support and tertiary industries), automated and prefabricated construction, automated food preparation, and more. These technologies explicitly displace jobs in a clear and obvious way.

The people who have been losing their jobs to globalization and technology have been in the lower middle and middle classes of Western Democracies. They comprise the majority of the huge dip in the graph above.

These people are unhappy. They feel some combination of: being left behind, that their home country isn’t great anymore, that immigrants are taking their jobs, that overseas working are taking their jobs, and that “the system” is rigged.

Many of these people were raised to believe that as members of the middle class, they would lead healthy, financially prosperous lives. That they were destined to fulfill the American dream. But the world has changed, and these people are no longer competitive on a global scale. These people have been economically stagnating for years, if not decades. And they are pissed off.

This economic stagnation has given rise to the the far-right xenophobia that fueled Brexit and Donald Trump’s campaign. This same economic stagnation has also fueled the far-left Occupy Wall Street movement the Bernie Sanders campaign.

The underlying causes of these changes are accelerating. Software is getting better, faster. Global, cheap cloud computing and Internet access means that once software solves a problem once, it can automate the problem anywhere in the world instantly at marginal cost. Data science is just being unleashed and will change almost every industry vertical by automating human decision making. And robotics and battery technology are finally becoming capable of replacing humans in narrowly-defined mechanical tasks.

Economic inequality is going to get structurally worse before it gets better. As far as I can see, the only solution to this massive inequality will be government redistribution of wealth (which is of course, rife with problems). The “haves” are literally separating from the “have-nots.” This is happening across many dimensions, but particularly along two axes: geography and age. Cities are becoming overwhelmingly liberal and progressive, and the countryside increasingly xenophobic and conservative (see the US presidential election map and the Brexit vote map). The old feel left behind, are are vying for the to make the world the way it was once (hence the slogan “Make America Great Again”). These divisions are becoming more pronounced as Western Democratic societies are aging due to falling birth rates and tighter immigration policies since 9/11.

In 30 years, I suspect we’ll look back at 2016 as the symbolic beginning of a new socioeconomic global era (though it’s likely that the 2008 financial crisis was the real catalyst; it just took 8 years to manifest into mainstream global scale socioeconomic politics). The rise of Trump, Brexit, broad Euro-skepticism, xenophobia, and authoritarianism (fantastic 6 minute video) represent massive shifts in socioeconomic and geopolitical structures across the globe. The reverberations through other countries have yet to be felt, but it’s clear that tensions are high across the globe. The Spanish and Italians have had unemployment rates of about 20% for years, with no indication of improvement on the horizon. The Chinese economy is slowing as they finished picking most of the low hanging fruit associated with industrialization. And we are still only at the cusp of what machine learning will do to job automation.

I love Marc Andreessen quotes, but I think he understated this one: “There will be two kinds of people in the world. Those who tell computers what to do, and those who are told by computers what to do.” This quote misses a 3rd category: people who no longer have anything to do because computers automated their jobs. As software and automation permeate manufacturing and services jobs globally, the countries that were lifted out of poverty by globalization will be forced to reckon with poverty once again because of globalization and software. There will be massive instability as this unfolds over the next 20 years.

Those with capital are investing in tech, which begets more capital. The virtuous (vicious?) cycle of capitalism is fueling the right end of the graph. And there are no signs that this will change. The dip in the graph above is the perfect representation of this division. Tech is dividing the world.