Friday, September 6, 2019

Friday AM: Some Jobs Numbers Still Improving, Some Advances Reversed, and AJSN Down 200,000 To 16.2 Million

This morning’s Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Situation Summary was another mixed bag.  The headline number of net new nonfarm positions didn’t make its published 158,000 projection and turned in 130,000, close to what we need to cover population increase.  Seasonally adjusted unemployment remained, for the third straight month, at 3.7%.  The unadjusted version dropped 0.2%, mostly due to the typical difference between July and August, to 3.8%.  The adjusted number of jobless people fell 100,000 to 6.0 million, with those out for 27 weeks or longer holding at 1.2% and those working part-time for economic reasons, or working short-hours jobs while seeking thus far unsuccessfully full-time ones, gave up its June and July improvements and is now back at 4.4 million.  The two measures showing how common it is for Americans to be working, the labor force participation rate and the employment-population ratio, each gained 0.2%, with the former having its third straight improvement, to reach 63.2% and 60.9% respectively.  After a neutral month, average private nonfarm hourly wages came in at 13 cents more per hour than the previously announced result, and are now at $28.11.

The American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, the Royal Flush Press metric showing how many additional positions could be quickly filled if all knew that getting one would be routine and easy, went down 207,000, as follows:

The largest AJSN changes over July were those unemployed, cutting 317,000 from the total, followed by those discouraged and not wanting work at all, offsetting much of that with worsenings of 89,000 and 54,000.  The share of latent demand from those officially jobless fell to 34.5%, matching May’s outcome. 

Overall, how did we do?  The net effect was modest, with some measures, specifically the employment-population ratio and the labor force participation rate, continuing to improve, and others, such as the count of those working part-time for economic reasons, losing what I had hoped were sturdier gains.  With better results so common, the lukewarm – and that’s what it is, not the likes of “poor” or “skimpy” – 130,000 jobs gain is no cause for concern.  As there is so much latent demand, the wage improvement is nothing to take for granted.  We’ll continue to track the trends, and see which are real and which, as most of them these days, are only fluctuations.  In the meantime, though, the turtle took a tiny but real step forward.  

Friday, August 30, 2019

Glaciers, Gondolas, and Slot Machines: Attracting Tourism Jobs Means Making Tough Choices

There may be no area of employment more modern, substantial, and promising than catering to people traveling for pleasure.  For all the beefing about air travel conditions, fares are lower in constant dollars than they have ever been.  Worldwide prosperity, on average, is way up.  A shift from valuing objects to valuing experiences means that more and more people travel.  And the rise of the 1% has opened up a new high tier.

With that said, here are three places where that has not worked out as planned.  The first was featured in Peter S. Goodman and Liz Alderman’s August 25th New York Times “Iceland’s Purple Planes Are Grounded, and With Them, Its Economy.”  The piece, about a remarkably steep fall in that country’s number of visitors from discounter WOW going out of business, drew this immediate reaction from me:  Wait a minute!  Wasn’t it just yesterday that Icelanders were complaining about too much tourism?  Word was that visitors, often ill-mannered (of course), were overtaxing their delicate ecology, taking up too much Reykjavik space, preventing locals from getting hotel rooms when they themselves traveled, and so on.  And now “the sudden shortage of Americans – widely celebrated as a free-spending people – is bemoaned by merchants of Viking-themed tourist tchotkes (sic), by whale watching tour operators and by real estate agencies.”  Oh well.

The problem I have always sensed with Iceland’s tourist industry – and I have been there four times – is its ambivalence.  Some would like to make their country, the size of Kentucky with one-fourth the population of metropolitan Louisville, as close to an environmental preserve as sanely possible.  Others see its ample open spaces as opportunities to add industry and other businesses to help their standard of living.  It has often seemed gratuitously high-end to me, with a lack of bed and breakfasts and other low-priced non-hostel hotel rooms, little fast food, and sit-down restaurant meals seeming to start at about US$28 per person.  Except for the fine Bonus supermarket chain and a competitor or two, prices in stores will surprise you.  To sell more Eric the Red refrigerator magnets they can cut their $10 price in half with business-friendlier public policies… if they decide that’s what they want.

The opposite problem has plagued Venice.  Spearheaded by cruise ship passengers spending far less per capita than other visitors, they have just plain had too many – 36 million international ones alone, or 138 per permanent city resident, in 2017.  With demand for related goods and services distorting the business atmosphere the city runs the real risk of becoming a theme park, with a thousandth glass-animal shop pricing out the likes of a dry cleaner or an insurance agency.  Normally supply and demand would kick in, with hotel rooms and restaurants charging more, but with waterborne visitors not using much of either they have been able to clog the streets cheaply.  Two years ago the city banned large ships from docking, and next year they start a three-euro entrance fee for those not staying there, but those will only solve part of the problem – watch this classic destination for more developments.

The third tourism issue is here in the Catskills.  Locals clearly wanted the Resorts World casino, which, at my visit last year looked modern, busy, and full of people gambling, but it is losing so much money that the major stockholders are resorting to declaring bankruptcy, while staying open, to stiff its lenders and stay, at least for a while, in business.  Why has it done so poorly while seeming so good in principle and in real life?

One problem is that Resorts World, with what was a $129 per night hotel-room minimum, became yet another place failing to realize that one thing making Las Vegas great was its quantity of cheap accommodations, facilitating longer stays translating into more gambling.  Its publicity efforts have always seemed inadequate, without any massive push to bring in New York-area Jews with good childhood Catskills memories, and an apparently failed effort by the Malaysian owner to attract high-rolling Asians.  Prices such as the $16 nachos can also cut back repeat visits.  And, to keep bored patrons interested, like any other large casino it requires massive periodic infrastructure spending, meaning it needs way-high amounts of business just to break even. 

However, I suspect the largest problem is something else.  People came to 1950s and 1960s Las Vegas to gamble.  They would play, play, and play.  Long hours, as close to around the clock as they could stand.  Some thought they had systems assuring wins, but few people did that – it wasn’t called Lost Wages for nothing.  Gambling’s appeal is totally different now.  The GI and Silent generations forming not only the backbone but most of the body of Las Vegas punters have been replaced by Generation X and Millennials, who care for gambling vastly less.  Casinos are all over the country now, and the novelty is no more.  Instead of tacitly encouraging problem gambling, people who cannot handle it see a variety of announcements offering them help, including the option to bar themselves.  Roulette, blackjack, craps, and slot machines, after 70 years still the mainstays, are all old hat now.  It has become the norm for people to both know intellectually and feel emotionally that they cannot win over the long term.  Low-stakes entry points, such as $20 buy-in poker and nickel slots that don’t try to get people to play 20, 50, or 100 coins at a time, have gone away.  The clank of coins into metal trays is a thing of the past.  Despite, or maybe even because of, the proliferation of American and world casinos, gambling itself is in big trouble – the choice here is how casinos can change to accommodate that.

Obviously, tourism will continue to grow – but in what ways?  We will see.  Not all the jobs it generates will remain.  We wish it the best, but it may have many more hard times ahead.

Friday, August 23, 2019

Work Meritocracy: American Cradle-To-Retirement Competition

Yes, the United States has a culture.  For those of us living here it may seem transparent, but there are ways in which we part company with even our most comparable countries.  One of them is our love of competitions, which are not only central to our educational and vocational experiences but pop up in group recreational activities.  There is something about needing to know who is the best that gets our interest.

While we may bewilder Canadians, western Europeans, Australians, and northeast Asians by competing at choral singing, ranch chores (rodeo), and even ballroom dancing, we are taking that to a further extreme by inventing entire lives based around it – and those choosing that regimen are the worse off.  That is the thesis of Daniel Markovits’s “How Life Became an Endless, Terrible Competition,” in the just-released September issue of Atlantic. 

Markovits, a Yale law professor whose article is planned to be released in book form, exaggerated – most Americans know little firsthand about the things of which he wrote.  But for those regretting not being in what has been called the 1%, he offered a look at the underside of how they got and stayed there.  And it’s not pleasant.

Have you wondered about the lives of those with the half-million-dollar-and up salaries in “finance, management, law, and medicine”?  Per Markovits, they now split off in preschool, when they prepare to “apply to 10 kindergartens, running a gantlet of essays, appraisals, and interviews,” which is repeated with “elite middle and high schools” that “commonly require three to five hours of homework a night,” all focusing not on “experiments and play” but instead on “the accumulation of the training and skills, or human capital, needed to be admitted to an elite college and, eventually, to secure an elite job.”  From there, these one-percenters “work with unprecedented intensity,” for example, if they are large-firm lawyers, producing 2,400 annual billable hours (calling for 70-hour weeks), or, if bankers, putting in 20-hour day-and-night combinations.  Those ultimately successful, per sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild, survive a “final elimination” by being “still able to maintain a good mental set, and keep their family life together.”  And eventually if they want they can retire, after which they will probably spend much time, money, hope, and effort helping their descendants do as they did.

Although this program, which despite Markovits’s use of the word, is not truly meritocratic – per my post earlier this year with oboes and Guatemala in the title, the type of merit is also critical – it causes problems.  It endangers three areas most would call key to a generally successful life:  happiness, sex, and longevity.  It may provide its practitioners with net worths unknown without entrepreneurism or large inheritances, but with, until the work ends, little opportunity to be enjoyed.  Per the author, it forces even very young people to stick to their preordained plans at the expense of exploration and self-discovery, in the process “exploiting” themselves and “impoverishing” their “inner lives.” 

Of such choices for themselves and their children, it is easy to see the appeal, especially for Americans, who, even those of lower family education and incomes, have long heard about “making something” of themselves, and, if particularly smart or capable, of getting to “the top.”  Winning such long, massive competitions can provide powerful self-esteem and eliminate any fear of having failed or underachieved.  Being without any real possibility of financial failure has its advantages.  However, I suspect the truly smart people, with vision of wider scope, know that excelling in this way is not the best they can do.  There is more to life than that, and those in the tracks described here are missing it, completely and permanently. 

Evaluating our success is open to great debate.  Even if we agree on who was better than whom and by how much, one simple truth still applies:  those winning rat races are still rats. 

Friday, August 16, 2019

What You Need to Know About Career-Related Instruction

The August Northeast Pennsylvania Business Journal had a 16-page section headlined its “2019 Adult Education Guide.”  It presented articles provided by a variety of learning-program providers explaining what courses they had and what they could do for those taking them.  They ranged from The Wright Center for Graduate Medical Education (I didn’t know there even was such a thing), master’s degrees at East Stroudsburg University, “straight-to-career training certificates” from Northampton Community College, a cybersecurity program, and Johnson College’s diesel truck technology credential.  Here are 11 observations on this career-related area.

First, as above, there are a lot of programs and they vary widely.  The target area of this 33-year-old publication has fewer than a million people, and is probably roughly nationally representative as to economic strength, diversity of jobs, formal education levels, and so on.  A similar compendium for the New York area could be in the hundreds of pages.

Second, such programs are best when the school and the hirers are connected and the latter can strongly influence the former, by relating honestly what program graduates need to be chosen.  The gap between becoming qualified and actually getting a job can be huge, and responsibility for making it as small as possible ultimately falls on the schools.  Third, the in-field getting-hired rate is the most important statistic such organizations can offer.  Fourth, with those two things said there is nothing wrong with for-profit course providers as such. 

Fifth, those considering further instruction need to analyze the target field, including its current state, its prospects several years out, and its long-term viability.  Choosing a Lasting Career is now six years old, but anyone considering putting a large chunk of their lives and money need to look at the same factors as in that book, namely resistance to robotics, susceptibility to improvements in computing and connectivity, chance for a good living wage, family and outside activities compatibility, local-boundness, typical work conditions, and more. 

Sixth, while certificate programs should zero in on specific competencies, overly specific bachelor’s degree programs can fail when narrowly targeted objectives do not materialize.  Nobody expects coursework in air conditioning repair to provide guidance for a life’s worth of thinking, but conventional four-year experiences should do just that. 

Seventh, community colleges are good choices, as they provide well-focused training at bargain prices. 

Eighth, while employment-focused training is often excellent for individuals, as a matter of public policy it is ineffective for cutting joblessness, as it tends only to change who gets work, rather than the total number of people thus successful.

Ninth, students need to consider where the jobs are in their fields of interest, and know if they will need to relocate.

Tenth, nonspecific career credentials, such as M.B.A. programs, usually have very weak connections with employers, so those considering them should determine first if they will be sufficient, when combined with their existing assets, to get them working in the field they want. 

Eleventh, as I advised people as a business professor, anything called “adult education” requires participants to act that way.  College for 18 to 22-year-olds serves purposes other than learning and credential acquisition, but these programs really don’t.  Students should always or almost always attend classes, do assignments in good faith, and complete all work required.  Such things as all-night agonizing over three to five-page papers need to come to an end.  Adult learners will find that if they focus on their assignments and complete them, that will be good enough if not perfect, and they will then pass their courses and complete their objectives.  That is why they are spending their time, effort, and money to be there.  If people get the most from adult learning programs, they may benefit greatly – accordingly, If such training is at all suitable and clearly leads to jobs, I strongly recommend it. 

Friday, August 9, 2019

Autonomous Vehicles: What’s Causing the Delays, and How They Can Get Off the Dime

Per recent posts, the past year has been rather disheartening for those of us who think we need progress on self-driving cars.  What has been the problem, and how can they get moving again?

The best article describing the state of that field so far came out in the July 17th New York Times.  Neal E. Boudette’s “Despite High Hopes, Self-Driving Cars are ‘Way in the Future’,” started by saying that “a year ago, Detroit and Silicon Valley had visions of putting thousands of self-driving taxis on the road in 2019, ushering in an age of driverless cars,” which hasn’t and won’t happen.  The piece’s sources blamed the lack of progress on being able to deal with “all kinds of crazy things on the road,” and Boudette also named small related news items, recapped the fatal accident, quoted evidence of Elon Musk’s delusional hubris, and then got the article to justify itself by naming the need for “micro maneuvers” such as understanding other drivers are looking for a parking space so should not be followed closely and saying that “the technology is available now to create a car that won’t hit anything,” even if it would “constantly slam on the brakes.” 

From what I have read and not read, I see five reasons why progress has almost ground to a halt.  First, not only overreaction to that single death, but expected overreaction, as the firms seemed to pull back soon thereafter without receiving much actual pushback.  Second, companies’ testing has, thus far, not emphasized creating algorithms mimicking the thoughts of actual drivers.  Third, as I have read recently about artificial intelligence, massive efforts such as this often go through slow stretches in research intensity, which author and professor Nick Bostrom called a “winter,” or “period of retrenchment” – we clearly have another one here.  Fourth, the legal and regulatory climate, despite the July 31st Yahoo Finance report that “U.S. Congress seeks to jump start (a) stalled self-driving car bill” to allow them more, has been intimidating if not actively discouraging, perhaps to the point where companies have focused excessively on being stopped.  Fifth, there has been insufficient emphasis on implementation – I saw that when working with information technology technicians more comfortable keying on the clean and promising future than on dealing with the grit of making things actually work, and recognize, or at least strongly suspect, it again. 

What, then, are the solutions?  Here are six.  One, researchers need to catalog what Boudette called “corner cases,” where people disobey traffic laws, and concentrate on solving them.  Two, it is time for them to quantify how drivers actually think when faced with these problems.  In Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano, those making automated barbers copied the exact movements of people doing that job – let’s do that here.  Three, they should implement Boudette’s “car that won’t hit anything” and see where it could be used – the technology could progress from there.  Four, we need more driverless shuttle buses in limited, well-defined settings, which is about the lowest-hanging fruit actually constructive.  Five, manufacturers and others should push for more freedom and more places to use these vehicles, which may, given the recent Congress event, be easier than they think. 

Sixth, and finally, those on the side of this technology need to do interviews, give presentations, write articles, issue news releases, do radio spots, appear on TV shows, and put in Internet advertising, all emphasizing the potential for slashing the 30,000 annual driver-caused American deaths along with other autonomous-vehicle advantages and showing how close we really would be if we can tolerate a few more accidents.  There were times when it was more acceptable for efforts thought of as American projects to cause tragedies along the way.  Eighteen people have died during space flights and 96 perished during Hoover Dam’s construction, not to mention such numbers as over 400,000 United States soldiers killed in World War II.  It is time for us to consider driverless vehicle implementation necessary for the country, and give it the same status.  Then, as we know about our countrymen and from our history, it will succeed.

Friday, August 2, 2019

July Employment Data Almost All Positive – AJSN Says Latent Demand Unchanged at 16.4 Million Jobs Behind

According to two published new-positions projections, this morning’s Bureau of Labor Statistics data wasn’t supposed to do anything spectacular either way.  It didn’t, but its improvements were remarkably broad-based. 

We added 164,000 net new nonfarm positions, within a few thousand of the predictions.  The seasonally adjusted unemployment rate sat at 3.7% while the unadjusted one went up 0.2%, half or so of that due to typical differences between June and July, to 4.0%.  The adjusted jobless number gained 100,000 to 6.1 million.

From there, though, everything got better.  Those out for 27 weeks or longer lost a surprising one-sixth and is now at 1.2 million.  The count of those working part-time for economic reasons, or keeping short-hours positions while seeking longer ones, lost over 300,000 and is now at 4.0 million, 700,000 less than only three months ago.  The two measures of how common it is for Americans to be working, the labor force participation rate and the employment-population ratio, each gained a significant 0.1% and are now at 63.0% and 60.7% respectively.  Average private nonfarm payroll hourly earnings were up 8 cents, significantly over inflation, to reach $27.98. 

The American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, the measure of how many additional positions could be quickly absorbed if all knew they were available, was almost unchanged, as follows:

Increased latent demand from those officially unemployed, pushing the AJSN up 156,000, was more than offset by drops in almost every category of marginal attachment, most importantly those wanting to work but not looking for it over the past year and those claiming discouragement, down 154,000 and 144,000.  Between higher unemployment and lower inputs elsewhere, the share of the AJSN from official joblessness is now 36.0%, up 1.5% from June.  Compared with a year before the AJSN has improved 400,000, with the largest falls in official unemployment and the two marginal attachment groups just mentioned.

Overall, how good was July?  I am happier with the smaller groupings’ improvements than I am unhappy with higher unemployment.  We need those pools to continue to improve, as they remain underpublicized and are all too capable of harboring people who would rather be on the job.  Gains in the employment-population ratio and the labor force participation rate indicate a stronger than appearing economy, and we got both this time.  The AJSN did not get in on the act, but is still maintaining a good distance from what it was 12 months ago.  No records were set this time, but none were supposed to – the turtle took another step forward. 

Friday, July 26, 2019

Assorted Jobs Topics: Five Shots, All Lined Up

Straight, no chaser:

The May 18th New York Times included KJ Dell’Antonia’s “How High School Ruined Leisure.”  The author is a novelist, but this story was hardly fiction.  It showed us more about how we are implementing what in the 20th century could have been called the Japanese model:  very difficult high school followed by much easier college, and subsequent professional opportunities often circumscribed by the university attended.  Dell’Antonia correctly described what were once called extracurricular activities, often in sports or music, as the students’ de facto careers, making these ventures no longer “leisure,” and could have cited Mark Twain describing work as “whatever a body is obliged to do.”  After the former great structuredness of their lives, young people often arrive in college with no idea of what they really like to do when taking a break from preparing for their futures, so will need to develop that life skill.

A question for 2019, “What even is a data-obsessed, project-juggling digital ninja?,” was the subtitle of a piece in the June Atlantic.  Here in “America’s Job Listings Have Gone Off the Deep End,” author Amanda Mull chronicled “the obnoxious state of the modern job listing,” with perplexing and intense-seeming requirements of which the above are only a few examples.  I stopped off after a page or so to wonder if employers could really identify whether a prospective worker, or even someone on the job, was an “online warrior” or had “a passion for incredible customer service,” then saw the real problem with this sort of thing, that they are going to end up with a heavy share of the applicants they want the most, those young and male.  It is sad that, in an age where bogus accusations of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and so on are almost ubiquitous, the true discrimination here, until this article, has gone unnoticed.  This is old wine in a new bottle, with ever more shameless emphasis on workaholism, and, if as Mull finished, top salaries and flexible labor practices are still lacking, ultimately “few people” will “seem to want to do the duties of a rock star if they’re not going to get paid like one.”

Eric Ravenscraft, in the June 5th New York Times, broached an issue I have called a real problem with setting minimum legal pay rates, “What a ‘Living Wage’ Actually Means.”  He started with understatement, writing that “the definition” of that “can get muddy,” then told those somehow unaware that different geographical areas require different amounts of money.  The piece was biased toward a high base living standard, and did not touch the reality of people having varying wants or even needs, but I was glad to see this headline.

A June 6th Niskanen Center piece, the basis for a related Salon article, considered “The Economics of a Job Guarantee: Wage and Employment Effects.”  Author Ed Dolan might have been channeling my AJSN when he named as the first point in favor of assured employment “a gap between the number of people now working and the number who would work if jobs were available at a living wage.”  Also the “pay gap,” any difference between what employers are offering and the most they could, and “a public service gap,” or the value of tasks that people working such jobs would do above what they would cost.  Although Dolan, through his selection of sources, made some rather fanciful statements such as companies having “business models that require that their workers live in abject poverty” and “the minimum wage has little or no discernible effect on the employment prospects of low-wage workers,” he considered possible problems, such as a too-high guaranteed starting wage rate pulling away low-paid government workers, and acknowledged that, much or most of the time, the public service gap would be negative.  His muted conclusion that “there are many reasons to question how large a role guaranteed jobs should play” constituted an objection from the left, which does not bode well for this idea.

Did you know that, per The Motley Fool’s Daniel B. Kline, in USA Today on June 9th, “many Americans have had a work spouse”?  Kline used that phrase to describe strong workplace friendships with people of “the gender you’re attracted to,” which he found that 44% of men and a hair over half of women have had.  While most have told their romantic partners about their work spouses, many have also lied, and it has been common for such pairings to “lead to full-blown emotional affairs” and, not rarely, even to physical ones.  It is adaptive for people to form personal or semi-personal relationships at a place where people spend much of their time, but the real problem is that the closer and therefore more effective they are, the greater the danger.  So, unless you are unattached or your relationship is open, watch your step here. 

That’s it – no bar bill either.

Friday, July 19, 2019

The Next 11 Years in United States Jobs: McKinsey Looks at Automation

This past week I was thoughtfully informed of a report that came out earlier this month.  McKinsey Global Institute, and especially authors Susan Lund, James Manyika, Liz Hilton Segel, André Dua, Bryan Hancock, Scott Rutherford, and Brent Macon, issued “The future of work in America: People and places, today and tomorrow.”  Despite the more general title, the 28-page paper was limited to the projected effects of automation through 2030, but ended with a section framing courses of action. 

After an introduction in which the authors, to their great credit, mentioned the need to have “more inclusive growth” around the country, they presented five section titles to be fleshed out.  The first, “local economies have been on diverging trajectories for years,” when documented with assignment of almost every American city or its county into 13 “archetypes,” surprised me with how small the differences actually were, with the largest gap, between the 11 “small powerhouses” (e.g. Bend, Oregon and Charleston, South Carolina) and the about 1,000 widespread counties of “distressed Americana,” between a 16% 2007-2017 jobs gain and a 5% loss.  A chart showed the progression or regression of jobs in five of these groups, along with the overall average – while each lost positions between 2007 and 2009, the “high-growth hubs” and “megacities” rebounded and then some, but the poorest 1,000 have only a barely upward-sloping line from 2009 to 2017, showing that they had not recovered from the Great Recession.  One problem with the authors’ classification system is that city and county inclusion came from after-the-fact jobs progress, not original definitions, which accentuated differences; we could not have anticipated, for example, which 192 counties would be named “rural outliers” which “have found some success with tourism or mining and energy.”  Per the article, Americans are not relocating in large numbers for better job opportunities from the least prosperous places; that is probably for two reasons beyond the community-ties one the authors mentioned, that they could not anticipate which cities and counties would do the best, and that they were not confident that opportunities there would be long-lasting. 

The second section, “automation will not be felt evenly across places or occupational categories,” was mainly an updated view of the focus of my 2013 Choosing a Lasting Career and various works since then.  The authors said, correctly in my assessment, that “what lies ahead is not a sudden robot takeover but a period of ongoing, and perhaps accelerated, change in how work is organized and the mix of jobs in the economy.”  They also mentioned that while “less than 5 percent of occupations can be automated in their entirety, but within 60 percent of jobs, at least 30 percent of activities could be automated by adapting currently demonstrated technologies,” important since the largest mechanization threat to employment is not entire positions going away, but employers cutting workers by reorganizing workloads, automating portions where that is possible and leaving humans with the tasks machines cannot do.  I also add that mechanizing is often not as cost-effective in less populous areas with fewer opportunities, and so will often be slower there.  The authors held that “the hollowing out of middle-wage jobs” could continue, and forecasted “strong job growth in healthcare (yes), STEM occupations (I still disagree), creative fields (not sure), and business services (until individual ones become automatable).”  For better or worse, a chart showing mechanization exposure by field projected no effect from driverless vehicles.

Section 3, “in the decade ahead, local economies could continue to diverge,” dealt with new positions being concentrated, in particular with 60% of 2030 employment growth going to “25 megacities and high-growth hubs (e.g. Austin, Charlotte, and Las Vegas), plus their peripheries,” and included a projection that rural counties in general could see no net employment increase.  The fourth section, “less educated workers are most likely to be displaced, while the youngest and oldest workers face unique challenges,” found that those with high school or lower schooling are still the most vulnerable to automation.  One fine insight was that many of the jobs people have often used to start careers, especially in retail and food service, “are the very roles that automation could phase out,” and that older workers, heading toward retirement, will often be pushed their earlier.

The final segment, “local business leaders, policy makers, and educators will need to work together to chart a new course,” while necessarily unspecific, provided an outline of how to deal best with automation.  Its four subsections were: “connecting workers with new opportunities,“ mentioning somehow-cheaper urban housing, relocation tax credits, and “new digital tools” as solutions; “retraining workers and providing lifelong learning,” suggesting enlarging and geographically expanding skill-teaching programs (most likely with special emphasis on online and community college curricula);  “creating tailored economic development strategies to boost job creation” including the critical need for high-speed Internet access everywhere, and for areas to take stock of what assets they have; and “supporting workers,” not detailed much except for the idea of portable benefits, which is a dead letter for most low-income employees as they have few of any kind.  In a final paragraph, Lund et al. noted that “the challenge is not fighting against technology but preparing US workers to succeed alongside it.”

Overall, how do I evaluate “The Future of Work in America”?  It was excellent in general.  It had sober conclusions and estimates.  My disagreements were generally minor and expected.  While closely related to Choosing a Lasting Career, its audience was not workers but those influencing public policy.  It would have profited from addressing the gap between having specific job skills and actually being hired.  It could easily be expanded to book length, and further efforts could go in many different directions.  In the meantime, though, its strength at communicating and provoking thoughts about its overall message, which I took as “it’s a lot of work to get enough jobs,” means it belongs in the hands, or on the computers, of every pertinent city and county official in the nation. 

Friday, July 12, 2019

U.S. Soccer Team Pay Differences – Sex Discrimination Yet Again?

One topic I have written on several times is different average earnings between men and women.  My first such post was from March 2015, in which I explained that while most women had the same career attitudes as most men, the share of those making choices reducing their earnings was significantly greater, and a variety of statistics, such as 94% dying on the job being male, bore that out.  The piece, which has had over 6,000 views, is at  This January, hoping to get people to understand how the pattern could cause an illusion of heavier sex discrimination than exists, I released a fable putting the same situation into otherworldly terms, at 

Over the past several years, those writing on the income difference have, indeed, looked for other reasons.  Stephen J. Dubner’s “The True Story of the Gender Pay Gap,” (Freakonomics, January 7, 2016), was a compendium of possible alternative explanations, but including some constructive passages on less-known unfairness, such as behind-screen auditions increasing hiring of female symphony orchestra musicians.  My viewpoint came out in “Don’t Buy Into the Gender Pay Gap Myth” (Forbes, April 12th, 2016), in which, to show the entrenchedness of the perception of discrimination, author Karen Agness Lips added a story of “a group of 70 undergraduate women at Harvard,” when asked if they thought they would earn 78% of men’s pay, most indicated yes.  In the May 13th, 2017 New York Times, Claire Cain Miller opined that “The Gender Pay Gap Is Largely Because of Motherhood,” and named reasons among the 11 figures I had presented in the post above.  After a flurry of August-September 2017 writing about Google’s efforts to increase the share of women in technical positions (for example “Push for Gender Equality in Tech?  Some Men Say It’s Gone Too Far,” in the September 23rd New York Times), we had another piece similar to mine, in Mary Katharine Ham’s April 10, 2018 The Federalist “Equal Pay Day Hype Ignores The Facts and Women’s Feelings About The Workplace.”  Overall, some commentators are getting the message that even if two-thirds of women are getting 100% of men’s average earnings due to their willingness to put in as many hours, choose less comfortable and convenient jobs, work as late into life, and so on, the remaining one-third is more than enough to create the illusion that all women are routinely paid less.  

Yet, that is not all.  I have since seen many articles looking for pay-gap reasons beyond unfair treatment or differing choices, which is healthy.  On the other side, though, was a recent pack-journalism effort.  From the beginning of the Women’s World Cup soccer tournament, reporting of the United States Women’s National Team was intense and pervasive.  It surprised me, since the team was already familiar with success, having won the event three times, including its last running in 2015.  As the event progressed the stories became more and more political, focusing on how much the players earned instead of on their on-field skill, and after they again won it all the coverage became editorial, advocating paying them “equally” to the far-less-successful men’s team. 

There are problems with that.  In the July 8th Washington Post, Meg Kelly dug into the situation with “Are U.S. women’s soccer players earning less than men?”  She found three things not covered by others.  First was that the women’s and men’s teams are, strangely enough, hard to compare financially, as the teams have made “different collective-bargaining agreements,” which included men getting only performance and number-of-games bonuses and women receiving salaries but smaller bonuses.  Second, fully half of the income of the paying organization, the U.S. Soccer Federation, comes from sponsorships, which include television rights and are often sold “as a bundle,” with men’s and women’s teams both included.  Third, the World Cup’s parent company, Fédération Internationale de Football Association or FIFA, pays prize money to national groups for success, but its total amounts are $400 million for men and $30 million for women.

With the media blitz, it is certain that the USSF women’s team has gained fans.  Will they now be as lucrative as the men’s?  I doubt it.  Of three other sports in which the sexes have long played professionally and separately at high levels, tennis, golf, and basketball, men’s event attendances and TV audiences have always been much higher.  College basketball is not even as close.  There are certainly exceptions within countries, but we’ll see how much, and how quickly, the money wants to follow.  In the meantime, we can’t forget that jobs of all kinds pay according to the cash value of their employees.  That is not discrimination.   

Friday, July 5, 2019

June’s Employment Report: With Big Hiring, Looks Like No Recession, but AJSN, Up to 16.4 Million, Says Latent Job Demand is Still a Problem

As May’s job growth lagged, this morning’s Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Situation Summary was especially important.  A subpar gain in the number of Americans working, when results insufficient to cover population growth have long been rare, would mean two in a row.  But we didn’t get that.  We exceeded the published projections of 160,000 and 168,000 to add 224,000 net new nonfarm positions, putting us back on the beam.

Other numbers were mixed.  The adjusted unemployment rate edged up 0.1% to 3.7%, with the unadjusted figure seasonally way up, gaining 0.4% to 3.8%.  There are now 6.0 million adjusted jobless, up 100,000, including 1.4 million out for 27 weeks or longer which grew the same amount.  The count of those working part-time for economic reasons, or holding on to less than full-time positions while unsuccessfully seeking longer-hours ones, fell 100,000 to 4.3 million, an especially strong result following last month’s 300,000 decline.  The two measures of how common it is for Americans to be working, the labor force participation rate and the employment-population ratio, gained 0.1% and broke even, and are now at 62.8% and 60.6% respectively.  The average private nonfarm payroll wage matched last month’s slightly-above-inflation 9 cents per hour increase, and is now at $27.83.

The American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, the metric showing how many additional positions could be quickly filled if all knew that getting one was easy and routine, gained 800,000, as follows:

The AJSN’s increase, mostly due to the difference between May and June (it is not seasonally adjusted), came mostly from official unemployment, but was pushed along by more people reporting they wanted to work but did not look for it for a year or more.  The share of the AJSN from those technically jobless was 34.5%, up 2.8% from May’s record low and also a seasonal outcome.  Compared with June 2018, the AJSN is now half a million lower, almost completely from higher official unemployment. 

How did we do?  Clearly we’re about where we were a few months ago, with May’s poor net-new-jobs result now looking random or caused by temporary factors.  We’re still gaining positions, but more people are looking for them, with a 1.5 million drop in those claiming no work interest and more discouraged.  Once more, we can’t fail to notice that the categories of marginal attachment, the second through eighth rows on the chart above, have stopped improving.  Still, we have less to worry about than a month ago.  The turtle took a small step forward.    

Friday, June 28, 2019

Driverless Vehicles and Driving Jobs: 4th Annual Forecast

Autonomous vehicle technology implementation and commentary since our July 11, 2018 issue has been discouraging.  What effect has that had on its projected proliferation dates, and on future taxi and truck driving positions?

First, two recent articles on the state of the field.  Slate’s June 13th “How Close Are We to Self-Driving Cars, Really?” stunned me with a subtitle citing Chris Urmson, “who helped pioneer the technology at Google,” claiming “it could be 50 years before we see them everywhere.”  2069!  In the first paragraph, we got Urmson, interviewed by April Glaser, giving it “5 to 10 years” for “robots cruising down the road in a handful of cities and towns across the country” (2024-2029), and no less than 30 (2049) for them to be “everywhere.”  That’s a far cry from most attitudes we saw as recently as last year.  Urmson gave sober views, mostly a compendium of those in print in 2017, and added that maps for autonomous vehicles will need, instead of “where the Safeway is,” exact locations of stoplights, lanes, and right-of-way rules, and that at least some driverless vehicles should be cone-shaped “so you can see all the way around (them) really nearby.”  He had unfounded assumptions about people using much more mass transit, but even those fit in with the general idea I got, that we should be wondering if Urmson had been sleeping for two solid years. 

The other was Lawrence Ulrich’s June 20th New York Times “Driverless Cars May Be Coming, but Let’s Not Get Carried Away.”  Was he saying that’s what the same publication did 20 months ago when it published an entire magazine dedicated to the view that they were certain to happen soon?  After appropriately starting with Tesla’s Elon Musk’s ravings that autonomous taxis will be ubiquitous in 2020, Ulrich moved to sources saying that “none of us have any idea,” that “driver-free transport will begin with a trickle, not a flood” (even in cities and parts of same with great emphasis and full sanction?), named one prominent research director saying there is now a “trough of disillusionment,” and that “making a robocar so foolproof that consumers and automakers can trust it with their lives, including one-in-a-billion situations” (necessary even with those 30,000 American-driver-caused annual deaths?) is much harder than demonstrating the likes of ability to make emergency stops.  Ulrich then described Cadillac’s Super Cruise semiautonomous-software option, a solid Level 2 product now available on at least one model, which monitors driver alertness but allows pedal and steering-wheel-free driving “on major highways.” 

Otherwise, what has happened and, more importantly, what has not happened over the past year?  The two events are above – Super Cruise, and pessimistic commentators getting attention.  The following, though, did not occur, or if so were not publicized.  There was no more driverless implementation in ordinary, wide-open areas.  There was no substantial rollout of automated shuttles, even in tightly controlled settings.  There was no debate or pushback between those at the front of the field and national, state, or city regulators.  There was no widespread use of such vehicles even in the most accommodating and suitable areas, such as Phoenix.  There was no evidence of more aggressive implementation in already sanctioned parts of cities, such as San Francisco or Singapore, despite geofencing providing invisible but firm barriers.  There was no significant public relations effort to persuade or cut the fears of ordinary people on the technology.  I heard nothing about related activity in other countries.  And, despite all of these non-happenings, there was no sign of anything like a solid wall of individual resistance or any discussed consensus of regulatory disapproval.

Some things, though, stayed the same.  We still had Musk all by himself with hyperoptimism.  We had overemphasis on the one fatal accident.  We had consortia, alliances, and division of labor.  We had vaporware peddlers offering vague and unreasonable promises without product.  And we still had technical progress, amount strangely unpublicized.

Taking all this, accepting doubt milder than that from our interviewees above, and realizing that though Super Cruise means good things for Level 2 implementation in particular we are still in real trouble all over, we get:

As before, you can see the level definitions at, though the document here has been updated.  Expect more from Work’s New Age as this issue evolves. 

Friday, June 21, 2019

Robots and Artificial Intelligence: Four Viewpoints, Three Useful

Driverless cars are not the only area where less of substance is being communicated than a year or two ago.  This combined field, which is now hard to split into its two parts and within the decade may in most observers’ minds be fully merged, has over the past seven months only got four articles, beyond technical updates, on my desk.  What do they have to say?

The oldest, Salon’s November 23rd “Robots are making us less human, too: “Certain things essential to the democratic fabric erode,”” didn’t follow its title, but provided ideas worthy of discussion.  It was an interview of television director Maxim Pozdorovkin, whose work “The Truth About Killer Robots” ran on HBO November 26th.  The show considered “the ethical dimension of using robots in our everyday life,” with concerns based on the worst these automata have given us, from spectacular industrial accidents to one employer after their implementation going from 3,200 workers to 800, and on to workers’ general losses, as in Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano, of “self-satisfaction” and “a sense of becoming better.”  Pozdorovkin also claimed the shrinking likelihood of doing tasks such as banking and hotel check-ins with humans “undercuts the social fabric.”  These are real if sometimes here overstated problems – how can we best deal with them?

An intriguing characteristic of good artificial intelligence systems is that they throw away what we consider best practices and invent their own, which are often superior.  That was the underlying main point of “One Giant Step for a Chess-Playing Machine” (Steven Strogatz, The New York Times, December 26th.)  The piece discussed AlphaZero, described as “a deep-learning algorithm” as opposed to “the world’s strongest chess programs” which had a larger base of technical knowledge but lacked insight into unprogrammable “basic principles.”  AlphaZero, after it “played against itself millions of times and learned from its mistakes,” “crushed… the reigning computer world champion” in a hundred-game match in which it, though having 72 draws, won the remaining 28 and was thus undefeated.  That could only have been because it was developing its own ways of winning.  Of course, chess is only one opportunity for such self-directed thinking machines, of which AlphaZero constituted “humankind’s first glimpse of an awesome new kind of intelligence”; Strogatz mentioned “the great unsolved problems of science and medicine, such as cancer and consciousness; the riddles of the immune system, the mysteries of the genome.”  Scary, and we may be there before we know it. 

On the diametrically opposite side, we had “’AI could send us back to the stone age’: In conversation with the End Of The World” (Olivia Tambini, TechRadar, January 31).  This piece is really a summary of previously published work, some in this blog, about the dangers of “general intelligence” capability, such as AlphaZero above freed to solve the world’s problems.  We again, though with different words, got the Terminator autonomous goal-seeking problem, along with the results of an interview with author and philosopher Nick Bostrom, concerns similar to those named in the landmark now-19-years-old Bill Joy Wired paper “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us,” the black-box nature of high-level machine knowledge development, and the need to somehow program “benevolence.”  Nothing especially new here, but one of the world’s most suitable topics for repeating, re-repeating, re-re-repeating, and so on.

Last was Joanie Courtney’s April 5th Fox Business “The robots are here: New, unheard-of job titles signal growing occupations in digital age.”  There are not enough of those I have always said, and nothing here, especially Courtney’s efforts to blame employers’ insufficiently paying practices on workers, changed my view.  It is true that we should “encourage among future workers… the ability to keep learning and adapting,” though that is not a skill but a meta-skill, and that there is a gap between ordinary people becoming computer-theory experts and them responding to eras ending with the folded arms of 1980s autoworkers, but the “simulation training” Courtney advocates needs to be much more than that. 

Next week, on to autonomous vehicles and my annual projections. 

Friday, June 14, 2019

The Economist’s “Great Jobs Boom” – How Accurate Is That?

Three weeks ago, this venerable publication had quite a cover.  It had a headline “the great jobs boom,” and a cartoon showing dozens of people at work, from a travel hawker and a bus driver to a plant seller and a pizza deliverer.  The two connected articles’ shared thesis was that, despite some noted flaws, these are tremendous times for employment opportunities, that, although “a recession will kill it off… it deserves a little appreciation,” and that, in a positive sense, “the rich world’s jobs market could have more surprises in store.”  The pieces made numerous points, the most important of which I sorted into four categories:  pro-boom, anti-boom, good and underrated, and bad and oversold. 

Supporting the boom interpretation were three main ideas.  By an undisclosed definition, the gig economy, per the articles, only covers about 1% of American jobs.  Many government-released numbers, such as seasonally adjusted and unadjusted unemployment rates, net job growth, and number of people working, are better than they have been since Nixon was president.  Over the past ten years, we have had massively accumulating prosperity progress, and most recent months it has continued. 

On the other side, two points were negative.  Much of the 2010s jobs gains have been from women’s still continuing to join the labor force, which must reach a peak sometime.  Even The Economist admitted here that “middle skilled jobs are becoming harder to find,” contradicting the idea of huge growth almost by itself.  And, outside the articles, the American Job Shortage Number or AJSN still shows latent demand for 15.6 million additional positions, which, though off a third from the Great Recession’s top, seems only a solid improvement.

As well as the positive points above, several other things the unbilled authors mentioned point toward employment gains being more sustainable than we would otherwise think.  The first, “in the ten years to 2016 the cost of filling a vacancy fell by 80% in real terms,” attributed lower hiring costs to the ability of employers as well as potential workers to cheaply use job websites.  Second, what many have perceived as lagging average pay rates have helped.  Third, general progress, which I had thought would level off in 2017 or 2018, has continued, and next year we may well see sub-3.0% unemployment rates with average 200,000 monthly jobs gains.  Fourth, we have thus far had little business deregulation, which will probably change and allow even more positions.  Fifth, numbers found by the authors suggest that, as well as gig engagements, the overall count of low-paying jobs is not as high as what might be called a consensus view, and almost anyone under 80 knows that bad ones, actually in decline with higher low-end wages, are nothing new.  And sixth, the result of the most stunning statistic in the piece, that “in 2018, the employment rate among people of working age was the highest ever in Britain, Canada, Germany, Australia, and 22 other OECD countries,” could someday also, at least potentially, include central North America.

Not all underrated and less-known factors, though, favor our employment situation.  Minimum wage increases, though phased in and generally well-focused, have done hidden damage by cutting the number of jobs created, and scheduled raises are just getting started.  The Phillips curve, which previously showed a relationship between pay and employment, will continue being inoperative, as easily duplicatable products such as software and still-high latent demand for jobs mean productivity and low joblessness are no longer determinants.  The lack of immediate widespread automation danger may be gulling observers into thinking the robots will never come – but, with the next recession, we will know otherwise.  The colorful example contrasting 30%-unemployment Malaga’s clean roads and “buzzing” restaurants with 2.6% San Francisco’s “rough sleepers and empty lots” underscores the gap between front-line rates and how many more people would actually work if given the chance. 

As you can see, we have a mixed bag.  To resolve the problem, let’s go to a definition of “boom,” as provided in this case by Merriam-Webster: “a rapid expansion or increase:  such as… c:  a rapid widespread expansion of economic activity… d:  an upsurge in activity, interest, or popularity.”  We’re close here, but I don’t think this one qualifies, for two reasons.  First, it hasn’t been rapid.  Second, it just isn’t strong enough.  With over 15 million people still on the sidelines and a well-acknowledged shortage of positions suiting most workers’ ability and credentials, 2000s North Dakota it isn’t.  We are in relatively excellent times which as far as we know haven’t peaked yet, but after ten years it isn’t even “widespread,” and it’s hardly difficult to find people, especially among the 1.3 million who have been officially unemployed for over half a year, who know from experience that we don’t have a true boom.  So we can appreciate the help these times have given millions of jobholders, but let’s not get carried away.  Our jobs crisis is not over, and, low unemployment rates notwithstanding, sadly shows no signs of ending.  Eye-catching or not, that is the truth.

Friday, June 7, 2019

May’s Employment Data: An Off Month for Once, with American Job Shortage Number (AJSN) Up 350,000 to 15.6 Million

Expectations for this morning’s Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Situation Summary, if the identical-to-April Fox News projection of 185,000 net new nonfarm positions is a good indicator, were much the same as last time.  However, the results weren’t.  We gained only 75,000, and, while the other numbers maintained strength they didn’t improve as a group.  The front-line seasonally adjusted unemployment rate stayed at 3.6%, with the unadjusted one up 0.1% to 3.4%.  We had 5.9 million unemployed persons, with those out for 27 weeks or longer up 100,000 to 1.3 million.  The count of those working part-time for economic reasons, or seeking full-time positions while keeping smaller-hours ones, fell 300,000 to 4.4 million, reversing last month’s 200,000 worsening and then some.  The two measures of how common it is for Americans to actually be working, the labor force participation rate and the employment-population ratio, stayed the same at 62.8% and 60.6%.  Private nonfarm payroll wages matched the last result, gaining 6 cents per hour, a bit more than the latest, 2.0%, annual inflation rate, to reach $27.83.

The American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, the measure showing how many additional positions could be quickly filled if getting one were as easy as getting a pizza, gained 357,000, as follows:

Compared with April, changes in those unemployed and discouraged exactly cancelled out, leaving almost the entire variation to those saying they wanted to work but did not look for it in the past year, up over 400,000 with an AJSN effect of 325,000.  The number of people claiming no interest in jobs fell almost one million – that only cut the AJSN by 50,000, but showed us once again that membership for many in that category is fluid and negotiable.  That was almost exactly offset by the 164,000 rise in those wanting to work but being temporarily unavailable.  Year-over-year, the AJSN improved 340,000, with two-thirds of that from lower official unemployment and the rest from shrinkage in five other groups.  The share of the AJSN from unemployment as the BLS defines it reached another long-term low with 31.7%.

How did this month look?  Not terrible but hardly good.  Let’s call it sluggish.  The two participation ratios, one of which worsened 0.2% in April, did not bounce back and are still, fine employment times notwithstanding, about half a recession from reaching new post-1977 lows.  We can take the poor, well-below-population-increase-requiring net jobs gain, and the other metrics here are still generally looking good, but those are due to previous months, not May 2019.  Accordingly, the turtle stayed just where he was.

Friday, May 31, 2019

Around the Horn with Five Jobs-Related Articles

Six weeks, five New York Times pieces on employment.  What did they say?

The headline of the April 21st “Why ‘Find Your Passion’ Is Such Terrible Advice” didn’t match what Stephanie Lee wrote, which was that “we’re pretty bad at most things when we first try them.”  I don’t agree with the theory she cited that “our interests are relatively fixed and unchanging” – my life has been a roaring counterexample – or that passions will be extinguished without immediate success.  People with excessive expectations are generally those unenthusiastic anyway, and it is a perfectly valid choice to choose or accept a dull or unfulfilling work career for its value in supporting passionate activities elsewhere.

Ernie Tedeschi wrote a good summary of a positive trend in April 24th’s “Americans Are Seeing Highest Minimum Wage in History (Without Federal Help).”  The largest problem with the likes of a national $15 level is that in many parts of the country people can do well on less, but that does not mean that those in Manhattan or Hawaii cannot decide on a higher base rate there.  Per Tedeschi, 29 states and Washington, D.C, along with a “surge” in smaller governments, now mandate more than the national $7.25, and 89% of Americans paid the lowest legal amount are getting more.  While I do not support minimum wages, as market conditions require that workers are paid what they will accept, Seattle lawmakers are far more justified in accommodating constituents in their own expensive city than imposing destructive hikes on small Texas towns.

“Behind the Numbers:  How the Jobs Report Comes Together,” by Patricia Cohen on May 3rd, is a good reader on what goes into those usually first-Friday figures.  Not everyone sees that only one hour of weekly payroll effort makes someone “employed,” knows that in order to be “unemployed” one must look for work within the previous four weeks “regardless of any government benefits received,” recognizes that the “labor force” comprises only those working and those unemployed as here, and understands the significance of the employment-population ratio and the labor force participation rate.  Cohen mentions the two monthly data collection efforts feeding these numbers, the “Household Survey” and the “Establishment Survey” targeted to individuals and businesses respectively, and touches on seasonal adjustment which is used because times of the year differ. 

May 27th’s “It’s 2059, and the Rich Kids Are Still Winning” is the first of a set of scenarios provided by “science fiction authors, futurists, philosophers and scientists” presented in opinion article form.  Here an eminent figure in the first category, Ted Chiang, considered the limitations of DNA enhancement, that unless we have a pure meritocracy (exceedingly unlikely in 40 years) “genetic interventions” such as improving intelligence will not, as long as social and class factors are critically important, get us equality between those of different races, income, or anything else.  That is a real point, and while such technology may push us further to the real nature of human beings, it will not level outcomes across all groups, and intelligence for scientists, as with great height for NBA centers, may continue to be necessary for success but not at all sufficient.  Expect to see more from me on this series.

David Brooks, on the same date, followed up his tempting but irritating “weavers” column with “The Welfare State Is Broken.  Here’s How to Fix It.”  An improvement from advocating that people surrender their whole lives to American social-network efforts or conjure up opportunities to “make a difference” in one of the most rejecting fields there is, this time Brooks puts the onus on social service organizations to work together and focus on the related problems of individual families.  I take issue with his characterization of poverty as longer lasting now than in the past – when I was growing up, poor meant you might not have nearly enough food for years on end – but his documented idea of “life teams,” handling everything from immediate financial and employment crises to teaching more constructive choices, is a good one, along with giving isolated people, especially older ones, the chance to join groups which are “part social club, part concierge service and part self-help cooperative.” 

Next week, I will review the latest unemployment figures.  They will show a large piece of what is happening with our economy, but, per the above, not all.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Is it Time to Break Up Facebook?

Two weeks ago The New York Times printed a guest op-ed piece from pertinent company co-founder Chris Hughes, opining that “It’s Time to Break Up Facebook.”  It was long, printing out to 27 pages, but more or less made only the point that antitrust regulators have been remiss in allowing this firm, unquestionably now along with Amazon, Google, eBay, and Microsoft one of our technology industry’s answers to football’s Monsters of the Midway, to become a monopoly.  Hughes wrote that other Facebook creator and current CEO Mark Zuckerberg, though “still the same person I watched hug his parents as they left our dorm’s common room at the beginning of our sophomore year,” has influence “far beyond that of anyone else in the private sector or in government,” as he “sets the rules for how to distinguish violent and incendiary speech from the merely offensive, and he can choose to shut down a competitor by acquiring, blocking or copying it.”  As was also attributed to Microsoft, which garnered similar antitrust attention twenty years ago, Zuckerberg “used the word “domination” to describe our ambitions, with no hint of irony or humility,” an attitude bearing lush fruit in the form of a $500 billion de facto conglomerate including, in the form of WhatsApp, Messenger, and Instagram along with the marquee brand, four different billion-user-plus American-based social media platforms, with only YouTube in that size range not owned by them.  The Federal Trade Commission, perhaps swayed by the lack of user fees, allowed Facebook’s 2012 purchases of two of these firms which set up this situation, which now seems entrenched, and which Hughes maintained needs to end.  In the meantime, privacy issues, along with data restriction and manipulation facts and allegations, with Zuckerberg’s company draw more and more commentator attention.

So is a Standard Oil-style breakup what we need?  Here are some points to consider.

First, my personal bias is that Facebook has been greatly beneficial to me.  I used to fantasize about friends and acquaintances from different times and areas of my life getting together, and since I started with the site in 2009 I have had that capability, if not as much successful interchange as I had hoped, on my desktop.  My main beef with it is not its use of my data – I don’t mind getting focused advertising, which is as far as it now seems to go – but with, as Hughes said, being subject to “algorithms that select which users’ comments or experiences end up displayed in the News Feeds of friends and family,” when the posts I want to see are simply all of them.  I do not use Facebook for getting news, except for stories from a few business sites I selected.  Therefore, I want it to succeed and continue. 

Second, Facebook, counter to what Hughes wrote, is indeed a natural monopoly.  We do not want to maintain contacts through half a dozen platforms, returning to early last century when businesspeople needed multiple telephones on their desk and “I’m on the Bell” became a brand’s slogan. 

Third, monopolistic damage in this case, since it is not directly financial, requires ideology to identify, which means fundamentally more controversy and less clarity than the usual knowledge that with only one seller prices will rise.

Fourth, antitrust forces certainly have been weak, and need to consider market domination as well as direct cost to consumers when blocking mergers.

Fifth, though nominal startup costs for a new social media system would be low, successful publicity would be difficult.  Despite plenty of online advertising, millions of businesses will end operations this year for lack of sales.

Sixth, American employment would benefit, at least temporarily, if Facebook broke into multiple companies.  None of them, though, are or would be massive employers.

Seventh, our real causes for concern are about privacy.  It’s OK to get ads for Brazilian hotels when I’ve recently checked Sao Paulo airfares, but I don’t relish my health insurance companies seeing, for example, that I liked a page on Brie.  The time to stop these interconnections is now, when they are just getting started, and government action, as clumsy and behind-the-times as it usually seems, appears the least of evils. 

Should we break up Facebook?  Clearly the feds could undo those 2012 acquisitions and stop more.  Yet there is something distasteful about punishing a company that became so large because people wanted what it had to offer.  I think the way is to allow it to be a monopoly, but regulate it, including some loose but real limitations on speech and data usage, sort of like how AT&T was treated in the decades before divestiture.  When telephony became more innovative it was time for that arrangement to end, but before that the stability of phone service, even if long distance calling unfairly subsidized local connections, helped most people greatly.  And if mineable personal data pays for a valuable tool previously unobtainable at any price, that is OK, especially when so many people have little money to spare.  Through the regulatory authority, we could negotiate improvements and changes.  So let us not forget that the number of users on these platforms is in the billions for a reason – let’s not throw out the baby with the bath.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Sluggish or Catastrophic? Five Months of Autonomous Vehicle Non-Progress - II

Since March, despite the general slowdown in driverless car progress and stories about it, some noteworthy articles have been published.  Several reveal another reason why we are now off 2017 and 2018 projections – a backlash.  One piece here is “self-driving car technology can’t deliver on overblown ride-sharing promises,” by Ashley Nunes in the March 4th USA Today.  Here we see several negative misconceptions too often written.  They include insisting on autonomous perfection when there are 30,000-plus driver-error deaths annually (“unless self-driving tech is proven faultless, ceding control of public safety to algorithms is unlikely”), confusing their current state with that to be required for proliferation (“sensors and software might trim the need for human labor but do not… purge that need entirely”), forgetting that taxi equivalents will not work in rural areas, so therefore will not wipe out personal car ownership (“Robocabs… will be cheaper… a better bargain for consumers than owning a car”), and impatience, ignoring almost unbelievable three-year progress (“a technology that never seems to quite arrive”).  There are real points to be made against autonomous vehicles, but they will be obscured with so much common erroneous thinking.

Next, on to the recent Lyft IPO and their competitor’s still-pending one, with Kate Conger’s April 18th New York Times “Uber’s Self-Driving Cars are Valued at $7.25 Billion by Investors.”  That company division, called the Autonomous Technology Group, is receiving billions of dollars from outside investors and will have its own board, facilitating the possibility of detaching if Uber cannot improve.  That is a good thing for them, as between Uber’s being “deeply unprofitable” and losing $1.8 billion in 2018, their propensity for breaking the law, and their doubtful viability if regulated as much as other taxi companies, it is one of the last companies in which I would want to invest.  Yet their instituting a snail’s-pace timeline, as bad as that looked, may indicate a new attempt at behaving decently.  I think if the rest of Uber went out of business, this piece could be successful both in the market and on Wall Street.

As the next article and the final one show, the amount of driverless backlash varies between age groups.  Andy Meek’s April 20th Salon “Millennials are the demographic most open to self-driving cars, but not by much” started with the revelation that Ford’s chief executive had admitted they “overestimated the arrival” of autonomous vehicles, and that, for that company at least, “their applications will be narrow.”  From there, Meek cited a HarrisX study, apparently given to people in that age group, showing that three-fourths were “very afraid” of them with 90% citing possible technical mishaps, but 70% thought progress had exceeded expectations.  The present-future confusion mentioned above again crept in, but it is noteworthy that even people young enough to be more accepting of driverless cars agree, as a group, that the current state of development is insufficient for widespread propagation. 

Within seconds of printing Dalvin Brown’s April 23rd USA Today “Can Elon Musk’s robotaxi plan help Tesla owners make $30,000 a year?”, I wrote, next to that headline, “NO!!”  Musk must have been using something stronger than what he smoked during a September interview to say that in a year, or “a year and three months,” meaning April or July 2020, there would be “over a million robotaxis on the road,” and the idea of those with Teslas viably adding theirs to the fleet sounds more like 2025.  As optimistic as I have been, between technology delays and acceptance barriers as above I see no chance of either that quickly.  Also, especially with the slowdown, it is losing business strategy to overpromise, especially by market leaders.

Last, we have an organized effort, documented by M. R. O’Connor on April 30th in The New Yorker in “The Fight for the Right to Drive.”  The group, the Human Driving Association, strives not only to continue allowing nonautonomous vehicles, but to require each to have a steering wheel and pedals, to mandate that all cars to be fully human-drivable, and to guarantee those things through a constitutional amendment.  Founder Alex Roy backs its ideology from environmental, freedom, technology-value disagreement, and personal-preference perspectives, with justifications ranging from the worthless (matching future laws with current expertise, as twice above) and the tradeoff-refusing (that “autonomy = freedom,” and cutting the latter would automatically be bad), to the intriguing (people may want to drive themselves for communitarian reasons such as those keeping the Amish using horses) and the naïve (to give us “meaningful work and individual agency”).  Roy’s group doesn’t have much to offer for alternatives, mentioning “investing in mass-transit” (has always happened), “build(ing) bike lanes” (only a small niche solution, and a step down in life quality for the vast majority), “adoption of electric cars” (as I recently posted, after 130 years of progress and decades of subsidies they don’t get 1% of sales), and “cell phone jamming devices in cars” (no more passengers using them either, I guess).  These losing ideas, along with assuming that driverless rides being paid for by advertising means that families should not appreciate saving maybe $1,000 per month, along with overall pushing against the tide of history, don’t give us enough to support.  Such a group, though, may help ensure that there are roads, maybe even some current cross-country expressways, that people will even at mid-century be able to drive; after all, riding horses is still legal on most public thoroughfares.

On self-driving progress, then, I’ll go for “sluggish,” along with “impeded.”  I will return to this issue with July autonomous-vehicle projections.  Expect that they will be somewhere between what Elon Musk is claiming and what some of the people quoted above expect to see.