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  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.         

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