Friday, October 20, 2017

Driverless Cars – More Progress and Positioning – II

Here’s the next chunk.

When my parents bought a Volvo in 1969, that company had a well-established reputation for safety.  It’s been a long time since I’ve seen them in the news for anything other than being acquired by Ford, but here they are again.  Carol Glines’s July 21st Fox News “Safety first!  Volvo’s intelligent drive and sensing technologies work to mitigate accidents” showed how that company is still there, adding cameras, radar sensors, and systems emitting sound warnings and dashboard red lights when they see objects ahead with crash-causing potential.  These schemes, suitable for meatmobiles as well as autonomous vehicles, will not stop cars but will only warn drivers, which, at this early point in their development, is best.  In the meantime, here in the Catskills I’d be glad to have Volvo’s new capability, mentioned in the article, to detect deer.

Legality of driverless cars on public roads has understandably been a patchwork.  That may change.  As described in “House advances bill to clear road for self-driving cars” (Keith Laing, Detroit News, July 27), this Washington legislative body showed foresight, and excellent restraint, by clearing a bill which would allow both the public use of 100,000 self-driving vehicles and prevention of overriding that with state laws.  Per Laing, “lawmakers on both sides of the aisle said the compromise legislation represented a rare bipartisan consensus,” and while it did not please everyone, the House seems to have seen the wisdom of taking risks to reduce our 35,000 annual highway dead.  Kudos to all involved.

Given creeping consumer concern, it was a nice surprise to see “Study:  Majority Of Drivers Say Next Vehicle Will Be Autonomous” (Denisse Moreno, International Business Times, July 28).  Some of the valuable research Moreno cited showed that women, as well as younger people, were more positive about that technology, but were still concerned about driverless safety, and another study found that 72% had no interest in self-driving public transportation.  She also gave us an early glimpse of perceived brand perceptions, with a slim plurality of 19% of respondents saying Tesla seemed the best, and “nearly half” of respondents unable to name a single company doing driverless manufacturing.  General Motors, Ford, and the others have some public relations work to do. 

Popular Mechanics magazine was embarrassed about predicting, on one of its 1957 covers, an “aerial sedan” for 1967, and now we have heard from them again, in July 29th’s “Who’s Afraid of the Self-Driving Car?”.   Author Johanna Zmud, a Texas A&M Transportation Institute senior research scientist, made good statements and raised good questions, such as “the number of highly automated cars as a share of everything on the road will grow over time, but only relatively slowly,” and “how will they handle changing conditions on unpaved roads, which make up nearly half of the country’s 4 million miles of road?”.  She also said that “any argument that self-driving cars will be an antidote for congestion may be, at best, uninformed and specious” (I’d go for ‘overly speculative’), “what is certain is that we’re experiencing the most pivotal time in transportation history since we started building interstate highways,” and, perfectly articulated, “they’re not quite ready yet – and we’re not either – but it won’t be long.”  A fine, fresh voice.

Electronic hacking is a huge potential driverless issue, but that’s not the only kind.  In the August 4th “Researchers Find a Malicious Way to Meddle with Autonomous Cars” (Car and Driver), Mark Harris described “an attack algorithm” which, ostensibly knowing the internal workings of sign-interpretation software, involved stickers or apparent graffiti put on road signs to fool the systems into construing, say, stop signs as saying Speed Limit 45.  The University of Michigan scholars who developed and tested this destructive technology have done well to pinpoint it as a true possible problem, which, I hope, can be solved through protection of proprietary code and stronger penalties for road sign defacement.

Going back to the business side, we have “Driverless-Car Outlook Shifts as Intel Takes Over Mobileye” (Neal E. Boudette, The New York Times, August 8).  The chip manufacturer, as Boudette said, has jumped into the middle of the self-driving world by spending $15.3 billion on one of the largest and most successful driverless component makers, which is now producing “cameras, sensors and software that enable cars to detect what is ahead.”  Intel now plans to build 100 self-driving cars and will test them in, among other places, Jerusalem, with its extreme pedestrian chaos; per Mobileye co-founder Amnon Shashua, “if you can successfully drive autonomously in Jerusalem, you can drive almost anywhere in the world.”  Intel is now established as a competitor for Nvidia, which, per Boudette, “offers chips with more raw processing power.”  But we will see.

I end with the combined technical and philosophical big-picture August 11th Salon “Self-driving cars are coming – but are we ready?”.  Johanna Zmud and her co-worker Paul Carlson combined on more clear observations and queries.  On one, “how might our nation’s roads and highways, and the driving done by we humans ourselves, need to change as autonomous vehicles become more ubiquitous?”, I have maintained that the burden must fall on the cars and trucks themselves.  Indeed we “won’t likely find many in a dealer showroom for at least 10 years,” cities will see many more of them before they appear in any numbers on highways and in rural areas, and probably if not certainly “self-driving cars will be ready for the open road long before the open road is ready for them.”  Although we can and should expect that use of driverless vehicles will decimate American and world highway casualties, there will be problems during the long transition period, during which there will be a mixture of meatmobiles and what will, by the end of this century, just be called “cars.”  And, as correct as anything cited here, “we can expect it to be an eventful ride, no matter who’s in the driver’s seat.” 


Three more weeks down.  We’ll get closer to up-to-date next week.    

Friday, October 13, 2017

Driverless Cars – More Progress and Positioning – I

Once again, I could probably write a weekly blog on this topic alone.  It’s worthy of it too, as we will see this week and beyond.  So, let’s start to get caught up.
We start with Fox News’s June 30th “Driverless ‘CargoPods’ are delivering groceries to Londoners in new trial.”  That’s a valid autonomous-vehicle proposition, and will move from the manned trucks now in use to unoccupied ones texting or phoning customers when they’re outside, but how much will they charge?  As name recognition and brand establishment would seem less important for a venture both seriously price-competitive and startable on short notice, it seems wrong for any firm to accept losses for years to position themselves for eventual possible profitability, so online grocer Ocado should be expecting positive cash flow soon.

Less substantive is Brent Snavely’s July 2nd Detroit Free Press report that “Ford exec points to ‘great progress’ in driverless cars.”  That company has done better than moving toward “deploying its first fully self-driving car by 2021” which others have achieved already, such as by assembling a consortium including software maker Argo AI.  Ford’s vice president of research and advanced engineering may have said “we don’t worry too much about where the competitors are,” but we don’t need to take this sort of announcement, clearly for public consumption, seriously.

One area of autonomous vehicles which could go in many ways is the nature of their interiors.  With no need for them to be focused on the needs of drivers, car interiors will be blank canvases.  One of an infinite number of possibilities, described in “Autonomous cars will bring a moveable feast of products and services” (Cyrus Radfar, Yahoo Finance, July 2), is “the mobile mall,” using displays to simulate the interiors of a variety of stores.  Such would coordinate well with the inexorable-seeming trend toward online shopping, post-credit-card point of sale technology, and the preferences of those in the Millennial and Generation Z generations.  For car interiors we can use all the imaginative ideas we can find, and this one is certainly reasonable.  

We’re in the early stages of intercity rivalries in this industry, and one of the most prominent so far is “Michigan’s New Motor City:  Ann Arbor as a Driverless-Car Hub” (Neal E. Boudette, The New York Times, July 9).  To the well-established MCity proving grounds, that college town will soon add autonomous buses, as of early July was up to 1,500 vehicles which “radio their speed and direction to each other and to equipment like traffic lights and crosswalk signals,” and soon expects to make good use of all those personally-carried cellphones by having them broadcast pedestrians’ locations to traffic signals and on to cars.  Elsewhere in that state, additional and much larger proving grounds are being built in Ypsilanti and Flint, where, among other things, consortia can aggressively address the problematic issue of autonomous snow driving.

We saw more progress in such business conglomerations in “Waymo and Apple Pick Their Dance Partners for Self-Driving Cars” (The Motley Fool in Fox Business, July 10th.)  We now have Waymo, Google’s driverless vehicle concern, pairing with Avis and Chrysler, and Apple simultaneously announcing its Hertz partnership involving Lexus cars.  It’s well worthwhile for consortia to work with companies knowing about physically managing millions of vehicles, and also benefiting Hertz and Avis is easier entrée into the future of car rental, which, as the article points out, “will likely become more, not less, relevant in an autonomous world.”  The consortia themselves may include “non-exclusive partnerships,” which, as we will see in this series, are happening already.  These are good positive trends.

It is well worthwhile to keep an eye on how investors, as well as other analysts, see driverless-technology companies.  These same sources published “3 Top Stocks in Self-Driving Cars” on July 12th, a piece, which after suggesting that to some people such vehicles still seem “like a bit of cheesy ‘50s-era science fiction” and citing a well-obsolete Business Insider study suggesting “that there will be 10 million autonomous cars on the roads by 2020” (not that many only three years from now) and overly conservative HIS Automotive forecasts of 600,000 by 2025 (let’s try 10-20 million) and 21 million by 2035 (could be 200 million), then moved on to the merits of Waymo, onboard computer maker NVIDIA, and China’s driverless consortium leader Baidu.  All are potentially great buys, especially for investors with the stomach for risk, as any could also turn out like Stutz or Hupmobile.  

A problem with that huge Asian market is the subject of “China’s Grip on Maps Hinders Self-Driving Car Makers” (Liza Lin and Tim Higgins, The Wall Street Journal, July 13).  China, which we sometimes forget is not a free country, “is limiting the amount of mapping that can be done by foreign companies.”  A bad idea, and one reason why I do not think it will be anywhere near the forefront of self-driving progress.

Moving on to the regulatory side, we found out on July 21st from Kevin Roose in The New York Times that “As Self-Driving Cars Near, Washington Plays Catch-Up.”  Although there is no such thing as “a bill that would speed up the development of self-driving cars,” federal regulatory efforts, thus far mercifully mild, are still small in the proposed Highly Automated Vehicle Testing and Deployment Act of 2017.  That bill may do more to remove obsolete regulations than to create new ones, and, as Roose pointed out, state governments, wanting economic benefits from driverless business activity, have generally been lenient as well.

That’s three weeks’ worth – much more will follow. 

    

Friday, October 6, 2017

September a Strange Employment Data Month: We Lost Jobs, But Most Numbers Were Better, Including Latent Demand with the AJSN Showing We’re “Only” 16.7 Million Jobs Short

The story going into this morning’s Bureau of Labor Statistics September report was about our two major mainland-affecting hurricanes, Irma and Harvey, and what their consequence would be.  The numbers turned out worse, in some ways, than expected – instead of the consensus prediction of 90,000 net new nonfarm positions, we had a loss of 33,000 – but otherwise, headed by the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate which instead of breaking even as projected improved from 4.4% to 4.2%, they got better.  September seemed to be a good month, with unadjusted joblessness off from 4.5% to 4.1%, average private nonfarm wages up 12 cents per hour to $26.55, the count of those working part-time for economic reasons or keeping shorter-hours positions while unsuccessfully looking for full-time ones down 200,000 to 5.1 million, and the two measures of how common it is for Americans to actually be working, the labor force participation rate and the employment-population ratio, up 0.2% and 0.3% to 63.1% and 60.4% respectively.  The number of long-term jobless, however, did not improve, holding at 1.7 million. 

The categories of marginal attachment mostly bettered as well.  The number of those wanting work but neither officially unemployed nor looking over the previous year dropped over 300,000 to reach 3.3 million, while that of those claiming to be discouraged and those wishing for employment but momentarily not available for it fell as well.  The counts of those purporting no interest in employment and people wanting work but currently in school or training were exceptions.  Overall, the American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, the monthly measure of latent demand for jobs across 11 different employment categories, fell 940,000 to reach its lowest outcome since April, as follows:





Since the AJSN is not seasonally adjusted, we expected some decrease between relatively jobs-poor August and jobs-rich September, but the drop was more than that.  That was also shown in the difference between last month and a year before, also over 900,000 and almost all due to the almost exactly one million cut in the number of officially unemployed.  Note that according to the BLS, “persons with a job are counted as employed even if they miss work for the entire survey reference week… regardless of whether or not they are paid.”  Although that 7-day-period started the day Irma reached the Florida coast, this BLS rule, unless people knew their jobs were gone with the storm, canceled out most of its September statistical effect. 


It is peculiar indeed that employment data for a month with so few work opportunities added should look so good, not only in spots but otherwise across the board.  Overall, it is now best to judge September’s data as showing potential but not yet solid improvements.  If its gains hold, and October’s new positions reach at least 300,000, we can take credit for an unexpectedly fine month.  If not, we will need to average these two together to see just how well we are doing.  So, although I couldn’t clearly see the turtle through the wind and rain, I think I saw another step forward.  

Friday, September 29, 2017

Guaranteed Income in the Press: Some Understand It, Some Miss the Point, and All Provide Welcome Attention

We’ve had more writing on what I have long considered one of the few possible comprehensive solutions to the jobs crisis, and what thinkers back to at least Thomas Paine have proposed for centuries before that. 

The first piece is from April 25th in Business Insider, “Canada is launching an experiment that will give 4,000 people free money until 2020.”  In the first paragraph, author Chris Weller said “a regular monthly allowance” was “a system known as basic income,” and soon thereafter named the soon-to-begin Ontario Basic Income Pilot as an example of that.  This program would get 4,000 Ontario residents “additional income based on their current salary,” which would be reduced by half of any additional earnings.  Maybe this is a good idea, but it’s not a guaranteed income.  It’s welfare.  It’s akin to some American situations, in which jobless people lose benefits once they find work.  Using that name for this sort of program is destructive to the idea of a true basic income, and will feed into conservatives’ concern that it excessively discourages people from working. 

The same author reported in the same publication on July 5th that “Hawaii just became the first US state to pass a bill supporting basic income.”  Hawaii’s government, though, is not planning to implement it, or even to determine if it would be justified, but to collect preliminary data which could result in another study.  It was not clear if Weller’s view on what guaranteed income is had changed over the intervening two-months-plus, but here he said that the person spearheading the effort, state representative Chris Lee, “had become intrigued by the idea of paying people a salary just for being alive.”   

On August 1 we went back to the definition problem.  “Universal Basic Income Experiment in Finland Not Looking Good,” in CNS News, combined author and Cato Institute economist Daniel Mitchell’s undeveloped and almost reflexive stance against it with Finland’s upcoming effort, which, as it will only consist of giving benefits to out-of-work people, does not match the title.  Perhaps in Finland it would be a bad thing, as Mitchell said, to cut the number of surplus workers, but I doubt it, and that would not be a problem in the United States, where at last count we could easily fill 17.6 million additional jobs.  In any event, Finland’s plan is only a test of generous unemployment benefits, and its success or failure will be irrelevant to the merits of guaranteed income.

After the last piece, I was refreshed to see one which showed better understanding.  In “Top Economists Endorse Universal Basic Income” (Forbes, August 31), contributor Frances Coppola shared proceedings from two economics conferences.  At one in Mainau, two panelists hit the right notes.  Sir Chris Pissarides spoke positively of globalization and automation, while acknowledging their job-reducing effects, and suggested a “universal basic income” as a way “you can trust people to decide for themselves how to spend their money” by letting the market provide social services.  Daniel McFadden “advocated unconditional income transfers.”  Coppola’s conclusion that “universal basic income is a radical policy that requires a radical funding solution” is, also, a point that must be made.

While likewise positive, and mentioning the unconditional nature of such a program executed properly, Ben Schiller’s “A Universal Basic Income Would Do Wonders For The U.S. Economy” (Fast Company, September 13) showed weaknesses around the edges.  Schiller named “a huge jolt” as one of its justification, or at least mitigating factors, citing research showing that a $1,000 monthly stipend for all adults would expand the economy more than 12% over eight years.  That’s not very much, and the article also suffers from references to “benefits not conditional to having a job” and “you don’t have to work… to get a UBI,” when more worrisome is, as above, others’ views that such money should only be distributed to people not working.  I was glad to see, though, a glimpse of why the technical community, which will probably be a necessary constituency in getting one implemented, is increasingly supporting guaranteed income.

Last week we saw an understandably but discouragingly political stance by a major possible 2020 presidential candidate.  In “Joe Biden Is Against a Universal Basic Income – and He’s Right” (The Daily Beast, September 26), the uncredited author heralded the candidate’s September 19th remarks, such as “our children and grandchildren deserve… the skills to get ahead, the chance to earn a paycheck, and a steady job that rewards hard work,” and “a job is… about your dignity… self-respect… your place in your community.”  The writer considered whether “Biden’s comments put him on the wrong side of history,” but soon afterward, unfortunately, disposed of that idea.  It may be a good move for Biden to go after Donald Trump’s base by talking as if he were giving a 1980 small-town stump speech, but we know nothing about he would create anything like 17.6 million new jobs, and the author’s comments that guaranteed income “would just be one more government handout” and would result in “millions of aimless Americans playing video games in their basements” make it clear that he or she, along with Biden, is also out of touch with the issue. 

The best article in this batch, “Let’s not give up on a guaranteed basic income before we’ve tried,” by Chris Hughes, was published on September 21 in The Hill.  Without even needing to show that most proposals and pilot efforts under that and similar names have not been guaranteed basic income,  Hughes made all of the right points – naming and generally refuting Biden’s speech above, proposing $1,000 per month (“for every American,” not only those without jobs) as a possible level, acknowledging that employment opportunities are not yet “disappearing wholesale” and that one who “believes in the dignity of work” need not oppose it, and proposing non-income-tax money sources such as a financial transaction levy.  He clearly understands the major considerations, along with what such a program should and should not be. 

This is not the first time we have heard from Hughes, a Facebook co-founder, and given his current position, co-chair of basic income advocacy group The Economic Security Project, it won’t be the last.  Although I do not support immediate guaranteed income implementation, as an ending I can’t do better than his: “Let’s not give up before we have even tried.”      

Friday, September 22, 2017

Six Updates on Old Jobs Issues

Over the past four months, half a dozen articles on work-related areas I have written about have reached me.  What do they have to say?
One old erroneous but still popular notion was the subject of two of them.  In “How Unskilled Americans Are Creating a ‘Crisis’ for the U.S.” (U.S. News & World Report, June 7th), Andrew Soergel passed along a series of incorrect statements.  There is no “skills gap plaguing the private sector,” only a disconnect between what private employers would like to pay and what their applicants will accept.  We can’t “match those 6.9 million (unemployed Americans to 6 (million job openings),” since many of those allegedly available positions are either bogus or require unreasonable qualifications.  No United States Labor Secretary has any business saying that “education is not focusing on the skills demanded by today’s workforce as well as they could or should,” without mentioning the widespread need for employers to rediscover training.  There are plenty of candidates skilled in “trade professions like welding and mechanical repair,” now that community colleges are teaching those things, but they can’t be had for the likes of $10 per hour.   Robert Samuelson, writing in the June 26th Investor’s Business Daily (“Is the Labor Shortage Here?”), at least questioned mistaken views such as a pending labor shortage in which “the postwar employment model might make a comeback” (not with latent demand for over 17 million jobs), and that a 1% increase in “the labor share of the economy” will mean higher worker demand, as it is “too low” (not when additional copies of ever-increasing proportion of products require virtually no more human involvement). 
The actual future of 3D printing, increasingly labeled “additive manufacturing,” was well assessed by the unbilled Economist authors of “Printing things everywhere” and “The factories of the future,” both in the July 1st issue.  Although we now know that this technology will not be on a par with invention of the automobile, and “will never revolutionize mass production,” it will still be greatly valuable for “producing one-off prototypes, because changes are more easily and cheaply made by tweaking a 3D printer’s software than by resetting lots of tools in a factory.”  It is also on its way to producing replacement body tissue, or “bioprinting,” bringing us ever closer to science fiction author Larry Niven’s “autodoc.” 
With its inferior-good status among ordinary working people, is it true that “the gig economy is a boon for boomer retirees” (Steve Vernon, CBS News, July 3)?  Yes, I think it is.  It facilitates many low-paying but pleasant positions, such as babysitting, providing rides, and dog walking, for those not needing full-time income and therefore more willing to accept its shortcomings.  Expect it to continue being beneficial, with the people over 50 and over 60 to whom Vernon referred including more and more over 70 and 80.
The remaining two articles take us further into the world of science-fiction-meets-reality.  In the first, Maggie Astor’s July 25th New York Times “Microchip Implants for Employees?  One Company Says Yes” told about a Wisconsin technology company allowing its workers to opt into having “a chip the size of a grain of rice injected between their thumb and index finger,” allowing them to effortlessly gain access to company buildings and pay for cafeteria food.  That convenience, and the fun of being in on new technology, have won out for almost two-thirds of Three Square Market’s employees, but others have declined, due to being “a little nervous about implanting something” or perhaps by what a cited business professor pointed out, that “once (the chips) are implanted, it’s very hard to predict or stop a future widening of their usage,” in ways that may not even be shared with workers.  There is, indeed, a gap between one supervisor vaguely suspecting that someone is spending an unusual amount of time in the bathroom, and another receiving periodic reports telling exactly when and for how long.  Therefore, even if nonparticipants have no objection to carrying cell phones with continuous GPS tracking, this idea does not rate to become the American norm.

Another long-held suspicion of mine is that “artificial intelligence” is not intelligent at all, and still ultimately only resembles 60-plus year-old algorithmic computer-code-interpreting capability.  Gary Marcus, writing in the July 29th New York Times (“Artificial Intelligence Is Stuck.  Here’s How to Move It Forward.”), seemed to share that view, saying such things as “computers that can educate themselves – a mark of true intelligence – remain a dream” and “such systems can neither comprehend what is going on in complex visual scenes (“Who is chasing whom and why?”) nor follow simple instructions (“Read this story and summarize what it means.”).”  He suggested that machines be trained, somehow, to use “bottom-up knowledge,” or “the kind of raw information we get directly from our senses,” in huge national facilities.  That seems a long way off, and may never happen without a huge conceptual breakthrough – so for now, please remember that computers still cannot, and are still no threat to, think.  But we can – and, more than ever if anything, we must.    

Friday, September 15, 2017

Uber and Lyft Beyond the Management Gaffes – What’s Been Happening, and How Can They Survive?

The two largest American ridesharing companies have garnered attention, and a couple of interesting headlines, these past few months. 

The first, “San Francisco investigating whether Uber, Lyft are public nuisances,” appeared in Fox Business on June 5th.  This odd move was driven by that city’s government’s set of mostly left-leaning objections, including allegedly poor usability by those “with a disability” (does this phrase now only refer to ambulatory incapacities, as “accessible” has come to mean “wheelchair-accessible”?) and a company-dictated driver strategy that supposedly “disfavors” some neighborhoods.  Though their City Attorney also named the problem of being “stuck in traffic behind a double-parked Uber or Lyft,” since that issue could be easily solved by traffic enforcement it was clearly less important to him than the other two, as was his disapproval of drivers coming from surrounding areas and becoming “drowsy.”  Wrong.  Even if you don’t like them, running Uber and Lyft out of cities for poorly disguised ideological reasons is not the way.

The second headline, “Uber Can’t Be Fixed – It’s Time for Regulators to Shut It Down,” graced a June 21st Harvard Business Review piece.  During the company’s horrendous mismanagement streak, author Benjamin Edelman wrote that “the problem at Uber goes beyond a culture created by toxic leadership,” and that the ride-sharer’s “business model is predicated on lawbreaking,” so it “can’t easily pivot toward following the rules.”  Some of what Edelman mentioned was more skirting than flouting, by, for example, avoiding the need for million-dollar taxi medallions by dispatching through apps instead of through phone calls, and some, such as the Greyball authority-dodging effort, were seemingly determined illegal only after they were put into practice, yet the company has built up quite a track record at this sort of thing, in line with music pirating facilitator Napster’s instead of those of other large electronic innovators Amazon and Facebook. 

The conclusion Edelman reached was the same one I put forth years ago, to legally treat Uber and Lyft as the cab companies they are.  That novel-****ing-idea made it into another headline, “Uber Should Be Regulated as Taxi Service, European Legal Adviser Says” (The New York Times, July 4th).  Author Amie Stang reported on a Court of Justice of the European Union nonbinding recommendation requiring that Uber “abide by tough European rules governing taxi services,” and in effect upholding a $500,000 fine levied by French authorities “for running an illegal transportation service.”  Fair is fair.

New York’s lawful taxi companies struck back that same month with true innovation, involving “two competing ride-hail apps” Via and Curb, on a way for people to agree in advance to combining with other passengers on rides (“Share a Cab in New York City?  It’s Now Easier,” Winnie Hu, The New York Times, June 6th), in exchange for lower fares.  They seem to have organized the process well, with limits of two parties and three people and drivers not required to participate.  A fine idea. 

What may be the only way out for Uber and Lyft, and a better attitude from a certain city on a bay, made the September 12th Yahoo News, in “Lyft to begin testing self-driving cars in San Francisco.”  The experiment will offer free rides, if passengers agree, in generally autonomous but human-monitor-equipped taxis, through “an area that’s already been mapped out in very high detail.”  That effort may seem not to break new ground, but it doesn’t need to, as the more companies can practice driverless ridesharing the more it will be improved and accepted, and the sooner it will arrive as a normal practice. 


Overall, the prospects of Uber and Lyft continuing to do business as they have look bleak.  As I predicted last year, the regulators are circling.  Accordingly, ten years from now they may be long gone, or they may be in the thick of automated, and fully legal, taxis – the choice is up to them.  

Friday, September 8, 2017

In Four More Months on Minimum Wage Increases, We Have Reached a Ceiling

The past year has made quite a difference in the lowest hourly amount American workers can legally be paid.  Before it, we were hearing about “the fight for $15,” with implications from those left of center that such a struggle was not only noble but just.  Now those calls have died down, and that quest doesn’t look worthy, even to many liberals.  What has happened to shift the tide?

In “The Minimum Wage Eats Restaurants” (The Wall Street Journal, May 9), marked as “Commentary,” Michael Saltsman presented data that 60 San Francisco-area eateries closed between September and January, and cited one owner as saying “there’s only so much you can charge for tamales.”  Saltsman cited a Harvard and Mathematica study connecting a $1 increase in the minimum wage with a 14% rise in the chance of a “3.5-star” restaurant folding, and concluded that better pay and benefits “don’t mean much if you can’t find a job.”  In contrast, though, The New York Times editorial board, in “Remember the promise of good jobs?” on June 13th, while correctly in my view disapproving of the Fed raising interest rates, the presidential administration seeking to reduce top-bracket taxes, and the blocking of badly-needed for-inflation adjustments of mandatory overtime pay thresholds, tripped on issues of average pay not tracking productivity gains (why should it?), higher minimum wages when over 17 million Americans want to work and can’t find it, and a vain hope for “Republican leaders’ changing their ways.”

For 16 days in late June and early July, we had what might be called “dueling studies” on the outcome of Seattle’s minimum wage increases.  Fox Business, in “Study:  Seattle minimum wage hasn’t cut jobs” (June 20), started the ball rolling, naming a University of California at Berkeley research effort finding that, without, though, a look at how many additional jobs went uncreated, and citing a University of Washington effort determining that “the law appeared to have slightly reduced the employment rate of low-wage workers even as it boosted pay.” The New York Times also covered both in Noam Scheiber’s June 26th “How a Rising Minimum Wage Affects Jobs in Seattle,” concluding that its labor market was unusually strong and that total earnings by workers in low-paying jobs actually decreased, as did The Seattle Times, in Jon Talton’s nicely titled June 27th “Seattle’s minimum wage:  The plot thickens,” which noted that neither piece of research had yet been peer reviewed, but did not mention that automated solutions, which can be stated and sold in terms of the cost of labor being replaced, can forestall additional positions.  Three days later Holman W. Jenkins Jr. weighed in in The Wall Street Journal, opining that “Seattle Aims at McDonald’s, Hits Workers.”  Although he lost any claim to objectivity by not even mentioning the Berkeley study, he made good points, such as that President Obama’s statement “that a full-time job should be able to support a family,” when implemented through higher minimums, “was a way of saying that jobs that won’t support a family shouldn’t exist,” and that many countries allow “teenagers, trainees,” and “probationary hires” to be paid less.  Politically centrist USA Today, in July 5th’s “In ‘Fight for $15,’ Seattle loses,” concluded the same, matching Yahoo Finance’s Rick Newman in June 26th’s “A $15 minimum wage appears to be too high.”  The last straw, though, may have come from generally liberal Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell, in “Feel-good ideas that need a hardhearted examination,” who concluded that a mandatory $15 minimum “would risk pricing a lot of people out of work,” such as in Mississippi, where half of workers were now paid below $14.22. 

One indication of a trend topping out is people not only refusing to join it, but rollbacks.  Fox News’s June 29th “Maine restaurant workers successfully lobby to lower the minimum wage” recapped how servers arranged for defeat of new laws endangering their jobs by forcing employers to pay them the same minimums as non-tipped workers.  An even clearer sign of a tide turning is backlash reactions, such as the subject of “Missouri Republicans Lower St. Louis Minimum Wage from $10 to $7.70” (Yahoo.com, July 3rd), implementation of a state law barring communities there from setting their own, higher, floors.  That is a questionable step, since one problem with state-level wage mandates is that they do not account for differing living costs, resulting in required pay being too high in some areas, too low (if you advocate meaningful minimum wages) for others, or both, and they prevent local governments from making decisions that should fall to them.  

In the context of the fight for $15 being seemingly on the way out, we probably won’t need to worry about something being assessed in the United Kingdom, a “Minimum wage push for gig economy workers” (Kamal Ahmed, bbc.com, July 10th).  That is a good thing, since, in addition to removing this bottom rung on the ladder, such would require either determining maximum lengths of time these tasks would take or paying less effective workers more to complete them.  I do like the idea of officially designating them “dependent contractors,” between employees and independent agents, which while not as good as making them the same as company-hired would remove the pretense that they are free to work any way they want.  Yet they cannot viably have guaranteed hourly rates.  That would be bad – and, as I also believe that about higher national minimum wages, the shift in our views is positive.   


Friday, September 1, 2017

August Was a Blah Jobs Month, With AJSN Still 17.6 Million – Is That Good or Bad?

This morning’s Bureau of Labor Statistics employment data has arrived, and everything’s the same as it was.

Reminiscent of those signs saying something like “on this spot in 1897, nothing happened,” we treaded water, ran in place, broke even, didn’t change, went nowhere. 

We did, though, see some small variability between metrics.  There were 156,000 net new nonfarm payroll jobs created, a tad lower than a 180,000 estimate but still about 25,000 more than our population increase soaked up.  The seasonally adjusted unemployment rate ticked up 0.1% to get to 4.4%, but the unadjusted equivalent was down a similar amount to 4.5%, an unusual combination given two generally similar months.  The number of unemployed adjusted to 7.1 million, up 100,000, but the long-term jobless, or those with that official status but without work for 27-plus weeks, fell the same amount to 1.7 million.  The labor force participation rate held at 62.9%, though the other measure best showing how common it is for Americans to have jobs, the employment-population ratio, shed 0.1% to reach 60.1%.  The count of those working part-time for economic reasons, or maintaining short-hours employment while looking for full-time opportunities, had its third straight month of 5.3 million.  After a substantial July increase, average private nonfarm hourly wages rose only 3 cents per hour, less than inflation, and is now at $26.39. 

The American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, which shows how many additional positions could be quickly absorbed if getting one were as easy as getting a pizza, was almost unchanged from July, down 20,000 as follows:

  


The largest changes to the AJSN came from lower official unemployment, which cut latent demand by 138,600, and more people not technically jobless but wanting work and not searching for it in the previous year, which increased the AJSN by 85,600.  The trend toward demand for jobs coming from those with non-unemployed statuses continued, with a new low of 37.2% of the AJSN from those officially jobless.  Despite generally good economic times, the set of people neither working nor technically unemployed is ready to take over 11 million positions – other than, of course, those being advertised now.

Compared with August 2016, the AJSN is down almost 400,000, with the officially-jobless and discouraged-worker shares, down 638,000 and 115,000, partially offset by 100,000-plus gains in the demand from American expatriates, those not looking for a year or more, and non-civilian, institutionalized, and people off the grid.


Is this stasis a good or bad thing?  We have certainly seen worse situations to camp out in.  Yet we are still short a lot of jobs.  We are still finding improvements in some places, such as the number of positions, and the big domestic news event of the past month, Hurricane Harvey and its massive rainfall, promises to create much employment.  Barring the start of a recession, which could happen any times, better times are coming soon, so I vote for August as “good enough.”  Accordingly, while we may need a microscope to see it, the turtle, did, again, take a step forward. 

Friday, August 25, 2017

Social Changes, from Decreased Capital to Generation Z – Good Ones Coming Up?

As time moves on, we get new things to consider in United States social organization.  Three articles, one each from May, June, and July, point that out. 

The first, “How to Raise an American Adult,” by Nebraska U.S. Senator Ben Sasse on May 5th in The Wall Street Journal, talked about “how he and his wife are encouraging their own children to become fully formed, independent grown-ups.”  That was a good idea, but the rest of the subtitle, “many young Americans are locked in perpetual adolescence,” not so much.  It is true that the shares of those under 35 living with parents, and not getting established in careers or marriages, are still rising.  Sasse cited the percentage of those aged 25 to 29 still at home being up from 18% in 2006 to 25% last year, and, of a wider age group, the portion of those 18 to 34 living with parents now exceeding that “living with a spouse or partner in their own household.”  All of this, though, was in the first 500 words of the five-page story, which went downhill from there and did not recover.  Sasse disposed of the overwhelming reason for these trends by saying “the economy has something to do with it, of course,” but then blamed technology, prosperity, and “our reluctance to expose young people to the demands of real work.”  He said, 180 degrees from reality, that “too many of our children simply don’t know what an adult is anymore,” and seemed to recommend imposing artificial difficulty to “embrace the pain of work.”  True, personal responsibility is critical, but it is more important to realize that people consistently choose the paths available to them, which has explained every difference from the success of the “Greatest Generation,” many of whom were forced into heroism and then greeted into careers with open arms by a country with massive pent-up consumer demand and a clear path worldwide, to the slow-growing Millennials, who in their teens and twenties were consistently unwanted in the job market. 

The second piece, the strangely titled “Trump is not destiny. Here’s what is,” featured Robert J. Samuelson telling us, in The Washington Post on June 11th, that social capital, which he called “an obscure academic term” (either in error, or he never heard of Bowling Alone), is weakening.  He cited a recent Joint Economic Committee report which found Americans were less inclined to join with others in “family life, the workplace, religion and community.”  The figures he named were a mixture of new and old, valid and questionable, and did not address recent trends, but did succeed in showing that many quantitative proxies for social capital, since about 1970, are still way down.  For example, from that year to 2015 the percentage of American children raised by one parent has gone up from 15% to 31%, while single mothers’ share of births went from 11% to 40%.  He also stated that the 70% members of a church or synagogue has now become 55%, though I would like to know how increased Southern nondenominational megachurch attendance, without affiliation in the conventional sense, is reflected here.  To no surprise, those having much confidence in civic institutions are in the minority, with Congress bringing up the rear at 6%.


We don’t know where we are headed with the lack of social capital, but one thing is happening that rates to help.  That is the emergence of Generation Z.  Those in and around each age cohort have sought to avoid the excesses and mistakes of the last.  Baby Boomers, who grew up in the most child-centric time of our country’s history and often chose college majors which did not help them find good jobs, were followed by Generation X children who were ignored, and became the most careerist cohort to date.  The parents of Millennials saw this neglect and bubble-wrapped their progeny, who became, instead of a group rife with loners, generally outstandingly cooperative.  And now Generation Z, lacking an agreed-on definition but likely to be born from roughly 1999 to 2019, are starting to reach workplaces.  In contrast to their older brothers and sisters, they have received few delusions about being special, and are willing to start at the bottom, pay their dues, and move up – much like early Baby Boomers or those in the Silent Generation preceding them.  This is one of two main ideas in “You Need To Treat Generation Z Well And Loyalty Will Be Your Reward,” by Nick Morrison in Forbes on July 3rd.  The other is that those now approaching age 20 will expect and need good training programs, to help them develop their skills.  Per Morrison, they will be more likely to stay with employers than the job-hopping Millennials, but will need their abilities to be used.  That sounds like a fair deal to me.  It is too early to tell, but it would logically follow that Generation Z (which needs a better name) people will leave their parents’ homes earlier, if they are sanctioned to support themselves, and, with their marriages being earlier, will become the best young sources of social capital we have seen since the Silents.  Possibly they will make my 20-year-old prediction, of people coming to value in-person interaction and activities more than the online kinds, which may be seen as inferior or at least dully ordinary propositions, finally come true.  That would be a good thing for the United States, and, if they and their children can get hired in large numbers, or prosper through guaranteed income or unpaid ventures, may spell the end of suggesting any special ways of raising American adults.  That may be as well as we can do, so let’s watch the next 20 years – and hope.        

Friday, August 18, 2017

Opioids and Unfilled Work Positions in Middle America: What Would Help?

There are many Americans foreigners rarely see.  Away from the cities and coasts, with lifestyles often much more modest, they like things those from other countries, and not a few in ours, simply don’t fathom.  How many other fully developed nations have masses of ordinary citizens with affinity toward such as fundamentalist Christianity, rodeos, tractor pulls, guns, our style of country music, and their large vehicles?  How can they be against abortion, and remain skeptical about climate change?  And why on Earth did they, and do they still, support Donald Trump?  They are rarely black, so are seldom invoked in discussions of “diversity,” and often share the same English, Scottish, or Irish last names with wealthier and more urban Americans, but they differ much more meaningfully from those from Silicon Valley, midtown Manhattan, or the Seven Sisters campuses than do those with different racial backgrounds in the likes of Atlanta, Philadelphia, or Detroit.  Articles in The New York Times and other publications often show a complete lack of comprehension as to why these citizens of our country, with roots going back hundreds of years, think as they do. 

These people, who might constitute the center of America, are, as a group, in bad shape.  Their unemployment has long been high, with industries in their regions, such as coal mining, becoming less common and much less labor intensive.  Average incomes and out-of-poverty rates in their towns and counties still badly lag.  And, over the past few years, a scourge has reached them:  opiate abuse.  
   
Over the past few months, three articles describing the effect of this extra use of prescription drugs on work opportunities, which many in these parts have historically valued as much as Winchesters or Johnny Cash.  May’s Atlantic featured Alana Semuels’s “All the Men Here are Either on Drugs or Unemployed,” which painted a picture, with stories and statistics, of masses of one sex falling away from being able to support their families or even themselves.  In Pulse, July 26th’s “The opioid crisis is creating a fresh hell for America’s employers” described the problems businesses are having filling jobs when many seeking them are using medical chemicals recreationally.  CNN’s “This Ohio factory owner says she has jobs but few sober applicants,” by Alexandra King on July 29th, focused on one specific location in an 8,000-population town in one of the most-affected states.  Overall, the problem of impaired jobseekers resembles the alleged “skills gap,” in which potential workers are too often unsuited for positions, but has more validity.   

Long before large numbers of people exercised the abuse potential of the likes of Percocet and Fentanyl, there was the permanent jobs crisis, which, despite low official unemployment, has been running since the early 1970s.  As I made a case for in 2012’s Work’s New Age, otherwise possible employees in our country have responded to the lack of hiring by choosing lifestyles incompatible with most paid positions, which has had the effect of preventing them from working when the opportunity has presented itself.  That may well be the case here also, with many becoming addicted when jobs were rare enough to discourage the bulk of those needing work from even seeking it.  But we don’t know, and some who wanted to be able to handle jobs were seduced by the power of these drugs. 

As well, we need to ask a question about the connection between opioids and work performance.  Not only do any number of people with bodily pain use them on the job with no presumed ill effects, but the connection between substance abuse and ability to complete work tasks is not always clear.  While it is obvious to me that those who are impaired, for whatever reason, should not be using dangerous machines, they may not have problems in, say, offices.  It is also demonstrably untrue that using mood-altering chemicals automatically reduces quality and quantity of work.

So what can I recommend for employers facing this problem?  First, they must differentiate between drug use, such as marijuana during off-hours, with little or no effect on work performance, which should be disregarded, and that, such as workday alcohol or very heavy opiate consumption by drivers or drill press operators, which could be deadly.  Second, those hiring can do what most must when faced with what seems like a worker shortage:  pay more.  Third, if as expressed in these articles a lot of employees start jobs clean but have trouble staying that way, companies can combine freer hiring with low starting pay and regular drug testing, with substantial raises after some time, such as six months, has passed.  Fourth, without hiding behind insincere allegations of zero tolerance, they should publicize and honestly state their policies, so that those struggling with opiate and other addictions can see what they would need to do to get back to work. 


Economics applies to everyone.  Those different from us, even if educated less on average, still respond to incentives.  The employees are out there – even the co-owner of the Ohio factory featured above admitted that 60% of applicants “qualified to be welders, machinists, and crane operators” were clean – but as always, job shortage or not, managers need to not only make it worth workers’ while but to be honest with them.  That will keep the opioid and jobs crises as separate as possible. 

Friday, August 11, 2017

The Google Memo: What Could It Mean Someday?

This past week, we began the largest corporate culture brouhaha since Amazon’s “bruising workplace” article was published in The New York Times two years ago.  It started with a 10-page memo, titled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber,” sent by 28-year-old company software engineer and Harvard master’s degree holder James Damore.  The missive, described since as “anti-diversity” and a “screed” (Gizmodo, which published it at http://gizmodo.com/exclusive-heres-the-full-10-page-anti-diversity-screed-1797564320, and Salon), “inflammatory” (The Verge), and a “manifesto” (The Verge, yahoo.com, and Salon), made a case for Google to not be concerned about its staff being 69% male.  The piece, sent internally, said most if not all “population level differences” were because “men and women biologically differ in many ways,” naming attributes which “women, on average, have more” of.  He added material on other related subjects, such as:  the pressures faced by men, such as being “still very much tied to the male gender role,” the existence of “swaths” of them “without support,” and being compelled by a “higher drive for status,” causing many to accept positions which “require long, stressful hours that may not be worth it if you want a balanced and fulfilling life,” which he maintained was something women generally sought more; naming Google’s “discriminatory practices,” specifically “programs, mentoring, and classes only for people with a certain gender or race, a high priority queue and special treatment for “diversity” candidates, hiring practices which can effectively lower the bar for “diversity” candidates,” and “reconsidering any set of people if it’s not “diverse” enough, but not showing that same scrutiny in the reverse direction”; an equating of liberals’ rejection of “biological differences between people” with conservatives’ denial of evolution and climate change; and requests that Google “stop alienating conservatives” and “have an open and honest discussion about the costs and benefits of our diversity programs,” which, if they were intended to increase the share of female workers, were “as misguided and biased as mandating increases for women’s representation in the homeless, work-related and violent deaths, prisons, and school dropouts.” 

Whew.

After Damore’s memo went public, Google CEO Sundar Pichai sent a response, on Saturday, saying that, although “we strongly support the right of Googlers to express themselves,” and that “much” of Damore’s writing was “fair to debate,” nonetheless “portions” of it “violate(d) our Code of Conduct and cross(ed) the line by advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace.”  He also announced he was shortening his just-beginning “family vacation,” “as clearly there’s a lot more to discuss as a group.”  Although Pichai’s response was cautious and noncommittal, it showed great concern under the surface, and two days later, on Monday, Damore was fired.   Also on Monday, Pichai announced a Thursday all-employee meeting to discuss the issues Damore brought up, which Pichai cancelled that morning, saying some workers felt they would be endangered if they spoke up.  The CEO, as The New York Times put it, “said the company would find other ways to gather and engage employees on the subject in the coming days.”  As we can see, the subject is not only far from closed, but is just getting started.

Commentators are now, as I write this Thursday evening, weighing in.  So what can I add?

First, almost regardless of the merits of what Damore wrote, Google was well within its rights to fire him.  As the expression would more accurately go in the corporate world, the squeaky wheel gets replaced.  Goring sacred cows, which Damore did multiple times in a memo for which he had no reasonable expectation of limited distribution, can be deadly to careers.  While I was not dismissed, my 11-year upward trajectory at AT&T’s information technology unit ended with reactions to a mail message I sent to my group explaining why an excessively beloved software package we used was in fact poor quality and destructive to our business objectives.  It is common knowledge, cynical or not, that high-level managers at large companies will say they value independent thought right up the time they fire you for it, and Damore, if in fact he wanted to keep his job, should have been aware of that.      

Second, the foundation of Damore’s work was a series of interesting and reasonable but debatable assertions:  that sex differences are “universal across human cultures,” “often have clear biological causes and links to prenatal testosterone,” and are “exactly what we would predict from an evolutionary psychology perspective”;  that women, on average, “have more… openness directed towards feelings and aesthetics rather than ideas… a stronger interest in people rather than things… extraversion expressed as gregariousness rather than assertiveness… higher anxiety, lower stress tolerance,” “are more cooperative,” and are “more agreeable,” and “humans are generally biased toward protecting females,” which, in part, “likely evolved because males are biologically disposable”; that it is “culturally universal” that “for heterosexual romantic relationships, men are more strongly judged by status and women by beauty“; and that “conservatives tend to be higher in conscientiousness.”  Each one of these could be, and probably has already been, the subject of multiple individual books.  Accordingly, having sources, which Damore claimed but did not include, even of successfully replicated first-rate research, is not enough to make these propositions clearly correct.  With that said, these ideas all have real merit, and nobody should fear at least considering them.   

Third, in understanding the situation here we need to avoid two related logical gaffes.  One is the assumption that Damore and those agreeing with him think that all women and men fit the tendencies he mentioned, when, in fact, he is saying that the sexes form two overlapping bell curves.  The other is to forget that when these attributes differ at all between entire populations, they cause differences in overall mean values, which do not describe everyone accurately.  If the average annual income of Americans under four feet tall is $2,000, because maybe 95% are children, that is insufficient reason for the remaining 5% to claim that low figure means they are being discriminated against.

Fourth, although we can argue about the extent, it is absurd to say that women, with different body structures, different brain characteristics, and the only sex which can get pregnant and give birth, are identical to men.

Fifth, even if as Damore claimed Google management implicitly believes that women’s disadvantages are due to sex-role stereotypes, many if not most cannot viably be retrained.  Google exists to seek maximum profits from the software business, and needs the best workers, not those who might have been better if enormous social patterns were different.

Sixth, reverse discrimination is discrimination.  Our choices of prohibiting, condoning, or encouraging it do not alter this statement’s validity.  


Seventh, if there are any overall, average differences at all between groups of people, equality of opportunity will not produce equality of results.  That is an iron fact we need to accept.  James Damore has, I hope, put us on the way.    

Friday, August 4, 2017

July: Another Good Jobs Month, But Latent Demand for Work Rises Again – AJSN Now At 17.6 Million

According to the prognosticators of record, July was supposed to be another winner for employment, and it was.  We added another 209,000 net new nonfarm payroll positions, almost matching June’s 222,000.  Seasonally adjusted unemployment returned to its May 4.3% level, and the two measures of how common it is for Americans to be working, the labor force participation rate and the employment-population ratio, each matched June’s 0.1% gain to return to their April levels and end concern about May’s beginning a trend.  Average hourly earnings, for the first time in three months, increased more than inflation, to reach $26.36.

The other measures were flat or slightly down.  The adjusted number of unemployed Americans stayed at 7.0 million.  The count of those working part-time for economic reasons, or holding on to less than full-time positions while seeking ones with longer hours, stayed at 5.3 million.  The number of long-term jobless, or those without work for 27 weeks or longer, stepped up 100,000 to 1.8 million, and the unadjusted unemployment rate gained 0.1% to reach 4.6%. 

The American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, which shows in one figure how many more positions could be quickly filled if all knew they were easy to get, shrugged everything off and increased a mostly but not entirely seasonal 154,000, as follows:


July’s gain was essentially all due to higher official unemployment, which rose 191,000 over June’s.  Otherwise, the categories of marginal attachment above changed little, with none adding or subtracting more than 20,000 fillable jobs.  The AJSN’s 766,000 improvement over a year before was much the same story, with Bureau of Labor Statistics-defined joblessness responsible for 743,000 of that. 

A simple month, a simple report.  The positives clearly outweigh the modest negatives, and, although progress is sketchy outside that 209,000 payroll gain, we don’t need much more to call these relatively good times.  We’ll continue watching.  As for July, the turtle, once again, took a small step forward. 


Friday, July 28, 2017

One-Off Responses to Nine Weeks of One-Off Employment Article Topics

Some jobs-related topics don’t get as much attention as others.  But, as we will see, that doesn’t mean they are unworthy of it.

The New York Times May 11th editorial “An Invitation to Wage Theft” rightfully condemned a passed House bill named the “Working Families Flexibility Act,” an Orwellian name for a proposed law that would allow employers, though only with employee permission, to compensate workers for overtime with paid time off at their convenience, possibly over a year later.  As well as damaging those hoping for hours off during their regular shifts by making them elusive, the bill attacks two solid principles of overtime:  that employers pay for it when it occurs, and that it be covered at time-and-a-half.  We don’t need precedents against those, even if they are named invitingly.

Two days later, the same newspaper published Conor Dougherty’s “Signing Away the Right to Get a New Job,” on the proliferation of noncompete clauses for workers ranking far below top executives.  In one sense, it is understandable that more employees be required to agree to these terms at hiring, since lower-level positions more often involve proprietary information, but these constraints have clearly got out of hand.  Many such required agreements, especially those that, per the article, “cover general knowledge as well,” should be banned, and others, when employers attempt legal action to enforce them, should be sent to arbitration before expensive court proceedings, which management is better able to finance.  There is a night-and-day difference between a CEO giving away trade secrets and a construction worker adding improved work practices to his accumulated career knowledge, and the laws should reflect that.

Robert J. Samuelson, in “Globalization’s ill effects have been wildly exaggerated” (The Washington Post, May 14th) showed that he understood that subject better than he did the significance of robots.  It is a good two-page case against protectionism, which has recently become more fashionable in countries where the people should know better.  Points he made included “trade has contributed substantially to the rise of American living standards since World War II,” “foreign competition and technology also force US firms to lower costs and improve reliability,” and “trade is only a small part of overall job displacement, no more than 10 percent… Other causes include automation, technological obsolescence and recessions.”  We may be heading into a protectionist era, and this article shows, effectively, why that would be bad.

In “What If Companies Managed People as Carefully as They Manage Money?” (Harvard Business Review, May 24th), Eric Garton proposed the sort of thing I have described, though not in print, as “a novel (expletive) idea.” I don’t agree that “today’s scarcest resource is your human capital,” when we are over 17 million jobs short and innumerable businesspeople and commentators are confusing disinclination to train workers or pay market wages with a “skills shortage,” but organizations, especially large ones, have long been pathetically bad at assessing worker potential.  Garton suggested using metrics such as his “productive power index,” along with critically judging the value of meetings, breaking down how people actually spend working time, and, though easier said than done, identifying and rewarding “difference-making talent.”  This article is a starting point – how about making employee ability measurement the next business fad?

Claire Cain Miller of The New York Times, one of the most perceptive business writers around, may have jumped the gun in “Amazon’s Move Signals End of Line for Many Cashiers” (June 17th).   Sure, we can, as she suggested, imagine robots handling store customer service and items purchased being sent to them later, but delivery, as companies seem to need to rediscover all the time, is expensive, and will not be viable for most of the products sold by the acquiree in this article, Whole Foods.  It is also wrong to say that the service sector, which has been losing jobs to automation for decades now, will suffer from that “next,” or that “imagining the future is an act of science fiction,” when it is more like judicious projection.  And although “Amazon said it had no plans to lay off Whole Foods workers or use Amazon Go technology to automate cashiers’ jobs,” such may be announced at any time, and it is quite possible that Amazon will destroy that company by turning it into a testbed for their mechanized and semi-mechanized efforts.  After all, nobody should be so naïve as to think that Amazon is in the process of spending $13.4 billion so that it can go into the organic grocery business.

In a different area of change, Kai-Fu Lee told us about “The Real Threat of Artificial Intelligence,” in the June 24th New York Times.  I have long thought that “A.I.,” for all the attention it has received, is actually only algorithmic, and Lee said that is indeed still the case:  “At the moment, there is no known path from our best A.I. tools (like the Google computer program that recently beat the world’s best player of the game of Go) to “general” A.I. – self-aware computer programs that can engage in common-sense reasoning, attain knowledge in multiple domains, feel, express and understand emotions, and so on.”  Until we can quantify and precisely define such knowledge areas as intuition, A.I. products will remain “tools, not a competing form of intelligence.”  Lee’s “real threat” is A.I.’s effect on jobs, on which he weighed in and offered his views on possible solutions, generally good but, as always for this subject, open to debate.

Next, “A programmer figured out how to automate his job and work 2 hours a week – but he’s not sure it’s ethical” (Julie Bort, businessinsider.com, July 3rd).  Wow.  The story is about an information technology worker, identified as male but not named, who in effect developed scripts to do his job, and has not only kept his employer in the dark but has been “deliberately introducing a few random bugs into his work “to make it look like it’s been generated by a human.”” My vote is for “ethical,” as it is his company that is responsible for having jobs that could be so easily automated, maintaining unawareness of (as have so many others) telecommuting abuses, and managing its employees.  However, if there are legal or career consequences from what he is doing, he must take them.

Basic information that we should know but probably don’t was the highlight of “How the Growth of E-Commerce Is Shifting Retail Jobs,” written by Robert Gebeloff and Karl Russell and published in The New York Times on July 6th.  While employment in that area is up 334% since 2002, with its huge growth mostly offset by its relative lack of labor intensity, it is now generating only 8.4% of American retail sales, and in terms of the number of new jobs, its 178,000 gain is dwarfed by one of 841,000 in “warehouse clubs and other.”  Such positions are concentrated in larger cities, with the share of e-commerce jobs in “small metro areas and rural counties” just over half of their portion of overall retail positions.


More areas I haven’t mentioned for a while, specifically guaranteed income and 3D printing, have also been getting modest press, and will, at least later this year, get their share on this blog as well.  For now, though, expect the most active areas of robots and driverless vehicles to get the most.  If you want to hear about some other aspects of American jobs, though, please let me know.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Driverless Vehicles and Driving Jobs: Our July 2017 Forecast, And Why

Since a year ago, when I released my first look at when automated technology would reach certain saturation points, and at the number of taxi and truck positions, the field, its regulation, its related developments, and people’s reactions to it, along with, consequently, my interpretation of how it will fall out, have all moved along.

First, it is clear that autonomous vehicles will not be dependent on infrastructure improvements.  Although our president talks every so often about the need for large projects there, we’re not seeing much action from either him or our elected representatives.  In the meantime, to some extent as a result, the emphasis of almost all of the development work being done on driverless cars assumes they will need to interpret their environments themselves, with help coming from other vehicles instead of from roadside and related technology. 

Second, the United States is now way out in front at developments in this field, with the largest efforts centering around American companies, American testing grounds, and the cooperation of American cities.  It seems likely that we will lead the world’s way here.  That was made even clearer by serious international political problems, which do not rate to end soon, impeding the country which could have been, all around, more suited for progress here than any other – Qatar. 

Third, autonomous 18-wheel trucks, which can be sent in convoys in the setting best fitting driverlessness, expressways, now look like they will be on the road for production sooner than we expected.  The only real metaproblem they have is people’s fear (imagine the movie Duel with 20 of them), which, though, will eventually subside.

Fourth, as I predicted, capable-seeming consortia are forming, and have lately added a new category of partner with expertise at managing large numbers of vehicles, rental car companies.  We will surely see the likes of bitter breakups, Ford-against-GM-caliber lawsuits, and perhaps alliance components defecting to others for the right price.  Yet, in contrast with July 2016, all know that no company, or even pair of companies, can get it done by themselves. 

Fifth, in general, governments have done the right thing by working constructively with organizations developing this technology, and have been unexpectedly restrained about throwing up roadblocks.

Sixth, for consistency with others I am now using the National Highway Safety Traffic Administration’s levels of autonomous driving.  With the exception that I believe there will be a stage during which multiple driverless vehicles will be loosely controlled by remote human operators, the NHSTA scheme is quite similar to the one I developed.  For definitions of the levels they use, you can find a good summary article, along with a link to the original NHSTA document, at http://www.techrepublic.com/article/autonomous-driving-levels-0-to-5-understanding-the-differences/.

Given all that, here is our new chart:


Continue to follow the Work’s New Age blog to keep you current on the progress of driverless vehicles, and its effect on work opportunities.  We expect many, many more updates, along with a new forecast of the above next summer.

Friday, July 7, 2017

June Employment: Some Improvements, But Per the AJSN We’re Now 17.5 Million Jobs Short

I didn’t know what to expect from this morning’s Bureau of Labor Statistics employment data.  The publicized forecasts, which have been getting less and less accurate, called for 178,000 net new nonfarm payroll positions, which is good, but there were disturbing trends popping up last month.  June, though, was better than anyone seemed to expect on the most important fronts. 

Those new positions came in at 222,000, about 90,000 more than our growing population, now over 326 million, can absorb.  The employment-population ratio and the labor force participation rate, the best indicators of how common it is for Americans to actually be working, each recovered half of their 0.2% May drops, and are now at 60.1% and 62.8% respectively.  The count of long-term jobless, those out for 27 weeks or longer, held steady at 1.7 million. 

The other numbers, however, were worse.  The adjusted unemployment rate was up 0.1% to 4.4%, and the unadjusted one rose a mainly but not completely seasonal 0.4% to 4.5%.  Those working part-time for economic reasons, or holding on to less than full-time opportunities while looking thus far unsuccessfully for those, grew 100,000 to 5.3 million.  Average private nonfarm payroll wages were again up only 3 cents per hour and less than inflation to reach $26.25.  Latent demand for work also increased more than seasonally – the American Job Shortage Number, or AJSN, which shows how many more positions could be filled if all knew that getting one was easy and routine, rose over 700,000 to reach almost 17.5 million, as follows:


Since the AJSN is not seasonally adjusted, its increase, given that many more people are working in a typical May than such a June, is not as significant as it seems.  However, while the AJSN is now 665,000 lower than a year before, it had dropped 845,000 between the two most recent Mays.  Its improvement since June 2016 is almost exactly explained by the 900,000 drop in official unemployment, when partially offset by the 700,000 more American-citizen expatriates.  In this past year, the number of those claiming no interest in working has gone up over 700,000, and a surprising 954,000 more are in the armed services, in institutions, or off the grid, but the latent employment demand gain they represent was offset by reductions in several smaller categories made up of people more likely to work.

Overall, how good a month was it?  Despite the preponderance of worsening metrics, we are happy with this morning’s findings.  The 222,000 net new jobs is probably the most important figure, and the participation and employment ratios reversed what could have been a disturbing trend.  In the short-term, we don’t know where American employment is going, but the turtle, as has often been his wont these past few years, took a modest step forward.     

Friday, June 30, 2017

Driverless Vehicles - Where Are We Now? – Part 2

One problem with writing on autonomous vehicles is that the topic can be so hot, with information pouring out so quickly, that I can write week after week without finishing it.  However, I will continue with my plan for summarizing and interpreting the June articles, though my stack now contains 16 of them. 

The first is Billy Duberstein’s and The Motley Fool’s June 3rd “Everything You Need to Know About Self-Driving Cars (But Were Afraid to Ask),” a good summary mentioning LIDAR, radar, and another car-autonomy-characteristic level scheme.  We stay on the business side with “G.M. Wants to Drive the Future of Cars That Drive Themselves” (The New York Times, June 4th), in which Bill Vlasic shows how General Motors, not previously on the technology’s front lines, is now moving money from other-country efforts to this cause.  Two days later, according to Mike Isaac in the same publication, Lyft, now adding software maker nuTonomy to its driverless partnerships, while using an approach “different from Uber’s,” is still “behind others.”  Its CEO Logan Green was quoted as saying “we don’t think there will be a single player that will win the whole autonomous vehicle game” – that is correct, but there may well be one consortium winner.

While reading John Markoff’s June 7th “A Guide to Challenges Facing Self-Driving Car Technologists,” also in The New York Times, I wondered if it hadn’t aged for some time before publication.  Still, it named six areas of technical concern, with the more original ones being “the ability to respond to spoken commands or hand signals from law enforcement or highway safety employees” and “detecting which small object on the roadway must be avoided,” which is not routine even for experienced drivers and will take a lot of iterative work, unless they simply avoid everything not flat.  The problem of “driving safely despite unclear lane markings,” in the news recently, though, cannot fall on the roads themselves.  The same day, author, and source yielded “Robot Cars Can’t Count on Us in an Emergency,” which told us that Google’s effort there was now focused on vehicles that cannot be driven – in other words, at a higher level than will first be implemented by others – before discussing “over-trust,” the valid concern that people, when needed to take over driving, won’t be ready.  An Audi A8-version luxury car, with self-driving expressway capability including notification that the driver must take over within a sensible 8 to 10 seconds, will be released next month, and will serve as a good trial subject.

Going back to corporate moves, Fox Business published two pieces, credited to Associated Press on June 13th and Reuters on June 15th respectively, “GM raises output of self-driving Bolts, boosts test fleet” and “Uber’s trucking ambitions on lower gear after Otto deal.”  They are almost self-explanatory, with General Motors claiming the title of the first company to “mass-produce self-driving vehicles” with a run of 130, and, with that, the statement from Cox Automotive senior director of content that this company is “the furthest along” in both their partnerships and their technical progress, followed by Uber’s latest bumbling move, plowing the Otto name under in favor of their main, badly tainted one, and their threat to prematurely implement automated 18-wheelers.  If Uber goes out of business, nobody will be able to say they did it quietly.  The same site offered Matthew Rocco’s “Avis scores Waymo deal, Hertz said to work with Apple on self-driving cars” (June 26th), showing that the major rental companies are also getting involved, including Avis soon offering such vehicles to “select customers in Phoenix.” 

On the legal front, we learned that “Texas explicitly allows driverless car tests” (John Fingas, Yahoo Finance, June 17th), if these vehicles, eminently reasonably, “have to obey existing traffic laws and carry insurance,” record video, and take on liability.  In case we didn’t know already, the “driver killed in Tesla self-driving car crash ignored warnings, NTSB reports” (Nathan Bomey, USA Today, June 20th) – in fact 13 of them, both visual and auditory – “and took no braking, steering or other actions.”  Now, I hope, we can retire discussion about this highly nonrepresentative event, with the lesson that driver-error fatalities will be possible for decades to come. 

The Wall Street Journal published two pieces on the effects of autonomous vehicles.  “Your Next Car May Be a Living Room on Wheels” (Chester Dawson, June 19th) opened our eyes to the massive changes and innovations we will see once internal car spaces need not focus on accommodating drivers.  Beyond storing passengers, we will have the potential to do about anything with them, especially if seat belts become unnecessary, and cars will have the capability to change these spaces from, say, TV-watching dens to conference rooms to bedrooms.  Late in the century, driverless safety may be so improved that we won’t even care about windows, leading to, along with the possibilities of vehicle sizes everywhere from smaller than Smart cars to larger than buses, great car-interior diversity.  The other piece, “The End of Car Ownership” (Tim Higgins, June 20th), offered a previously written misleading idea that cheaper taxis and autonomous vehicles forming “the majority of transportation in urban cities with temperate weather” will make all cars communal, and the expected but already publicized idea that auto companies will offer on-demand transportation packages.  Higgins also mentioned the coming different use of car interiors, but did not seem to recognize that having custom ones will increase, not decrease, ownership.

We got caught up, somewhat, with the government side in two June 25th USA Today pieces.  In “Regulators scramble to stay ahead of self-driving cars,” Nathan Bomey and Thomas Zambito told us that “more than 50 bills have been introduced in 20 states over the last several months providing some degree of regulation,” mostly in the South, Southwest, and across the Canadian border.  The need for states to continue regulating “driver behavior,” and the federal government to maintain standards for “testing” and “crash liability” are clear, but not “design requirements,” and all must be aware that what will be happening with autonomous vehicles in five years will not be the same as in 50.  Overall, governments have, thus far, struck a good midpoint.  In the three-page second, “States get ready for the self-driving car revolution,” author Marco della Cava gave a book’s worth of quotations, propositions and assertions, ranging from the intriguing but debatable “this is as challenging a position as it was when we went from horses to cars” to the misguided “the most critical upgrade amounts to making sure the lines on our 4 million miles of roads are solid” (many of which are gravel, of which, as the article itself points out, 60,000 miles are in Michigan alone), and the opinion that we need “a national vision for autonomous vehicles” (way, way too soon for that, and governments will know the least).  While sensors that communicate traffic and weather information are valuable, it is Sisyphusian for the burden of driverlessness to be put on the external environment.  At the same time, “cities vie to become hubs of self-driving technology” (also June 25th in USA Today), with Austin (highly appropriate in an interesting way, since it would not tolerate Uber), Columbus, Detroit, Nashville, Reno, Phoenix, Pittsburgh (watch out for that Pittsburgh left!), and the Silicon Valley area leading the way.

Last is an attempt at a high-level autonomous vehicle summary, June 25th’s “Transport’s coming upheaval,” from Cyrus Radfar in Yahoo Finance.  It paired driverless technology with Hyperloop, Elon Musk’s “new form of terrestrial travel using pod-like vehicles traveling over 700 mph in near-vacuum tubes,” which, while having potential, is not being pursued as intensely and extensively.  Radfar mainly summarized the progress in the field, but, strangely, concluded that it will not cut employment, thinking, for example, that repurposing some parking lots will be (indefinitely?) labor-intensive.  He gets points, though, for saying that more efficient transportation will in effect expand the coastal areas, which have historically had much of the population and prosperity, further. 


Next week’s post will be dedicated to the June federal jobs report.  On July 14th, you can look for more driverless car reporting, a conclusion, and updates of last year’s projected timelines on its implementation and its employment effects. 

Friday, June 23, 2017

Driverless Vehicles - Where Are We Now? – Part 1

This jobs-related subject not only hasn’t quit for years, but is intensifying, in both action and reporting and commentary.  How can we sort it out to determine when we are getting there?  First, we review what’s happened since our last posts.

In “Uber’s self-driving cars managed 20,000 miles last week – with a lot of help” (Transport, March 19), David Curry presented data leaked from this now thoroughly beleaguered ridesharing company.  In the week of March 8, Uber’s driverless vehicles managed 20,300 miles, but needed a “driver intervention” every 0.8 miles, with takeovers to avoid a “harmful event” 196 times, or once on average each 103 miles.  That’s not shabby at this point, and if that company were in better shape otherwise we’d say they were well on track. 

Six days later, though, per Mike Isaac in The New York Times, Uber was in trouble again, with one of their driverless cars involved in an Arizona accident causing minor injuries.  It was not at fault – the other driver did not properly yield – but the Uber car ended up on its side, and the mishap pointed out the difficulty of programming vehicles to account for others’ errors.  The company suspended their testing, but brought it back three days later after their investigation, per The Wall Street Journal.  Uber still drew commentary that same day asking “Is Uber’s self-driving program veering off track?” (Marco della Cava, USA Today), including concern that “testing in inclement weather is considered the Achilles heel of autonomous vehicles” and compared Uber’s “headlong rush into the self-driving car race” to the legendary Icarus flying too close to the sun.  Here, I think the author was overly influenced by Uber’s legal, ethical, and management problems, as everyone in the industry, almost perforce given the stakes involved, is moving quickly.  That company, though, was ranked 16th of 18 in “Why Ford and GM Are Actually Way Ahead of Tesla and Uber in Developing Self-Driving Cars” (Natalie Walters, The Street, April 6th), a piece which seemed not to recognize that, with consortia forming, Ford, for example, will soon not mean only Ford.

In “Smart cities need smart cars:  In the future, your car will be able to “see” through buildings” (Salon, March 26th), Angelo Young described a demonstration at January’s Consumer Electronics Show of late-development-stage autonomous car features, including electronically determining from stoplights when they will change, detecting pedestrians through their mobile phone’s signalling, and receiving information from nearby cars even out of their line of sight.  These improvements constituting “V2X,” or “vehicle-to-everything,” communications, are superb ideas, but the first two here depend on signals from the environment, which, with consistency problems, is not the way to best implement driverlessness.  That opinion of mine was underscored by another Angelo Young piece in the same publication, “Self-driving cars vs. American roads:  Will infrastructure speed bumps slow down the future of transportation?” (April 20th), which featured a Volvo executive from Scandinavia complaining about the lack of consistent lane markers in this country.  Determining the respective responsibilities of infrastructure and the vehicles themselves is a good conflict to work on now, even if my view that almost everything should fall on the latter does not carry.

They seem to seek involvement in everything else, so should it surprise us that “Amazon Wants to Use Self-Driving Vehicles” (Matthew Rocco, Fox Business, April 24th)?  That company is quietly, by their standards, moving into the field, with its Alexa virtual assistant going into Volkswagen, Ford, and Mercedes-Benz cars, and a special interest in “autonomous forklifts and big rigs.”  Whether it materializes as a producer or only as a massive user, it is as foolish to disregard Amazon here as elsewhere.

We learned from April 25th pieces in Fox Business and The Wall Street Journal that Waymo, part of Google’s Alphabet, will be using 500 Chrysler minivans to test a driverless vehicle program in Phoenix.  Along with putting their current technology to an extensive trial, the effort’s goal is, once again, to gauge customer acceptance of autonomous cars.  Although it is too early to expect any number of people to give up their vehicles, there will be a few, and it is an excellent idea for them to try out that concept as well.  Three weeks later, we saw “Lyft and Waymo Reach Deal to Collaborate on Self-Driving Cars (The New York Times, May 14th), in which Mike Isaac confirmed that “the deal calls for the companies to work together to bring autonomous vehicle technology into the mainstream through pilot projects and product development efforts.”  Isaac points out, presciently, that these agreements have a “fluid nature” – although no large joint venture in this field has yet collapsed, it is almost certain that some will – and that “many believe” driverless technology “will ultimately be a multibillion-dollar industry” (I hope he meant multitrillion).  He added the unintentional comic relief that Uber’s then-CEO Travis Kalanick called autonomous know-how “existential” to Uber’s future – more than he himself proved to be, anyway.


Next week, we look at what has happened with driverless vehicles in June.  Two weeks after that, you can expect the latest projected implementation timelines.