Friday, January 20, 2017

It’s Inauguration Day: Five Enlightened Views on How to Prepare for This Afternoon and Later, Plus Mine

Here we go.  Whether we are ready or not, it’s only hours until Donald John Trump becomes our 45th president.  Contrary to a remarkable amount of commentary seemingly unaware of it, he hasn’t been in that office yet – all the stock market gyrations and real or imagined business and world-leader reactions have been based on speculation, not policy.  And nobody, not even his wife, knows what he will actually do.  We know by now the kind of thing he will say, but will he turn into a thoroughly uncompassionate conservative?  Will he be as unprincipled as his statements, outside of immigration and protectionism, indicate?  Will he leave policymaking to his cabinet and become sort of a King Farouk-like satyr-in-chief?  Or will he become something not only bad but much worse than any of those?

That last possibility has gathered cogent press from a variety of sources.  These five articles are worthy of your attention.

The first one, “What to Do About Trump?  The Same Thing My Grandfather Did in 1930s Vienna” by Liel Leibovitz, appeared in Tablet on November 14th.   This ancestor of Leibovitz’s was “a promising young violinist and composer” who, when “spooked by the goosesteps of Hitler’s goons,” surprised people he knew, who told him “he was hysterical, that he was getting it all wrong, that it couldn’t possibly be that bad,” by leaving Europe for much less affluent Palestine.  He decided to do that, as well as the author could tell, when “his simple heart advised him to take the thugs at their word.”  Leibovitz named three principles to follow:  to “treat every poisoned word as a promise,” to assume adults are adults responsible for knowing the consequences of what they do, and to “refuse to accept what’s going on as the new normal” and not condone otherwise good things resulting from abuse of our fellow citizens. 

The second, “The moral foundations of fascism:  Warring psychological theories struggle to make sense of Hitler, Mussolini, and you-know-who” (Paul Rosenberg in Salon, December 4th) explained the social psychological theory of “moral foundations theory,” which, good or bad, explains the underpinnings of both conservative and liberal ideology.  Rosenberg showed how the need for social order from either the left or the right can lead to authoritarianism, and how a rising leader can cater to the worst of one side or the other to move his organization in that direction.  If you have any inclination toward sociology or psychology, this piece has a lot to offer you.

The third article, also in Salon, Robert Reich’s “4 syndromes of passivity in the face of pending Trump tyranny,” appeared on December 16th.  He named four destructive reactions common to people who did not vote for our president-elect.  They are “normalizer syndrome,” or believing Trump “will make rational decisions once in office”; “outrage numbness syndrome,” or disregarding his offensive statements and actions from sheer overexposure to them; “cynical syndrome,” determining that Democrats, Republicans, and the media are as complicit and as bad as Trump; and “helpless syndrome,” or feeling too powerless to take any action.  Instead of maintaining any of these views, he recommends “demonstrating, resisting, objecting, demanding, speaking truth, joining with others, making a ruckus and never ceasing to fight Trump’s pending tyranny” instead.

Fourth, by Jeffrey C. Isaac on December 17th in The Washington Post, “How Hannah Arendt’s classic work on totalitarianism illuminates today’s America” demonstrates just that.  That 1951 book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, was written toward understanding what was put together by both Hitler and Stalin.  Conclusions Arendt made that could apply to the years now to come include “freedom is fragile, and when demagogues speak, and others start following them, it is wise to pay attention” (Isaac’s words), “the mob always will shout for ‘the strong man,’ the ‘great leader.’  For the mob hates the society from which it is excluded” (Arendt’s words), “what convinces masses are not facts, and not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system of which they are presumably part” (likewise), and that “peoples made superfluous… were rendered superfluous in a legal and political sense” (Isaac).  This last idea, which led to Nazi concentration camps, suggests that the masses of displaced, formerly working people consuming social services, despite their November support for him, may prove to be surplus and therefore expendable or even undesirable to Trump.

The fifth piece is the best of all.  From Dallas News on November 21, Timothy Snyder’s “What you – yes, you – can do to save America from tyranny,” named no fewer than 20 such things.  They are “do not obey in advance,” “defend an institution,” “recall professional ethics,” “when listening to politicians, distinguish certain words,” “be calm when the unthinkable arrives,” “be kind to our language,” “stand out,”  “believe in truth,” “investigate,” “practice corporeal politics,” “make eye contact and small talk,” “take responsibility for the face of the world,” “hinder the one-party state,” “give regularly to good causes, if you can,” “establish a private life,” “learn from others in other countries,” “watch out for the paramilitaries,” “be reflective if you must be armed,” “be as courageous as you can,” and “be a patriot.”  For more on what the author meant by these, see the article at

To Snyder’s fine list, I add two.  First, know your constitution, so you can see if and when it is being violated.  If Trump arranges for flag-burning to become illegal that would be one clear sign of that, as, as reprehensible as that activity is, it is plainly protected by the First Amendment.  Second, learn more about Nazi German history, which will tell you how a free society devolved so totally and quickly, and heed George Friedman’s 2015 words on that topic, published before Trump arrived on the presidential political scene: “This was a seductive work of art that was judged not by its logic or justification but by the way it resonated.  And it resonated so well that it did not require proof or logical consistency.  It simply had to be a stunningly seductive and effective work of art.”     

Expect more from this blog.  As well as writing more, as usual, on jobs in America, I will publish information on to what extent true American authoritarianism is or is not taking shape.  All you will get from me is, as I see it, the truth.  Stay in touch.   

Friday, January 13, 2017

Jobs General and in Public Policy: A July Through January Round-Up

In this blog I’ve focused mainly on what is happening in various industries, along with monthly numbers which give insight into our employment situation.  More, though, has happened, and been written about, how our laws could help with that.

First is July’s issue of the Northeast Pennsylvania Business Journal, in which Howard J. Grossman, former executive director of what is now NEPA Alliance, an organization promoting economic growth in this area, wrote “unemployment insurance:  an option for joblessness?”.  Grossman discussed private work-loss compensation insurance covering annual income up to $250,000, with premium costs averaging about $1,000.  He advocated it, and showed that it is not only viable but a desirable choice for many.

In The Atlantic, Alana Semuels’ August 8th “Is the U.S. Due for Radically Raising Taxes for the Rich?” considered this issue which seemed headed for change before our presidential election.  The article is mostly a history of top American income tax rates, which almost doubled for the highest bracket under Republican Herbert Hoover and went even higher with his Democratic successor Franklin D. Roosevelt.  They held at 70 percent-plus from 1935 to 1982, but have been under 40%, also under presidents of both parties, since 1987.  The piece noted the correlation, if not the causality, of high levels of income inequality after long stretches of low marginal income taxes over the past 90 years, and concluded that for raising those rates to be effective, it would need to be done by “all the big countries,” and that “the U.S. must really want it to be done.”  That, now, means not soon. 

Former labor secretary and active author and blogger Robert Reich decried “corporate tax deserters” in Salon on September 14th.  He suggested an end to “financial incentives that encourage” it, and opined that United States companies moving their cash or headquarters overseas “should no longer be entitled to the advantages of being American,” including political involvement and use of the domestic litigation system.  That has plenty of merit, and removing tax breaks instead of implementing new levies should in theory have bipartisan support.  I have previously advocated better tax treatment of companies creating and maintaining large numbers of jobs, and Reich’s ideas here could be implemented along with that.

Another viewpoint to which I have subscribed, that of the need for a national infrastructure project, gathered opposing views.  The Wayne Independent and other sources published Heritage Foundation research associate Michael Sargent’s “What both candidates get wrong about infrastructure” (July 29th).  The author cited statistics and studies showing that American pavement, bridges, and highways had improved, not worsened, since 1992, and that such efforts were susceptible to overspending.   George F. Will’s November 25th Washington Post “Infrastructure projects aren’t jobs programs” differentiated between these two purposes, but unfortunately illogically claimed that New Deal public works projects “did not significantly reduce unemployment,” since joblessness then did not drop, and said such efforts would not be as useful as those before since our infrastructure is now more developed.  Both Sargent and Will bring worthwhile points, but nothing in either article convinced me such a plan, perhaps modified to consider the above, would not be worthwhile.

The worst labor-related news of the year came out November 22nd, when a federal judge blocked adjustment of the maximum salary for overtime eligibility.  My May 27th post named six reasons why this change was good, even if a higher minimum wage was bad, and said that I had never seen as many “bad arguments” as put forth by those opposing it.  However, lawsuits filed by “21 states and a coalition of business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce” (Reuters, in Fox Business) provoked the judicial response that the change was unlawful.  The measure is now under nationwide injunction, but further legislation and litigation are sure to follow.  Eventually, though probably not with the incoming presidential administration, the courts will see that low pay is not the same as employee abuse, and resolve the overtime issue appropriately.

In “What a 21st-century safety net should look like” (Washington Post, November 29), Democratic Virginia Senator Mark R. Warner suggested, in response to “modern American capitalism… not working for many Americans,” portable health-care and disability insurance, some type of retirement savings protection, and incentives for companies to retrain workers.  He bemoaned business’s short-term financial focus, but had no ideas on changing that.  Overall there is not much here, except inadvertently pointing up that agreement on the causes of problems is not enough to solve them by itself.

Although there has been a lot of recent press about guaranteed income, there is still some confusion about what it actually is.  That was made clear in reports of Finland’s experimental enhanced unemployment benefits, going to 2,000 jobless people for two years.  Since the money will not be stopped by the recipients’ earnings elsewhere, Peter S. Goodman in the December 17th New York Times, despite his article’s title “Free Cash in Finland.  Must Be Jobless.,” described this effort as “an experiment in a form of social welfare:  universal basic income.”  But it is not.  For earnings to be both guaranteed and universal, they must go to people regardless of employment status.  By skewing the set of people given this money, the outcomes will be misleading and will distort the views of those not realizing this distinction.  Higher unemployment compensation is generally a good thing, though, even if it is represented as something else.

On December 28th, Fox Business published “The Average Retirement Age in Every State in 2016.”  I was stunned by how little variation this study, which used federal data for people aged 40 to 80, found across the nation.  All 51 data points, for the states and the District, came out between 62 and 65, with the relatively largest in New England and nearby New Jersey.  Additionally, despite much talk about later retirements, only 6% of Americans are still in the labor force at age 80.  More interesting would be the share of people who have left what could be defined as their main careers at certain ages – that would not come out anywhere near 20th-century levels. 

Lauren Weber’s January 3rd Wall Street Journal piece “‘Routine’ Jobs Are Disappearing,” discovered what readers of this blog have known since its 2012 inception, that many doing algorithmic work, be it physical or mental, have been losing it.  Weber’s additional statement that “the U.S. must invest in raising the skills of the workers most likely to be affected by the disappearance of routine jobs, labor market experts say” is even less useful, not only no newer but something I debunked five years ago in Work’s New Age

Shorter workweeks have great value, and stand as one of the few comprehensive solutions to the permanent jobs crisis.  Have they failed already?  Liz Alderman, in “In Sweden, Happiness in a Shorter Workday Can’t Overcome the Cost” (The New York Times, January 6th) seems to consider that possibility.  She documented the Swedish experiment with a six-hour workday, which resulted in “happier, healthier, and more productive employees,” but proved too expensive, as others needed to be hired to cover the lost time.  On further examination, though, the trial was held with retirement home workers, who needed to cover predetermined hours.  Under those circumstances, it was clear that shortening their work would mean more employees would be needed.  That would not be the case for most cubicle-job workers who, if they did not have as in this case ten hours a week of idle or expendable time, could have their least essential tasks cut.  Clearly, shortening hours for production workers, or those needed to be present for certain lengths of time, is not as viable as doing that for those with slack time or flexible workloads.  Thus, the headline here was as misleading as the subhead of the Finland article above, “the idea, universal basic income, is gaining traction worldwide.”  Guaranteed income and shorter working hours have great potential, but they must be understood properly.      

There will be more.  If anything else, it is good to see the issues above being discussed.  Even if the unemployment rate stays low, we will need to keep doing that as the years roll on.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Dull but Still Improving Jobs Data Puts American Job Shortage Number (AJSN) At 17 Million

Not much was supposed to happen in this morning’s monthly Bureau of Labor Statistics national employment report – and not much did.

Most of what was there, though, was good.  Although official seasonally adjusted unemployment increased from 4.6% to 4.7%, two behind-the curtain numbers which got better in November improved again.  The count of those out of work for 27 weeks or longer dropped another 100,000 to 1.8 million, as did the tally of people working part-time for economic reasons, or keeping shorter-hours positions while looking thus far unsuccessfully for longer ones, now 5.6 million.  Average private nonfarm hourly earnings, after taking a one-month break with a small loss, almost matched October’s 13-cent increase to reach an even $26.00.  The two percentages which show better than any other figures how common it is for Americans to actually be working, the labor force participation rate and the employment-population ratio, held steady at 62.7% and 59.7%.  There were a population-gain-exceeding 156,000 net new nonfarm positions, and seasonally unadjusted joblessness matched the adjusted’s rise to go from 4.4% to 4.5%. 

The American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, which shows in one metric how many more positions could be filled if getting one were as easy as buying a movie ticket, gained a modest 126,000, as growths in the counts of those wanting work but not looking for it for at least a year (up over 200,000) and officially unemployed (up just over 100,000) more than offset the surprising 165,000 fall in those describing themselves as “discouraged.”  Overall, the AJSN came in at just over 17 million, as follows:

Compared with a year before, the AJSN is down 475,000, reflecting substantially reduced numbers of those discouraged and officially jobless.  The one that keeps climbing, the count of those claiming no interest whatever in working, rose 1.34 million, adding 67,000 to the latent demand which the AJSN measures. 

So how are we looking now?  Favorable.  We could still use many more work opportunities, and there remain too many people working part-time not by choice, but we ended the last full Obama-administration month with not only a massive eight-year improvement but reasonable figures in general.  We will see if Trump’s team will hold the gain, improve further on it, or let it go back to the likes of 10% official unemployment.  In the meantime, the turtle, once again, took a small step forward.  

Friday, December 30, 2016

Driverless Cars This Fall: Technology and Business

Beyond the views, what’s been happening with self-driving vehicles over the past several months?

In “A Lesson of Tesla Crashes?  Computer Vision Can’t Do It All Yet” (The New York Times, September 19), Steve Lohr recapped May’s fatal Florida accident, correctly judging that “the man placed too much confidence in Tesla’s self-driving system.”  The issue is that naming it something like “autopilot,” when it is designed only to spell operators for problem-free and probably short times, is asking for trouble, and now, what with the well-publicized state of advancement in the field, is unnecessary.  When more progress is made with technologies such as the one Lohr described, Stanford and Princeton Universities’ ImageNet, and problems such as the connection between Tesla’s driving and braking systems which caused that crash are fixed, drivers will be more able to disengage.

On that same date, in Business Insider’s “Uber’s self-driving cars are impressive – but there’s still a lot we can’t do,” Danielle Muoio described her experience riding in one of Uber’s Pittsburgh test cars, summarizing that they had real problems “simply having to deal with other human drivers on the road.”  As she photographed in action, during her ride the operator needed to take over control when an 18-wheel truck turned right, from the left lane, in front of them.  The Uber test, per Muoio, is also uncovering issues these vehicles have:  with bridges, given the lack of buildings next to them; with snow, since it covers up lane markings and other orientation markers;  and even with trees, which look different enough in summer and winter for the systems to identify specific ones.  On the other hand, these tests are running up miles, and Google’s has, as of October 5th (Wall Street Journal), reached 2,000,000 of them. 

Sunday Review in The New York Times is a good place for issues we should be thinking about, even without solid conclusions, and that perfectly describes Azim Shariff, Iyad Rahwan, and Jean-Francois Bonnefon’s November 3rd “Whose Life Should Your Car Save?”  This was not the first time I or others have mentioned the issue of how driverless cars should be programmed when faced with a choice “between risks to its passengers and risks to a potentially greater number of pedestrians,” but it didn’t need to be.  We learned here that when Science magazine presented the results of people being surveyed on life-or-death scenarios, “a large majority… agreed that cars that impartially minimized overall casualties were more ethical, and were they type they would like to see on the road,” but also that “most people” showed “a strong preference for buying the self-protective one” instead.  That looks like a crime of the 2030s – people illegally modifying their driverless vehicle software to protect themselves first. 

In that same newspaper the next day, Henry Fountain’s “A Slow Ride Toward the Future of Public Transportation” raised some less commonly presented issues.  He mentioned the appearance of driverless buses around Helsinki campuses and factories, and suggested, correctly for once, that self-driving cars would cut auto sales “in cities” – not in the country.  Those, along with a first experimental bus in public territory, use a combination of environment-detecting sensors and an approach described 64 years ago for automating barbers in Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano, capturing and replicating the motions of human drivers.  The piece also mentioned a local computer application, Whim, which Finns can now use to not only plan but book transportation, the forms to be determined by the system, by keying in starting point and destination.

On December 13 in Salon, we found that Google’s driverless effort is now named Waymo, and that the company, ever optimistic, officially expects their vehicles to be “commonplace” in four years or less.  That same day, Cecilia Kang in the Times (Cars Talking to One Another?  They Could Under Proposed Safety Rules) suggested something I should have thought of myself, that driverless vehicles routinely broadcast, air-traffic-control style, their location, speed, and direction to each other.  This plan has the backing and involvement of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and, when technical and bureaucratic issues with radio frequencies are resolved, seems a huge favorite to be implemented.

From December 14th to December 21st, covered by the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, we saw the rise and fall of Uber’s San Francisco self-driving taxi service.  On that first date they announced that it, though only provided by five cars, would be available throughout that entire city.  They tried to sidestep local regulations by claiming they were not autonomous, and indeed each would have two people, a driver and an engineer, in front, but the imprecision of the laws ended up working against them, and, after the California Department of Motor Vehicles cancelled the cars’ registrations, the service was discontinued.  It will come back, though, at another place, most likely within months.

On December 22nd in Salon, Angelo Young told us that Google’s first Waymo vehicle is now planned to be a minivan.  It’s as least as good as any, since, as modern-day station wagons, minivans accommodate a variety of occupants and cargo, and the expected much greater safety of self-driving cars would appeal to the same demographic. 

Fox Business peeked at the stock investment merits of two major driverless players, including Google’s parent company (“How Apple and Alphabet are De-risking their Self-Driving Car Efforts,” December 23rd).  Commentators Dylan Lewis and Daniel Sparks reached the same conclusion that I did months ago, that producing such things is too much for any single firm.  They added properly that, unlike what these companies are accustomed to in the smartphone market, they will not be able to achieve “high-30%” profit margins, and that both would like to minimize the manufacturing they do themselves.  Yet somebody must make them – could they get away with pawning off this tangible product bearing their nameplate on someone else?  We will see.

Finally, two days ago, Brent Snavely mentioned a name not as commonly mentioned in the driverless world as its competitors.  In “Brain in the Trunk:  Ford to unveil next self-driving car” (Detroit Free Press), he says that Henry’s old company is, along with the others, “investing heavily” in the technology, and is focusing farther down the road, “to develop a fully autonomous car that does not require the driver to operate the vehicle.”  I’m not sure this is a good place to try to leapfrog competitors, but what do I know?  They are hoping to do that without any special roadway technology, by reading where they are going through LIDAR and visual sensors.

So how about jobs?  Hang on to your hat – 2017 will be quite a year.  Expect an updated look at how many truck driving, cabdriving, auto sales, and other positions might be lost by when, sometime in the middle of it. 

Friday, December 23, 2016

Driverless Cars This Fall: Regulations and Questions

Another three months has gone by in this almost $1 trillion area of investment and future promise.  What has happened on the government and commentary side?

On September 19th, the U.S. Department of Transportation released its first set of what could be called guidelines on semiautonomous and fully self-driving vehicles.  In an apparent attempt to guide the technology’s progress without putting up roadblocks, this federal agency named 15 points just short of formal laws.  Per Cecilia Kang in The New York Times the next day, they were sharing data on accidents with regulators, defining privacy expectations for drivers, manufacturers getting safety algorithms validated by others, hacking prevention, effective capability to move control back and forth from systems to drivers, ensuring damage to cars from accidents would be no worse than to today’s ordinary meatmobiles, operation education, a technological-improvement certification requirement, preventing dangerously damaged driverless cars from operating before repairs, ability to follow local traffic laws but being able to violate them in order to prevent a crash, attention to the ethical issues of vehicles protecting their occupants or others first, proof of operational testing and validation, ability to respond to normal and abnormal driving situations, assessing the driver’s fitness to take control, and adequate technology validation including simulations, test-track and road testing.  These make up a comprehensive set of areas to be addressed, and, especially when framed as strong suggestions rather than laws, seem truly positive to me, with one exception.  The idea that, as Kang put it, “any software updates or new driverless features must be submitted to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration,” could be a recipe for bureaucratic backlogs, and, with the developers of these vehicles knowing far more than federal regulators, would be better replaced with something more cooperative, along the lines of corporate technologists making cases to their managements for upgrades or implementations with quick, perhaps emailed, approvals or requests for more information.  Otherwise, government’s attitude toward self-driving capability seems excellent, with President Barack Obama saying, in a Pittsburgh newspaper editorial also that Monday, that such vehicles could save tens of thousands of lives a year, and that the guidelines above were “flexible and designed to evolve with new advances.”  In all, Washington, in contrast with its response to many other things, hit the right notes here.

Two weeks later, the Times editorial staff, in “Ushering in a Safe, Driverless Future,” took a more regulatory and less positive view, saying that self-driving cars would scare people, with “those fears… made all the more real by a fatal crash involving a Tesla Model S that was traveling on autopilot in May.”  Although the piece tipped its hat to the 35,000 auto accident fatalities last year, at which rate there have been over 20,000 since this last driverless one, it said that “automakers and technology companies might resist mandatory rules, but they shouldn’t,” as that would reassure all that “companies are not using them as crash test dummies.”  I was disappointed to see advocacy of stricter standards than what the Department of Transportation seems to intend, and think that the potential for slow regulatory approval could cost many more lives than one in seven months. 

Eleven weeks after the announcement above, Bill McGee’s “Driverless cars for travelers:  More questions than answers” appeared in USA Today.  The December 7th piece presented many queries, mostly answered already as above by the Department of Transportation, but with more emphasis on driver training and how to avoid excessive distraction.  It also brought up enough follow-on issues for an entire speculative book, such as the effect on auto insurance, determination of who or what is responsible for mishaps, taxation impacts, and even what might happen to the travel industry. 

The most negative response I saw, though, was from Jamie Lincoln Kitman, again on the New York Times op-ed page.  December 19th’s “Google Wants Driverless Cars, but Do We?” was a compendium of the worst anyone could say about self-driving technology, ranging from its most doubtful, extreme, and uncommonly touted advantages (lower harmful emissions?  no airbags?), to allegedly required enormous infrastructure improvements, job losses by “millions of truck and taxi drivers,” the idea that it will cause mass transit to go away, and even questioning federal accident statistics.  Some of his concerns have validity, but the piece was strangely one-sided.  It was especially odd to see someone connected with the driving-related press, in this case “the New York bureau chief for Automobile Magazine,” with this attitude.  There is a story behind this article, but unfortunately I don’t know what it is.

Many technical and organizational things have also happened in the past three months – they will be the subject of next week’s post.  In the meantime, you and your family have a great Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or whatever your brand may be! 

Friday, December 16, 2016

The Backlash on Globalization: It’s Real, But What Will Be Put into Law?

It never was one world, and it may be splitting up even more.

The perception that the world might be getting less flat hit the press well before Donald Trump’s unexpected presidential election victory.  On September 6th, Martin Wolf’s Financial Times column “The tide of globalisation is turning” went back to 2008, citing a study showing that “the ratios of world trade to output” had been much the same since that year, with “cross-border financial assets” and direct foreign investment not only leveling off but peaking around then.  He showed in a chart that trade between countries, as a percentage of gross domestic product, went up irregularly but clearly from about 24% in the early 1960s to 59% in the late 2000s, where, after a 2008 to 2010 dip and recovery, it was through at least 2013.

That same day, Robert Reich’s “The reality of free trade deals – they don’t benefit all” appeared in Salon.  Reich pointed out that only 35% thought free trade benefited most Americans, and, although he is an economist, blamed increasing income inequality along with “unraveling” safety nets.

On the Sunday after the election, The New York Times published author and Morgan Stanley global strategist Ruchir Sharma’s “When Borders Close” comparing 2016 to 1914, when the forces underlying the outbreak of World War I “ended an extraordinary four-decade period of rising migration and trade.”  Movement of goods between countries was to fall from 30 percent of world GDP that year to 10% in 1933, three years after the American Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act caused what Sharma described as “a global trade war.”  Per his article and Wolf’s chart, it would be 60 years before intercountry trade matched that 30%.  He also mentioned a rise in protectionist legislation since 2008, and, along with Wolf, named that year as globalization’s high-water mark, and, in step with Reich’s conclusions, noted the increase in income inequality, specifically the share going to the top 1%, as greatly widening during the time of freest trade.  He finished by saying that “deglobalization” has proved itself to be as natural, and as long-lasting, as its opposite.

Adrian Wooldridge, in The Economist’s late-November “Bolshiness is back,” reached similar conclusions, saying that “this golden age is coming to an end” with “the first shots” coming from the political right, those backing Brexit in Great Britain and Trump in the United States.  He implied that we might also have equivalents of Hitler and Mussolini, and also cited higher top-end income concentration.

All of this may well be happening – if the next administration makes it reality.  As credited to Reagan-era journalist Helen Thomas, war makes strange bedfellows, and we have that now.  Concern about income inequality, jobs moving to other countries, accumulation of corporate money overseas, and wishes for trade restrictions, all historically liberal viewpoints, are now being addressed by Republicans.  Yet that could be more of a party shift than an ideological one, when, arguably, the Democrats as represented by Hillary Clinton are now pro-establishment and therefore conservative, and the Republicans at least purport to support common people as Democrats did for so many decades.  That means it should have been no surprise to see Salon, usually well to the left of even the major eastern newspapers, publishing, four days ago, Les Leopold’s “This is how you stop jobs from leaving American soil:  A game plan to fight outsourcing,” containing eight suggestions, ranging from a good use for unions (making lists of companies planning to move jobs out of the US), one bad idea (passing laws to stop outsourcing; the way to do that is through tax penalties), and on to pressuring Trump to take action, protesting, lobbying, and finding ways to “encourage allies to join the fray.”  If they can succeed and our president-elect turns this piece of his campaign rhetoric into reality, we can say that this is how the country is changing.  If not, we may be looking at 1930s Germany, in which Hitler went from speaking strongly and respectfully of workers to instituting the permanent-record Work Book, to make employers “once again the master of the house.”  That would be even worse than protectionism, which benefits the few at the expense of the many.  But I don’t know which it will be, and you don’t either.   

Friday, December 9, 2016

A Six-Month Miscellaneous Jobs Round-Up

Many articles pertinent to American employment reach my desk, and not all of them are on subtopics, such as self-driving cars, Uber-Lyft-Airbnb, robots, or the minimum wage, which can support an entire post.  Still, they are important, and any of their subjects could, as the driverless vehicles did last year, grow into a booming and attention-getting area.

The first, from June 23, is on a subject on which I have written several times, that of a guaranteed citizen’s stipend.  In “Basic Income Revisited” (Project Syndicate, June 23), Robert Skidelsky, a British emeritus political economy professor, doesn’t revisit as much as introduce it, naming ever-increasing inequality from automation as a possible future cause, saying that “unless we change our system of income generation, there will be no way to check the concentration of wealth in the hands of the rich and exceptionally entrepreneurial.”  As we will see, he’s hardly the only observer seeing that.  I maintain that the perceived problem with inequality, which indeed will not go away by normal means, is actually one of insufficient resources for ordinary people, which can be resolved in a variety of ways, including guaranteed income.

In Forbes, George Anders, a grade-school friend of mine many decades ago who, like me, loved chemistry but ended up in business instead, wrote July 26th’s “Is Tech Killing U.S. Jobs?  The Actual Data Is Surprising.”  He correctly pointed out that relatively few people even now are employed in information technology, but that many more have jobs connected with business-related services much less used a couple of decades ago, such as surveys, planning events, and graphic design.  He acknowledged that computers had ended many positions, such as executive secretaries (down from 1,130,000 to 666,000 from 2010 to 2015), and yet that, Expedia and the like notwithstanding, there were still 67,000 American travel agents.  His points seem to be that jobs come and go in unexpected places, and that the effect on information systems on employment has been neither great nor horrendous but somewhere in the middle.  I think the time we spent together poring over 1966 baseball cards helped him learn how to understand numbers, as it did for me, and it shows here.

In a counterpoint to last year’s press on the intensity of their jobs, we found out from the late Scott Eric Kaufman in Salon on August 29th, in “Amazon to test full-time, full-salaried 30-hour work week” that the online retailing behemoth will try something I’ve recommended for years.  Although that company’s management’s intentions may be good, I see no chance that their managers will truly end up working that little.  The trap they are falling into is similar to that of eliminating performance reviews, which does not end employee assessment and selection for promotions but merely pushes it underground.  As they are knowledgeable enough to be aware of that, I can’t take their effort seriously.

A new set of temporary employees, “Migrant Workers in Recreational Vehicles,” made the pages of The New York Times on October 21.  Author Christopher Farrell described “modern-day nomads” who move around the country, working seasonal opportunities.  They may take difficult physical jobs, such as bringing in agricultural harvests, but are hardly poor, with many old enough to get pension, retirement account, and Social Security income as well.  There are now millions of over-50 Americans with similar work and life characteristics, who in decades past would have been either fully retired or still in their earlier careers, forming a growing set of gig workers providing another way for companies to fill jobs without expensive full-time employees.  That is only one more effect of the permanent jobs crisis.      

In Harvard Business Review on the same date, Avivah Wittenberg-Cox asked “What Happens When Careers Last 20 Years Longer?”  The article didn’t match the title, a good thing since while lives are getting longer careers are not, and addressed how companies might deal with those in different stages of life, from emerging adults not ready for permanent full-time work to the mushrooming count of those over 60 starting businesses.  She made a good common-sense point rebutting those avoiding nepotism, that “it may prove a lot easier to manage dual career couples which they both work for you.”  When I was at AT&T two decades ago, 13% of company employees were married to another one, and that did, indeed, help them continue professionally and stay together personally.

Should we be optimistic or pessimistic about technology and innovation?  The Economist’s October 22nd Schumpeter column, “Techno wars,” surveys both sides and how they both get confused about productivity as opposed to jobs, progress as opposed to lifestyle improvement, and cash income as opposed to unquantified free resources unavailable scant years before.  These are all different things, and this page-long piece could be expanded to a book in which the author would keep them straight. 

Two November 27th articles, “Q&A:  Political economist Eberstadt on men without jobs” in Fox Business and “Jobless by choice – or pain?” from Robert J. Samuelson in The Washington Post, addressed the issue of fewer men in the workforce, which I documented in Work’s New Age almost five years ago.  Nicholas Eberstadt additionally told us that over three times as many men aged 25 to 54 are “neither working nor looking for work” for every one officially unemployed, and that the United States has “had by far the worst drop in male workforce participation.”  Samuelson also seemed to be just discovering things he could have read in my 2012 book, such as “the work ethic is such a central part of the American character that it’s hard to imagine it fading” and that those out of the workforce “spend about eight hours a day… watching TV, playing video games or just hanging out.”  Though he added the depressing news that “nearly half of male dropouts report taking pain pills every day,” he, and Eberstadt, are behind the curve.

“A Dilemma for Humanity:  Stark Inequality or Total War.”  What a title!  It’s from The New York Times on December 6th, on a piece in which Eduardo Porter interviewed history professor Walter Scheidel, whose January book, The Great Leveler, will argue that only something as extreme as “all-out thermonuclear war” can stop our increasing inequality.  That echoed my second-to-last Work’s New Age paragraph, in which I warned that “if we maintain the idea that any decent person has the opportunity to work” we would choose between various disastrous consequences, including “vast numbers of our countrymen without hope, health, or possessions.”  I disagree with the implication here that equality should be our goal, and don’t understand why guaranteed income, to name just one possible comprehensive solution, would not be effective.  Maybe that will be in Scheidel’s book.

Two more pertinent articles came out only Wednesday, but both can be addressed quickly.  Dylan Love’s NBC News “Is Universal Basic Income the Answer to an Automated Future?” is a short overview of that idea, punctuated by recent automation-related news.  Samuelson’s Washington Post “What’s really to blame for the productivity slowdown” starts with “our thinking about productivity is cockeyed,” which it is, if we refuse to realize that so many of our new positions are in areas such as restaurants, retail, and home health care where employers don’t get even $25 per hour value from their workers. 

I’ll end on a more forward-going note by mentioning “Luxembourg boldly goes into asteroid mining” (Financial Times, May 5th).  There is almost unimaginable mineral wealth on those things between Mars and Jupiter, and if you see science fiction writer Larry Niven’s Future History series, you will get an idea of the prosperity, the culture, and, yes, the jobs that harvesting it could create.  Full marks to little Luxembourg with its second-in-the-world GDP per capita, which, if they get somewhere with that, will become even richer.  If they’re not big, at least they can think big – and so can we.