Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg shakes hands with a man.
Charles Krupa/AP

In a crowded Democratic field, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg is homing in on automation of jobs as a key 2020 presidential issue.

“I’m not like the others,” Pete Buttigieg says of the more than a dozen Democrats he’ll be running for President of the United States against in 2020. He’s a gay millennial. He’s an Afghanistan veteran. And, as the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, he’s one of the few Midwesterners on the ticket so far, joined by Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, who announced her candidacy in a snowstorm last week; and Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, who hasn’t yet declared but is edging closer each day.

Buttigieg’s small-town leadership experience has helped solidify his status as an underdog, a narrative that’s okay for a baseball team but worse for a political ascendant who depends on donations. It’s not that being a city leader is necessarily a liability. Buttigieg is far from the only mayor or former mayor running: New York City mayor Bill de Blasio just got back from Iowa, a sign that he’s considering joining former Newark, New Jersey, mayor Cory Booker and former Burlington mayor Bernie Sanders on the trail. Still, South Bend is a small, under-the-radar locale with a population just over 100,000; and unlike Booker and Sanders, who are both senators now, running the city since 2011 is Buttigieg’s highest-level political experience so far.

So he’s different, sure. But it’s Buttigieg’s special brand of home-grown, Midwestern politicking that he hopes will best ingratiate him with voters—especially, perhaps, the working-class population that Trump won over in 2016. “I think it’s very important to show the world that the so-called flyover country is not bathed in resentment,” Buttigieg told CityLab last week. “We’re ready for a different way forward, and it has implications for the whole country.”

The resentment some of his constituents may have had in the past, Buttigieg says, has a lot to do with the changing, and precarious, nature of work. “What’s at stake in a job is identity,” he said. When people lose the lifelong relationship they once had with a single employer, they seek something to replace it as the source of community, purpose, and identity: “If we don’t seek and find those sources, then of course we run the risk that some very ugly things will come in and fill the void.”

It follows, he says, that the path forward starts with securing good, good-paying, and secure employment opportunities. “It’s one of the things that makes this set of transitions we’re confronting in the so-called new machine age so important,” he said.

Buttigieg is one of many progressive 2020 hopefuls that have made the dignity of work a key campaign issue. Bernie Sanders has advocated for a federal minimum wage of $15, Elizabeth Warren wants to let workers at the U.S.’s largest companies elect at least 40 percent of their board members, and Kamala Harris helped advance the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. Andrew Yang, the founder of VFA and even more of a political unknown than Buttigieg, has made universal basic income his hallmark. This weekend, Sherrod Brown pledged that he’d be the most pro-union candidate on the ticket.

But Buttigieg, who is the chair of the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ task force on automation, has emphasized issues like preparing for the artificial intelligence revolution alongside the more widely held economic priorities among Democrats.

“It’s not that some jobs change and some don’t,” he said. “It’s [that] the combination of tasks that represent any given job is shifting … and this is not just something for the highest wage, most educated workers but really at every level, including in industry and including non-college-educated roles.”

The growing sophistication of artificial intelligence has caused many to fear—justifiably or not—that soon, robots will fully replace thousands of jobs traditionally done by humans. At this year’s World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, New York Times reporter Kevin Roose observed that though the leaders of large corporations downplayed the threat of automating away jobs in public, they are privately prioritizing using machines over humans in the interest of increasing their productivity and profitability. In a 2017 survey, Deloitte found that 53 percent of companies were already starting that replacement process, and that by 2019, the percentage was predicted to reach 72 percent. And automation expert Kai-Fu Lee has estimated that “40 percent of the world’s jobs could be done by machines as soon as 15 years from now,” according to Axios.

Preparing for that future is one place where a Midwestern, heartland perspective gives Buttigieg a great advantage, says Mark Muro, a Senior Fellow and Policy Director of the Brooking Institute’s Metropolitan Policy Program, and the co-author of a study on the potential and disparate effects of automation on workers across the country. According to that research, the extent of the replacement will not be fundamentally dystopian, but it will hit some places harder than others: The jobs with the highest potential for future automation will likely be low-wage, rather than the mid-level ones replaced in the more recent information technology era, Brookings found; and the greatest stressors will be felt “in smaller, more rural communities in the Great Lakes and Gulf of Mexico region,” not on the coasts.

“Indiana has some of the highest automation exposure of any state,” Muro added. And many medium-sized cities like South Bend are bound to be hit the hardest, because of their strong manufacturing history.

South Bend was once an automotive hub, famously home to the Studebaker car manufacturing plant. After the plant closed in 1966, the city’s key industry became the nearby Notre Dame University. Now, under Buttigieg’s leadership, it’s attempting to become a center for technological innovation. But, though the city has an official unemployment rate of about four percent, the Drucker Institute estimates that 10,000 South Bend residents are no longer in the workforce and that many others are vulnerable to future displacement. About half of South Bend’s workers are in sales or food preparation and service, and another more than 20,000 are in manufacturing and transportation fields.

“Coming from a Midwestern Rustbelt city is not bad preparation to being alert to one of the biggest issues of our time,” said Muro. Buttigieg, too, highlighted his geographic perspective: “This is the kind of issue that’s really universal, but it’s especially brought home by the ups and downs of parts of the country like mine.” Democrats, he told the New York Times in 2016, shouldn’t participate “in the fiction that if we just turn back the clock and get rid of trade, everybody can get their manufacturing jobs back. There are a lot of people who think they lost their jobs because of globalization when they actually lost their jobs because of technology.”

And, in an interview with David Axelrod, Obama’s former senior advisor, Buttigieg stressed the importance of swift action: “I understand why some people were surprised by the impact of what happened in the '90s, the automation and the globalization then,” he said. “This one, we can see it coming.”

But when it comes to employment-centered federal policy proposals, Buttigieg has outlined very few specifics. Part of the vagueness might be by design: Speaking at a D.C. bookstore earlier this month, he said Democrats need to start focusing more on values and less on wonk talk. “Democrats to our detriment have gone pouncing right into policy positions,” he said. “While we’ve been doing that, conservatives did a very good job on fighting and winning a battle on big ideas.” On the ideas front, he has come out against NAFTA, saying the agreement lost the Midwest valuable jobs; and is a vocal labor union supporter.

Some of his pushes for local adaptation could offer a blueprint for a national solution, however. Buttigieg has long told the story publicly of how, under pressure to deliver city services more efficiently and with less funding, he was forced to choose between either raising trash fees in a low-income community or automating some garbage workers out of jobs. He chose the latter, deploying a piece of technology that allowed the garbage truck to pick up its own bins, instead of having a crew of pickers do it by hand.

“Getting rid of that role meant one less person on the crews,” he said. “It also meant fewer injuries, because it was actually one of the most injury-prone jobs in the city.” Operation costs went down, as did workers’ compensation fees. But there were a number of workers who were displaced.

So they were offered another position in the city, contingent on their willingness to earn a commercial drivers’ license. “What we found was that half of them were willing to accept that, and I think they’re doubly better off: They got another city job and a useful certification,” he said. The other half were left to find employment elsewhere.

Even Buttigieg admits that the jobs he created won’t be fully secure forever, though.We know that seven years from now, it might be the CDL [commercial drivers’ license] owners who will find themselves displaced by automation, and once again we’ll have the responsibility to help guide them to a new skillset and a new role,” he said.

This gets at the tension inherent in Buttigieg’s push to modernize South Bend with data and technology. “He stresses that this doesn’t mean overall loss of employment, and that the new technology brings other employment,” said Jack Colwell, a longtime political columnist at the South Bend Tribune. “The overall picture of progress is more jobs—that sounds persuasive, though I’m not sure you can prove it with statistics one way or another.”

That’s why Buttigieg and others emphasize overhauling education systems, too. “I’m actually less worried about training in the very narrow technical skills to do this job or that one,” said Buttigieg, though he says coding skills, for example, have broad applicability. “I’m more concerned in giving people the kind of resiliency and ability to adapt—and that’s something that really requires some deep changes in the way we come at education.”

In South Bend, Buttigieg has begun planning the pilot of a Lifelong Learning system, funded by the charitable arms of Google and Walmart and run by the Drucker Institute. When completed, he says, it will combine traditional K-12 education and college certifications, in addition to accrediting people for “things that people learn on the job or even in the home.” The program is still in its early, exploratory phases, and hasn’t yet started accepting students.

Other cities have taken a more offensive than defensive approach: Chicago alderman Ameya Pawar is proposing a “robot tax,” meant to penalize companies for automating labor, and allowing cities to claw back economic incentives from companies that do automate jobs. And at the federal level, Donald Trump signed an executive order this month to create an “American AI Initiative,” which would prioritize workforce development and cloud computing infrastructure—but which did not include any additional investments in the technology, and emphasized the military and defense potential of AI.

It doesn’t have to be Buttigieg, but there is space for more targeted federal action on AI, says Muro, whether it’s a universal adjustment benefit package—which would cover things like job counseling, and monetary support during the job search—or a portable benefits initiative designed for gig workers, or mass worker retraining programs like some proponents of the Green New Deal have suggested. “I think there’s a huge space for someone to grab onto this issue and propose some important things and run with it, because I do think it resonates in all kinds of communities,” said Muro.

When it comes to a broader vision of economic justice, Buttigieg has not made race central to his messaging in the way some other candidates have. Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris, for example, both told the New York Times they would support some form of reparations for African Americans.

In his own city, some of Buttigieg’s most successful job-creating tacts have prompted concern amongst marginalized groups. In 2013, Buttigieg pledged to clear or repair 1,000 vacant properties from the city in 1,000 days in his first term. “Quite frankly, when he announced he was going to do that during his first time, I thought he was crazy,” said Colwell. “But he reached that goal and surpassed it.” The push employed many construction workers, rehabbed two hotels, revitalized neighborhoods and created more housing, he said. But some locals worried the plan would fast-track gentrification in lower-income neighborhoods. “When you do rehab in some neighborhoods you may drive out some people who can’t afford the new housing,” said Colwell.

But Buttigieg told CityLab that, if given the chance to implement economic reforms as president, he would do it with an eye toward racial equity. “The fairest way I can think of to deal with it would be to make heavy investments in fixing those weaknesses in our society that have dramatic, disparate impacts on racial groups that have been victimized by oppression and racism,” he said. If he pursued expanding tax credits, establishing negative income taxes, or guaranteeing an income floor—another “if” he’s wary of turning into a “when”—he said it “could help address some of the features of our economy that have worsened racial inequality.”

In South Bend, at least, he’s extraordinarily popular. After coming out as gay in 2015—an announcement he feared would cost him supporters—he won reelection with almost 80 percent of the votes; as he embarks on his 2020 campaign, he says he won’t run again. The only grumblings Colwell could conceive of emerging during Buttigieg’s third term, though, would be about widening potholes and confusingly designed roundabouts. “He has nothing else to prove,” says Colwell.

The real question is, can Buttigieg win over the country? Says Colwell: probably not. “But my impression is that he already is doing quite well getting known nationally and enhancing his reputation nationally, and that he will do well in the debates,” he said. “He’ll actually win by losing.” And who knows, he added: “Maybe lightning can strike.”

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