Friday, January 24, 2020

2020’s Brave New World of Work: Uncomfortable Toilets, Hiring on Health Habits, and Tracking Detailed Behavior

It’s been a while since I’ve seen “Big Brother” invoked in a headline or even an article.  Maybe George Orwell’s 1984, which was itself shorthand for the sort of things in today’s post, is fading out of our collective knowledge.  Yet it’s never been more pertinent. 

Off and on over the past ten years people have suggested doing away with cash, which, aside from messing up the likes of flea markets and private poker games, would potentially allow authorities, and anyone else who paid their way in, to see neat, categorized, comprehensive reports of how much so-and-so spent, and did not spend, on what.  Otherwise, such techniques have moved into areas at least people are choosing to occupy:  workplaces. 

First is a Fox News December 26th piece by Kim Komando, “Shocking facts about how much your employer monitors you.”  The author and radio host gave us at least a fine summary of what your bosses can collect and view:  anything running on your computer, including your keystroke count and amount of time spent online; any emails you receive or send; “mileage,” “route,” “driving behavior, including speed,” and even “time spent in and out of” any corporate vehicles you operate; location information from company smartphones (or your own if that’s the one you use for business), including after hours; and, even if you have not provided any passwords, your social media activity.  Whew!  The best thing about all this is that a very low percentage of this capability is actually being used and seen by management – the worst is that this capability is here, and workers will now always wonder what they will hear about at performance review time.  As well, there are now a whole new set of metrics which can be selectively used to document justification to favor those most personally liked in pay, promotion, travel, and training decisions.

Second was Amanda Mull’s “Workplace Wellness Comes for the Working Class,” dated January 3rd in The Atlantic.  It related that, beginning February 1, U-Haul will, wherever legal, bar nicotine users from becoming new employees.  There are 21 such states, of which 17 allow testing for it.  On one hand I sympathize with corporate wishes to “cut costs” – I read around 1990 in Boardroom Reports that smokers cost their companies an average of about $9,000 apiece per year, divided roughly equally into extra workplace cleaning and damage, higher health insurance costs, work time lost on smoke breaks, and the correlating higher absenteeism – on the other, restrictions of this sort cross the line between work activities and personal lives, and I see no reason why, using comprehensive data now available, firms could not also choose, say, to bar prospective workers buying a lot of cholesterol-rich food. 

The third piece was sort of bizarre, and its subject could head – pun intended – a list of business trends we hope will not last long.  Joe Pinsker’s December 19th The Atlantic “Slanted Toilets Are the Logical Extreme of Hyperproductivity” described how a new commode, called in yes-I’ll-say-Orwellian fashion “the StandardToilet,” is equipped with “a seat that’s set at an incline and lightly strains users’ legs, making it unpleasant to sit on for longer than five minutes or so.”  Its primary purpose, per its manufacturer, is “getting employees back to work in a timely manner.”  No, I don’t think this productivity device will get too far – aside from discriminating against women and causing issues for some people with physical problems, it is laughably mean-spirited, evoking Dickens as well.  The need to allow for time spent in the john is inherent to hiring living creatures, and once again we have an example of management’s tendency to punish everyone instead of dealing with individual problem performers.  All in all, a defensible but poopy idea.     

Will these three things happen in most 2020s workplaces?  No, clearly not.  But they will exemplify ways that employers can increase, and threaten to increase, control.  There will be well-publicized instances of problems caused by these or similar solutions.  How the people involved, including the courts, handle them will determine whether the 2030s are more or less worker-friendly.  

Friday, January 10, 2020

December Jobs Data: Everything Stayed the Same, Including the American Job Shortage Number (AJSN), Which Showed Latent Demand with Third Straight Month at 15.0 Million

This morning’s Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Situation Summary, with two published projections of 160,000 additional jobs and one with the 3.5% unemployment rate going unchanged, was supposed to be a little bit better than lukewarm.  The results came in a little bit worse than that.

We got 145,000 net new nonfarm payroll positions, 5,000 to 15,000 more than our population increase absorbed, and indeed seasonally adjusted joblessness held at 3.5%.  The other numbers didn’t do much of note either.  The total number of unemployed, 5.8 million, stayed the same, as did the count of those out for 12 months or longer (1.2 million) and the two measures of how common it is for Americans to be working, the labor force participation rate (63.2%) and the employment-population ratio (61.0%).  Unadjusted unemployment went up expectedly with the season from 3.3% to 3.4%.  Average hourly private nonfarm payroll earnings fell short of inflation, with a 3-cent rise to $28.32.  The only clear piece of good news came from the number of those working part-time for economic reasons, or holding on to shorter-hours positions while looking thus far unsuccessfully for full-time ones, with a second straight monthly decrease, down 200,000 to 4.1 million. 

The American Job Shortage Number, the metric showing how many more opportunities could be quickly filled if all understood they would be easy to get, rounded for its third straight month to 15.0 million, as follows:


Compared with a year before the AJSN has improved over 800,000, with over half of that from lower official unemployment, but almost 200,000 from fewer people expressing interest but not looking for a year or more, almost 100,000 from those discouraged, and a surprising 54,000 from fewer people in school or training.  The share of the AJSN from those officially jobless went up 0.4% to 33.0%.  Since December 2018 the front-line BLS numbers are all substantially better, with long-term unemployed down 100,000, total unemployed off 500 000, those working part-time for economic reasons now 600,000 fewer, adjusted unemployment down 0.4%, unadjusted unemployment down 0.3%, the labor force participation rate up 0.1%, and the employment-population ratio 0.4% higher.  The 84-cent wage increase, or 3.0% for the year, was slightly more than inflation. 

How did we do?  That’s easy to answer – we didn’t do anything.  We are now, though at a good high level, at an employment plateau.  Where we will go from here isn’t clear, but for now we aren’t going anywhere.  The turtle didn’t budge.

Friday, January 3, 2020

Looking Back on 2019, and What 2020 Starts With

A fine choice of publications for a quick glance at anything is The Week.  It is a newsmagazine with an especially compact format, excerpts from other periodicals, and pithy original articles.  One of the latter was January 1st’s “the big things we learned about the economy in 2019.” 

After calling 2019 “not the most dramatic year of the past decade” and contending that “wages, growth, and livelihoods are not doing as well as some headline figures suggest,” this piece offered five points.  The first was “we have no idea where full employment is.”  A look at my American Job Shortage Number provides one view, that, despite jobless rates at 50-year lows, we could still fill 15 million more positions.  There should be no mystery about why “inflation was nowhere in sight,” despite double-figure annual gains in money supply measures – it is from cash pooling up and not circulating in its historically usual Keynesian fashion.  The second, “lots of rich geniuses aren’t all that smart,” discussed Adam Neumann, CEO of business space rental company WeWork, of which “the IPO fell apart,” but Neumann proved to be plenty intelligent indeed, as the concern paid him $1 billion (!) to leave.

The third item, “private businesses aren’t good at self-policing,” used Boeing’s mysteriously apparently unresolvable 737 Max problem as an example.  The fourth, “The Trump administration’s economic policy still isn’t working,” was controversial but reasonable, calling the 2017 tax cuts a “complete dud” with “no discernible effect on business investment, on wages, or on employment,” evidently just making the aforementioned money pools larger, and the trade war achieving “nothing of significance.” 

The system is so large and open, though, that we don’t know how good or bad those policy changes really were.  The same thing goes for The Week’s fifth item, that “the minimum wage, however, is working.”  This issue, and even research done on it, is so politicized that we can’t be sure.  As I have said before it is logically virtually impossible, without 100% of the extra money circulating, that forced pay increases cannot cost any jobs at all, but a small number would be permissible for studies to show, per the article, that such “hikes generally have no significant effect on employment.”  Especially in good times, such work must also consider how many jobs higher mandatory pay caused to go uncreated, something almost impossible to accurately assess.   

That last point is a good transition to our new year, in which “minimum-wage workers in more than 20 states just got a raise,” published on New Year’s Day by Wise Publishing in Yahoo Finance.  Although I am against government-set floors on pay in general, it makes much more sense to me for states, cities, or even neighborhoods to agree on higher ones for themselves instead of imposing them on the entire diverse nation.  Here we learned that 29 states have lowest hourly rates higher than the federal $7.25, and 21 of those had January 1 increases.  The amounts range from Montana’s 15 cent boost to Washington state’s $1.50, with the latter now having the highest rate of those at $13.50, followed by California’s larger-employers $13.00 mandate, Massachusetts’s $12.75, and $12.00 in Arizona, Colorado, and Maine.  It seems to me quite reasonable that New York City has $15 per hour, less so for one of its congresspeople, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, to require that much “to give labor dignity” throughout the country, which, per the “nonpartisan” Congressional Budget Office, could cost 3.7 million Americans their jobs.

Will we have a recession this year?  Probably not.  Our conditional prosperity may be stuck in place for a while.  And accordingly, the money-backed line of our president being reelected, now 3 to 2 in favor of that happening, may stay at about that level.  Beyond that, 2020 is already ticking away.   

Friday, December 27, 2019

USA 2019: Plenty of Jobs, With Prosperity for Half

As I have written many times, my employment bias is in favor of the maximum number of work opportunities.  People’s wants and needs vary so much that it is inappropriate that jobs be required to have certain benefits or even minimum wages, and such things, perforce, cut down their number.  The largest employment-related gap in this country is not between those with and without certain amounts of income, but between those with and without jobs.  

I still go with that.  However, we need to be aware that while unemployment is around a 50-year low, more people are working for less money than since the Industrial Revolution took hold.  The extent of that situation reached me in a December 19th Brookings Institution post, Marcela Escobari’s “The economy is growing and leaving low-wage workers behind.”   

Cited in this piece, the headline finding from a recent Brookings report was that 44% of workers in the United States have median hourly pay of $10.22 and each year take in a median $17,950.  I wondered if many in this set are patently part-time laborers such as students, but these numbers indicate an average of over 34 hours per week.  Other like Brookings findings were that one-third of jobholders have contract positions, and that federal workforce development funding is down 79% since the 1970s.   

A few observations jump out at me.  First, if almost half are working full-time or close to it and paid this little, then what we have long called the middle class is no longer a majority.  Second, we still cannot make judgments about poverty, as even the limited money above is often beyond that.  Third, this jobs distribution means that many in this 44% must have poor prospects for advancing out of it.  Accordingly, fourth, the lack of development money may not be as bad as it could seem, as training, as I have noted before, is not only a non-panacea but, if the number of higher-paying positions is woefully small even in these good economic times, is usually useless.  Fifth, the next recession will bring on even more suffering than its number of lost jobs will indicate.  And sixth, I do not see a viable solution for this situation through employment.   

If we have no good way of improving our country’s prosperity through jobs, at least we can better understand the state we are in.  That is the point of David Leonhardt’s December 15th New York Times “Why You Shouldn’t Believe Those G.D.P. Numbers.”  He contrasted solid gross domestic product growth with low personal income improvement and Americans’ long-time economic dissatisfaction, and mentioned a Senate bill requiring publishing the GDP’s benefit to 11 different tiers of income distribution, a system already in place in Australia and the Netherlands.  That would be hard to argue with and would precipitate more discussion of guaranteed basic income. 

What would the United States be like if, say, 80% of workers were paid $20,000 a year or less?  If people had easy access to enough food, shelter, clothing, and health care, it would not be grim.  Yet neither would it be what we have considered rich.  It would hurt demand for many of our products, and we might not see as much advertising for the likes of airlines or new cars.  It would probably get us a guaranteed basic income by 2040 at latest.  Is that where we are headed?  You be the judge, and govern yourself accordingly.   

Friday, December 20, 2019

AI Now? More Like AI No How, According to That New York University Group’s Highly Political 2019 Report

When I got a message containing an annual summary of what happened this year in artificial intelligence from an organization I thought to be only an academic think tank, I was expecting to relay the good and the bad, along with many things of which neither of us were aware.  I printed its 59 pages before the endnotes and only later looked it over.

That proved to be just about a waste of paper, which, unfortunately, would have concerned the 2019 Report’s authors more than any lives AI has saved or improved.  When I started reading I found not the summary I had expected, but another one.  The AI Now Institute is not quite what I had thought – true, it is an “interdisciplinary research institute,” but it is “dedicated to understanding the social implications of AI technologies.”  That does not mean, though, that the group wanted to know about, say, the effect of Alexa devices on dinnertime conversations.  Nowhere in the text did I see anything positive about AI’s effects, and when it wandered off their official purpose, which was usually into the subject of regulation, that did not change.  

The Executive Summary had five bullet points.  To start, “the spread of algorithmic management technology in the workplace is increasing the power asymmetry between workers and employers.  AI threatens not only to disproportionately displace lower-wage earners, but also to reduce wages, job security, and other protections for those who need it most.”  True, but the same goes for globalization, efficiency, and other forms of automation, which as I have written are trends unlikely to be reversed or even halted.  

The second point was “community groups, workers, journalists, and researchers – not corporate AI ethics statements and policies – have been primarily responsible for pressuring tech companies and governments to set guardrails on the use of AI.”  In the short term, yes, but only because larger organizations are slower to respond.  Third, “efforts to regulate AI systems are underway, but they are being outpaced by government adoption of AI systems to surveil and control.”  Yes, Washington has plenty of use for the technology, and here, as elsewhere, not only AI itself but policies around it are evolving as quickly as they can.  

The fourth, “AI systems are continuing to amplify race and gender disparities via techniques like affect recognition, which has no sound scientific basis,” gets to the heart of what AI Now seems to be about, which is complaining about outcome differences between blacks and whites and men and women.  All involved with AI would agree that affect recognition, described here as “a subset of facial recognition that claims to “read” our inner emotions by interpreting the micro-expressions on our face,” is in its infancy, and its being “deployed at scale” in employment interviews, if that is reasonable to say, would be more objectionable if interviews and resumes were not notoriously weak and, yes, similarly flawed, without it.  In another year, leading-edge research on affect recognition will almost certainly point to methods different from those now in use.  

Last, “growing investment in and development of AI has profound implications in areas ranging from climate change to the rights of healthcare patients to the future of geopolitics and inequities being reinforced in regions of the global South.”  It is a stretch to call computer applications especially bad for the environment, and saying that “training just one AI model,” which can take months, produced as much carbon dioxide as “125 round-trip flights from New York to Beijing” did not refute that.  Barring interconnections between health care information systems can cost not only convenience and money but lives, and “the global South,” whatever that is, will not always be left alone.  

The 2019 Report also contains 12 recommendations, even sharper and more limiting than the main ideas above.  They include: banning affect recognition “in important decisions that affect people’s lives and access to opportunities” (in other words, whenever it is used in production); the need to “halt all use of facial recognition in sensitive social and political contexts until the risks are fully studied and adequate regulations are in place” (determination of when these two conditions are met, presumably, left to the likes of the AI Now Institute); requiring “the AI industry” to “make significant structural changes to address systemic racism, misogyny, and lack of diversity,” apparently with meanings of those terms mandated, all protected groups represented at 100% of their population shares, and all by-group pay levels exactly equal; several recommendations already in progress; references to “historic injustices,” the undefinable “social harms,” and “diverse cultural approaches to health” (most likely only along black-white, male-female, and maybe gay-straight lines).  

For one of many examples of a truer picture of AI, look at David Brooks’s June 24th New York Times “How Artificial Intelligence Can Save Your Life.”  Though a short commercial journalistic piece, it told us that “researchers… were able this year to hook people up to brain monitors and generate natural-sounding synthetic speech out of mere brain activity” (and I doubt that would work only for white straight men) and that analyzing words used by people texting a suicide help line would greatly augment assessing their needs for emergency interventions (tendencies likewise valid for everyone), and concluded by conceding that “you can be freaked out by the privacy-invading power of A.I. to know you, but only A.I. can gather the data necessary to do this,” and “if it’s a matter of life and death, I suspect we’re going to” consent to such information use.  That is an even-handed conclusion, which, public-university knowledge-seeking auspices or not, the AI Now Institute, with its other “most recent publications” titled the likes of “Discriminating Systems:  Gender, Race, and Power on AI,” does not seem to offer.  That should tell us something.