Friday, December 6, 2019

November Jobs Data: AJSN Edges Below 15 Million Latent Demand, While BLS Numbers Show Small but Real Improvements

I wasn’t sure about this morning’s Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Situation Summary.  This edition, from November, could have been much the same as October’s, and therefore overall not much better or worse than September’s, with a published estimate of 180,000 net new nonfarm positions ending up overly optimistic.  But none of this happened.

The actual number of new jobs as above came in at 266,000, with small improvements to the previous two months putting us at a three-month 205,000 average.  The unadjusted unemployment rate was down 0.1% to 3.5%, with the unadjusted one staying at 3.3%.  The total number of officially jobless Americans lost 100,000 to 5.8 million, as did the count of those out for 27 weeks or longer, now at 1.2 million, and the number working part-time for economic reasons, which fell to 4.3 million.  The two measures of how common it is for our country-people to be working, the labor force participation rate and the employment-population ratio, split between unfavorable and neutral, with the former down 0.1% to 63.2% and the latter holding at 61.0%.  Average nonfarm payroll wages had the catch-up month they needed, combining a 7-cent gain with a 4-cent positive adjustment for October to reach $28.29.  

The American Job Shortage Number, the measure showing how many additional positions could be quickly filled if all knew it would be easy to get one, fell below 15 million for the first time during its tracking, but with an improvement of only a scattered 24,000, as follows:

Compared with a year ago, the AJSN is down 530,000, the improvement headed by 188,000 lower latent demand from those unemployed, followed by 115,000 fewer apiece from people discouraged and not looking for the past year, and the rest split between five other categories.  Only 32.6% of the AJSN now comes from those officially jobless.  

How good then, overall, was November?  I like the broad-basedness of its advances, when, with unemployment rates not leaving much room for improvement, any gains would be good.  Therefore, the turtle, after resting in October, took another step forward this time. 

Friday, November 29, 2019

America Isn’t Ending, But It Is Evolving

An article in the December Atlantic considered whether “a tectonic demographic shift” will manage to ruin the United States.  Yoni Appelbaum’s “How America Ends,” which printed out to 18 pages, started with the observation that “democracy depends on the consent of the losers,” and named changes we are experiencing, including that “red and blue areas have become more deeply hued” or more polarized, that political differences are now concerning parents about their children’s spouses more than religious or racial ones, and that more on each side are dehumanizing those on the other.  If you do as Appelbaum apparently did and count all Hispanics as nonwhite, you find that white Christians are no longer most voters.  He also offered the thought-provoking view that “the Republican Party has treated Trump’s tenure more as an interregnum than a revival,” and that the GOP is headed for trouble when he leaves office, which, as “conservatives… are losing faith in their ability to win elections in the future” means that our democracy could weaken.  The Republican National Committee matched that view, issuing a report between 2012 and 2016 calling for the party to cater more to Hispanics, Asians, blacks, Indians, women, and young people, who combined for nearly 75% of 2012 voters.  

Per Appelbaum, though, these are hardly the worst times our republic has seen.  The South, both before and after the Civil War, chose “countermajoritarian politics” instead of seeking support for measures from more than half of the population.  Political-related violence, while more common now than a couple of decades ago, occurred much more often then, with House of Representatives members, in their own chamber, threatening each other with guns.  Neither is the composition of the Supreme Court more uneven than ever, as it “by the 1850s had a five-justice majority from slaveholding states” – even the most avid Trump supporters do not expect 7 of the 9 justices to share their opinions.  And immigration was more restricted in the 1920s than Republicans have recently seriously proposed.  

In the meantime, Democrats have become the party of the establishment, and, along with it, the side with the wealthiest participants.  This is hardly the first time Democrats and Republicans have switched their constituencies, and points more to change than termination.  

So if Republicans are indeed in long-term trouble, how can they escape?  Here are eight ways, all of which I, as a registered one, would like to see.  First, the party needs to overtly appeal to all ages, races, religions, and ethnic groups.  Second, it needs to emphasize common sense in social issues, in such ways as backing marijuana legalization and requiring equal rights between the sexes but needing more than a momentary self-identification to use bathrooms not matching chromosomes.  Third, as our president has totally failed to do, the party platform should emphasize prudent spending while not shorting safety-net programs.  Fourth, it would profit from finding and opposing Democrat-backed views, such as heavy laws and spending on climate change, with which many middle Americans disagree.  

Fifth, Republicans should support American interest while realizing that the country is indeed changing.  Sixth, they should strive to support as many jobs as possible without mandated- benefit or high-minimum-wage encumbrances.  Seventh, it must go out of the way to show that blacks, gays, and Hispanics, to name three, are more than welcome, not only as voters but as organizers and party decision-makers.  

Eighth, when in doubt, the GOP should choose a libertarian bent.  In the article above, Appelbaum quoted political scientist Adam Przeworski saying that our party system “must give all the relevant political forces a chance to win from time to time in the competition of interests and values.”  Libertarians, of which many others are at least partial supporters, have not had theirs yet.  Freedom is as American as the Super Bowl – why not try more of it?  That, beyond almost anything else, is what our evolving, not dying, country should try. 

Friday, November 22, 2019

Driverless Cars – In the Metal!

Eight days ago I sought out and visited Chandler, Arizona.  With 65 square miles and over a quarter million people, that Phoenix satellite is one of the newer huge suburbs, such as Henderson, Nevada and Plano, Texas, which grew by expanding into unincorporated land while adding few features of standalone cities.  It seemed like a fine place to live, but why go there?

The answer, which regular readers of this blog may have suspected even before reading today’s headline, is that Chandler has become perhaps the most important place for the real-life road-testing of autonomous vehicles.  I had known they were common there, but despite writing tens of thousands of words on that subject had never actually seen one.  But now I have.  So you yourself don’t need to try to photograph moving cars from other ones, I chased them around and shot them on my trusty Canon, and returned with the following 13 things to say.

First, in about an hour’s searching I saw 8 to 10 autonomous Waymo vehicles, all moving, and which could have included duplicates.  Second, two seemed to be on courses, making the same sequence of turns.  Three, each had one or two on-board safety drivers, and one I got next to also had a, rather bored-looking, back seat passenger.

Four, the cars acted normally in traffic and actually exceeded the conservative posted speed limits a bit; I almost lost one when it went over 50 for almost a mile in a 45 zone.  Five, most of the vehicle tops had cylinder-shaped rooftop Lidar devices, though some had extra thick flat tops.  Six, all were white sort of small, longish SUVs with the faint turquoise Waymo name.  Seven, I saw not a single out-of-the-ordinary reaction, including jeers or vandalism attempts, from other drivers or pedestrians – all acted as if the vehicles were nothing special at all.

Eighth, I talked with (actually at) two safety drivers, encouraging them and acknowledging that while I was being a pest I was on their side – they, men in their 20s or around 30, seemed cheerful, sober sorts.  Ninth, Chandler did look new and prosperous, with streets all in excellent condition.  Tenth, at a sunny or slightly cloudy 80 that afternoon the weather was perfect.

Eleventh, Chandler’s larger roads followed a clear grid pattern, but others, often running through subdivisions, wiggled around.  I saw two expressways, one on the western border and another going through the middle of town, with orderly exit patterns.  Twelfth, except for one where the safety driver was using the wheel to back out of a parking space, I could not tell when the cars were in autonomous mode.

Thirteenth, we can contrast the unobtrusiveness of these vehicles with the fuss the horseless carriages made in their early appearances over 100 years ago.  The equivalent of the Clancy Brothers singing that “you could hear the din all through Glenfin of Johnston’s motor car” will not happen this time.  After a while, we will not notice them – and that is the way that should be.

Here are the photos:

Friday, November 8, 2019

Autonomous Vehicles: The Hits Just Keep On Coming

Three months ago I posted on why self-driving car progress was stalling out, and how we could get it moving again.  Since then, the situation has changed – it’s become worse.

Soon after that date, Clyde Haberman’s July 14th New York Times “Driverless Cars Are Taking Longer Than Expected.  Here’s Why.,” offered a recap of a few of the technology’s problems:  insufficient mapping, which must be done “down to a few centimeters”; remaining issues with bad weather; the perception problem worsened by Boeing’s remarkably recalcitrant 737 Max troubles; and remaining fear from the sole pedestrian death.  There are also real and widespread legal issues, as described in David Shepardson’s August 29th Reuters “Waymo urges U.S. to ‘promptly’ remove barriers to self-driving cars,” including the need to “meet nearly 75 auto safety standards for self-driving cars, many of them written under the assumption that a licensed driver is in command of the vehicle using traditional controls,” which the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which may not “complete a comprehensive rewrite of various safety standards” before 2025, will address in March.  Shepardson’s piece implicitly makes a case for development in limited areas, as is happening to a great extent now, to be, if successful, propagated after that.

More discouraging though was Brett Berk’s November 3rd Car and Driver “The Enemies of the Autonomous Vehicle.”  I’m glad to see that publication, which may someday need to drop the two last words from its name, weighing in here.  Berk started with the news that Chandler, Arizona, long a center for driverless cars, has seen “nearly two dozen” attacks, with people “pelting them with rocks, trying to run them off the road, challenging them to games of chicken, and slashing their tires.”  Some of that we can expect, by rather young perpetrators acting out of curiosity, and Berk saw no evidence of any organized revolt. 

The author, though, found more than that to cause concern.  An “earlier this year” AAA survey still showed that about 75% feared riding in autonomous vehicles.  A man, citing the pedestrian death, threatened one with a .22 pistol.  As likely, given the lack of widespread rollouts, “no national or industry standards currently exist for the regulation of these vehicles,” beyond banning them entirely as before.  And while the Chandler troubles were scattered, organizations named Save Driving and The Human Driving Association, the latter with almost 10,000 people, have popped up and are voicing a range of objections, including that self-driving cars would “enhance national divisions” between rural and urban and would provide new masses of data to the huge companies providing them.  There is also union opposition, some remarkably enlightened, with Teamsters president James Hoffa Jr. calling out autonomous vehicle developers for wanting above all to spend less money, and asking that those savings be used to help drivers whose jobs it has cost.  As well, the Cadillac Super Cruise partial automation now for sale does not consistently work, and Berk echoed Haberman’s observation that rain and snow still cause plenty of problems.

Then, as maybe the worst problem of all, we have hacking.  I still maintain that it can be beat, but its variety, sophistication, and technical intensity mean that will require a great deal of time and funds.  Per Berk, a benevolent Chinese research group found that “small stickers placed in a roadway were enough to convince the (self-driving) car to change lanes right into oncoming traffic.”  Overall, “cars could be taken over remotely and manipulated, militarized, or held hostage for ransom.”  As such vehicles have over 300 million lines of code, they have more vulnerable places than commercial planes with their 15 million.

For those of us in favor of automated vehicles, all of this is sad.  And unless research efforts regain their passion, and plenty of other stakeholders help out and clear the way, their state in 2025 won’t look much different from now, with, among other losses, another 150,000 dead Americans.  That would be even more sorrowful.

Friday, November 1, 2019

Jobs Report Barely Moved for October, A Good Thing Given Forecasts – AJSN Latent Demand Down 100,000 to 15.0 Million

This morning’s Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Situation Summary was supposed to be a stinker, or at least only somewhat unfavorable.  Did that happen?

I saw four forecasts of the recent-marquee number of net new nonfarm positions, all lower than last month’s.  The result beat them all.  Instead of from 75,000 to 125,000 we had 128,000, not impressive but about enough to cover population growth.  Elsewhere, significant results were few.  The seasonally adjusted number of unemployed gained 100,000, offset by the labor force participation rate up 0.1%.  Official adjusted unemployment rose 0.1% to 3.6%.  Wages gained 9 cents per hour over September’s first report, which was later revised slightly upwards leaving us with a 6-cent October rise, just about inflation, to $28.18.  The others on which I have been reporting, the unadjusted jobless rate (3.3%), the count of people in that category for 27 weeks or longer (1.3 million), the employment-population ratio (61.0%), and those working part-time for economic reasons, or keeping such positions while thus far unsuccessfully seeking a full-time one (4.4 million), all broke even.

The American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, the metric showing how many more positions could be quickly filled if getting one were as easy as getting a pizza, reached another multiyear low, but it was close – it improved only almost 100,000, as follows:

The largest change was from a 138,000 improvement in the number of people claiming interest in working but not looking for a year or more.  The 45,000 increase in those unemployed offset that by 40,500, and changes beyond that were all 18,000 or lower.  The share of the AJSN from people officially jobless gained a little bit to 33.1%, still under one-third. 

Compared with a year before, the AJSN is still getting better.  October 2018’s result was 700,000 higher at 15.7 million, almost all due to higher unemployment, more not searching for a year or longer, and a rise in those calling themselves discouraged.

How did we do overall?  The good news is that this was not the down month many expected.  The bad news is that we didn’t go anywhere positive either.  There is still no sign of recession here, but although I saw the turtle move his knee, he stayed right where he was.  

Friday, October 25, 2019

Jobs and Human Behavior: Two Views That Help Define the Times We’re In

I got into business writing from sociology, in which I got my bachelor’s degree and spent an ill-fated graduate year.  Since then, as I showed in my books and elsewhere, I have tracked the effect of the work environment on the beings inhabiting it. 

Two efforts there have appeared over the past ten days.  One, though officially in the November Atlantic, was released already:  Judith Shulevitz’s “Why You Never See Your Friends Anymore.”  Using the Soviets’ rather unsuccessful effort to shrink and reapportion the week to get more work out of its inhabitants – she could have instead used Central Florida’s unsuccessful 1990s attempt at year-round schools – the author compared today’s situation where, for people comprising “a good third of the American labor force,” there are no traditional weekends, between “unpredictable workweeks” assigned on only several days’ notice and requirements to be on the job for any of the 7 days.  Not even a factory-like setting where people can choose to work extra hours for time-and-a-half and thereby help their prosperity, this overtime is more than ever likely to be mandatory, and hours vary wildly depending on unforeseen and immediate needs of the business.  Then we have the shocking and depressing trend of vast hours as routine for good jobs, shown by a citation that in a survey 92% of “managers and professionals” were going 50-plus weekly with one-third exceeding 65.  That isn’t all, as “that doesn’t include the twenty to twenty-five hours per week most of them reported monitoring their work while not actually working.”  (Haven’t they heard of Parkinson’s Law?)  If this is true, the section of my book Choosing a Lasting Career which assessed positions on their compatibility with outside projects and activities would need serious revision, with many more deserving downgrades.  The title of Shulevitz’s piece came from social activities being precluded by such long and ever-changing schedules preventing time coordination, enough advance notice, and just plain enough free hours.  That’s not a good thing for social animals.

The other was on an old question, Alex Williams’s October 17th New York Times “Why Don’t Rich People Just Stop Working?”.  During most of the past 100 years this has not been worth asking, as only a far-left author would fail to understand both the differences within those called “rich” and the gigantic inventory and variety of goods and services costing differing if very large amounts of money.  The Williams, keeping with the ideological tradition such as by quoting Senator Bernie Sanders inanely saying “billionaires should not exist,” shows us that competition with others at the top is still alive and well.  People at the very summit, such as $23-billion-owning Tesla-CEO Elon Musk, have long approached his once 120-hour workweek, and Williams’s rendition of maritime competition between the likes of computer magnates Larry Ellison and Paul Allen reminded me of old stories about the Astors and Vanderbilts.  Wealth’s effect on contentment is as much a diminishing factor as before, with a “recent Harvard survey” showing that those worth $8 million were only slightly happier with those with one-eighth that.  And neither are worries about economic collapses anything new.  Yes, once we update the trappings from private railroad cars to sports arenas, it’s all the same. 

What can we say about this material?  The problem of scheduling is not easy, as we want products to be available more conveniently than we once settled for.  Yet there is a gap between matching German workers walking out of their retail stores for the weekend by 5:00pm Friday and requiring ordinary, low-paid people to be there at any hour of the day or night.  As it is clearly not a subject for regulation, businesses must make the choices.  More can follow Costco’s lead by, while hardly sticking to 40-hour retail weeks, limiting business hours enough for workers to have planned days and time off.  Scheduling can often be done further in advance.  As many did during last year’s Black Friday, companies can publicize that they are limiting their hours to benefit their employees, possibly getting more sales as a result, and make incentives for overtime great enough that it can be optional.  On the issue of “rich” people putting in huge amounts of time, there is no problem – let them.  Entrepreneurs will entrepren, and ever more wealth for them does not hurt the rest of us.  In the meantime, let us focus on more work opportunities – we can always use them. 

Friday, October 18, 2019

Two Sources of Privacy Attacks: Satellites and Interconnections

I had just finished looking over a piece from Slate, September 19th’s “You Don’t Want Facebook Involved With Your Health Care” by Kirsten Ostherr, when I discovered a related one.  That was “Are We Ready for Satellites That See Our Every Move?”, by Sarah Parcak in the October 15th New York Times.

The effect of their material has much in common.  Both are progressing rapidly, both are behind the scenes as most Americans perceive them, and both can be used for much more than these articles suggested.  As well, both have real potential to get out of control.

The first showed that seemingly unrelated websites could combine their personal data troves to provide further information on individual health care decisions.  Its first sentence, “could your Netflix viewing habits predict that you will develop inflammatory bowel disease?”, may seem silly, but there are correlations everywhere.  Some of these statistical relationships are meaningful, as, for example, the purchase of Tums and Mylanta going along with stomach discomfort.  Some describe situations which are not as they seem, such as the high rates of respiratory problems in southwestern states not meaning problems with Arizona or New Mexico but the opposite, as many people with such issues choose to move there.  Many more, probably most, correlations come from “hidden variables” which affect both factors in the same way, such as, as I have written about, the lower likelihood of female high school athletes using illegal drugs, both actually in large part from higher social class.  Some are splendidly meaningless, such as the long-lasting extremely close relationship a sociologist documented between population in the Indian state of Hyderabad and membership in the International Machinists Union.   These bogus correlations fool a lot of smart people, and an almost infinite number can be found when comparing the contents of large databases.  Accordingly, even if there is no sensible real-life connection between choice of movies watched and diseases, it may look as if there is.  That is scary.

The scope of such data excursions goes well beyond recommending unjustified medical treatments.  The article mentions the possibility, which I have long since noted, that purchases of some products could trigger verdicts of poor health practices, leading to higher insurance premiums.  Some are easy to see, such as those buying motorcycle equipment tending to have higher fatal accident rates.  Some may or may not have merit, such as people acquiring more than a certain amount of bacon or butter having an increased chance of heart problems.  Some will depend on current views about food safety, which, like the 1990s oat bran craze, may only later be shown to be erroneous.  And most if not all are susceptible to failing to identify purchases for others; a father buying his son racing car parts may come through as the one with the risky lifestyle. 

While health care and health insurance costs are real issues, there are plenty more where such data could be generated and then used both fairly and unfairly.  A short brainstorming session got me auto insurance (higher rates for people buying a lot of beer), renting decisions (that and other things associated with rowdy lifestyles), credit-related decisions (what might be deemed excessive spending on non-necessities), membership organization acceptance (opinions they don’t like), employment decisions (already being made, based on anything that could interfere too much with work), or anything else where they know even only your name and address (this time, you say what would stop them).

Parcak’s work described how satellites, which 15 years ago could clearly “see things the size of 40-inch TVs” and can now handle “those the size of smart tablets.”  A big difference as, for one reason, the new capability includes viewing license plates.  Anything not indoors, including you and I much of the time, can be observed and followed, leading to combination with other information to predict future activity, including that none of the authorities’ business.

The real long-term problem with both forms of tracking is not a lack of privacy.  It’s enforcement of conformity.  As we are seeing now with Chinese efforts giving people points for displaying what their government considers socially positive behaviors, we can be motivated with money to do the same.  From there it’s just one step to the political party in power incorporating their ideology as well.  And what will stop it?  The best outcome might be what I think now exists on a smaller scale, where police departments use information, either legally or illegally obtained, to catch criminals, but little else is actually done with it.  If that continues it would hardly be harmless – police do make mistakes – but would be the most positive we can hope for.  From there, we will as always need to do the best we can.