Non-Fiction Reviews

The Globotics Upheaval
Globalization, robotics and the future of work

(2019) Richard Baldwin, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20, hrdbk, 292pp, ISBN 978-1-474-60901-2

Published by Oxford University Press in N. America


Science fiction is – among other things – a genre of change, be it that of the impact of a new ability, invention or the arrival of aliens.  Science fiction is also often about the future.  Both these facets engender the genre with real value helping those who consume it appreciate change and 'new' things.  This is important because in he real world we do have new things and change happens.  But a problem – above and beyond that of accepting change – takes place when the rate of change happens so fast that it is impossible for a significant proportion of the population to adapt.  This, Richard Baldwin in The Globotics Upheaval posits, is what may well be beginning to happen now.

Just as the enclosures of the eighteenth century demolished the majority of Britain's agricultural population while the industrial revolution sparked a need for a cheap urban workforce, so automation in the 1970s, then globalisation from the mid-1990s onwards eroded Western European and N. American manufacturing.  In both cases people, who thought they had – as their parents had had – secure jobs for life, found themselves out of work.

This in turn led to communities, and even cities that once had been prosperous and which provided steady employment, become largely unemployed and impoverished.  Examples range from the once formidable iron smelting of Germany's Ruhr region, to the north of England, Wales and the rust belt in the USA.  People in such communities understandably – and it important we do genuinely understand it – feel marginalised, neglected and disenfranchised from society.  This has socio-political impacts and result in a rise of populism.  And so in the second decade of the 21st century, Richard Baldwin cites, we get President Trump in the US and Brexit in the Great Kingdom of not-so-United Britain.

Richard Baldwin is an economist who has walked the corridors of power in a number of nations, including his being for a while Senior Staff Economist for President George Bush's Council of Economic Advisors. His book's hardcover first edition gets a single plaudit, but as that is from Larry Summers, former Chief Economist of the World Bank, it really does not need any more (though hopefully reviews such as this will bring it to the attention of potential readers).

The forthcoming change Richard Baldwin foresees, is going to be greater and – importantly – more rapid, than that we have seen in recent decades. He reminds us just how fast past change has been.

The share of national income in Britain and the US of the top 5% of earners (the richest in society) had declined from just under 40% in the 18th century to a little over 15% in 1978 making a far more equal distribution of wealth in society. But since then matters have reversed so that the wealthiest took roughly 25% of national income in 2007.

Similarly, with the rise of industry outside of Australasia, W. Europe, N. America and Japan has seen the share of jobs in manufacturing in those countries fall dramatically between 1970 and 2010: Germany from 40% to over 20%; Canada 22% to 12%; the UK from 34% to around 10%; and the US from over 25% to around 12%. This, even though globally manufacturing continued its almost steady rate of growth across this time.

That was the past. This is our future…

Building on the new, early 21st century telecommunications infrastructure, the rise of artificial intelligence and the continued development of robotics means that not only will much of the manufacturing we now have and the service sector workers (who took up much of the employment slack left by the decline of manufacturing) will find themselves out of work, but even some technical jobs will be threatened: in fact few employment sectors will see significant protection Richard Baldwin predicts.

He outlines much of what is to come at length including a societal backlash that we have not seen for decades, or even since the first half of the 20th century and World War.

No small part of the problem, it seems, is that not only are we all generally unaware as to the exact scale of the current (let alone coming) change, and (no surprise here) our politicians are well behind the curve. Richard Baldwin does though have praise for Denmark's welfare policy with generous unemployment benefits.

This book is written in an accessible style, packed with facts, though not overwhelmed by references.  It is highly readable and – were it not for the seriousness of the subject matter – entertaining.

It is frightening: Baldwin suspects that the change may be too great and too fast for politicians and society to adapt.

Read this book and, to paraphrase Richard Baldwin himself, think about it.  Then think about it again!

Jonathan Cowie


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