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 na├»ve 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.  

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.