Friday, October 18, 2019

Two Sources of Privacy Attacks: Satellites and Interconnections


I had just finished looking over a piece from Slate, September 19th’s “You Don’t Want Facebook Involved With Your Health Care” by Kirsten Ostherr, when I discovered a related one.  That was “Are We Ready for Satellites That See Our Every Move?”, by Sarah Parcak in the October 15th New York Times.

The effect of their material has much in common.  Both are progressing rapidly, both are behind the scenes as most Americans perceive them, and both can be used for much more than these articles suggested.  As well, both have real potential to get out of control.

The first showed that seemingly unrelated websites could combine their personal data troves to provide further information on individual health care decisions.  Its first sentence, “could your Netflix viewing habits predict that you will develop inflammatory bowel disease?”, may seem silly, but there are correlations everywhere.  Some of these statistical relationships are meaningful, as, for example, the purchase of Tums and Mylanta going along with stomach discomfort.  Some describe situations which are not as they seem, such as the high rates of respiratory problems in southwestern states not meaning problems with Arizona or New Mexico but the opposite, as many people with such issues choose to move there.  Many more, probably most, correlations come from “hidden variables” which affect both factors in the same day, such as, as I have written about, the lower likelihood of female high school athletes using illegal drugs, both actually in large part from higher social class.  Some are splendidly meaningless, such as the long-lasting extremely close relationship a sociologist documented between population in the Indian state of Hyderabad and membership in the International Machinists Union.   These bogus correlations fool a lot of smart people, and an almost infinite number can be found when comparing the contents of large databases.  Accordingly, even if there is no sensible real-life connection between choice of movies watched and diseases, it may look as if there is.  That is scary.

The scope of such data excursions goes well beyond recommending unjustified medical treatments.  The article mentions the possibility, which I have long since noted, that purchases of some products could trigger verdicts of poor health practices, leading to higher insurance premiums.  Some are easy to see, such as those buying motorcycle equipment tending to have higher fatal accident rates.  Some may or may not have merit, such as people acquiring more than a certain amount of bacon or butter having an increased chance of heart problems.  Some will depend on current views about food safety, which, like the 1990s oat bran craze, may only later be shown to be erroneous.  And most if not all are susceptible to failing to identify purchases for others; a father buying his son racing car parts may come through as the one with the risky lifestyle. 

While health care and health insurance costs are real issues, there are plenty more where such data could be generated and then used both fairly and unfairly.  A short brainstorming session got me auto insurance (higher rates for people buying a lot of beer), renting decisions (that and other things associated with rowdy lifestyles), credit-related decisions (what might be deemed excessive spending on non-necessities), membership organization acceptance (opinions they don’t like), employment decisions (already being made, based on anything that could interfere too much with work), or anything else where they know even only your name and address (this time, you say what would stop them).

Parcak’s work described how satellites, which 15 years ago could clearly “see things the size of 40-inch TVs” and can now handle “those the size of smart tablets.”  A big difference as, for one reason, the new capability includes viewing license plates.  Anything not indoors, including you and I much of the time, can be observed and followed, leading to combination with other information to predict future activity, including that none of the authorities’ business.

The real long-term problem with both forms of tracking is not a lack of privacy.  It’s enforcement of conformity.  As we are seeing now with Chinese efforts giving people points for displaying what their government considers socially positive behaviors, we can be motivated with money to do the same.  From there it’s just one step to the political party in power incorporating their ideology as well.  And what will stop it?  The best outcome might be what I think now exists on a smaller scale, where police departments use information, either legally or illegally obtained, to catch criminals, but little else is actually done with it.  If that continues it would hardly be harmless – police do make mistakes – but would be the most positive we can hope for.  From there, we will as always need to do the best we can. 

Friday, October 11, 2019

Good, Bad, and Unspecified Jobs Over The Past Six Weeks: Subtexts, News, and Observations


Since the last week of August, we’ve had all three of the above.  What am I talking about?

In TechCrunch on August 28th, we learned from Megan Rose Dickey that “Uber proposes policy that would pay drivers a minimum wage of $21 per hour while on a trip.”  Of course that offering was not altruistic – it was in response to a protest, in which drivers were hoisting signs expressing discontent with the company’s high CEO pay, lack of dignity (whatever that was intended to mean), and low income.  As any past or present taxi driver can tell you, this proposal doesn’t mean much, as it’s an unusual day if the meter or the equivalent runs for more than half the time, and one-third is common.  Announcing this sort of thing will not help ridesharers in any way, and begs a question:  Why can’t Uber management manage better?

A rather more salutary related idea made the September 11th New York Times editorial page, in “Take That ‘Gig’ and Shove It.”  The board weighed in again, on the right side, of the contractors vs. employees matter, endorsing a California State Assembly bill that “imposes strict limits on who can be classified as a contractor.”  In office settings It is usually hard to stop companies from “hiring large numbers of contractors whom they have treated as an inferior grade of employee,” but the ridesharers, with their rules and restrictions, clearly differ.  The three standards the bill requires for non-employee status, autonomous labor, freedom to work for others, and doing tasks “not central to the company’s business,” if passed into law, would put an abrupt end to talk of their dependent front-line drivers being contractors.  This bill should and probably will succeed, and from there will spread.

Good news on jobs was the subject of a piece in the local-to-here September 12-18 River Reporter, Fritz Mayer’s “If you’re ready for a job, you can get one in Sullivan.”  The director of the Center for Work Force Development in this New York county with a most recent 3.4% unemployment rate calls the labor market “very tight,” and said that healthcare and retail food service jobs were most plentiful.  A boon to the area, which will help more people work, is the recently started county bus service, hardly something to take for granted in a place with well under 100,000 scattered residents – that has increased the number of available workers, which the area can certainly handle right now.  The largest concern, implicit here, is how much these jobs actually pay.

“To Raise Wages, Make Companies Compete for Workers”?  Isn’t what the New York Times Editorial Board advocated on September 19th happening anyway?  Apparently not always, with “the absurd and harmful proliferation” of even low-level employees being required to sign noncompete agreements.  Once something only top engineers and planners need consent to, the limits are now imposed on 30% of salon-employed hair stylists, and when they were sharply limited by law, as in Oregon, employees not only changed jobs more freely but earned more.  With such agreements common for workers paid less than $23,360 per year, as shown by a New York bill barring them for people below that level, they have got out of hand, and employers may soon find that their right to impose them has been slashed.

Related to my August piece on the lives of the 1% was Louis Menand’s September 30th New Yorker “Is Meritocracy Making Everyone Miserable?”.  Indeed, Menand also cited Daniel Markovits, in this case his book, The Meritocracy Trap, the basis of that post’s main article.  While Menand therein gave that a poor review, calling it “bombastic” and “repetitive,” he agreed with most of what I named last time and hit many more, including the $148 billion annual higher-education taxpayer support, the huge 60-year increase of the average lifetime earnings boost for college graduates, problems with “meritocracy” blamed on it being “not meritocratic enough,” the narrow overall scope shown by 12 highly selective schools having fewer than 1 in 200 undergraduates, the decreasing and often insufficient funding for lower-level colleges, the differences between affirmative action by group and by income, and preferential treatment begetting more of the same.  One good Menand counterpoint was that discrimination to the point of complete bans against women and blacks is now gone, and three issues he mentioned were more controversial than he made them out to be:  the held-as-false idea that those in the 1% think they earned what they got (it may be unfair that they unlike others of similar inherent aptitude were put on a track for it from preschool, but they still worked extremely hard), that much of the sorting process happens during college (I think we are already, per grade inflation, getting a Japanese-style system where high school students put in the most effort and the prestige of universities will carry their students on from there by itself), and the problems with SAT scores reflecting social class (they would correlate heavily, also, with number of books at home).  This Menand piece may provoke your thinking as well – as should the other four articles discussed here. 


Friday, October 4, 2019

No Recession Here: American Job Shortage Number Down 1.1 Million On Broad-Based Improvement To 15.1 Million, With Unemployment Rates Still Falling


At first glance, this morning’s Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Situation Summary looked as expected.  The number of net new nonfarm positions couldn’t have been much closer to a published consensus 140,000 projection with 136,000, and other changes seemed small.  Yet beyond that, which roughly matched American population growth, this September report was deceptively good.

Although the official joblessness rate has been overrated for most of the past half-century, it still means something, and its 3.5% adjusted result was the lowest in almost 50 years.  The unadjusted 3.3%, lower since September is an above-average month for people working, was much the same.  We’re now at 5.8 million unemployed (5.465 million unadjusted), and the two measures of how common it is for Americans to have jobs, the labor force participation rate and the employment-population ratio, did fine also, given that they each gained 0.2% in August, by staying at 63.2% and rising 0.1% to 61.0% respectively. 

There was bad news as well.  The count of people out of work for 27 weeks or longer gained 100,000 to reach 1.3 million.  The number of those working part-time for economic reasons, or holding on to short-hours positions while unsuccessfully seeking a full-time proposition, held at 4.4 million, but did not lose back any of its 400,000 August gain.  Average private nonfarm payroll earnings, after rising a good but unspectacular 11 cents per hour last time, lost 2 cents and are now at $28.09.  This number has been outperforming inflation, but one more like month will push it down to constant-dollar breakeven for the year. 
The American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, the measure showing how many more positions could be quickly filled if all knew they were easy to get, lost and thereby improved a stunning 1.08 million, some but not all seasonal (the AJSN is unadjusted), reaching a 17-year low as follows:


Over 60% of that was from lower official unemployment, but more than 400,000 was cut elsewhere, mainly from those wanting to work but not looking for it for the previous year (a 273,000 net latent demand drop), and those calling themselves discouraged (131,400 down).  Compared with a year before, the AJSN is down over 500,000, over half from reduced unemployment and the rest spread out among 8 of the 9 other categories above, all of which have fewer people than in September 2018.  The share of the AJSN coming from those in the main jobless category is now 32.6%, once again below one-third and the lowest since May.  Latent employment demand from those claiming no interest in work is now less than 8% below that from official unemployment, and if the latter keeps dropping the two could converge.

How do we evaluate September?  The number of new jobs was lukewarm again, and the loss in wages sad, but I like the other-category improvement too much to call it bad.  Not great by any means, and maybe not even encouraging, but we’re still advancing.  Maybe we’re going to get a recession within the next several months, but real signs of that in this report are absent.  Small again, but the turtle yet again took a step forward.