Autonomous vehicles and open carry — a disastrous combination

This is how the revolution starts. Too busy to read a really awesome piece of journalism? Here’s a summary of the article: Jim Cooley lives in Georgia. He lost his trucking job, got sick, and went through three bankruptcies. Then, one day, he bought an AR-15 (assault rifle). It gave him “a sense of control that had gone missing in his life.” Now he carries the gun to Walmart for soda runs.

Image credit: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post. See link above for full article.

Ingredients for the next revolution:

  • Rapid job losses, no hope of re-employment. There are roughly 5 million professional drivers (taxi, livery, truck and delivery) in the United States. 94% of these drivers are male, and most of them are low- or semi-skilled (outside of driving). Within 10 years, they’ll join the ranks of the unemployed thanks to the rapid onset of autonomous vehicles. And those are just the direct losses. There are millions more employed driving forklifts in warehouses, supporting truckers through backoffice functions such as HR and management at trucking firms, and serving drivers at truck stops, roadside restaurants, and rest stops.
  • Rich get richer because capital begets capital. The structure of today’s businesses requires fewer and fewer humans to reap profits derived from doing business at a global scale. Thanks to free-trade agreements, businesses can do business across borders with fewer humans to manage the frictions of protectionist bureaucracy. Hollywood is a great example of this: movies made in Southern California can reap billions globally without needing to hire legions of people in every territory where a film and its merchandise are sold. All those profits make their way back to a relative few managers and shareholders.
  • Ubiquitous open-carry laws. 45 states allow increasingly permissive forms of open carry. And so men like Jim Cooley, carry assault rifles in public because they can, and because they see it as an appropriately patriotic exercise of their constitutional rights. It’s the one thing that helps them feel powerful when everything else they had as a man (the ability to provide for a family, a stable job, a work-tied identity, even their relative dominance over women) has been taken away by job losses, equitable pay practices, and a gradual dismantling of many, many discriminatory institutions, policies, practices, and cultural norms.
  • Skyrocketing gun ownership. Every mass shooting sparks a buying spree, as arms-loving Americans proactively buy guns in response to lawmakers saying they’re going to finally make it harder to buy guns. Of course those laws are never passed. Also, the election of our first black president coincided with a gun-buying spree. Curious coincidence, that.
  • Anger at the injustice of it all. Decades of stagnant wages for all Americans except those at the top of the income scale are counter to the expectations of the American dream our parents and politicians promised us. Hard work is supposed to result in progress. But hard work isn’t enough. Increasingly, a BA is a minimum requirement for gainful employment, and an advanced degree is often necessary for the country’s best jobs. This feels like a betrayal, and on top of it all, politicians and corporate leaders seem to be doing just fine.
  • Many idle hands. The workforce participation rate has fallen to its lowest level since 1977, from a peak achieved in January 2000. Sure, some aging baby boomers are to thank for that, but of the 95 million Americans who can work, but aren’t looking for work, there are roughly 12 million, working-age men that aren’t working, and aren’t looking for work. In 2014, 21.2 percent of men with less than a high school diploma did not participate in the labor force. What are they doing with their time? What will they do with their time going forward? Idle hands, devil’s playground.
  • Vilification of others. When people face difficulty and when they’re fearful of the future, they look for stories that can explain why this is happening to them. Few have the maturity or fortitude to admit, “I lost my job because I watched TV 20 hours a week instead of keeping my skills up to date.” Or, “I got comfy driving a truck across the country for 20 years, until that job went away and I found I wasn’t qualified to do anything else.” The fragile ego is kept intact by looking for external loci of blame. What’s happening right now is that storytellers are finding it easy to give fearful, disenfranchised people external villains. Minorities, government institutions, businesses, and authority figures are all being scapegoated by people who have assembled a credible, resonant story for “why this is happening to you.” This isn’t a left or right thing. Bernie did it when he flogged the horses of the Occupy Wall Street movement for another lap. Sanders: “What Wall Street and credit card companies are doing is really not much different from what gangsters and loan sharks do who make predatory loans. While the bankers wear three-piece suits and don’t break the knee caps of those who can’t pay back, they still are destroying people’s lives.” And the story Trump is telling isn’t lacking in explanatory power either when he sows fear in democratic institutions: “I’m afraid the election is going to be rigged, I have to be honest” as when he reminds people of the damage that his constituents believe NAFTA and Mexican immigrants may cause: “They’re going to build a plant and illegals are going drive those cars right over the border … And they’ll probably end up stealing the cars.”

I’m not here to propose a solution — just trying to connect the dots between the trends that are giving rise to an army of Jim Cooleys and candidates like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.

Because of these economic dislocations, America’s looking more and more like a drought-ravaged forest piled high with brittle, broken trees, fit to burst into bloody conflagration. Wealth inequality. Scapegoated institutions and minorities. And tens of millions of desperate, unemployed, angry, armed men.