Friday, December 27, 2019

USA 2019: Plenty of Jobs, With Prosperity for Half

As I have written many times, my employment bias is in favor of the maximum number of work opportunities.  People’s wants and needs vary so much that it is inappropriate that jobs be required to have certain benefits or even minimum wages, and such things, perforce, cut down their number.  The largest employment-related gap in this country is not between those with and without certain amounts of income, but between those with and without jobs.  

I still go with that.  However, we need to be aware that while unemployment is around a 50-year low, more people are working for less money than since the Industrial Revolution took hold.  The extent of that situation reached me in a December 19th Brookings Institution post, Marcela Escobari’s “The economy is growing and leaving low-wage workers behind.”   

Cited in this piece, the headline finding from a recent Brookings report was that 44% of workers in the United States have median hourly pay of $10.22 and each year take in a median $17,950.  I wondered if many in this set are patently part-time laborers such as students, but these numbers indicate an average of over 34 hours per week.  Other like Brookings findings were that one-third of jobholders have contract positions, and that federal workforce development funding is down 79% since the 1970s.   

A few observations jump out at me.  First, if almost half are working full-time or close to it and paid this little, then what we have long called the middle class is no longer a majority.  Second, we still cannot make judgments about poverty, as even the limited money above is often beyond that.  Third, this jobs distribution means that many in this 44% must have poor prospects for advancing out of it.  Accordingly, fourth, the lack of development money may not be as bad as it could seem, as training, as I have noted before, is not only a non-panacea but, if the number of higher-paying positions is woefully small even in these good economic times, is usually useless.  Fifth, the next recession will bring on even more suffering than its number of lost jobs will indicate.  And sixth, I do not see a viable solution for this situation through employment.   

If we have no good way of improving our country’s prosperity through jobs, at least we can better understand the state we are in.  That is the point of David Leonhardt’s December 15th New York Times “Why You Shouldn’t Believe Those G.D.P. Numbers.”  He contrasted solid gross domestic product growth with low personal income improvement and Americans’ long-time economic dissatisfaction, and mentioned a Senate bill requiring publishing the GDP’s benefit to 11 different tiers of income distribution, a system already in place in Australia and the Netherlands.  That would be hard to argue with and would precipitate more discussion of guaranteed basic income. 

What would the United States be like if, say, 80% of workers were paid $20,000 a year or less?  If people had easy access to enough food, shelter, clothing, and health care, it would not be grim.  Yet neither would it be what we have considered rich.  It would hurt demand for many of our products, and we might not see as much advertising for the likes of airlines or new cars.  It would probably get us a guaranteed basic income by 2040 at latest.  Is that where we are headed?  You be the judge, and govern yourself accordingly.   

Friday, December 20, 2019

AI Now? More Like AI No How, According to That New York University Group’s Highly Political 2019 Report

When I got a message containing an annual summary of what happened this year in artificial intelligence from an organization I thought to be only an academic think tank, I was expecting to relay the good and the bad, along with many things of which neither of us were aware.  I printed its 59 pages before the endnotes and only later looked it over.

That proved to be just about a waste of paper, which, unfortunately, would have concerned the 2019 Report’s authors more than any lives AI has saved or improved.  When I started reading I found not the summary I had expected, but another one.  The AI Now Institute is not quite what I had thought – true, it is an “interdisciplinary research institute,” but it is “dedicated to understanding the social implications of AI technologies.”  That does not mean, though, that the group wanted to know about, say, the effect of Alexa devices on dinnertime conversations.  Nowhere in the text did I see anything positive about AI’s effects, and when it wandered off their official purpose, which was usually into the subject of regulation, that did not change.  

The Executive Summary had five bullet points.  To start, “the spread of algorithmic management technology in the workplace is increasing the power asymmetry between workers and employers.  AI threatens not only to disproportionately displace lower-wage earners, but also to reduce wages, job security, and other protections for those who need it most.”  True, but the same goes for globalization, efficiency, and other forms of automation, which as I have written are trends unlikely to be reversed or even halted.  

The second point was “community groups, workers, journalists, and researchers – not corporate AI ethics statements and policies – have been primarily responsible for pressuring tech companies and governments to set guardrails on the use of AI.”  In the short term, yes, but only because larger organizations are slower to respond.  Third, “efforts to regulate AI systems are underway, but they are being outpaced by government adoption of AI systems to surveil and control.”  Yes, Washington has plenty of use for the technology, and here, as elsewhere, not only AI itself but policies around it are evolving as quickly as they can.  

The fourth, “AI systems are continuing to amplify race and gender disparities via techniques like affect recognition, which has no sound scientific basis,” gets to the heart of what AI Now seems to be about, which is complaining about outcome differences between blacks and whites and men and women.  All involved with AI would agree that affect recognition, described here as “a subset of facial recognition that claims to “read” our inner emotions by interpreting the micro-expressions on our face,” is in its infancy, and its being “deployed at scale” in employment interviews, if that is reasonable to say, would be more objectionable if interviews and resumes were not notoriously weak and, yes, similarly flawed, without it.  In another year, leading-edge research on affect recognition will almost certainly point to methods different from those now in use.  

Last, “growing investment in and development of AI has profound implications in areas ranging from climate change to the rights of healthcare patients to the future of geopolitics and inequities being reinforced in regions of the global South.”  It is a stretch to call computer applications especially bad for the environment, and saying that “training just one AI model,” which can take months, produced as much carbon dioxide as “125 round-trip flights from New York to Beijing” did not refute that.  Barring interconnections between health care information systems can cost not only convenience and money but lives, and “the global South,” whatever that is, will not always be left alone.  

The 2019 Report also contains 12 recommendations, even sharper and more limiting than the main ideas above.  They include: banning affect recognition “in important decisions that affect people’s lives and access to opportunities” (in other words, whenever it is used in production); the need to “halt all use of facial recognition in sensitive social and political contexts until the risks are fully studied and adequate regulations are in place” (determination of when these two conditions are met, presumably, left to the likes of the AI Now Institute); requiring “the AI industry” to “make significant structural changes to address systemic racism, misogyny, and lack of diversity,” apparently with meanings of those terms mandated, all protected groups represented at 100% of their population shares, and all by-group pay levels exactly equal; several recommendations already in progress; references to “historic injustices,” the undefinable “social harms,” and “diverse cultural approaches to health” (most likely only along black-white, male-female, and maybe gay-straight lines).  

For one of many examples of a truer picture of AI, look at David Brooks’s June 24th New York Times “How Artificial Intelligence Can Save Your Life.”  Though a short commercial journalistic piece, it told us that “researchers… were able this year to hook people up to brain monitors and generate natural-sounding synthetic speech out of mere brain activity” (and I doubt that would work only for white straight men) and that analyzing words used by people texting a suicide help line would greatly augment assessing their needs for emergency interventions (tendencies likewise valid for everyone), and concluded by conceding that “you can be freaked out by the privacy-invading power of A.I. to know you, but only A.I. can gather the data necessary to do this,” and “if it’s a matter of life and death, I suspect we’re going to” consent to such information use.  That is an even-handed conclusion, which, public-university knowledge-seeking auspices or not, the AI Now Institute, with its other “most recent publications” titled the likes of “Discriminating Systems:  Gender, Race, and Power on AI,” does not seem to offer.  That should tell us something.

Friday, December 13, 2019

Understanding Guaranteed Income and The Quality of Our Jobs

I’m surprised to see how long it has been since I wrote on universal basic income (UBI).  I made the main points about it long ago:  it would be expensive but much of its cost would be covered by removing welfare-related programs; it is not the same as unemployment benefits; while we don’t need it now, we must address it soon.  After reading the New York Times July 15th, 2018 book review front-page article, “Barely Afloat in America” with two reviews of three books by Emily Cooke and former labor secretary and author Robert B. Reich, what do I think has changed?

The books themselves, Annie Lowrey’s Give People Money, Alissa Quart’s Squeezed, and current Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang’s War on Normal People, seem accurate and even visionary.  The first and last looked at the merits of guaranteed income, and Quart’s considered deterioration of the American middle class.  

Reich saw, and I see, a jobs situation worse than current unemployment figures.  On why, though, we part company.  I think that what we have is a temporary reprieve from what will, with the next recession, clearly show itself as a permanent problem of simply not enough work opportunities.  Reich said that there was no such thing, but rather “a good jobs crisis” (italics his).  He correctly pointed out that “most economic gains are going to a few,” said the solution was a UBI, which “may seem like a pipe dream” but “seems inevitable,” and cited both books as naming $1,000 per month – the same figure, though slightly smaller due to inflation, that I named in 2012’s Work’s New Age.  Per Reich, after me, that level “doesn’t deliver a comfortable life,” meaning most or at least many would still want paid employment, that about two-thirds of its $3.9 trillion annual cost would be covered by discontinuing food stamps and the like, and gave high billing to a financial transaction tax toward that shortfall.  Reich also, accurately and rarely, pointed out that once such payments are restricted to people with certain employment, income, or net worth statuses, or even taxed on a sliding scale, they are “no longer universal or even basic.”  At the end, though, he couldn’t resist mentioning “vastly unequal economic and political power” as a problem in itself, which UBI would not resolve.  

A more recent piece from Yang, “Yes, Robots Are Stealing Your Job,” in this year’s November 14th New York Times, made the case that, despite recent downplaying, mechanization is still with us.  It is more or less a candidate’s position paper, but I can’t denigrate it for that, since where are his opponents’?  He also touted a $1,000 UBI as one of several measures to improve that situation, and ended with a call to “talk about the real causes and solutions of these problems instead of blaming the current occupant of the Oval Office.”  

I share a problem with Yang.  We are both stuck in the future.  That can be good or bad, positive when, as here, it draws advance attention to something worthy of it, but negative when it confuses what we need to do now with what does not require immediate action.  It can also draw a sort of Cassandra effect, in which when something doesn’t materialize people think it never will, and it taints subsequent predictions’ credibility.  Yet we need reasonably bipartisan forecasters.  

The other part of the Times Book Review piece, a look at Squeezed, was juxtaposed with Cooke’s rather dramatically expressed personal experiences, which led us to think there are day-care centers where the employees let their toddler charges run free while they look for TaskRabbit income supplementing opportunities, that foreign women “must” move away from their own children, and that she herself, despite working as “the editorial director of the New Republic,” does not expect to be able to afford more than one child.  The key thing to think about here, though, is another I put forth eight years ago, that we cannot expect to have the same things our parents did – some have become unaffordable, while others are much cheaper and more accessible now.  Another important fact is that, yes, children are more expensive even in inflation-adjusted terms than they were before.  

Overall, we have the freedom to choose what is and is not worthwhile for us.  And stopping education at a low level is a luxury we can afford less than previous generations could.  UBI or not, we must adapt – that, as with the previous piece, is a message we must take home.

Friday, December 6, 2019

November Jobs Data: AJSN Edges Below 15 Million Latent Demand, While BLS Numbers Show Small but Real Improvements

I wasn’t sure about this morning’s Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Situation Summary.  This edition, from November, could have been much the same as October’s, and therefore overall not much better or worse than September’s, with a published estimate of 180,000 net new nonfarm positions ending up overly optimistic.  But none of this happened.

The actual number of new jobs as above came in at 266,000, with small improvements to the previous two months putting us at a three-month 205,000 average.  The unadjusted unemployment rate was down 0.1% to 3.5%, with the unadjusted one staying at 3.3%.  The total number of officially jobless Americans lost 100,000 to 5.8 million, as did the count of those out for 27 weeks or longer, now at 1.2 million, and the number working part-time for economic reasons, which fell to 4.3 million.  The two measures of how common it is for our country-people to be working, the labor force participation rate and the employment-population ratio, split between unfavorable and neutral, with the former down 0.1% to 63.2% and the latter holding at 61.0%.  Average nonfarm payroll wages had the catch-up month they needed, combining a 7-cent gain with a 4-cent positive adjustment for October to reach $28.29.  

The American Job Shortage Number, the measure showing how many additional positions could be quickly filled if all knew it would be easy to get one, fell below 15 million for the first time during its tracking, but with an improvement of only a scattered 24,000, as follows:

Compared with a year ago, the AJSN is down 530,000, the improvement headed by 188,000 lower latent demand from those unemployed, followed by 115,000 fewer apiece from people discouraged and not looking for the past year, and the rest split between five other categories.  Only 32.6% of the AJSN now comes from those officially jobless.  

How good then, overall, was November?  I like the broad-basedness of its advances, when, with unemployment rates not leaving much room for improvement, any gains would be good.  Therefore, the turtle, after resting in October, took another step forward this time.