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Democratic candidates in CNN debate

Democratic candidates clash over challenge of automation

Image credit: REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

Speaking at this week’s debate between Democrats vying for the 2020 presidential nomination, candidates discussed how they would support workers as automation transforms the job market.

The crowded Democratic race was narrowed down to 12 candidates for yesterday’s debate, hosted by CNN and the New York Times. The debate appeared to recast progressive Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren as the new frontrunner to beat as she deflected criticism from South Bend Mayor Peter Buttigieg, former Vice President Joe Biden, and even fellow progressive Bernie Sanders, a Vermont Senator.

While the possible impeachment of Donald Trump has overshadowed debates so far, more technical policy questions around infrastructure investment (particularly in fibre broadband), climate change mitigation, and regulation of the tech industry have also been prominent in the race. At yesterday’s debate, the candidates discussed the challenges associated with disruption of the job market by advancing automation.

Former tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang has made universal basic income (UBI) – under the name of a ‘Freedom Dividend’ – his signature policy proposal, calling for an unconditional $1,000 monthly allowance for all American adults which would support them in times of economic hardship and allow them more freedom to pursue hobbies and voluntary work. Yang has argued that job displacement brought about by automation was a key driver in support for President Donald Trump in 2016, and that government-driven job creation would be insufficient to tackle this challenge.

Yang commented that UBI: “Recognises the work in our families and communities […] it helps all Americans.” He added that UBI would be an efficient means of the federal government supporting all Americans through the “fourth industrial revolution”, as it would not require targeting and assessment

Yang’s proposal won some tentative support from long-shot candidates former Housing Secretary Julían Castro and Hawaii Representative Tulsi Gabbard, who both stated that they would consider introducing UBI if they were elected.

“[UBI] is a good idea to help provide that security so people can make choices they want to see,” Gabbard said.

Prominent progressives Sanders and Warren proposed alternative policies to protect workers. Sanders argued that a federal jobs guarantee would be the best approach. This policy – which is unique in the Democratic race – would guarantee every American a stable job, largely associated with heavy public investment in social care and green infrastructure. Warren – who argued that “bad trade policy” was the principle reason why Americans were losing jobs – proposed improving social security and cited a different policy which could empower workers by involving them in corporate decision-making, such as preventing operations moving overseas in search of cheaper labour. Yang criticised Warren, arguing that Americans could see for themselves that automation is the greater threat to their job security.

Meanwhile, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker said that he would support workers by raising the federal minimum wage from $7.25 per hour to $15 per hour.

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