Lee Schafer
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A flying car made its appearance about halfway through Tim Pawlenty’s speech on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, in a short YouTube video of a German “electric jet” that looked a little like a Volkswagen Beetle with stubby wings instead of wheels.

This thing was clearly flying itself, and Pawlenty, in front of at least 200 suburban Chamber of Commerce members at the Edina Country Club recently, couldn’t hide his enthusiasm.

“I live in Eagan,” he said after the video concluded. “Think I’m driving down to Minneapolis when those are out?”

He wasn’t trying to entertain a room full of chamber members with a gee-whiz gadget, by the way. He just wanted them to see how little still needs to be invented to make something like flying cars a reality. Self-driving cars that never leave the ground are operating right now.

So what will happen to the jobs of 8 million Americans now earning a living one way or another because people are still needed to drive cars?

Whether talking about 3-D printed houses or smart toilets is a shrewd way to win votes remains to be seen. Pawlenty as a candidate trying to reclaim his old job of governor will likely be as partisan as anybody else. But even if his political comeback fizzles, he will have made a contribution just by talking about these things.

The world has changed and will keep changing, he’s been telling us. As much as people may wish otherwise, they will never be able to slow these changes down. And if they’re feeling a little anxious about it, that’s probably good. Now’s a good time to start figuring out how to find a place in a changed world.

That point’s not getting made nearly enough. In the race for governor, a race Pawlenty has entered except for actually saying so, one of the more curious developments so far is DFLer Erin Murphy unionizing her small staff of campaign workers.

That’s the kind of move that would have really made news back in the governor’s race of 1934.

Pawlenty didn’t invent the term Fourth Industrial Revolution, of course. It generally means an emerging economic era with technologies like robotics, virtual reality and artificial intelligence reshaping our daily lives, including the work we get paid to do now.

Pawlenty had been giving versions of this talk around the state while still working as the head of the Washington lobbying group for the nation’s biggest banks. He covered a lot of ground in his talk in Edina — from how smartphones will soon diagnose health conditions to how automobiles will be able to calculate their own damage after a car accident.

Cool, right? Well, not for the people making a middle-class or better income doing those things right now. That includes the dozen or so workers Pawlenty described as being involved now, on average, in processing an automobile accident claim.

Anybody looking for confirmation that he is on to something can easily find it. Last year, the McKinsey & Co. consulting firm looked closely at a host of occupations and concluded that, for about 60 percent of them, a third or more of the work can be automated.

Some of these technology trends already have been reshaping the economy, particularly in how economic vitality seems to be increasingly clustered in metro areas, including the Twin Cities. “About two-thirds of the counties in the country have declining numbers of businesses in those counties,” Pawlenty said. “The number isn’t substantially different in Minnesota.”

His ideas about what to do focused mostly on changes in how the state delivers education. In addition to steps to improve outcomes in science and mathematics, his suggestions included bringing back the kind of hands-on vocational training that used to be more common in high schools. We are still going to need plumbers.

His bigger point was that we can’t just do more of what worked in the past. To illustrate the problem, he played another YouTube clip, this one of a decade-old interview with the co-CEO of the Canadian firm then called Research In Motion, still dominating the smartphone business with its BlackBerry.

“Do you ever look at it and go, what are we going to do if this isn’t our primary business, growing RIM beyond something like a BlackBerry?” the TV host asked.

“Um … no,” the RIM executive responded.

There’s no question a lot of enthusiasm remains for old ideas. The Trump administration has embraced trade tariffs, an idea that has been around so long that one of its past American champions was Alexander Hamilton. It may not have been a great idea even in 1790.

Closer to home, business and civic leaders from Duluth and St. Louis County wrapped up their annual outing in St. Paul the same week Pawlenty spoke in Edina. The prospect of mining for copper, nickel and other metals in northeastern Minnesota had, of course, come up.

As described by the News Tribune, Minnesota Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk thanked those at the breakfast meeting for helping to “create a whole new economic sector for northeastern Minnesota’s economy.”

Anybody familiar with the project proposed by PolyMet Mining for a site near Hoyt Lakes knows it’s been years just in the permitting process. It’s probably less well understood how much farther back nonferrous mining goes in the state. A milestone state report had been published in the 1970s, based in part on exploration work that had been done years earlier.

The PolyMet project would mean opening a mining operation on the site of an iron mining operation that shut down 17 years ago.

Should Pawlenty move back into the governor’s office, he may strongly support nonferrous mining, but it’ll be so disappointing if he tries to sell it as some sort of new idea.

Lee Schafer • 612-673-4302