Readers: this blog is set in the future (sometime after the year 2020). Each entry assumes there has been a 5th revolution in the US — the Revenge Revolution. More about the Revenge Revolution, a list of earlier revolutions and the author, Entry #1. 

Periodically I write a “sense check” to assess whether in the next few years, a revolution in the US is still possible or whether the entire exercise is based on a statistical aberration — i.e., a roughly 50-year cycle between major upheavals in the US.  With all that’s happened lately in Washington, I wrote a special sense check, Entry #332.

This week’s Entry continues the series about preparing for the upcoming “technology tsunami” that will have a major impact on the US economy.  The series starts Entry #319. 

Arguments against society-wide programs – healthcare, education, climate change – claim that such programs are too expensive. Taxpayers cannot afford these programs.

There is a kernel of truth to that claim. Such programs have considerable start-up costs and the payback is often a few years out. Sometimes the payback is a decade or two later.

Of course, the idea of having delayed payback does not apply when the same “too expensive” group decides to make business or personal Investments. Nor does the logic apply when this group is evaluating the performance of coaches for favorite college or professional sports teams. Why coaches? Surely everyone knows it takes time to build a solid sports team. Give the coach at least five years to perform and demonstrate his or her worth.

More seriously, the question is, “Is society willing to take the risk of not investing in programs that will have a sustained, if delayed, return on investment? As an example of a similar personal-level decision is whether to delay needed maintenance on your house or car. Delaying can result in some immediate cash savings. However, the decision to delay is a two-edge sword. The repairs are needed and by waiting the severity and cost of repairs likely will be much higher. While delaying maintenance may seem to be a savings in the short-term, the decision to delay is not really savings at all, but additional cost. To paraphrase an old TV commercial, pay me now or pay me more later.

How does “pay me now or pay me more later” apply to the education of people who will be displaced by the technology tsunami? Let’s say the cost of educating those displaced averages $25,000 per person, roughly equal to 2 years cost of tuition, books and fees at a community college and even some state universities. In addition to the cost of education, let’s assume those being retrained receive a salary of about $50,000 per year. For the two years, the total cost for retraining would be about $125,000 per person.

The $125,000 cost per person seems extraordinarily high until one calculates the cost of not retraining. What is the cost not to retrain?

Assume the median age of the person being retrained is 45 years old, which means the person has 20 to 25 years left before retirement. Without retraining for the post technology-tsunami world, the person may be unemployable, and therefore, receive assistance for the next 25 years of his or her working career. In addition, the person would receive some form of assistance for another 10 to 15 years after reaching retirement age. Total time not working and receiving assistance…and not paying taxes? A total of 35-40 years.

If the person receives just $10,000 per year assistance, which is on the very low side, the cost of assistance for a person previously employed but now displaced, would be at least $400,000. Thus, the cost of not retraining is more than 3x the cost of 2-year training – tuition, fees, books and salary of $50,000 per year. Oops, we’re not finished. The person on assistance and not employed, would also not pay income taxes as well no withholding for FICA and no withholding for Medicare.

So which is smarter? Pay now to retrain the person displaced by the technology tsunami or pay more than 3x as much later (constant dollars) to have the person on assistance his or her entire life and never again paying income taxes or contributing to the cost of Social Security or Medicare?

The ROI to retrain workers is positive for workers in their 50’s and even early 60’s when all the costs are included. In addition to society saving money by retraining workers, having an employed workforce with more disposable income will increase consumer consumption, increase overall GDP and with some tweaks, to the tax structure, increase family wealth.

Despite the obvious benefits, for some reason “return on investment” does not yet seem to be part of most discussions about broad social programs, whether the discussion in Washington or in many state capitals. I am always personally baffled why Republicans focus on immediate cost and ignore “return on investment” logic for social programs, yet use the very same ROI logic for personal and/or business investment decisions. Guys, voters are not completely stupid. ROI is a concept that voters can understand.

To break the ideologue logjam, maybe such programs need to be positioned with Republicans as “business Investments” and not “social programs.” To mollify Republican critics of these programs, maybe recipients of the proposed technology-tsunami education program should be required to pay a minimum tax of say 1.0% of gross income per year for up to 10 years following completion of the retraining. The minimum tax would allow Republicans to claim assistance recipients have some “skin in the game.”

Democrats would do well to position technology-tsunami retraining, the Green New Deal, Medicare for all and other ideas, not as social programs, and especially not as “socialist programs,” but position as Investments that will help increase US GDP. Democrats should also agree that every wage-earner has to pay some income tax, even if it’s only $100 per year.

Some of the changes in positioning should be considered more semantic than substantive. However, the changes could allow Republicans and Democrats to claim some type of victory and begin to work more closely together. The changes would also thwart some of the statements by conservative talking heads implying that about half the population pays no tax. These talking heads only state “income tax” and make no mention of people paying sales tax, property taxes, fees and many other related taxes. (FYI, the percentage is remarkably flat by quartile of income paid for all types of taxes.)

Will the rhetoric change and Republicans and Democrats begin working together soon – at least agree to retrain workers to be displaced by the technology tsunami? Maybe start working together before the Revenge Revolution? As long as Trump is controlling the Republican Party, there is no hope. Republicans have demonstrated repeatedly a willingness to prostitute themselves for whatever the Donald demands, however contrary those demands are to long-held Republican principles.

Democrats, however, have a great opportunity for 2020 to begin repositioning arguments that many so-called “socialist programs” are really business Investments with positive ROI.

Should we be hopeful? Let’s see what happens. Stay tuned.