Friday, February 14, 2020

Widespread Electronic Surveillance in America – I


Do you know you are being tracked?

If you carry a smartphone, you are probably at least vaguely aware of that.  But do you understand the extent?  How about the number of times each day your location is determined and recorded?  Do you know how far back in time this data is stored?  Do you realize how wide-open are the laws on using such information? 

The discouragingly negative answers to these questions and many more were recently published over two January days in The New York Times.  First was a guest opinion piece released on the 24th, “You Are Now Remotely Controlled” by Shoshana Zuboff, author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.
Per Zuboff, facility for the current situation started in 1997 when a group of “tech industry executives” persuaded the Federal Trade Commission not to regulate Internet data use and collection.  Since then, most Americans have consented to carry devices which, through not only connections with towers which allow them to work but applications they install, monitor their locations.  The largest computer-related services companies, specifically Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook, all collect or use customer location data, the former more than the latter.

The key area of questions on location data accumulation centers around its detrimentality.  Is it harmful now?  If not, will the harm happen later?  What is the difference between using and abusing this information?  A fourth question, on whether it is truly only aggregated and not individually identifiable, was answered comprehensively in the articles to follow. 

Zuboff tied in her title with a scary quote from a “scientist,” that “we are learning how to write the music, and then we let the music make them dance.”  Preliminary tests, including getting people to visit the likes of McDonald’s and Starbucks, and targeting online advertising based on their targets’ assessed moods, started years ago.  She saw a problem of “epistemic inequality,” or “unequal access to learning imposed by private commercial mechanisms of information capture, production, analysis and sales,” which is “best exemplified in the fast-growing abyss between what we know and what is known about us.” 

Two days later the Times published a 12-page special section titled “One Nation, Tracked.”  It contained seven articles, four with maps showing actual smartphone location readouts, and ended with an editorial.  The first, “12 Million Phones, One Dataset, Zero Privacy,” showed how data from one device could easily indicate the owner’s home and workplace, along with places they had visited, ranging from pedestrian, such as local grocery stores, to deeply private, for example a drug rehab center.  One set of maps here showed hundreds of pings from one phone, of which “connecting” them “reveals a diary of a person’s life.” 

The second piece, “How to Track the President,” indicated how easy it was to identify Donald Trump’s smartphone and showed exactly where and when he was one day, the same available for Secret Service agents.  Third, “Freaked Out?  Steps to Protect Your Phone” offered ideas, but none would stop surveillance through tower connections.  Fourth, “Eyes on the Capital,” mostly a large map of that area, showed how much information was available on people in the White House, the U.S. Capitol, the Pentagon, F.B.I. Headquarters, and elsewhere.  Even the C.I.A., which apparently blocked smartphone connections within its main building, had plenty of identifiable ones in its parking lot. 

From there, “How Your Phone Betrays Democracy” described the problems of being able to electronically identify protestors.  “Smartphones Are Spies.  Here’s Whom They Report To” presented how applications, such as weather and mapping programs and even games, collect location data and report it to their owners, who have little compunction about collecting it, as “simply by downloading an app and agreeing to the terms of service, you’re potentially exposing your sensitive information to dozens of other technology companies, ad networks, data brokers, and aggregators.”  One of them, a weather monitor, “sent the phone’s precise location… about 20 times while it was open during an eight-minute walk.”  The seventh article, “Where Even The Children Are Being Tracked” could have referred to everywhere, as such surveillance does not distinguish by age.
The back-page wrap-up, “Total Surveillance Is Not What America Signed Up For,” summarized the findings above and concluded that we “deserve the freedom to choose a life without surveillance.”  That won’t be easy.

Next week, I look at what some companies involved with location data collection are doing, what the laws are like now, and what has already happened on the legal front.  I will also cover some views on possible, and impossible, solutions.  Two weeks from today I will address the best courses of action. 

Friday, February 7, 2020

January Employment Data: 225,000 New Jobs, Some Improvements, But AJSN Latent Demand Now 16.25 Million

I read a projection of 164,000 net new nonfarm positions for this morning’s Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Situation Summary, and thought that might be high.  It wasn’t.

That came in at 225,000.  Along with it the two measures of how common it is for Americans to be working or directly connected to the job market, the employment-population ratio and the labor force participation rate, each gained a substantial 0.2% to reach 61.2% and 63.4%.  Average private nonfarm payroll wages, including an adjustment, jumped 12 cents per hour to $28.44, about double the inflation rate. 

After those results, though, the good news ended.  Seasonally adjusted unemployment edged up from 3.5% to 3.6%, and the unadjusted figure, though mostly showing the difference between Decembers and Januarys, rose 0.6% from 3.4% to 4.0%.  The total number of unemployed, adjusted, gained 100,000 to 5.9 million, and the count of those working part-time for economic reasons, or laboring less than full-time but wanting that, was also up 100,000, reaching 4.2 million.  The total of those unemployed for 27 weeks or longer stayed at 1.2 million.   

The American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, the statistic showing how many more positions could be quickly filled if all knew they would be easy to get, jumped over 1.2 million as follows:



Three-fourths of this difference came from higher official unemployment, followed by 176,000 from those wanting work but not looking for it for the past year, 78,000 from those institutionalized, in the armed services, or off the grid, and 66,000 from people reporting discouragement.  Compared with a year ago, though, the AJSN declined 857,000, with about two-thirds due to lower official joblessness and a 184,000 improvement from those not looking for a year or more.  The share of the AJSN coming from unemployment was 36.0%, three percent higher than in December.

Where are we now?  Overall, there wasn’t much of a change this time.  The good results listed first above, though, should carry the day.  An increase in jobs that much more than the rising population absorbs is nothing to take for granted now, and labor force participation and employment-population results were up more than a nominal amount.  The employment rate increase and the AJSN rise, the latter when taken in monthly context, do not indicate any problems.  Accordingly, the step the turtle took was small, but it was real and it was forward.   

Friday, January 31, 2020

Views on Opioid Abuse Off and On the Job: What’s Right and What’s Wrong


A true epidemic involving drugs is in progress in the US.  Products containing opium, including heroin, methadone, painkillers, and the extremely powerful Fentanyl, were responsible for 47,000 2017 American overdose deaths, about the same as the number of suicides and more than all with guns, and has certainly increased since.  It is different from previous concerns about cocaine and marijuana, not only since the fatality numbers are vastly higher but that the substances are legal. 
A lot has been written about this problem during the past half-decade, but our understanding of it is still badly deficient.  We know that opioids are most abused by whites in relatively poor areas, and that deaths, spurred mostly but not completely by Fentanyl, have decupled in 20 years.  Beyond that, what is being written lately in major-publication articles?

The first is Olga Khazan’s boldly titled “The True Cause of the Opioid Epidemic,” in January’s The Atlantic.  Khazan considered a lot of material, starting with “should they be arresting people?” (no, not for a public health issue), and moving on to a JAMA study showing a correlation between opioid deaths and auto assembly factory closings (did not mean causation), including speculation that such downturns made people feel that “it’s not really worth investing in myself” (but what does that have to do with careless drug use?).

The strangest finding mentioned in this piece, though, was a study showing “that with each percentage-point increase in the unemployment rate, the death rate from opioids rises by 3.6 percent.”  If that is true, then why, from 2010 to 2017, did opioid deaths more than double when joblessness dropped from 9.6% to 4.3%? 

Other things mentioned in Khazan’s article include comparisons with alcohol, hard since drink’s effects are almost always behavioral and chronic, along with an excellent note that in states where doctors were required to fill out three copies of controlled-substance prescriptions, such death rates were far lower, and one researcher calling the epidemic “an everything problem.”  One point I add is that the line between legitimate medical use and dangerous abuse is not as clear as just following directions, especially when those can be “as needed,” and that restrictions can impede those who require these drugs the most.

Now on to workplaces, with “As nation struggles with opioid crisis, workers bring addiction to the job” (Charisse Jones and Jayne O’Donnell, USA Today, December 26th).  This effort started with a restaurant table busser, inexperienced with marijuana, being unable to fulfill her assignment after partaking, and moved to the general topic of people using mind-altering drugs at work.  As with overdose deaths, this issue is not clear-cut.  One problem is that many workers, especially at low-level jobs, function as well or even better while under various influences, and some do even better.  One writer documented during the 1980s, when cocaine use by major league baseball players reached a peak, that a number of them performed their best in years when they were using, and authority Bill James wrote that most players, though with their tendencies often changed, only broke even in performance during and after substance rehabilitation.

Yet while the highest shares of workplace psychotropic drug use are in low-level positions, it does often turn up in other ones.  Unrestricted telecommuting can mean more drugs, and as long as there have been jobs there have been workers under alcohol influence.  If it is clearly detrimental to performance, management is reasonable to take the approach advocated 36 years ago in Robert Townsend’s Further Up the Organization: “Don’t try to tell people how to conduct themselves at home.  But if someone comes to the office zonked a third time, fire him without bothering to find out what he’s using.”  While alternative methods, such as clear threats and placement in rehab programs, can be better, Townsend’s approach still gets to what is and is not a problem.  That is what, with drugs of any kind, we need to address.  


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 sportsbook.com 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.