I wish I’d taken the time to write this a week or two ago, so I can’t be accused (by myself or anyone else) of being influenced by the election results as they come in. Oh well. I’m pretty sure that I’ve been thinking the same things all along, but maybe I wouldn’t have written about it.
Today, somewhere between 60 million and 70 million people have voted for Donald Trump. I am very sad that this number is anywhere near this high. Whether this number is closer to 60 million or 70 million I don’t care nearly as much about.
I’m not sad directly about the people voting for Trump. I’m sad that we have been creating a society in which voting for Trump is a reasonable choice for so many people. I’m sad we’re creating a society where someone of average intelligence and average abilities has no future.
I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to work with many young people of average intelligence. After I get to know them a little, I can see the desperation. They know that the self-driving truck and automated McDonald’s is coming, to be followed by remotely controlled semi-automated plumbing machines that will let one plumber do the job of five. They know that you can’t make it as a farmer now if you can’t understand the basics of the futures market (with a little help from a stockbroker), and soon you’ll have to learn to program your tractor and use linear programming to figure out what crops to grow.
As mentioned in my last post so long ago, I taught Algorithms last semester. My best students got it. Some students slacked off and took their C, or their F. A number of students worked hard and managed only a C or a D. Could they have worked a little harder and memorized a few more factoids for a B? Sure, but what’s the real use in an age where every factoid is available by Google? They couldn’t grasp concepts, any concepts, at an abstract level and vary them, even in very minor ways. If they had an idea, they could only randomly guess whether it was correct or not. They saw their smarter classmates handle this kind of work with no trouble. They tried hard. I tried hard. It didn’t work. What are they going to do when the self-driving truck and automated warehouse destroy all the jobs at Costco? They see this coming as well as I do, only they might not admit it to themselves. Hence the desperation.
If I were a white, 45-year old, former autoworker who couldn’t hack it through college (and didn’t take the Sermon on the Mount seriously), it would seem to me that voting for Mr. Trump would be very reasonable. What’s Mrs. Clinton going to do for me? Let me declare myself “disabled” to collect Social Security? Make sure I get adequate food and health care? Make my wages a little higher when I manage to get some minimum-wage job working alongside smart and perky teenagers who actually have a future? Fuck. Give me the needle now. Or put me in the Coliseum with a Mexican and two swords, and the one of us who manages to crawl out can be shift manager at the last Taco Bell still employing people.
All the people thinking of UBI or whatever other form of welfare as a solution miss the point. UBI might let people live a comfortable life, but it can’t give people a place in society.
Let me make this clear. I don’t have a solution. There might not even be a reasonable solution; I’m a mathematician, and a recurring theme of mathematics is that some problems have no solutions. People are starting to acknowledge the problem, but I don’t see anyone propose a solution out there. If anything, Mrs. Clinton is pointedly ignoring the problem, figuring she’ll die before it really hits us. Mr. Trump sees the problem and wants to blame the Mexicans, or the Muslims. Well, at least it’s true that if we paired people off and stuck them in the Coliseum, we’ll put off the problem for a lot longer. So what if we accidentally handed a pair some tactical nukes? That’ll just put off the problem longer still.
We have to solve this problem though, or we’re going to deed the Earth to the cockroaches. If you’re a former coal miner with no future, and your children have no future, and your whole community has no place in the larger society, having a few nukes popped off seems as reasonable as anything else, and, frankly, feels like a satisfying way to give the finger to the world that’s condemned you to this fate.
Whether we elect Trump or not, we have lots of towns full of former coal miners and former autoworkers, and we have lots of computer science students who can’t understand any algorithms. They, too, are made in the image of God, and they, too, are owed a place in our society. All of us need to work together to find what that is.