Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.

Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

Never mind the wall that President Trump said Mexico must pay for but then Congress must pay for; either that or much of the working class loses its health coverage. Oh, he’s dropped that? Well, it made for a lively 24 hours.

Bubbling beneath today’s comic-book politics are threats to American workers that have nothing to do with people or things coming over the border. Robots and artificial intelligence are nipping at the heels of not only blue-collar workers but also white-collar professionals who assumed that a degree would keep them several steps ahead of the machines.

Trump’s treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, recently opined that this peril for employment is, “like, so far away” that it’s not even on his “radar screen.” Guess he hasn’t read about MillerCoors’ plan to offer a beer service called Miller Lite On-Demand.

It works like this: A beer drinker watching the game at home comes to the startling realization that he’s out of Miller Lite. Without having to take his rear end off the couch, he uses a voice-activated command (or pushes a programmed button on the phone) to order more beer. A truck arrives with reinforcements within an hour.

There’s no going to a store that has to employ salespeople. Technology for self-driving trucks is well on its way, so truck drivers will soon not be needed.

Here’s the glitch. With jobs like these gone, how will the beer drinker make the money needed to buy the beverage? Such questions are gathering dust in an administration intent on distracting ordinary folk with entertainment as it marshals its deep thinking for such matters as how to slash taxes for real estate empires.

Actually, The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recently published a study on the advances in automation and artificial intelligence and posed some not insignificant questions related to them. For instance:

Who gets to choose the technological future? How does this change us as a society? And what will it mean to be human?

The president would no doubt have read all 184 pages had he not been busy that day signing a law to cut funding for Planned Parenthood and flying off to Palm Beach. But as his supporters say, give him a chance. Give him a chance.

Artificial intelligence goes way beyond the elementary programming of robots to tighten screws. Simplistically put, it teaches machines to think, to learn the way toddlers do. With traditional robots, at least you needed humans to do the programming. Technology is now being developed that would let the machines program themselves.

Artificial intelligence can already do some things that lawyers or their human assistants had to do. For example, it uses “natural language processing” to go through documents and find passages that may be relevant to a case.

This technology has let BlackRock, the giant investment company, do away with some of its human stock pickers. Marry big data to algorithms and computer models and you have fund managers who never take vacations, loyal machines who won’t skip off to a competitor.

Six years ago, IBM’s Watson rampaged through “Jeopardy!” with the smart responses. Watson now helps doctors diagnose cancer and H&R Block do tax returns.

Well-planned, this technology could deliver a glorious future of leisure and creativity to the masses. Or it could relegate them to misery under the thumbs of a few masterminds pulling the levers. Sadly, our current leadership seems determined to avoid thought unrelated to today’s appetites.

As Groucho Marx put it: “Why should I care about posterity? What’s posterity ever done for me?”

IMAGE: Visitors watch different sized industrial robots by KUKA at the Hanover Messe in Hanover, Germany, April 8, 2013.  REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch/File Photo

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com. To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators webpage at www.creators.com.

Photo by expertinfantry/ CC BY 2.0

At this moment, the president of the United States is threatening to "throw out" the votes of millions of Americans to hijack an election that he seems more than likely to lose. Donald Trump is openly demanding that state authorities invalidate lawful absentee ballots, no different from the primary ballot he mailed to his new home state of Florida, for the sole purpose of cheating. And his undemocratic scheme appears to enjoy at least nominal support from the Supreme Court, which may be called upon to adjudicate the matter.

But what is even worse than Trump's coup plot — and the apparent assent of unprincipled jurists such as Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh — is the Democratic Party's feeble response to this historic outrage. It is the kind of issue that Republicans, with their well-earned reputation for political hardball, would know how to exploit fully and furiously.

They know because they won the same game in Florida 20 years ago.

During that ultimate legal showdown between George W. Bush and Al Gore, when every single vote mattered, a Democratic lawyer argued in a memorandum to the Gore team that the validity of absentee ballots arriving after Election Day should be challenged. He had the law on his side in that particular instance — but not the politics.

As soon as the Republicans got hold of that memo, they realized that it was explosive. Why? Many of the late ballots the Democrats aimed to invalidate in Florida had been sent by military voters, and the idea of discarding the votes of service personnel was repellent to all Americans. Former Secretary of State James Baker, who was overseeing the Florida recount for Bush, swiftly denounced the Democratic plot against the soldiers, saying: "Here we have ... these brave young men and women serving us overseas. And the postmark on their ballot is one day late. And you're going to deny him the right to vote?"

Never mind the grammar; Baker's message was powerful — and was followed by equally indignant messages in the following days from a parade of prominent Bush backers including retired Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, the immensely popular commander of U.S. troops in the Desert Storm invasion that drove Saddam Hussein's army out of Kuwait. Fortuitously, Schwarzkopf happened to be on the scene as a resident of Florida.

As Jeffrey Toobin recounted in Too Close to Call, his superb book on the Florida 2000 fiasco, the Democrats had no choice but to retreat. "I would give the benefit of the doubt to ballots coming in from military personnel," conceded then-Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Gore's running mate, during a defensive appearance on Meet the Press. But Toobin says Gore soon realized that to reject military ballots would render him unable to serve as commander in chief — and that it would be morally wrong.

Fast-forward to 2020, when many of the same figures on the Republican side are now poised to argue that absentee ballots, which will include many thousands of military votes — should not be counted after Election Day, even if they arrived on time. Among those Republicans is Justice Kavanaugh, who made the opposite argument as a young lawyer working for Bush in Florida 20 years ago. Nobody expects legal consistency or democratic morality from a hack like him, but someone should force him and his Republican colleagues to own this moment of shame.

Who can do that? Joe Biden's campaign and the Democratic Party ought to be exposing the Republican assault on military ballots — and, by the same token, every legally valid absentee ballot — every day. But the Democrats notoriously lack the killer instinct of their partisan rivals, even at a moment of existential crisis like this one.

No, this is clearly a job for the ex-Republicans of the Lincoln Project, who certainly recall what happened in Florida in 2000. They have the attitude and aptitude of political assassins. They surely know how to raise hell over an issue like military votes — and now is the time to exercise those aggressive skills in defense of democracy.

To find out more about Joe Conason and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.