Audit Notes: Robot truckers, Larry Summers, Detroit not America’s future

Computers take on a last haven of blue-collar jobs

The Wall Street Journal’s Dennis Berman has an excellent piece on the future of the truck driver, whom he notes has been almost uniquely insulated from the decline of the working class.

Now the robots are coming for these jobs too. Gigantic automated trucks produced by Caterpillar are replacing most of the 180 drivers at one iron mine in Australia. It’s a matter of time before a UPSbot shows up at your door.

But watching a half-decade of lagging U.S. employment, it’s hard not to feel a swell of fear for those 5.7 million people, a last bastion of decent blue-collar pay.

A world without truck drivers may eventually be a better one. But for whom?

At least better for trucking-company owners, who today grapple with driver shortages of as much as 15%, in addition to perennial hassles of fuel costs, regulations and crummy margins. “Holy s—,” exclaims Kevin Mullen, the safety director at ADS Logistics Co., a 300-truck firm in Chesterton, Ind. “If I didn’t have to deal with drivers, and I could just program a truck and send it?”

What you can be sure of is that the very real economic gains will be concentrated in the hands of a few. Based on recent history, Berman is entirely correct to be pessimistic about the future prospects of those 6 million drivers.

— Somehow President Obama is mulling whether to nominate Clinton-era deregulator Larry Summers to be chairman of the Federal Reserve. Apparently, the president only taps Robert Rubin acolytes for his top financial and economic jobs.

The WSJ reports that Summers has been buck-raking Wall Street since he left the administration two years ago and consults for Citigroup, Nasdaq, and the hedge fund DE Shaw, which used to pay him millions of dollars a year for part-time work.

What does Summers tell his patrons?

At a closed-door Citigroup-sponsored analyst conference at a Boston hotel in March, Mr. Summers expressed surprise about the persistent backlash in Washington toward big banks, according to one participant. Mr. Summers suggested that uncertainty about bank regulation is holding back lending and economic growth.

He also seems to think that the too big to fail banks aren’t big enough, as Quartz’s Matt Phillips points out.

Just the man for the job!

— Charlie LeDuff writes vividly, as usual, about the collapse of Detroit:

I know of an 11-year-old boy who was shot, the bullet going clean through his arm. The cops stuffed him in the back of a squad car and rushed him to the hospital. That’s how we do it. There was no ambulance available. About two-thirds of the city’s fleet is broken on an average day.

I know a cop who drives around in a squad car with holes in the floorboards. There is no computer, no air-conditioning, the odometer reading 147,000 miles. His bulletproof vest has expired. His pay has been cut 10 percent.

But he’s just wrong that Detroit is “America’s Future”:

So Detroit files for bankruptcy. What does this mean? Pay close attention because it may be coming to you soon, Los Angeles, Baltimore, Chicago, Philadelphia. In 2011, Moody’s calculated the unfunded liabilities for Illinois’s three largest state-run pension plans to be $133 billion. (It is expected to be even larger this year.) That’s the size of six Detroit bankruptcies — give or take a few hundred million.

Look, when you lose a quarter of your population in 10 years (and more than half in 40) you’re going to have serious issues meeting your obligations. It’s just math. Illinois, say, is not Detroit.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,