Misattributed blame? Attitudes toward globalization in the age of automation

This paper by Nicole Wu contests that individuals understand the source of their economic anxieties, instead proposing that there is ‘misattributed blame’. For example, opposition to globalisation often postulates inward migration as the reason for ‘economic dislocation’ caused by automation and machines. This misattributed blame towards outgroups manifests in a populist policy agenda which both fails to address the declining job security associated with automation and prevents workers accessing the economic benefits generated by free trade and immigration.

Whilst globalisation and immigration provide no concrete basis for contemporary anxieties, there are contested suggestions that technology does. There has been ‘a marked increase in labour productivity’ owing to technology since the 1980s, which has enabled manufacturing output to double whilst employment fell 30%. Mechanisation disproportionately impacts routine workers without higher education. It does not generate alternative employment opportunities and as Goos and Manning (2007) note, leads to a hollowing out of middle-income distribution, thus creating greater inequality.

Wu suggests populist politics takes advantage of citizens’ poor grasp of economic trends, with campaigns built on ‘protective responses’ against globalisation and immigrations. Using ANES survey data from the US, Wu finds a strong correlation between risk of automation and hostility to immigration and free trade. This supports the findings of Frey et al (2018) and Im et al (2019) that voters at risk of automation were more likely to back the radical or populist right in recent elections.

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Harry Pitts


Politics and perceptions of automation risk

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