Trump, trade, and tech. Well, you don’t need us to say it, but—the Trump administration has had a busy first week. By now, you’ve heard about the spiking of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the rise of alt-regulatory Twitter, and all the rest, so we’ll focus on the most recent thing: Trump has signaled that his talk of building a $20 billion wall between U.S. and Mexico—a major campaign promise—is more than an election season boondoggle. And that’s related to food because, as the New York Times reports, Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, is suggesting that we pay for it with a 20% tariff on Mexican imports.
Though the details seem to be speculative and still sketchy—and an NBC reporter suggested that Spicer has already started to backtrack on the idea—such a policy, if enacted, would have a major impact on the U.S. food system. Mexico is the second-largest supplier of agricultural goods to the U.S.—2015 counted $29 billion in Mexican imports, including more than $10 million in fruits and vegetables. If enacted, the policy would mean a big hit to the people who’d really be paying for Trump’s wall—not Mexico, but the U.S. corporations importing Mexican goods.
If your head hurts, you’re not alone. So here’s a bright shiny news item to distract you: Big Mac ATMs, which a Boston McDonald’s will unveil during a one-day pilot in January. The machines will dispense the fast-food chain’s iconic sandwiches free of charge—as long as customers agree to send a promotional tweet from their Twitter handle. Which reminds me: isn’t all this deal-striking and renegotiation supposed to boost American industry and promote American jobs? (It won’t, says the Wall Street Journal.) Then why aren’t we hearing more from the Trump camp—from politicians generally—about the ways automation will soon impact the workforce?
2016 was a banner year for American manufacturing—but we made almost twice the goods we did in 1987 with only 2/3 of the human labor. The trend of displacement-by-robot is likely to continue as technology gets cheaper and more sophisticated, and because bots make such inhumanly good employees. As Trump’s Labor Secretary pick, former Hardee’s CEO Andy Puzder, has put it: robots are “always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex, or race discrimination case.”
Only time will tell whether tweaking and torching trade deals will bring jobs back home—but when machines are serving our burgers and growing our food, the form that trade deals ultimately take may not make much of a difference. —Joe Fassler