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 former 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.  

Friday, June 16, 2017

Robots and Jobs: Three More Months in the Books – Part 2

As we move into April’s stories, the views on automata and employment seem to shift.  “Robotics revolution:  To really help American workers, we should invest in robots,” written by Nikolaus Correll and published in Salon on April 2nd, gave us something on the need for these devices to be integrated with humans’ jobs.  Correll’s main idea is that China, although once taking over American jobs with their own workers, is now leading at automating them, with 2015 purchases of industrial robots over twice the American total.  He also pointed out, correctly, that robots are not only getting cheaper but easier to program, with the latter likely to be increasingly done by their owners, as “building and programming robots is very similar both physically and intellectually to doing your own plumbing, electrical wiring and car maintenance.”

Kriti Sharma’s “You’ll Be Working With Robots Sooner Than You Think” (Fortune, April 10th) dealt more with artificial intelligence (AI) and how it is expected to be used not only to get automata to learn to do their jobs more efficiently but to behave ethically.  Sharma mentioned the possibility, perhaps less fanciful than it seems, “to create a rewards-based learning system that motivates robots and AI to achieve high levels of productivity.”  Indeed, throughout the process of AI getting more robust, we will need to continuously hold off the problem of goal-seeking software lacking humane underpinnings. 
“No, robots won’t put us all on the unemployment line,” Betsy McCaughey’s New York Post story headline said on April 11th.  She fell into the common trap of assuming higher-technology jobs created by the likes of automata, in this case “monitoring or repairing a fleet of delivery robots,” will be as plentiful as those made obsolete, and called those advocating robot taxes Luddites.  Better were her statements that “college is no cure-all,” that “the economy thrives when businesses, not politicians, call the shots on technology,” and that “embracing robots will create more goods and services, a bigger pie for all to share.”  None of these three ideas, however, are inconsistent with a large net loss in employment opportunities.

After the startling but defensible view in the May 3rd Atlantic Daily that 65% of Las Vegas jobs could be automated away within eight years, we move on to Greg Ip’s May 10th Wall Street Journal effort “Robots Aren’t Destroying Enough Jobs.”  The author offers several thought-provoking points, starting with his declaration that “”Robot” is shorthand for any device or algorithm that does what humans once did, from mechanical combines and thermostats to dishwashers and airfare search sites.”  He asserted that “American consumption is gravitating toward goods and services whose production is not easily automated” (not sure at all), and, although he wrote that the number of child-care workers doubled from 1990 to 2010, that could change even if “working parents won’t leave their children in the care of a robot,” if, for example, fewer workers can care for more children through remote or semi-remote monitoring.

“Will Robots Fire Us All?”  Bill Samuelson, this time in the May 10th Investor’s Business Daily, is at it again, and still hanging his I-don’t-think-so attitude on the simply incorrect idea that new technologies consistently create as many positions as they eliminate.  He will be disappointed.

Simon Parkin, in the May 12th 1843 Magazine, made a valiant effort to show how we can succeed at “Teaching Robots Right from Wrong,” but the doubts he brought up demonstrated that it won’t be easy.  First, he mentioned that if hard-coding of core values was implemented a few centuries ago, it might have directed machines to agree with slavery and women’s unequal rights.  Second, as I have written about driverless vehicles, in some situations they face, robots must be told which lives are, in effect, more valuable than others.  Third, while artificial intelligence may allow automata to learn from mistakes, “a killer robot is more likely to be disassembled than offered the chance.”  Fourth, although Parkin discussed the possibilities of learning, for example, the details of how to behave properly before, during, and after a restaurant dinner, those things are remarkably variable and excruciatingly difficult to precisely define, as anyone who has studied ethnomethodology can attest.  I predict that those issues, even after they have been overcome enough with driverless cars for them to be well established on our roads, will still be severe enough to bar many less dedicated machines.

We end with an unusual but exaggerated viewpoint in “Robots Will Save The Economy” (Bret Swanson and Michael Mandel, The Wall Street Journal, May 14th). The authors made the case that our country can use more technology, and they are right, but that won’t help jobs in the ways they mentioned, such as trucks, which are getting ever hardier, requiring more mechanics once they are being self-driven for more miles than with drivers.  We have great things coming up, but such as 3D-printed body organs won’t permanently help employment even if they arrive this century, and the comparison they cited, of 397,000 new e-commerce jobs in ten years with 76,000 in-person retailing ones lost, cannot be a valid one. 


What does this all mean?  As the last article shows, it is tempting to confuse technology’s net value, which is extremely high, with its overall effect on jobs, which is sharply negative.  We need, though, to keep those two ideas separate while maintaining awareness of both.  The first thing will help us tremendously, and we can deal effectively with the second.  That is the real significance of robots.      

Friday, June 9, 2017

Robots and Jobs: Three More Months in the Books – Part 1

There has been no shortage of recommended countermeasures, if you can call them that, to artificial workers put forward since February. 

In “Automated labor apocalypse:  Why a French socialist’s case for taxing robots is better than Bill Gates’ idea” (Salon, February 26th), Kate Aronoff put the ideas of robot levies and a guaranteed income together, and proposed the former pay for the latter.  That’s not a bad rough idea, though, as Lawrence Summers pointed out soon thereafter (“Picking on robots won’t deal with job destruction,” The Washington Post, March 5), we don’t have much agreement on what constitutes those automata, which are, for work-task-replacement purposes, little or no different from “kiosks that dispense airplane boarding passes,” “word-processing programs that accelerate the production of documents,” “mobile banking technologies,” “autonomous vehicles,” or even “vaccines that, by preventing disease, destroy jobs in medicine.”  Although images of almost and increasingly human machines with humanoid appearance can trigger our emotions more than thoughts of NCR cash dispensers, their effects on anthropoid workers are no scarier.

If we see them as opponents, can we use a primer titled “How to Beat the Robots”?  Yes, even if we disagree with that premise.  In this piece, published March 7th in The New York Times, author Claire Cain Miller presented a variety of ideas on how we can, even if we cannot truly overcome the things, keep prospering ourselves.  They include “more education and different kinds” – while Miller’s first suggestions of raising enrollment in universities, stepping up vocational study and “government retraining programs” are all somewhere between misguided and overrated, she did ask for more coursework on “skills that still give humans an edge over machines, like creativity and collaboration” and to find ways for people “to learn flexibility and how to learn new things,” the last being what we could call meta-learning.  She also said that governments could “subsidize private employment,” perhaps, as has been done before, by partially paying compensation, and touched on infrastructure efforts, “strengthening labor unions” (not responsive to the problem of too few jobs), bringing in “advanced manufacturing” (we’re doing that when we can as it is is), subsidies for relocation (thinkable), and a grouping of ways to “bolster the safety net,” ranging from wage insurance to guaranteed income.  Miller’s thorough survey of possibilities also included a section on ways we could “change the way work is done,” including making benefits portable (as we should be and are doing now), “building co-working spaces,” facilitating more small businesses, “reducing licensing requirements” (would help specific people but not create jobs), and the most appropriate idea for quick implementation, bringing workweeks below 40 hours for the first time in, incredibly, 77 years.  The final section, “Give Workers More of the Profits,” provided a brief but even-handed look at higher minimum wages, along with changes to corporate levies, instituting “a minimum pension” as an adjunct to Social Security, and the aforementioned robot taxes.  In all, Miller provided an excellent comprehensive look at what we might do, not only about automation but, by inference, about foreign competition, efficiency, and other factors making our jobs crisis permanent. 

Are we heading for a “looming economic collapse”?  In Fox Business on March 28, one prominent figure said so in “Robots Will Steal U.S. Jobs Warns Billionaire Investor Jeff Greene.”  As gloomy as this view may be, it is sort of refreshing, considering the nonreversing nature of technical progress, to see someone claiming unequivocally that we really do have a problem.  The piece cited PricewaterhouseCoopers research concluding that the next 15 years may see 38% of American work opportunities lost to artificial intelligence alone (high, but believable), and quoted Greene as saying that, during “the next five to seven years,” office positions would be savaged by artificial intelligence and “big data” as well as robots.  He also wrote as I did, that reduced employment is no excuse for our need to “embrace technology,” but ended with the thought that “we have to love it.”  No, we don’t. 

Perhaps, though, the tide in the press is turning.  On March 28th, Claire Cain Miller returned to the Times with “Evidence That Robots Are Winning the Race for American Jobs.”  She cited a paper by Boston University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology economists Pascual Restrepo and Daron Acemoglu, who concluded that the pervasive idea “that increased automation would create new, better jobs, so employment and wages would eventually return to their previous levels” was empirically unfounded, and that many of the displaced workers successfully returning take a long time to do that.  Miller also touched on the idea, put forth by another M.I.T. economist, “that machines will complement instead of replace humans, and cannot replicate human traits like common sense and empathy,” but did not make a key point, that there is no need for empathy in painting, welding, or even analyzing X-rays.   On the same day, Matthew Rozsa reached a similar conclusion in Salon (“Steve Mnuchin is wrong:  Robots really could take your job.”), naming a National Bureau of Economic Research estimate that each automaton replaces an average of 6.2 human workers, and that implementation of each 1,000 such devices was associated with a 0.18-0.34% employment rate drop and an even higher average wage reduction, in contrast to Treasury Secretary Mnuchin’s rather opposite conclusion that it would take “50-100 more years” for the robotics threat to employment to materialize. 

We end with a March 30th Harvard Business Review look, from that publication’s usual big-business vantage point, “How to Win with Automation (Hint:  It’s Not Chasing Efficiency).”  Author Greg Satell called the 20th century “an era of unprecedented prosperity” despite jobs lost to mechanization, but did not mention that being due to the massive widening of the third phase of economic activity, or services.  Although, as he wrote, task automation can lead to task commoditization, many strictly in-person work details are no less so.  Satell named, as high-level strategies, “innovate business models” by setting workers on nonautomatable tasks, “redesign jobs” accordingly, and recognize that “humanity is becoming the scarce resource,” a view which would resonate better if we could quickly absorb fewer than 16.75 million new positions, including almost two-thirds by people not counted as officially jobless.  Still, as with the other articles here, it is healthy for robots to be taken seriously as anti-employment forces. 


More on this topic next week.        

Friday, June 2, 2017

Higher Latent Demand for Work in May: American Job Shortage Number Up 150,000 to 16.75 Million on Soft Employment Report

The federal jobs data took a breather last month.

Although seasonally adjusted employment bettered yet again, from 4.4% to 4.3%, this morning’s Bureau of Labor Statistics report was a weak one. 

The headline number will probably be 138,000, the count of net new nonfarm payroll positions we achieved last month, on pace with population growth but no better, and almost 50,000 less than publicized projections.  Unadjusted joblessness held its 0.5% April improvement at 4.1%, and the number of Americans working part-time for economic reasons, or holding on to less than full-time propositions while seeking, thus far unsuccessfully, full-time ones, added to its last-time 300,000 improvement by dropping another 100,000, to 5.2 million.  There were 6.9 million unemployed, down 200,000 from April.

The other numbers, though, were discouraging.  The two indicators best showing how common it is for our countrymen to actually be working, the employment-population ratio and the labor force participation rate, each fell 0.2%, a lot for one month, to 60.0% and 62.7%.  The number of long-term unemployed, or those officially jobless for 27 weeks or longer, bucked its improvement trend with a 100,000 rise to 1.7 million.  Average hourly private nonfarm payroll earnings were up only 3 cents per hour, less than inflation, to $26.22. 

On the marginal attachment front, the big news was in the “did not search for work in the previous year” and “not available to work now” categories.  These were up 1.53 million and 322,000 respectively, massive increases for one month, and added over 200,000 to latent work demand.  While the number of discouraged workers moved sharply in the other direction from 455,000 to 355,000, that was not enough to stop the American Job Shortage Number or AJSN from increasing 140,000, as follows:



Compared with a year before, though, the AJSN still substantially improved.  The May 2016 number was almost 850,000 higher at 17.6 million, with almost all that difference in official unemployment and the did-not-search categories.  One cause for concern, though, is the almost one million gain in people non-civilian, institutionalized, and unaccounted for, or “off the grid.”  The share of those who would absorb new readily available jobs who are officially unemployed reached another long-time low, at 35.3%. 

Although this month was hardly terrible, it was not good.  We need to continue looking at the numbers above, especially the participation rates.  If June’s data returns to the standards of earlier this year, we can still take credit for doing well, if hardly superbly.  In the meantime, the turtle stood still last month. 


Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Uber’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Three Months – With More to Follow?

On March 3rd, USA Today published a Jessica Guynn piece titled “Uber’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week.”  It related how the company, already based as I have written on unsustainable success, in seven days or less, (1) was the subject of an “explosive blog post alleging sexual harassment and discrimination,” (2) was publicly accused, also by employees, of having a “toxic culture,” (3) was sued by a major competitor, Waymo, for technology theft, (4) ditched its senior vice president of engineering for being investigated for a previous case of sexual harassment, (5) had its CEO featured in America’s Funniest Home Videos (well, actually only on what a car dashcam picked up) haranguing one of their drivers, (6) became known to the world for using software, Grayball, to identify and avoid legal authorities in places where their service had been banned, and (7) in the wake of all that, lost its vice president of product and growth.

But Uber’s flaming descent didn’t stop there.

The Greyball story was described in a 6-page New York Times article (How Uber Deceives the Authorities Worldwide”) released that same day, in which author Mike Isaac documented the electronic effort to which Uber went to unmask the enforcement agents, which included such Big Brother techniques as combing social media profiles for those calling themselves police officers and checking personal credit cards for connections with police credit unions, and wrote that using such software might even be a federal crime.  Five days later a company representative said they had made a change, “expressly prohibiting (Grayball’s) use to target action by local regulators,” but added that it would “take some time.”

After that, the hits just kept on coming.  (8) Uber’s competitor Lyft announced the week after the bad-week story that it would move into 100 new markets later this year.  (9) Another New York Times piece, this one on March 18th (“As Uber Woos More Drivers, Taxis Hit Back,” Winnie Hu) showed how Uber drivers are making more money per hour driving Yellow Cabs instead.  (10) Eight days after a progress report on Uber’s self-driving cars was leaked, showing that their test fleet of 43 put in over 20,000 miles in a mid-March week but required manual driver intervention more often on average than every mile, the program was suspended for two days when one driverless vehicle was in an Arizona accident – not their car’s fault, but which resulted in the vehicle flipping on its side.

The carnage seemed to stop in April, but earlier this month, (11) Uber’s primary competitors Lyft and Waymo officially joined forces, per Isaac in the New York Times again on May 14th, “to work together to bring autonomous vehicle technology into the mainstream through pilot projects and product development efforts.”

In combination with the ten previous disasters, that joint venture, if it works, could finish Uber off.  In the May 7th Wall Street Journal, Christopher Mims (“How Self-Driving Cars Could End Uber”) showed how such technology could not only fail to help that firm but could eliminate it entirely, if it is not on the right side of “transportation-as-a-service” offerings likely to come from Ford Motor Company within the next five years, and which would remove Uber’s advantage of not needing to own vehicles themselves.      

One set of people, though, still profit reasonably from Uber.  That is the customers.  They will not be able to keep doing business with that company, though, if it is forced out through its original and continuing problems – or if it has many more streaks like this March.  Although driverless technology speeds on, Uber’s business model will not.  Without cleaned up management along with a major consortium partner, the question is only how many feet of water in which the company will drown.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

A Year of the Gig Economy

A year and a month ago I posted twice about something existing on a small scale for as long as anyone could remember, but had only recently been given a name and drawn a flurry of discussion.  The “gig economy,” or the offering and working of individual and often very short tasks or sets of tasks, seemed to be gaining a new credibility.  I commented that although taking such small-scale employment was clearly an economic inferior good, it offered both experience and the chance to earn money without being held off by minimum wage laws.  Since then, it has continued without as much attention – but what has been said about it when it has reached print?

On June 4th, Jonathon M. Trugman expressed his displeasure about this phenomenon in New York Post (“This new ‘gig’ economy isn’t helping anyone”).  He didn’t really support the title in the article, which stated that “temporary gig work is better than no work at all,” but did tell us, sadly, that the net new number of American temporary positions added from 2005 to 2015, 9.4 million, exceeded that time’s overall jobs increase, 9.1 million.  That movement away from permanent positions is the real trend, and is disturbing enough, but hardly means that other opportunities are worthless.

A more balanced view turned up in CNN Money (“Millions in gig economy can’t find better jobs or pay,” October 27), which acknowledged both the advantages and disadvantages I named above.  The statistics here, apparently invoked to be negative, almost served the other side better; although “nearly 30% of gig workers who work part-time would prefer a full-time job,” that number could be much higher, and it is redundant to say that three-quarters of “these part-timers” have low incomes. 

What’s interesting about “Rigging the gig economy:  A proposed bill would lure freelance workers to sign away their employee rights for cash” (Salon, November 29th), is that it sought to make one politically liberal point, failed, and in the process unintentionally put forth cases for two others.  It related a proposed legislative bill that would either mandate, or allow participation in, a scheme where companies would subsidize gig workers’ health care at an amount equal to 2.5% of their income, in exchange for them agreeing to “accept their classification as nonemployees.”  That’s not a large bonus, but it is significant, and, if they are legally not on their companies’ payrolls, it costs them nothing.  The two true improvements it supported were strict, well-enforced worker-favoring laws on what constitutes a contractor as opposed to an employee, and national health insurance unconnected to income sources.

It was months later before anything more on this subject crossed my desk, and it was on the April 10th New York Times editorial page.  “The Gig Economy’s False Promise” properly debunked what the editorial board called “the promises Silicon Valley makes about the gig economy,” namely the illusions of entrepreneurism and independence, and the idea that “use of the independent contractor model is in fact better for workers.”  The problem here is that as an inferior good, gig jobs, taken mostly when permanent ones are unobtainable, do not hurt those who have them.  As shabby and misleading as these positions can be, the permanent jobs crisis, not those offering them, deserves the blame. 

Most recent was “Is the gig economy working” (New Yorker, May 15).  This long, long form piece (it printed out to 24 pages) used a combination of stories, statistics, and interviews to assess where this form of work might be going.  Its angle, as its subtitle put it, “many liberals have embraced the sharing economy.  But can they survive it?”, surprised me, as I had thought of the gig economy as having mostly conservative appeal, since it facilitates free-market transactions while requiring workers to defend their own interests without regulatory protection.  Author Nathan Heller, though, said some called it “the power to control one’s working life,” with gigs offering a chance for employment to “return, grassroots style, to the people.”  He interviewed some who earned money through TaskRabbit and Lyft, who were actually only choosing the ancient, big-city combination of side work financing primary efforts in creative projects that may or may not sell, and contrasted the reality of such jobs with Uber and Airbnb promotional material.  After much more thought, analysis, and conflation of pure gig opportunities with sharing-economy ones, he came around to the independent-contracting and health-coverage issues above, and concluded with a worker, with whom he started the story, finishing a group of handyman tasks and saying “the gig economy is such a lonely economy.” 

Through these different viewpoints, the real significance of gig work is clear.  First, it is not as good as regular employment.  Second, it is necessary for its participants to be aware of their true after-expenses earnings.  Third, however, to call it harmful or somehow immoral is to make the same mistake as condemning foreign sweatshops or a lower minimum wage, as if laborers under those circumstances would be better off without the best opportunities they can find.  That is “let them eat cake,” a philosophy for which, in any labor market, let alone during a permanent jobs crisis, we can have no use.        

Friday, May 12, 2017

Two Old and One New: Stagnant Living Standards, Underpaidness, and Another Generation

Last month, three articles appeared on worthwhile job-related topics.  Two were on subjects we’ve seen before, and the third was one of the first on something sure to be discussed for at least the next half-century.

Robert J. Samuelson’s “Are living standards truly stagnant?” (The Washington Post, April 11) addressed and partially debunked a “widespread belief” that broad-based American prosperity is not improving.  Although mean inflation-adjusted pay is where it was 42 years ago, Samuelson cited a Dartmouth College study giving authority to something I have repeatedly commented on over the years, that many of our lifestyle improvements don’t show up that way.  One area mentioned here is electronics, specifically cable TV, cellphones, and Internet access.  The research also found that the poorest quarter of households averaged 1.4 cars in 2015, up from 0.75 in 1970, that mean living spaces for those in the bottom half had increased from 1,200 square feet to 1,300 from 1993 to 2007, and that outdoor plumbing, which 12% of the bottom 25% had in 1970, was almost nonexistent two years ago.  These are meaningful things, and serve as a reminder that money, which may become rarer as the jobs crisis worsens, is not the only measure of how well off as a country we are.

In Alternet on April 24th, Paul Buchheit’s “A future of shrinking jobs:  Most workers today are underpaid, and it gets worse” turned out to be better than its title, which could have been written any time since 1973.  That is because it provided the shocking statistic that 94% of positions created since 2007 were “temporary or contract-based.”  Although hardly all of those were low-paying, and that high a share must mostly mean that employee-employer relations are changing, it is consistent with that in general, and answers the question of why fewer people are relocating for work. 

The third piece, by Christine Comaford on April 22nd in Forbes, is “What Generation Z Wants From The Workplace – Are You Ready?”  As I get older, it strikes me how easy it is to mentally run the younger generations together, as if they were one solid group.  I saw that blind spot into the 1980s, when otherwise astute observers missed the difference between the establishment-questioning 1960s and the superficially self-centered 1970s, which I knew, from growing up in them, were totally different times.  We run the risk of doing that again.  Those who haven’t really comprehended the difference between Generation X, which followed the Baby Boomers, and the Millennials after them, are now confronted with another cohort. 

There is disagreement on the exact or even approximate birth years defining each, but using the U.S. Census Bureau definition the last Millennials were born in 2000.  That means that the oldest members of “Generation Z,” a name which may not stick, are now 16 and reaching the workforce.  They are no more Millennials as Boomers such as myself fit with the preceding Silent Generation. 
So how do those in Generation Z differ from those just older?  Comaford referred to a conversation between two researchers, one from that cohort, on the Society for Human Resource Management website, “Move Over, Millennials; Generation Z Is Here” (David Stillman and Jonah Stillman, April 11).  Among its many fascinating points are:  those from Z were largely raised by “tough-love, skeptical Gen Xers” instead of “self-esteem-building, optimistic Boomers,” making them more pragmatic and independent; they want more to “showcase (their) own individual talents” instead of collaborate; they are more competitive and entrepreneurial; they are “true digital natives,” but still prefer to talk face to face; they want to be independent, and “35% would rather share socks than an office space”; they feel lucky to have good jobs, with 76% saying they are willing to start at the bottom and work their way up and 61% willing to put in a decade or more with one employer; and, in one word, they can be described as “realistic.” 

As this generation has barely if at all reached even nominal adulthood, and, depending again on varying definitions, may still be being born, it is too early to know conclusively what it will be like.  However, Comaford, Stillman pere, and Stillman fils have given us a fine start.  Even if we only take away that generations are different and that those in Generation Z are not the same as Millennials, that will help us understand them.  Let us strive to do that, as, before we know it, there will be yet another group to deal with. 


Friday, May 5, 2017

Latent Demand for Jobs, Most from Those Not Officially Unemployed, Lowest Since Great Recession as AJSN Drops to 16.6 Million

Once again, the American employment situation exceeded its expected improvement.

Estimates called for a gain of 189,000 net new nonfarm positions, with the adjusted jobless rate worsening from 4.5% to 4.6%.  We got 211,000, and a bettering to 4.4%.  Other key numbers, while mixed, were generally also positive, with the count of those officially unemployed for 27 weeks or longer down 100,000 to 1.6 million, and the number of people working part-time for economic reasons, or wanting full-time engagement while holding on to something with fewer hours, plunging 281,000, rounding to 300,000, to 5.3 million.  The two measures showing best how common it is for Americans to have jobs, the employment-population ratio and the labor force participation rate, were split, with the former up a significant 0.1% to 60.2% and the latter down the same amount to 62.9%.  Average wages were adjusted 2 cents per hour downward for March, but even with that are up another nickel, more than inflation once again, to $26.19.  Best of all was the unadjusted employment rate falling 0.3% to a clearly prosperous 4.1%.

The measures of marginal attachment, though, did not improve.  The count of people wanting work but not looking for it over the past year, those also desiring employment but temporarily unavailable, and those with a similar view but out for ill health or disability all rose.  Those claiming no interest whatever in a job continued its steadyish rise upwards, up over 200,000 to 89,210,000.  Overall, the American Job Shortage Number, which shows in one figure how many more positions could be quickly filled if getting one were as easy as getting a pizza, was down over 600,000, as follows:



Compared with a year before, the AJSN has dropped over 700,000 from 17.3 million, completely from lower official joblessness. 

Even though times are clearly improving, we have one cause for concern.  The statuses outside official unemployment are almost all collecting more people.  A year ago, although there were 858,000 more technically jobless, there were fewer in the family responsibilities, in school or training, ill health or disability, other, and did not search for the previous year categories.  There are now 400,000 more Americans saying they do not want to work than in April 2016, some of whom would change that view if the right position came along, and the non-civilian, institutionalized, and off-the-grid total is almost 900,000 higher.  All told, if this many opportunities were created and filled, more than 64% would go to those not officially jobless.  There are still plenty of potential workers on the sidelines, and most are not getting unemployment checks.  They should not be ignored, and constitute a real social change about which organizations seeking employees should be aware.  In the meantime, the turtle, who would be surprised if he looked behind him to see how much ground he has covered over the past two years, took another clear step forward.


Friday, April 28, 2017

The Work’s New Age Blog: Five Years of The Bipartisan Pro-Jobs Truth

Hard to believe, but it’s now been half a decade.

I posted for the first time here on April 10th, 2012, with a preliminary welcome message.  Since then I have come back 262 times, or almost exactly once a week. 

My original idea was to give insight on employment in America, especially supporting the thesis, which I still hold, that the jobs crisis is permanent and will not go away with better economic times.  A few months before I had released the book of the same name, and several of the posts were taken from it.  Since then I have incorporated ideas from my follow-on volume, Choosing a Lasting Career

This blog has evolved since then.  I have moved into public policy, first on Barack Obama’s words and actions and the same with his successor Donald Trump.  I have looked at not only the specifics of what is happening with jobs here, but also in other countries.  I have written on larger changes I see, some similar to those documented in my books but some different.  Over the past year or so I have focused especially on a few fast-changing areas critical for American employment, namely driverless vehicles, robots, the sharing economy, the minimum wage, and guaranteed income.  These are where the action is, and will shape much of what happens with jobs in the next decade and beyond.  

My political views are easy to identify but hard to consolidate.  I am independent and objective, and do not seek to reinforce or validate my readers’ opinions, whatever they are.  I am classically conservative on environmentalism, minimum wages, and government intervention in general.  I am liberal on overtime laws, social services for the poor and unemployed, and drug legalization.  I am in favor of a guaranteed income, though not yet, and think gun laws should be adjusted in both directions rather than weakened or strengthened overall.  I get my news from sources on the left, center, and right and consider ideas from all of them.  I recommend that to everyone.   

My real bias is in favor of more jobs, whatever their pay and benefits, so come out against anything that works against that.  Those in favor of mandating $15 per hour or want to ensure that all employment pays “a living wage” or some such don’t seem to understand that geographic and personal differences make defining that impossible.  I find it cruel that people who would dearly like to work, even at less than legal minimums, are barred from doing that. 

Will I write more books?  Probably, though most likely not for a while.  In the meantime, my platform includes several other outlets.  One is my weekly 5-minute radio show, WORK SHIFT, on WJFF 90.5 FM in nearby Jeffersonville, New York, which comes on at 10:00am Eastern Time on Wednesday mornings.  You can also listen to its stream, at http://www.wjffradio.org/wjff/, and on podcasts at http://www.wjffradio.org/wjff/index.php?section=38.   Another is my generally monthly 50-minute talk show appearance on The 11th Hour on WRTA 1240 AM out of Altoona, Pennsylvania – this show, hosted by Doug Herendeen and the winner of two Associated Press awards, also streams, at http://player.listenlive.co/51581, with the next one scheduled for 11:05am ET on May 17th.  I maintain three Facebook pages, Work’s New Age, Choosing a Lasting Career, and AJSN, at https://www.facebook.com/pages/Works-New-Age/129923513764092,https://www.facebook.com/pages/Choosing-a-Lasting-Career/190327604467499, and https://www.facebook.com/ajsnjobs, and also send Twitter messages through @worksnewageusa, with links to #jobs and #employment.  I produce and release the AJSN, or American Job Shortage Number, which tells in one figure how many more positions could be quickly filled if getting one were easy, monthly.  All of this and more is on my website at http://choosingalastingcareer.com/.  I also send out a newsletter eight times a year with my summary of the employment situation – if you want to be on its list, email me at jhuntington@royalflushpress.com


Thank you for reading.  I will be back next week, as usual, and hope for at least five more years.   

Friday, April 21, 2017

Minimum Wage Increases: Plenty in 2017, But Fewer On the Way

On January 1 we saw a lot of states raising their lowest legal pay even further from the $7.25 federal bottom.  According to Karl Russell’s “A Higher Minimum Wage in 2017” (The New York Times, January 5), 29 states and the District of Columbia have compensation floors higher than the national, with concentrations on the Northeast and the West Coast, and 19 boosted them more, effective the beginning of the year.  Seven, with annual increases tied to inflation, lifted theirs 10 cents an hour or less, but in five – Arizona, Washington, Maine, Massachusetts, and Colorado – it jumped 99 cents or beyond.  The District’s, higher than any state at $11.50, did not change, but the top six, Massachusetts, Washington, California, Connecticut, Arizona, and Vermont, each went up 40 cents or more and are now at least $10.

However, the pace is heading for a slowdown.  Except for those indexing their minimum wages to inflation, only ten states have voted for future increases.  Of those, only California and New York, along with the District of Columbia, have committed to reaching $15 per hour.     
    
Will there be many more this year?  Three pieces published since then suggest it is unlikely.  The first, also in the New York Times, Noam Scheiber’s January 10th “Higher Minimum Wage May Have Losers,” noteworthy for appearing in a news outlet consistently in favor of raising it in the past, cited two studies, one at New York University showing that increasing minimum pay had the effect of making fewer working hours available, and one from Harvard Business School and Mathematica Policy Research concluding that such wage boosts were often followed by restaurants, especially ones rated low on the Yelp website, closing.  In this area, where controlled experiments of course cannot be conducted, all research results are controversial and unreplicable, but each study does become a data point.

The same conclusion was put forth by Forbes columnist Tim Worstall, in “Surprise, San Diego’s Minimum Wage Rise Appears To Be Killing Restaurant Jobs” (April 12th).  This author, previously and now against higher pay floors, wrote that “roughly… 50% of people in restaurants get the minimum wage and some 50% of the people who get it work in restaurants,” and cited a report that, after San Diego increased their minimum ahead of the rest of California to $11.50, 3,900 food service positions were either “lost, or never created in the first place.”  Worstall’s best point here is that higher mandated levels effect not only jobs that end but ones that would otherwise have started and didn’t.  Measuring those, though, is not easy. 

“Has the Movement to Raise the Minimum Wage Reached Its Limit?”  That question was explored by Scott Calvert and Eric Morath in The Wall Street Journal on April 6th.  They named Baltimore mayor Catherine Pugh’s veto of a proposition that would raise the minimum to $15 by 2022, which matched the end of a similar effort made in Maryland’s Montgomery County, even though it borders the already-$15-approving District of Columbia.  Pugh, though a Democrat, said that although higher pay was good, she also wished for her “city to survive” – and who should know better?  Another point here is that providing a date by which a large minimum wage increase will take effect, especially if years in the future, gives automation companies a deadline by which they can make available robots and other machines costing less than that per hour.  It also affects longer-range business plans such as opening factories, one example of which Calvert and Morath gave. 


As I have written before, my bias is in the direction of more jobs.  It remains simple economics that requiring employers to pay more than they would otherwise need to do means they will offer fewer of them.  As these authors have shown, that not only manifests itself in jobs that are discontinued, but in those that were never created in the first place.  It is too early to get much data on this year’s minimum wage increases, but it will come in – expect more here as it does.  

Friday, April 14, 2017

Five Observations on Trump, or Why We Aren’t Heading to Authoritarianism

Donald J. Trump’s surprising election to president – and again, if you don’t agree with that assessment, you should have quintupled some of your money by betting on him – scared a lot of us, and rightfully so.  Although we still need to wonder if he will push North Korea or even China too far and get us all nuked, the threat of an American totalitarian state that concerned many, including me, has faded dramatically.  Why?  To see that, consider the following.

First, a solid wall of opposition, with The New York Times and Washington Post in the middle, has formed.  These front-line publications have been emitting a steady stream of anti-Trump editorials and opinion pieces.  Many of these items are essentially pointless, decrying him for being himself or bemoaning his lack of interest in liberal-appeal issues such as climate change, but others critique his actions from his own stated standpoints, or from what they consider reasonable presidential behavior.  The writings’ overall effect is to show that nationally-respected commentators are watching, documenting, and freely disapproving of what he does.  There was nothing similar at all in 1933 Germany.

Second, Trump is consistently coming off not as evil but as incompetent.  He, as expected, shows no inclination or even ability to negotiate with his political opposition.  He is not assembling any sort of authoritarian government, or even a full government at all, with the number of appointments he has made being far smaller than that from even his most anti-bureaucracy predecessors. 

Third, as shown by his failure to repeal Obamacare, our federal checks and balances are still working effectively.  In the House and Senate he has enough opposition within his own party, let alone from Democrats, to stop him from dictating anything which would consolidate power into the executive branch.  The addition of Neil Gorsuch means only that the Supreme Court is ideologically similar to what it was before the vacancy he filled materialized, when it was hardly a source of fascist legal interpretations.

Fourth, Trump is lacking in solid allies.  Although he has done some things which should please true conservatives, such as approving the Keystone pipeline, his previous hostility toward them has made those in Congress at most temporarily on his side.  Among constituents, though surveys show he has lost only a small percentage of his supporters, he is gaining even fewer.  It is possible that, during his first term, he will reach a point where he will be able to rely on nobody, with the Goering, Himmler, and Goebbels equivalents nowhere to be seen.


Fifth, with all that said, the outcome of Trump’s time in office is still very much unknown.  We know remarkably little about which ideological segment will benefit most from his failures in the 2018 and 2020 elections.  His current scandals, especially given a Republican-dominated legislature, do not project to be nearly sufficient for impeachment, yet the Predictwise site gives him a 49% chance of being out of office before 2020, and, at sportsbook.ag, you can win $10 for every $18.50 you wager that he will complete four full years.  The latter site gives the same odds for a Republican or a Democrat to win the next presidential contest, with the most likely individual winner, after Trump, being Democrat Elizabeth Warren, at 8 to 1 against.  That’s all we know – stay tuned, as that could change suddenly… and unpredictably.                  

Friday, April 7, 2017

AJSN (American Job Shortage Number): We’re Now 17.2 Million Positions Short, After Good Federal Employment Report

This morning the headline jobs number came in much worse than expected.  Far from a projection of 180,000, there were only 98,000 net new nonfarm positions created in March.  But don’t let that fool you.

Almost everything else improved, starting with stunning drops in the official unemployment rates.  The one you hear about the most, seasonally adjusted, did not stay at 4.7% as some expected but fell to 4.5%.  The unadjusted figure, higher since in March fewer people are working than in an average month, plunged even more, from 4.9% to 4.6%. 

The other results were consistently favorable.  The count of long-term unemployed, or people officially jobless and out for 27 weeks or longer, was off 100,000 to 1.7 million.  The tally of those working part-time for economic reasons, or unsuccessfully seeking full-time work while maintaining shorter-hours employment, also dropped 100,000, reaching 5.6 million.  Average private nonfarm wages were up a nickel an hour to $26.14, nothing trivial when inflation is less.  While the labor force participation rate stayed at a strong-by-recent-standards 63.0%, the employment to population ratio, helped by lower joblessness, ticked up 0.1% to 60.1%. 

The American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, which shows latent demand for work, or how many more American positions could be filled if getting one were known to be easy and routine, dropped a surprising 647,000, with the categories of marginal attachment adding 105,000 to the effect of reduced official joblessness, as follows:


 Compared with a year before, an important evaluation since the AJSN is not seasonally adjusted, the metric is down 584,000, with lower unemployment partially offset by a substantial increase in the count of those reporting interest in work but not having looked for it for at least a year. 


The net new jobs disappointment, and its failure to match those needed for population increase, notwithstanding, March was clearly a positive month.  With room to spare in February’s 235,000 gain, the data gives no signs of a correction, and already excellent figures such as the unemployment rates are still improving.  The share of latent demand coming from official joblessness is now only 38%, meaning that there is too much unfulfilled general interest in work for the economy to be as robust as that 4.5% would indicate.  Yet the turtle, once again, did take a step forward.        

Friday, March 31, 2017

Higher Views: What’s Happening and Not Happening with the United States and Employment

Already this year we’ve had remarkably headline-grabbing commentary on the direction of not only American jobs, but the country in general.  What have people been saying and how much value does it have?

On January 11th, Salon shouted out “Sorry, Trump voters:  Those factory jobs aren’t coming back – because they don’t exist anymore.”  Author Conor Lynch made good points toward his correct thesis about those nostalgia-inducing positions, that since the Great Recession year of 2009 manufacturing output has increased 20% while employment is only up 5%, with “automation technologies, not foreign workers” the culprit in 80% of those lost opportunities.  That is the problem we face, and is another reason why efforts to vilify immigrants are inappropriate.

Noteworthy observations punctuated “Lifelong learning,” published January 14th in The Economist.  The column started with a shaky assumption, that “education fails to keep pace with technology,” and described “working lives” as “lengthy,” which they would be if people got what they wanted, but then laid down a law that workers “must” add new skills with time.  The unbilled author proposed an offset to the trend toward narrow college majors and courses of study, that “those with specialised training tend to withdraw from the labour force earlier than those with general education – perhaps because they are less adaptable.”  That, at least generally true, would make as good a subject for a book as for an article.

The same is true for a piece in the February 6th New York Times, in which Patricia Cohen discussed something I have mentioned in the past but have seldom seen elsewhere.  “The Economic Growth That Experts Can’t Count” said that, although American gross domestic product is growing more slowly, to it “a delectable $20 meal that would wow Julia Child is equal to a rubbery, tasteless one that costs the same amount,” and that “digital dark matter” such as Wikipedia which demonstrably increases productivity is likewise not included.  Indeed, ordinary Americans have advantages even the most affluent did not have only ten years ago, some of which Cohen documented.  They are not creating jobs as they once did, and Wikipedia employs far fewer people than would a Library of Congress-sized institute in each city, but they are real.

Is less than 17 years enough time to say that “This Century Is Broken”?  David Brooks posed that question in the February 21st New York Times.  He said that from 1951 to 2000 there were “no world wars, no Great Depressions, fewer civil wars, fewer plagues,” and asserted that slow economic growth was the core problem of the years since then.  Brooks cited increased numbers of men aged 25 to 55 out of the labor force, a group with 57% getting government disability, and “about half” taking pain medication daily, those two depressing statistics related, one way or another, to the work shortage.  It is too early to say anything comprehensive about 2001 through 2100, but in some ways we clearly are, indeed, off to a bad start.      

Along with Brooks, Robert J. Samuelson (“Have Americans gone complacent?,” February 28, The Washington Post) reacted last month to a new Tyler Cowen book, The Complacent Class.  In it, Cowen argued that our country is, as Brooks put it, “decelerating, detaching, losing hope, getting sadder.”  As symptoms, Cowen named lower entrepreneurism rates and less tendency to move for jobs;  the last is easily explained by work opportunities being increasingly temporary, but the first, especially Brooks’s interpretation that “millennials may be the least entrepreneurial generation in American history,” fueled both by Cowen’s telling us that the percentage of those under 30 owning businesses is down 65% in about 30 years and that generation having a sky-high underemployment rate, is worthy of concern.  Samuelson’s observation that we “increasingly cluster with people ‘like us’” is nothing new, and neither is his thought that what Cowen called “complacency” was really “entitlement” (I would call it “justified fear”).  However, Brooks’s question, “where is the social movement that is thinking about the fundamentals of this century’s bad start and envisions an alternate path?” is a good one.  I project that such a crusade will take shape within a few years.


Another good one, “The Big Question for the U.S. Economy:  How Much Room Is There to Grow?” was posed by Neil Irwin in the February 24th New York Times.  There is still plenty of “economic slack,” in the forms of underused factories (the rate much the same as it was five years ago), unoccupied business property (down only from 17.6% to 15.8% since 2011), and of course potential employees who aren’t working (see the latest AJSN at http://worksnewage.blogspot.com/2017/03/february-almost-every-jobs-number.html).  Because of this extra capacity, Irwin called for fewer interest rate increases, to “create a virtuous cycle” by attempting “to run the economy a little hot.”  That is the strategy with the most merit, and would get more of our 17.9 million surplus workers into jobs.  That, not fine-tuning, is what we need now as ever.         

Friday, March 24, 2017

Driverless Cars Tootle, Or Rather Speed, Into 2017 – Part 2

We continue with some old business, in “Tesla’s Self-Driving System Cleared in Deadly Crash” (Neal E. Boudette, The New York Times, January 19).  The federal government concluded that that company’s “autopilot” feature, despite being overnamed and being engaged in a fatal May collision, did not need to be recalled.  It has been modified to shut off once the driver ignores three warnings to put their hands on the steering wheel, and two competitive systems, from General Motors and Audi, will monitor driver’s eyes (!) for the same purpose.

“Are General Motors and Lyft About to Crush All Self-Driving Rivals?”  John Rosevear posted this question on February 19th in The Motley Fool.  GM is planning on making “thousands” of driverless Bolts next year for Lyft’s ridesharing, which the latter company apparently and rather reasonably considers critical not only to their prosperity but to their survival.  In an area this fast-moving they can’t be sure, so the short answer to Rosevear’s query is “no.”  Meanwhile, per Yahoo Tech three days later, competitor Uber is now testing its self-driving cars in Arizona, where the governor took a ride in one and praised it. 

In the February 23rd New York Times, John R. Quain raised the issue of product standardization between driverless vehicle manufacturers.  True, we will need that, but it’s too early to try to establish such conventions.  We don’t know which self-driving technologies will win out on merit and in the market, which are two different things.  It will be later in the process, maybe two years from now, before official standards are agreed upon and put into place.

The consortia and partnerships are well under way, and so are the legal cases.  Per The New York Times (“A Lawsuit Against Uber Highlights the Rush to Conquer Driverless Cars,” February 24), Google’s Waymo driverless vehicle organization has brought an action against Uber for allegedly stealing trade secrets.  With top technicians getting high seven-figure bonuses to change companies, and nondisclosure agreements insufficient to clearly define the thin and permeable line between personal knowledge and proprietary information, this was neither the first nor the last.  The same goes for such ploys as, attributed to Uber executive Anthony Levandowski, trying to pay off “distracted” employee’s girlfriends to break up with them, and, as did Uber’s Otto division, filming videos of legally unapproved self-driving trucks.  It’s an exciting high-stakes game out there – don’t be surprised to see many more of these sorts of things.

On March 8, we learned from Fox Business that “Uber Self-Driving Cars Are Coming Back to California Roads.”  They were barred from them in December, but now have a permit to test there again, if for only two units, to become the 26th company allowed.  That state has also proposed that cars without steering wheels be testable there (USA Today, March 10th). 

My latest “why didn’t I think of that” moment came from John R. Quain’s March 9 New York Times “Cars Will Talk to One Another.  Exactly How is Less Certain.”  Since driverless vehicles will be receiving a lot of electronic information, it only makes sense for them to broadcast it to others nearby.  Per Quain, they can relay news of “disabled cars and vehicles that are braking hard ahead, as well as slippery road conditions.”  And more.  They may not be able to stop stupid human drivers from trying to beat trains to intersections, but can at least tell them they are there.  Two great advantages this communication will have – and I am almost certain it will be built into all American cars within ten years – is that it works even in areas without cellular service, and does not require infrastructure improvements.  Perhaps it could also issue warnings about people cruising, in the left lane, at two-thirds of the speed limit. 

This month’s most massive transaction was, as reported in The Wall Street Journal on March 13th (“Intel Joins Silicon Valley’s Race to Make Best ‘Server on Wheels,’” Ted Greenwald), was Intel buying Israeli car-camera company Mobileye for $15.3 billion.  The two together will form only part of a driverless-vehicle consortium, but, with Intel’s chips, it’s a powerful combination.  Intel’s estimate of “autonomous-driving systems, services and data” reaching $70 billion by 2030 strikes me as conservative, and, just maybe, if enough others share Intel CEO Brian Krzanich’s view that “what’s under the hood” will soon refer to computing features, millennials may find more interest in driving.


We finish with “The 5 Biggest Challenges to the Driverless Car Revolution,” or at least how Justin Loiseau saw them in his March 11th Motley Fool piece:  pricing, consumer understanding, “safety/security issues,” regulation, and technology.  It’s way too early to worry about the first.  The second is also premature, as we don’t know exact capabilities yet.  The third is more a matter of perception, as driverless vehicles should start cutting highway deaths as soon as next year.  The outlooks for the last two, though, are clearly positive.  The bad news for investors, to which The Motley Fool caters, is that we can’t yet tell the Fords and Chevrolets from the Stutz’s and Hupmobiles.  But driverless cars are the McCoy, the real deal, the genuine article; if you have an appetite for risk, you should place some bets somewhere.        

Friday, March 17, 2017

Driverless Cars Tootle, Or Rather Speed, Into 2017 – Part 1

The current year is shaping up as a critical one for self-driving vehicles.  A great deal has happened already.

One large choice, or “metadecision,” as we could call it, is how much of the burden of getting driverless vehicles information on what’s around them should be borne by the roadways.  In “States Wire Up Roads as Cars Get Smarter” (The Wall Street Journal, January 2), author Paul Page described signs recently installed in the Washington area warning drivers of upcoming problems, such as in the story a sudden thunderstorm, of which they may not yet be aware.  Such things are valuable both for our current meatmobiles and for self-driving cars and trucks, but, as Page mentioned and probably understated, the amount of money “needed to wire the nation’s more than 4 million miles of paved roads and 250,000 intersections” would be in the billions of dollars.  For a variety of reasons, including lower cost and more flexible technology improvement implementation, I expect that the vehicles will need to be the smart ones, and industry consensus on that should be reached within two years.

The same publication, a week later, issued Stephen Wilmot’s “How the Auto Makers Can Survive the Self-Driving Car.”  This piece was directed toward investors, who would do better to disregard two things it contains: the assertion that “electric cars are starting to take off” (which they have been doing for 50 years, and look no stronger now with recent sales crashing to almost nothing in states which have replaced their subsidies with registration charges in lieu of fuel taxes), and the idea that driverless taxi services, since rides in them will cost less, will cause huge drops in car sales, even starting “this decade.”  Wilmot also pointed out, though, that concentrated auto purchases by whatever companies win the self-driving taxi battle will “undermine the stable system of car dealerships that has controlled the industry for decades” (good riddance, as I see it), and that those who choose not to buy cars, who will be almost exclusively in urbanized areas, will instead purchase “mobility as a service,” which could take the form of agreements with these corporations to obtain transportation in different ways to cover different needs.  Companies could, for example, deploy automated taxis for trips to airports, but deliver customer-driven Jeeps for summer-home weekends – look for such agreements to be commonplace by the middle of the next decade.

We learned, also from Paul Page in The Wall Street Journal, that one of the last things the Obama administration did was to start a federal point of contact for driverless-vehicle regulation (“U.S. Sets Up an Advisory Panel on Self-Driving Cars,” January 11).  The 25-person committee was designed to include top executives from General Motors, Amazon, Uber, Alphabet, and FedEx, so can hardly be accused of being anti-business.  Creation of that panel, even though we don’t yet know what regulations will be ongoing, was a positive step.

Driverless technology has also moved along this year.  “Waymo’s self-driving cars need less driver intervention” (Ryan Randazzo, Arizona Republic, January 13) documented how Google’s driverless autos, which have been tested in Arizona for several months, now need human intervention only every 5,000 miles, and, by using GPS and radar, can assess their environments for 200 yards in each direction.  Still, new problems continue to appear.  In “These Drivers Are Not Crazy – They’re Just Doing the ‘Pittsburgh Left’” (The Wall Street Journal, January 20), James R. Hagerty described that city’s motorists’ custom of letting others turn left in front of them.  While technically illegal it is commonplace there, and is often authorized by drivers waving or blinking lights.  The same practice is also frequent in Boston, and other American areas, such as New Jersey and California with multiple consecutive lane-changes, have their own deviations.  Either laws against these maneuvers will end up being enforced, driverless vehicles will need to anticipate them in some places but not in others, or that light-clash or hand-wave will be officially mandated – something will work.

Given that most people have never seen one in action, it is no surprise that we have “consumers still confused about self-driving cars” (AFP Relax News, January 18).  This early in their implementation, it is not disturbing at all that 72% to 81% of Korean, German, Japanese, and American survey respondents said they didn’t yet trust the things.  More telling, however, is the 68% of people in our country who “said they’d change their opinion once such cars have proven they’re safe.”  Those in one industry, though, understand them much better.  In “Self-driving Cars a Sure Bet – Just Ask Insurance Companies” (Newsmax, January 17), Lee Gruenfeld called their implementation “a slam-dunk certainty,” and cited an insurance executive as saying “the self-driving car is going to eat us alive” and that his or her company had planned on “automobile-related revenues being down by 50 percent at the end of ten years.”  We can take that to the bank, since, as Gruenfeld put it, “if you know any actuaries, you know that these are serious people not given to flights of fancy.”  We may not achieve great oil-consumption savings, as he suggested, but the almost certain precipitous drop in highway deaths is reason enough to agree.

Given that, we can take the idea of making driverless vehicles illegal in my state, to save jobs, as humorous.  Yet, in David Curry’s “Really?  A 50-year ban to self-driving cars in New York?” (Transport, January 17), we learn that the Upstate Transportation Association is trying to do just that.  They have about as much chance of success as this week’s 26 inches of snow has of melting this weekend – and that is a good thing. 


More on this topic next week.

Friday, March 10, 2017

February: Almost Every Jobs Number Improved, Including the AJSN Showing Latent Demand Down to 17.9 Million

This morning’s Bureau of Labor Statistics employment data was superb. 

All 9 of what I consider the front-line BLS statistics were positive.  Nonfarm payroll employment went up 235,000, about 100,000 more than our population increase absorbed.  Seasonally adjusted unemployment was down 0.1% to 4.7%, and the unadjusted one fell 0.2% to 4.9%.  The total number of officially jobless Americans was off 100,000 to 7.5 million, including 1.8 million out for 27 weeks or longer, also down 100,000.  The count of those working part-time for economic reasons, or seeking full-time work while holding on to part-time labor, now 5.7 million, dropped the same amount.  The two measures showing how common it actually is for people to have jobs, the labor force participation rate and the employment-population ratio, after gaining a large 0.2% apiece last month, were each up another 0.1% to reach 63.0% and 60.0% respectively.  Average nonfarm payroll earnings, which had done well recently, were given another positive adjustment, and might have been due for a correction, were up a well-over-inflation 6 cents per hour to $26.09.

The American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, which shows in one non-seasonally-adjusted figure how many more positions could be quickly filled if getting one were as easy as getting a pizza, also improved, as the counts of people in most statuses of marginal attachment improved as well.  Overall, the AJSN fell 448,000, as follows:




Compared with a year before the AJSN is almost 300,000 lower, with almost exactly that amount due to a drop in official unemployment.  Otherwise, the largest changes were in those reporting they wanted to work but did not search for it in the previous year, down 269,000 for a latent demand reduction of 215,200, and in those who fall through the cracks, the non-civilian, institutionalized, and unaccounted for, up almost 1.5 million since February 2016 and thus expectable to absorb about 150,000 more positions. 


There is no doubt about the strength of this data.  February was the best month in years, with its advance unusually broad-based.  The AJSN went along with that, with its large improvement completely meaningful as similar numbers of people usually work in January and February.  The only bad news is that another interest rate hike is now almost certain – however, if it is small, the economy can take it.  As for the turtle, he took another step forward – and even stretched in the process.   

Friday, March 3, 2017

Robots and Jobs: Scary Pizza and Way Beyond

For those who think robots won’t cut many jobs – and we’ll meet a couple of them here – how about “a new pizza delivery truck equipped with 56 ovens and staffed by just one employee, whose only tasks are driving the truck, slicing the pizza, and delivering it to the doorstep”?  Zume Pizza out of Mountain View in Silicon Valley is doing just that, per The Christian Science Monitor on October 2.  And it started in 2016, not 2036.

What views have we heard about robots since then?  Futurist Elon Musk came out for a guaranteed income, not now but eventually (CNBC, November 4), saying that “there is a pretty good chance we end up with a universal basic income, or something like that, due to automation.”  The New York Times also made the distinction between that and globalization, in Claire Cain Miller’s December 21st compendium of workers’ stories “The Long-Term Jobs Killer Is Not China.  It’s Automation.” 

While foreign employees have replaced Americans and will continue to do so, technology is more responsible for work going away.  That correct conclusion of Miller’s was strengthened if not explicitly echoed in “Robots Are Coming to Take Your Job” (Fox Business, December 29, credited to Fool.com).  This investment-focused piece mentioned what is shaping up as one of the most commonly implemented automation areas this year, used by the pizza company above, McDonald’s and Starbucks per this article, and widely publicized this week as soon to arrive at Wendy’s, the use of apps and kiosks instead of counter workers to receive food orders.  It should take no more than a year for companies diligently refining this technology to find that the clear majority of customers, even without phones, will prefer to order this way.

The best thing about “The Robot Revolution Will Be the Quietest One” (Liu Cixin, The New York Times, December 7) was its intriguing title.  Otherwise, we didn’t need Cixin, a nine-time winner of China’s highest science fiction writing award along with a Hugo, to tell us what’s here, even if he said “it’s my duty.”  We already know that “the robot revolution has begun” and that driverless vehicles will replace various jobs, and it is still wrong to say that “car ownership is likely to become nearly obsolete.”  (The people who believe that should take a drive, automated or otherwise, into a truly rural area and see how little traffic there is.)  It wasn’t news even in December that artificial intelligence has great potential but is still almost completely in the future.  Cixin does get points for noting that people not needing to work may have something in common with old-time “aristocrats” who “have often spent their time entertaining and developing their artistic and sporting talents while scrupulously observing elaborate rituals of dress and manners” – that’s a form of futurist Herman Kahn’s idea of quaternary activity, as described in his now 41-year-old The Next 200 Years – but it’s not mentioned enough.

On the other hand, how quickly will these changes occur?  Steve Lohr’s “Robots Will Take Jobs, but Not as Fast as Some Fear, New Report Says” (The New York Times, January 12), concerns an excellent recent McKinsey Global Institute study.  The findings of the research include that “what is technically possible is only one factor in determining how quickly new technology is adopted” (time lag, cost-effectiveness, and high early prices being only three reasons), and that in the “near-term” many more jobs will be changed than eliminated (and in what we might call the medium-term, positions will go away as human workers take the nonautomatable tasks from multiple jobs).  The McKinsey study named “natural language processing” as a great facilitator of employment losses, and said, again correctly, that “the jobs of America’s 1.7 million truck drivers” are not, driverless technology or not, “in imminent peril.”  The article implied, rightly once more, that delayed automation effects should not fool us into thinking they won’t happen, as, eventually, almost all work which can be quantified into algorithms will be endangered.

These conclusions would have been useful in influencing Jay Wacker’s views in a Forbes piece released only six days later, “How Much Will AI” (artificial intelligence) “Decrease The Need For Human Labor?”  Wacker, an “ontology architect,” was asked to comment on the title’s subject, and came up with too much wrong.  Saying that “generally, other professions grow to fill the loss” does not recognize that we know of no major phase of work beyond services.  “Computer, mathematical, engineering, and science occupations” don’t look like a “growth industry,” but rather areas vulnerable to both automation and globalization.  The vast reduction in number of agricultural jobs does not assure the remaining ones.   When robots can’t make up a hotel room, I doubt that “robots and AI will decrease the need for cleaning.”  He also failed to distinguish between jobs rating to go away within the next few years and those almost certain to be lost by, say, the mid-2030’s, which would tell us why driving positions are not yet “imperiled” in the same sense that warehouse workers, which Wacker mentioned in the next sentence, already are.

A February 20th Washington Post editorial, “No, Robots Aren’t Killing the American Dream,” landed somewhere between these two last pieces.  It pointed out that people have been concerned about losing work to automata for centuries, and “that today’s fear of robots is outpacing the actual advance.”  From there, though, the article went into a rather fuzzy advocacy of liberal talking points, in particular unions, “a robust federal minimum wage” (why federal?), and even “legislation to foster child care.”  How these requirements could get jobs to return, or even slow their departure, is beyond me.


We finish with Inc.com’s February 21 “Bill Gates’s Plan to Deal with Job-Stealing Robots:  Just Tax Them.”  Yes.  But let’s go with what I wrote half a decade ago, that we should factor the number of jobs created or maintained into corporate tax rates, so that, for example, restaurant chains employing hundreds would, all other things being equal, pay much less than law firms with fewer than a dozen.  Yet the image of an automaton, such as my toy John Robot, getting a W2 and paying taxes (would they be charged for Social Security as well?) injects some badly needed humor.  Which, yes, we can use.  

Friday, February 24, 2017

Trump and Jobs: A First Presidential Look

What will President Donald Trump do about employment?  Despite how much has been said, by him but to a much greater extent on his behalf, we know very little. 

That is not only because of his extremely chaotic nature and his well-established tendency to lie, but also because it is way too early to know.  There is a reason why the first serious assessments of presidents are done after they have been in office 100 days – it takes that long for them to find their footing, to talk with people in both legislative houses, and to get a realistic picture of what they can and cannot do.  We may also not know much before then what concessions Congress will want from him, and what key senators and representatives will request to be added to laws he wants to pass.  We don’t have much help from commentators, who, if on the left, are mostly only repeating concerns they have had about him since before his election, and, if on the right, are finding their own positions between supporting him and holding back in favor of true conservatism instead. 

Thus, we are reduced to reading tea leaves.  Some people, such as stock investors, expect good things, probably from Trump’s almost certain attempts to cut taxes on those with the most income and net worth.  In some cases, employers have seemed scared to announce job cuts, and others have re-publicized upcoming hiring increases.  Most of their business moves have nothing to do with Trump, such as Amazon’s long-in-the-works promise to add 100,000 full-time American positions by the end of next year, “as bricks-and-mortar retail crumbles” (The New York Times, January 12th), “but at what cost?” (USA Today, January 13th). 

What pertinent things did our president propose before he was elected?  Per “A look at Trump’s economic proposals” (USA Today, November 9th), there were many of them.  He wanted to reduce income tax rates, the highest one to 33%, and eliminate gift and estate levies.  He would slash corporate rates from 35% to 15%, and cap small business income taxes at the same level.  Trump also advocated a wide-range of protectionist laws, most spectacularly 45% and 35% Chinese and Mexican import tariffs.  He would increase forgiving of student loans, offer new child-care tax credits, and, surprisingly, mandate six paid maternity-leave weeks.  He wanted no federal minimum-wage increase.  Trump asked for Obamacare to be repealed, but backed a $1 trillion infrastructure proposal that, though it would never approach the 13 million jobs he said it would create, would generate a lot of them.          

On the prospects for these things being accomplished over the next four years, we do know a little more now than then.  With Republicans controlling both houses, tax rates are likely to go down, though probably, since conservatives care more than Trump seems to about the financial consequences, not as much as he would like.  The tariffs will be debated, and could come out either way.  The student loan and child care measures would be good bargaining chips for Democratic support – if this president can show ability to work with Congress instead of only trying to dictate to it.  Almost day by day after the election he backed off further from his pledge to end Obamacare, though that still could happen.  The infrastructure project would seem in the abstract to have strong bipartisan support, but some on the right are against it, and we will hear plenty from them, on this and other issues, over the next year.

When looking at what could be accomplished over the next four years, we must also consider another possibility, peculiar to Trump.  As of yesterday evening, the prediction market predictwise.com gave him 20%, 15%, and 11% chances of leaving office in 2017, 2018, and 2019 respectively.  Sportsbook.ag, an offshore betting facility which allows, as American casinos do not, wagers on outcomes determined outside the rules of games or sports, had the odds only 27 to 20 in favor of Trump finishing a full term.  An early departure, with chances too significant to be ignored, would precipitate a Mike Pence presidency, with clear expectations of conservative Republican governance.  In particular, that could, or could not, mean an end to the protectionism Trump proposed. 


Other major things could also happen.  A trade war, or even a shooting war, with other large countries could change what Congress is willing to pass.  Negative world-leader reactions to Trump could distort job-related outcomes.  And of course there is the standing possibility of a recession, which last happened eight years ago.  These also mean an unusual amount of uncertainty.  We will know much more, though, by April 30th

Friday, February 17, 2017

On the Job: Three Months of Choosing Good Ones, Getting Them, Hating Them, and Containing Them

Whatever your work status, something has come out recently for you to think about.

In Northeast Pennsylvania Business Journal’s November 2016 Dave Gardner interview of Maurice Flurie, “CEO:  The trades are booming,” Flurie, who runs “state-wide cyberschool” Commonwealth Charter Academy, described a disconnect between the jobs for which public schools are preparing their students and actual marketplace needs.  He did not fall into the tired and incorrect view that employers deserve no blame for their unfilled below-market-rate-paying openings, but instead focused on teaching pre-high-school students entire careers, not only considering differing aptitudes but fully recognizing the value of skilled trades.  I have advocated those in construction, as demand for them will stay high in general, and see as the only concerns what can be up-and-down hiring and confusion with manufacturing positions having much poorer long-term prospects.

Also on career selection, The Economist, which has disappointed me recently in employment-related matters, did much better in their The World in 2017 special issue.  In “Apply within,” author Tom Standage only wrote up our Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasted jobs rate through 2024, but those projections showed more depth than those made before.  The top position, expected to provide twice as many opportunities as now, was wind turbine service technician, far ahead of second-place occupational therapy assistant.  After that, not until eighth place does one with which I disagree, statistician, appear.  The others follow my principles in 2013’s Choosing a Lasting Career remarkably closely:  giving best prospects to healthcare-related professionals other than physicians; a great emphasis on jobs that must be done locally and in person; a #10 rating for the position I named first overall, physician assistant; and avoiding currently good but dangerously vulnerable occupations such as pharmacist and computer programmer.  Kudos to the BLS for their pronouncement and to Standage and The Economist for educating us about it.

On December 16th, a Washington Post Jeffrey J. Selingo opinion piece asked “Why are so many students failing to find good jobs after college?”  I could almost completely dispose of it by answering “because the permanent jobs crisis means there are too many workers chasing too few jobs,” but the article brings up a few items worthy of other note.  I was surprised that as recently as 2005 the top motivation for incoming UCLA students was to “learn about things that interest me” – I had thought that the vocationalists, who seemed to win that war in the late 1970s, were still in the majority at least nationally.  According to other studies Selingo uncovered, fewer than 20% of students graduating 2010 or later found their university career centers helpful, rather stunning given such low official unemployment.  Selingo called on colleges to make use of federal 75% work-study subsidies by offering positions with skills more advanced than those typical for student-employee positions; whatever the solution, it is depressing to think how poorly university vocational help would be doing if we had another recession.

Just after Thanksgiving, Forbes career columnist Liz Ryan offered two lists for jobseekers and jobholders.  The second, “Ten Job-Search Habits to Break” (December 5), described how to stick to what she described as “the new-millennium approach using Pain Letters,” in which the applicant acts as a consultant, seeking out information on what the employer needs to improve, to show they can contribute effectively.  The behaviors Ryan recommends ending are using standard cover-letter language, describing career backgrounds instead of problem-solving examples, writing the likes of “results-oriented professional” or “motivated self-starter,” being obsequious in general, only waiting to answer questions in the interview, walking through an already submitted resume, and naming related experience, mentioning compensation levels, asking for approval, or trying to impress hiring managers.  All revolutionary but often justified, especially for people suspecting they may not have a real chance to be hired without it.

Ryan’s previous list, “The Top Ten Reasons People Hate Their Jobs” (November 29), put incentive for good work performances on employers’ shoulders, saying “motivation is a feature of the environment, not the people who work in it.”  Her in-effect checklist named the following as indications that organizational management may be falling short here:  employees “not respected as people at work”; people lacking both the correct tools for their jobs and ability to get them; apathy about personal lives; a supervisor unqualified or “a tyrant”; too many lies; no confidence in leadership; too much politics; being “underpaid and overworked”; inability to get their projects moving forward; and an atmosphere where employees “could get in trouble – or get fired – for almost any reason.”  Some are old and vague, but are indeed worthy of avoiding. 


That brings us to January 17th’s “Why America Needs the French Email Law,” written by Katie Denis in Pulse.  The title referred to the January 1st requirement in France that companies with at least 50 workers must name hours during which their employees cannot send (or answer) email messages.  We’re a long way from agreeing on some of the points Denis made, such as that “skipping vacation time doesn’t make you more valuable” or that we need to “appreciate power of downtime” – perception means a great deal, and innumerable corporate managers cannot tell the difference between work quality and quantity – but I agree that even if such a law were enacted in the United States, which it should not, it is positive that a major advanced country has actually done that.  There is not enough pressure on American employers to let their workers manage their own lives, and this law, applicable to them or not, will provide some.  It, along with the other five subjects here, was well worth publicizing.