How a College Dropout Changed What We Know About the U.S. Economy

Justin Lahart:

The man whose thinking helped change our understanding of the American labor market lives in perpetual motion. If he isn’t working, he’s disassembling a broken kitchen mixer, or teaching himself how to splice rope, or listening to podcasts at double speed while doing the workout routine he calls his “seven-minute twerkout.”

David Autor cut a peripatetic path through most of his 20s as a college dropout and self-taught mechanic, before he stumbled into economics.

“I fell into it assbackwards,” he said.

Today, his work is helping shape how the White House is approaching the biggest labor issues from responding to the threat of a “China Shock 2.0” to thinking about the economic impacts of artificial intelligence.

Autor has shown how the rise of the computer was hurting middle-class jobs. He sounded the alarm that workers in the South were getting pulverized by Chinese imports, years before Donald Trump was elected president, playing off this fear.

Now, Autor’s research has taken an unexpectedly optimistic turn: He has shown how, after the pandemic struck, low-wage workers have started catching up. He holds a hopeful view of AI, arguing that it could help low-skilled workers.

“To me, the labor market is the central institution of any society,” said Autor, 60 years old. “The fastest way to improve people’s welfare is to improve the labor market.”