Mark Cuban on American automation

Entrepreneur Mark Cuban (Steven Rosenbaum, Flickr CC)

Entrepreneur Mark Cuban (Steven Rosenbaum, Flickr CC)

One of the more disturbing thoughts about the 2016 presidential election is how little we know about what’s actually going to happen after it’s done.

Hillary Clinton could win, but how will she break the congressional logjam that vexed her more popular boss President Obama? No landslide will help her.

Donald Trump could win, but how will he accomplish the outlandish promises that would have propelled him to victory? The trillion dollar wall? The “instant” repatriation of jobs and capital from overseas?

How will Americans react to the results of the weirdest, stupidest (albeit extremely important) election in our history?

I found this interview of billionaire entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban by Bloomberg’s Ira Boudway to be fascinating.

As you might expect, I clicked on it because Cuban started the election cycle as a fan of Trump’s, but has since endorsed Clinton. In fact, he’s rumored to be Clinton’s guest at tonight’s opening presidential debate. (To be clear about my point of view, I’m on the record with serious concerns about Trumpism).

Cuban has become one of Trump’s most pointed critics, particularly on his business practices and the feasibility of Trump’s most popular proposals. He described his conversations with Trump about his plans in the Bloomberg interview.

There was no there there, and the hyperbole was truly Trumpian. Trillions of dollars coming back to create millions of jobs? Factories don’t just show up. Someone has to build them. Who? How long? And if a new factory is going to be built, it’s not going to be a circa 1975 factory. It’s going to be as automated as possible. I don’t think he understands technology.

That highlights the most interesting thing about the Bloomberg interview, and it has nothing to do with who you support for president. Cuban had some pointed comments about the role of automation in the American economy. It’s not just Trump who misunderstands technology — I think most politicians do. It will take a truly visionary plan to address the deteriorating economic conditions in places like Northern Minnesota.

You might recall, I wrote about automation and its impact on the Mesabi Iron Range a few weeks ago. Our region in Northern Minnesota has shed scads of jobs over the years, but it wasn’t electoral politics or even foreign trade that blitzed most of them. It was the machines that replaced people in mines and production facilities.


Read this, an exchange from the Boudway interview of Mark Cuban:

BW (8/11/16): You’ve said jobs are going to continue to disappear. Is there anything businesses or the government can do so the dividends of automation fall to workers as well as owners?
Going forward, we will be automating the creation of automation. The business process of iteration will be in many cases automated. That will lead to jobs that we value today as being advanced and technical, like programmers, engineers, drafts people, and others, being replaced by future iterations of today’s machine and deep learning.

The libertarian in me hopes that the future markets will figure out new jobs and careers for workers. The pragmatist in me thinks that it could take decades for this to work itself out, so we will need to come up with programs that provide jobs to the millions of workers that will be displaced here in the States and plan for the global disruption that will occur when robotics displace low-paying jobs around the world.

I have been a proponent of dramatically expanding the AmeriCorps program. By increasing the pay of participants to a living wage, it can act as a jobs program that, rather than trying to predict what will be technically viable jobs, will value social support and provide jobs that make communities stronger. It can provide valuable jobs to those displaced by automation.

In essence, that jibes with something we’ve said here. Everyone loves good paying industrial jobs — like mining and manufacturing, even electronics — but those become harder to create and harder to keep. When truck drivers and retail clerks fall to the machines, we’ll have even more problems.

What can we do? We can make our communities better. We can address quality of life and human needs. Those don’t pay? Well, as Cuban points out, what if they did? What if part of the massive profits realized from better technology are dedicated to the human capital of citizens doing work for their community?

Some will say it’s a government takeover, but how would you privatize something like that? The better pay will continue to go toward the creators — the coders and engineers — but what of the people who want their town to look clean? What of the people who want to provide service to others in the small towns and emptied industrial towns of America?

No market can help them, at least not quickly. Even Cuban acknowledges this.

You ask me, the question no candidate should henceforth escape is “How will we ensure that people and their work matter when the machines take most of the jobs?”

For the Iron Range, no issue is more important.


  1. It seems to me that what is thriving on the Range are small (business) projects and activities . For example, The Shop in Virginia is a coffee shop with a music venue, taking music out of the bar scene. Kunnari’s in Virginia markets locally grown/raised produce along with produce grown on Mennonite and Amish farms, catering to people’s desire for healthier foods. Likewise, the Natural Harvest Food Coop is expanding. The Lyric Theater arts initiative in Virginia was/is spearheaded by the hard work of a handful of people, combining art with an historic setting.
    Or there are initiatives in the former Vermilion Range towns of Ely and Tower–Ely with its Folk School, along with Steger Mukluks and Wintergreen–which make their own merchandise locally. And Tower will be experimenting with “small houses,” a concept that might attract the predicted growing number of baby boomers.
    Then there are the local coffee houses, bakeries, and cafes that offer space for social interaction. And the no-kill animal shelters that are maintained by a lot of caring people.
    The Range has a long history of lodges and clubs that offer scholarships and other services, while churches and community members set up fund-raisers when the need arises.
    None of this is subsidized by the IRRRB. None of this gets raving accolades from local politicians. The heart of the Range is the people who give their energy to what they love–and what we love most will never be simply money.

    • I agree those are all great, where does the vast majority of the capital that trickles down throughout our local economy originate allowing for these small business to exist at this point? Mining. As a side note those local individuals that design, install and maintain the automation systems in the mining industry earn much more than someone who is a general laborer and they are a part of our local economy too.

  2. Like any product on the shelf, the worker has to be of value and marketable. Anyone interested in buying and paying for a new suit of armor? Why not? Because it is no longer of value in the general population.

    Mark Cuban seems to be using new words for a current problem towards an old solution – Socialism. Jobs and factories don’t automagically appear just as the funding for these community-gathering programs for recovery. So the magic happens when government steps in w/their printing presses and oppressive tax burdens to fund the recovery projects to nowhere.

    I’m not sorry the machine is here and not sorry it has been growing along with human population for literally thousands of years in some fashion. I am sorry we as humans have engineered our lifestyles faster than our desire for bettering ourselves to be of value and marketable.

    I am looking for ways to further self-sustainability vs. mass-dependency. Heat your home, grow your food, even generate power to energize your iPhone to browse sites such as this.

    No one owes you anything until you’re worth it. Become valuable.

    • I get your point, Troy. There is tremendous advantage to being skilled and versatile. “Valuable,” as you say.

      But there is real danger is ascribing labels like “valuable” to people because they were situated well for a rapidly changing economy while most others weren’t. It implies that someone who put in 25 years in a particular kind of work but who saw that work change is “not valuable.” That’s cruel. And it comes from a place of privilege. When I worked at the newspaper I watched 30-year veterans of the composition department — absolute masters and craftsmen — lose their jobs while I kept mine. In fact, I was doing what they did digitally, like brushing dust off my shoulder. Were they “not valuable?” Of course not. They were consummate professionals. They were automated out of existence, just like I’ve been talking about.

      If you actually read what Cuban said — and Cuban is no socialist — he talks about how this economic change will shake out, how there will be tremendous opportunity in the future. But it won’t be easy on people. Whole classes of workers will need massive retraining and some of them — in their 50s and 60s — are not going to fit into the peg holes as easily as corporations would like.

      I get it. We don’t want a welfare state. But it’s delusional to pretend like we don’t have a larger society, that only the individual matters. In the process of building this new economy, I believe we need to start with the premise that human beings are valuable because they are human beings, not because they won an economic lottery. If we connect “the work that needs doing” with the “worker” I think we’ll be fine. But if we insist upon trying to feed all workers with “the work that generates private sector profits,” well, you get what you get. Social inequality and brutal gaps in our economy.

      • I think most people (especially those under 50) understand that gone forever are the days of graduating from college and never significantly upgrading your skills through training for the rest of your career because your job at 22 is practically identical to your job at 65. People should approach career training pertaining to new technology as something that they need to do incrementally and with forethought even if their job title never changes because the skills for that job title certainly will.

        • Right. Retraining is literally my job. But I’m talking about the sheer numbers of people displaced by automation. I wrote about coal miners retraining for coding jobs a while back. That’s the ideal, but the story also mentioned that for every job these workers got there were scads of them that didn’t get jobs in that field. “Just move,” people say, but it’s not that easy all the time, especially with kids and aging parents. We can’t forget the human element. The fundamental problem with relying on the market alone is that there is severely limited correlation between profits and humanity.

      • Now I feel as though I need to further define myself due to assumptions on a single comment entry.

        I don’t believe that being profitable in the private sector and a citizen concerned and caring towards my neighbor are mutually exclusive. It depends on the individual. Here’s a quick example on the micro-scale. I am hoping for a significant potato harvest from my garden this year – FAR more than my family could ever use during the winter. And the abundance that I hope for will be put upon the steps of my neighbors and shelters if possible. Lots of hope there as I’m unsure of what lies beneath the surface until I dig them up. Point being is that my hard work may allow me to bless others.

        When I say “mass-dependance” it is not just on the government and social programs, but also on the corporations. The Iron Range highways are filled with thousands of cars every morning coming and going so the drivers can go to their feed troughs of corporate employment. I am one of those also – no economic lottery here. But I’m trying to decrease my dependence on that trough. Good for those who are opening small businesses and/or utilizing their land to do the same.

  3. Speaking to the central conceptual problem that seems to be forgotten. It is that capitalism commodifies everything, and this shows in the language people use. Workers are not people, or human beings, but mere workers, whose skills are deemed valuable or useless. That is the entire problem. Adam Smith, oft quoted but rarely read, spoke to this reality and danger, that capitalism was a revolutionary ideology that altered all relationships. We see this now in the form of suburbs, for example, which are mostly real estate valuation Ponzi schemes, unsustainable as communities, with the system requiring ever constant development to continue. Or, for the truest example, pornography, which turns that most human of acts into a profit making enterprise extracting money from a human drive by exploitation. Smith warned about people becoming drone like automatons in the new found industries of the time, and advocated education and a separation between private capital and the public sphere. This of course, has more or less reached its nadir in the U.S., where every inch of our lives is dominated by Corporate interests, from sticking their noses into our schools to polluting our visual landscape with endless billboards. Smith also spoke of the mercantilist-corporate-government state, and the wealthy’s desire to make profits by mere rent seeking rather than useful capital investment, something that Bretton Woods regulated strictly until it was dismantled under Nixon and Reagan. His original rules for the “free market” was forcing them into a situation of red queen competition to satisfy public needs. He failed to understand that private power, in this case wealth, would manipulate any chance of democracy as unequal power within the society inevitably undermines any potential democracy. Two things Troy states show these underlying assumptions: that the only value people have is “economic”. and that we live as isolated islands outside of communities. The first is the core tenet of that most psychopathic of groups, right wing economists. We have no “human” value, and all relations are to be governed by some cost-benefit analysis based on capital returns, e.g. “are you profitable?”, or exploitable. The other is the idea that our relations are not social in any way, but we must be “self-sufficient”, whatever that means. No one ever has been, especially in the age of fossil fuels. It also ignores what is most fundamentally human about us, that is our family groups and communities. The other feature it ignores is that human networks, like any other natural network or community, outperforms any summed group of single actors or monoculture. Until the idea that the economy and capital are here to serve people, and not capital and/or the owners of it, is reclaimed, we will continue down this path of unsustainable. insanity. Capitalism separates the true cost of things such as actual impacts to nature and the people producing them from their price…it has never calculated the actual cost, socially or environmentally. To quote Yeats: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;”

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