Friday, April 3, 2020

Just the Beginning: March Jobs Data Reflects the First Coronavirus Losses, with AJSN Latent Demand Up 1,435,000 to 17.3 Million

This morning’s jobs statistics are almost worthless.

The reason is that it came from surveys around the middle of March, when the crisis was only starting to show in employment, and the overwhelming majority jobless now were still working.  Still, it gives us a taste of what we’re going to see.

We lost 701,000 net nonfarm positions, at the bottom of an 800,000-job-wide range reflecting uncertainty about how many people had lost them at survey time.  Adjusted unemployment rose 0.9% to 4.4%, with unadjusted up 0.7% to 4.5%.  The unemployed count rose 1.3 million to 7.1 million, with the number of those out for 27 weeks or longer – not affected yet by the virus – up 100,000 to match January’s 1.2 million.  Average private nonfarm payroll wages for those still working gained 10 cents per hour, above inflation, to $28.62.  The data showed 1.5 million more working part-time for economic reasons, or wanting but not having full-time propositions, and is now 5.8 million. 
The most dramatic changes, historically speaking, were in the two measures of how common it is for Americans to be working or officially jobless.  The labor force participation rate fell 0.7%, and is now at a 42-year bottom, equaling December 1977’s 62.7%.  The employment-population ratio, off 1.1% to 60.0%, is at its lowest since February 2017’s 59.9%. 

The American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, the Royal Flush Press product showing in one figure how many new positions could be quickly filled if they were understood to be easy to get, jumped 1.4 million as follows:

That only just over one million of this increase came from official unemployment showed that other statuses have gained people as well.  The count of those wanting work but not looking for it for a year or more added about 400,000.  Those claiming no interest in working were up almost 1.6 million.  However, others did not – for example, the number of people in the armed forces, institutions, and with unknown statuses lost a little, implying that, at least as of the middle of last month, there had been no rush to go off the grid.

Compared with a year before, the AJSN has given up its almost monthly improvement and is now up 1.2 million.  Two thirds of that is from higher official unemployment, with most of the rest from a larger count of those wanting work but not searching for it for the past year. 

We’ll see what happens when the new employment data comes out May 8th.  We could easily be down tens of millions of jobs, with unemployment way into double figures.  The turtle took a large step backwards this time, but may need to be lifted and carried next. 

Friday, March 27, 2020

Depressing but Necessary to Hear: This Thing Won’t End Soon

Over the past week, there have been a wide range of forecasts, possibilities, expectations, timelines, and statements about when we can expect American life to return to normal.

Some are reasonable and some are not.  But the more you understand the truth about where we are now, you can see that we’re not getting out of this quickly. 

First, our president’s call for everything to be back to normal by Easter, now 16 days away, is insane.  Coronavirus is not a nightmare which we can end by waking up.  It is not HIV, with almost every case preventable.  The United States is now purported to have more coronavirus cases than any other country.  While I think the numbers are usually misleading, reflective of our more open information sharing and always out of date before publication, they are, as you read this, sharply increasing, and will continue that for at least a month or two.  True, it will cost our government a trillion dollars per month to keep everyone reasonably afloat, getting us a national debt in the dozens of trillions, but this is the territory in which we now live. 

Second, the social distancing, critical to reduce the spread of this long-lasting and highly contagious virus, will need to continue until almost all Americans are immune.  That, even more than the shortage of medical equipment, medical personnel, and hospital space, will put severe restrictions on our freedom.

Third, with viewpoints, recentness of information, and sources varying, there have been a lot of false hopes spread about when we, for example, might be able to comfortably travel again.  If not Easter, many are acting as if all of this might be over by May, but that makes no real sense either. 

For your planning realism, here is what I expect to happen.  Any normalcy we have before Christmas will be a bonus.  There will be no 2020 major league baseball season.  The NFL will probably delay, then cancel, theirs as well.  The Kentucky Derby, now rescheduled for September, will be lost outright.  Airlines will all but stop operating, limited to a small number of flights with a maximum of one passenger for every five to 10 seats.  Other large-audience in-person entertainment, from movies to festivals, will stay nonexistent.  Schools of all kinds will be closed through at least the fall.  For the rest of this year, it will take hiring efforts by the likes of Amazon to hold unemployment to about 18%. 

It may get better sooner, but don’t count on it.  If there were a viable and perfected vaccine in a laboratory right now, it would need months for confirmation, months for mass-production, then months more for distribution.  That goes similarly for the malaria drugs and other solutions about which people now hold hope.  Even those most optimistic see little chance of a vaccine, the main possibility for widespread immunity, being effectively implemented before a year from now – to others, spring 2022 or even later is a live possibility. 

For the final downer, remember that everything I have written above pertains to the United States.  The rest of the world, with 95% of the population, will have its own issues.  We read about how some countries, in Scandinavia and elsewhere, are doing quite well, but what would happen if just one infected person wandered around the packed slums of Dhaka or Kolkata?  Tens of millions would die in their countries alone, with little hope for containment.  International travel will long be problematic. 

Eventually, when we know more about the virus, our new order will set in.  Then we can get our expectations in line with reality.  They are not there now. 

Friday, March 20, 2020

Coronavirus Devastates Jobs and the Economy, and Shakes Up About Everything Else

I almost titled this post “Only One Possible Topic This Week.” 

It’s been sudden.  I read three small local newspapers here in the Catskills and Poconos, and between their coming slowly in the mail, my wife seeing them first, and my putting them on the bottom of my stack below Times Herald-Record issues and the Sunday New York Times, I often don’t get to them until two weeks after their cover dates.  One I saw yesterday was from March 5th and had not a word about our now-dominating local, national, and world situation. 

I trust you know what’s happening.  I won’t try to recap it, since as well any details or status assessment I learned and sent along to you would be obsolete before I keyed it.  I offer, instead, some general observations.

First, the Coronavirus effect on jobs, which will get worse before it gets better, is truly devastating.  The only question now is whether we are in a depression or just a stiff recession.  When Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said we were, without government intervention, soon to reach 20% unemployment, he was not exaggerating.  This country contains 2.6 million waitpeople alone, almost none of whom can now do that for a living, and if you add to them others in food service, hotels, transportation (not just airlines), spectator sports, anything else connected with gatherings of people, and much more, that twenty percent seems too low.  As well, it’s hard to imagine our economy shrinking less than 10%. 

Second, while this is temporary, we have no idea when it will end.  Some may still be under the illusion that American life will be back to normal by month’s end.  It won’t, and a better question is whether, say, the Kentucky Derby will be able to stick to its new September date.  We all need to realize that we are running a marathon, not a sprint.

Third, we’ve seen other things related to this, but none quite the same.  It’s kind of like a long series of snow days or hurricane days but lasting vastly longer.  It’s reminiscent of the outpouring of patriotism we had after the 2001 terrorist attacks, with truck drivers and health care workers the heroes instead of first responders, but then we were only impeded from some travel.  It’s probably most akin to our national World War II effort, which lasted about four years and didn’t immediately end with victory, yet then we didn’t have to avoid the physical closeness which made those times more bearable. 

Fourth, because our current situation feels stultifying, isolating, and claustrophobic, we need to pay attention to our psychological and emotional health.  We need to take care of ourselves, be patient with ourselves, and give others some breaks as well. 

Fifth, we may already be on a de facto guaranteed income.  The first checks of $1,000 or more should arrive within two weeks.  Andrew Yang, the former presidential candidate known for his supporting a universal basic income, says these payments should continue monthly until “this crisis is over,” and politicians on both sides are, if not expressly agreeing, moving in that direction. 

Sixth, and for the first time in months, Donald Trump is not favored to win reelection.  The line, on which we can bet if we think it’s wrong, had him and Biden the same.  This line can change hourly, so check it for what’s probably the most objective assessment of 2020 outcomes available – it’s on the left-hand menu under Politics.

Seventh, we don’t know what will be permanently changed, but it may end up not being much at all.  People commonly thought the apparent national-character shifts from 9/11 would last, but they did not.  Two things which could remain are more knowledge of how well online gatherings and alternatives actually work and new efficiencies discovered by businesses.  In response to one article headline question, yes, we will get back to normal, though it may be pushing Christmas by then.  We can look forward to, as happened after the war, great pent-up demand for goods, services, travel, and in-person activities, which may finally be valued more highly than virtual ones.

For now, we need to physically avoid each other.  If you have any doubts about that, please read Jason S. Warner’s article here:  This may be the hardest year in our lives, but we can get through it.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Checking In On Autonomous Vehicles: Any Improvement?

It’s been months now, years really, since driverless cars got a lot of press.  There were, though, a string of small articles in the past two months. 

In “When will the highways be filled with autonomous cars?,” in the January 17th Fox Business, reporters there interviewed Intel CEO Robert Swan on the title topic, which hasn’t been gathering many encouraging views lately.  Swan was “pleasantly surprised by the amount of technology innovation that our teams have been able to deploy in cars over the course of the past couple of months,” and said that “no one really knows when that day will come.”  So no headway there. 

One promising area is bringing things to customers, exemplified in “Pizza-toting robots:  U.S. lets Nuro deploy driverless delivery vehicles (Reuters, February 6th).  Here, David Shepardson told us about a “first-of-its-kind approval by U.S. regulators,” in which company Nuro could “deploy up to 5,000 low speed electric delivery vehicles without human controls like mirrors and steering wheels.”  These “R2s” could truly be thought of as robots, as they would have neither drivers nor passengers, but would “at all times be monitored by remote human operators who can take over driving control if needed.”  The federal government helpfully ruled that “as a low-speed neighborhood vehicle,” the R2 “does not need to meet all safety requirements.”  Though Nuro’s road testing is still in the future, it seems they have a clear path to this limited objective, delivering pizzas and groceries on “pre-mapped neighborhood streets” in Houston within two years.  Per other coverage of this event, “US highway agency approves autonomous vehicle” that same day on Fox Business, these robots would stay below 25 miles per hour and allow customer access through providing an access code.  If it materializes, this would be, indirectly as well as directly, good news for driverless cars in general.

Going back to the Phoenix area, “The city of Peoria, Ariz., is piloting an autonomous shuttle program” (Times Herald-Record, February 10th).  Beep, “a Florida-based autonomous mobility solutions company,” planned to launch that 15-mile-per-hour-maximum transport, designed with an attendant onboard to help passengers but who cannot drive it as it has no pedals or steering wheel, on February 22nd, but I could find no confirmation in other press or the Beep website that that actually happened.  Beep, though, in conjunction with NAVYA is currently running a short-range shuttle in Orlando, so it has, almost uniquely, moved its services into the present.

 Another relatively live driverless possibility is the vehicle just large enough for one non-driving passenger.  Gary Gastelu described one in the February 11th Fox News “MOTIV single-seat autonomous ‘car’ is the ultimate in personal transportation.” The all-electric four-by-eight-foot device, “technically classified as a quadricycle,” can do 40 miles per hour and run for 150 minutes between charges, and would be summoned as a taxi “through an Uber-type scheme.”  The MOTIV looks like an enclosed golf cart, and won’t be here soon, as “there are currently no firm plans to put it into production.”

Overall, we have glimmers of hope in the driverless car world, but going is slow, and maintaining working examples seems to be unexpectedly hard, even when the technology is apparently fully ready.  The areas in which they can run are unusually small and are away from snow and major highways.  I will release my annual forecast in July, but now it doesn’t look good at all for anything broad-based, even later this decade. 

Friday, March 6, 2020

On the Eve of the Coronavirus Crash a Fine Month for Jobs, With Latent Demand Down 370,000 to 15.9 Million

The employment situation has faltered over the past two weeks – all we don’t know is how much.  For now, though, we have our report on how things were about three weeks ago.  Per this morning’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, we have, as a nation, little to complain about. 

The strength of February’s data started with the two marquee numbers.  We added a superb 273,000 net new nonfarm positions, which makes only a hair short of a half million for the first two 2020 months.  Seasonally adjusted unemployment dropped 0.1% to 3.5%, with the unadjusted version, showing that February is a below average month for people working, down 0.2% to 3.8%.  The number of unemployed lost 100,000 to 5.8 million, with those out for 27 weeks or longer down the same to 1.1 million.  The two measures of how common it is for Americans to be working or officially jobless, the labor force participation rate and the employment-population ratio, held and shed 0.1% respectively and are now at 63.4% and 61.1%.  Those working part-time for economic reasons, or holding on to less-hours jobs while thus far unsuccessfully seeking full-time ones, though, matched last time’s 100,000 gain to reach 4.3 million.  Average hourly private nonfarm earnings rose 8 cents per hour, about the inflation rate, to get to $28.52. 

The American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, the gauge of how many more positions could be filled if all knew that getting one was as easy as getting a pizza, fell over one third of a million, as follows:


Two-thirds of these improvements came from reduced official employment, one third from a lower count of those wanting work but not looking for the past year, and the other categories above collectively broke even.  The share of the AJSN coming from those officially jobless went down from 36.0% to 35.2%.  Compared with a year before, the AJSN is 626,000 lower, nearly all from official unemployment and those not looking for a year or more. 

So, how good was February’s data?  Considerably.  With our population up only 108,000, that 273,000 net new jobs was quite an achievement.  People are again leaving what might be called the hiding-place statuses above and rejoining the labor force.  We’ll check out the damage report in a month, but in the meantime the turtle took a substantial step forward.

Friday, February 28, 2020

Widespread Electronic Surveillance in America – III

We now know that tracking and identifying people, both by determining their positions through their cellphones and recognizing their faces, is not only consistently possible but is almost as accurate as by getting their DNA.  How can public policy and individual choices combine to minimize the destructive privacy loss it is causing?

This is not an easy situation to negotiate.  Some problems include the disadvantages of passing laws which do not prevent force, fraud, or coercion, the right of people to opt for what they want, and impeding generally beneficial law enforcement information access.  Yet we cannot do nothing.  
Accordingly, I recommend the following.

First, as with the highly successful National Do Not Call Registry, provide the right for people to opt out from having their phones tracked and their faces compared with others.  The effort can be structured in much the same way as this facility, which has cut back, maybe by a factor of ten, what would otherwise be daily junk-phone-call bombardment, with easy online signup, long open opt-in times, and enough of a grace period to allow organizations receiving facial and location data to incorporate their own screening systems.

Second, extend the same restrictions to cellphone tower data that we have on landline telephone wiretapping, for private as well as governmental users. 

Third, ban sharing of any location data collected by smartphone apps.  If they need it to function themselves, such as for reporting the weather, they can use it without passing it along.

Fourth, hold a national referendum on where the border should be between data acceptable for collection by law enforcement agencies and that which should be private, and implement laws and restrictions accordingly.  The results of that countrywide, not state-by-state, vote will direct us toward how we deal with facial recognition.

Fifth, publicize the need for people to make informed choices about their cellphones, mobile applications, and opt-ins.  Susceptibility to manipulation can be controlled as much as the exploitation itself, and the power of tracking technology is no excuse for Americans to act like sheep.
If these changes were implemented the marketplace would respond.  With their income sources from sharing data removed, apps might need to charge nominal amounts.  Others could pay users for facial identification, if that remained legal.  A sales point for telephone companies using improved technology could be to make their devices personally unidentifiable. 

None of these changes would be radical or would measurably hurt our lives.  They would merely end, as put in the January 26th New York Times special-section-ending editorial, “the incongruity between the robust legal regime around legacy methods of privacy invasion and the paucity of regulation around more comprehensive and intrusive modern technologies.” 

The worst abuse possibilities of tracking information have not yet materialized – but, as we have seen in this series, neither the laws nor the technology’s current state can prevent them.  That is why we need action as quickly as possible.  I hope that the facts about surveillance are spread widely, and that our legislators start discussions soon.  If not, we may end up all living thoroughly public lives.  That is not what we want.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Widespread Electronic Surveillance in America – II

We saw last week new and often hyper-accurate ways that people can be tracked.  What is happening with companies providing this technology, the laws, and our government’s involvement?

In “Facebook to Pay $550 Million to Settle Facial Recognition Suit,” by Natasha Singer and Mike Isaac in the January 29th New York Times, we learned how that gigantic data-collecting company ran afoul of a law in just one state, Illinois, “by harvesting facial data for Tag Suggestions from the photos of millions of users in the state without their permission and without telling them how long the data would be kept.”  You have used that facility if you have posted pictures there and wanted to assign names, usually of your friends, to faces in them; I had thought, naively perhaps, that those were only the ones already on my own page.  Although this law was passed in 2008, there still aren’t many like it elsewhere.  The next day, “Facebook’s facial-recognition settlement amount breaks record” (Fox Business) showed in effect that this is almost certainly the first of many huge judgments.

In “The Government Uses ‘Near Perfect Surveillance’ Data on Americans,” in the February 7th New York Times, we found out that not all this work is in the private sector.  Apparently, “immigration and border enforcement” can also involve tracking “the movements of millions of cellphones in America.”  The situation discussed last week of smartphone apps making it routine for users to provide such information, thereby “consenting to future uses that they could never predict” with data “opaque and largely unregulated,” means federal authorities can use information with impunity, though a 2018 Supreme Court ruling may eventually be found to prevent that.  Otherwise, per this piece, “it is inconceivable that tactics turned against undocumented immigrants won’t eventually be turned to the enforcement of other laws.” 

Over twenty years ago I learned about an American company with $2 billion in annual sales which I and most others had never heard of, its mission to make McDonald’s French fries.  The surveillance industry has spawned many such hidden concerns.  One was reported on by Kashmir Hill in an article, also in the Times, “The Secretive Company That Might End Privacy as We Know It,” published January 18th and updated February 10th.  The firm is Clearview AI, which uses its three-billion-image database to identify people in submitted photos.  Laws have nothing to say about that practice, as Clearview AI’s pictures were publicly available, taken from Facebook and “millions of other websites.” 

This company’s practice apparently works quite well, able to overcome, in some cases, hats and glasses.  It has also had spectacular successes with law enforcement, particularly with the Indiana State Police who, after “experimenting with Clearview,” determined a perpetrator who “did not have a driver’s license and hadn’t been arrested as an adult, so he wasn’t in government databases,” almost immediately after a shooting, thanks to “a bystander” who “recorded the crime on a phone.”  Clifton, New Jersey authorities, during a free Clearview trial, identified “shoplifters, an Apple Store thief, and a good Samaritan who had punched out a man threatening people with a knife,” and elsewhere had found the names of “a person who was accused of sexually abusing a child whose face appeared in the mirror of someone’s else (sic) gym photo; the person behind a string of mailbox thefts in Atlanta; a John Doe found dead on an Alabama sidewalk; and suspects in multiple identity-fraud cases at banks.”

Aside from seeming like law enforcement’s new best friend, abuse of this technology is only a step away.  It would be easy to determine when people are away from their homes, which may or may not have security systems.  It can identify people joining radical political gatherings, going to places known for selling illegal drugs, attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, walking into brothels legal or illegal, presumably patronizing gay bars, or even turning up at unusual places of worship.  You can brainstorm more. 

That leaves us with next week’s issue – how should we deal with modern surveillance?

Friday, February 14, 2020

Widespread Electronic Surveillance in America – I

Do you know you are being tracked?

If you carry a smartphone, you are probably at least vaguely aware of that.  But do you understand the extent?  How about the number of times each day your location is determined and recorded?  Do you know how far back in time this data is stored?  Do you realize how wide-open are the laws on using such information? 

The discouragingly negative answers to these questions and many more were recently published over two January days in The New York Times.  First was a guest opinion piece released on the 24th, “You Are Now Remotely Controlled” by Shoshana Zuboff, author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.
Per Zuboff, facility for the current situation started in 1997 when a group of “tech industry executives” persuaded the Federal Trade Commission not to regulate Internet data use and collection.  Since then, most Americans have consented to carry devices which, through not only connections with towers which allow them to work but applications they install, monitor their locations.  The largest computer-related services companies, specifically Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook, all collect or use customer location data, the former more than the latter.

The key area of questions on location data accumulation centers around its detrimentality.  Is it harmful now?  If not, will the harm happen later?  What is the difference between using and abusing this information?  A fourth question, on whether it is truly only aggregated and not individually identifiable, was answered comprehensively in the articles to follow. 

Zuboff tied in her title with a scary quote from a “scientist,” that “we are learning how to write the music, and then we let the music make them dance.”  Preliminary tests, including getting people to visit the likes of McDonald’s and Starbucks, and targeting online advertising based on their targets’ assessed moods, started years ago.  She saw a problem of “epistemic inequality,” or “unequal access to learning imposed by private commercial mechanisms of information capture, production, analysis and sales,” which is “best exemplified in the fast-growing abyss between what we know and what is known about us.” 

Two days later the Times published a 12-page special section titled “One Nation, Tracked.”  It contained seven articles, four with maps showing actual smartphone location readouts, and ended with an editorial.  The first, “12 Million Phones, One Dataset, Zero Privacy,” showed how data from one device could easily indicate the owner’s home and workplace, along with places they had visited, ranging from pedestrian, such as local grocery stores, to deeply private, for example a drug rehab center.  One set of maps here showed hundreds of pings from one phone, of which “connecting” them “reveals a diary of a person’s life.” 

The second piece, “How to Track the President,” indicated how easy it was to identify Donald Trump’s smartphone and showed exactly where and when he was one day, the same available for Secret Service agents.  Third, “Freaked Out?  Steps to Protect Your Phone” offered ideas, but none would stop surveillance through tower connections.  Fourth, “Eyes on the Capital,” mostly a large map of that area, showed how much information was available on people in the White House, the U.S. Capitol, the Pentagon, F.B.I. Headquarters, and elsewhere.  Even the C.I.A., which apparently blocked smartphone connections within its main building, had plenty of identifiable ones in its parking lot. 

From there, “How Your Phone Betrays Democracy” described the problems of being able to electronically identify protestors.  “Smartphones Are Spies.  Here’s Whom They Report To” presented how applications, such as weather and mapping programs and even games, collect location data and report it to their owners, who have little compunction about collecting it, as “simply by downloading an app and agreeing to the terms of service, you’re potentially exposing your sensitive information to dozens of other technology companies, ad networks, data brokers, and aggregators.”  One of them, a weather monitor, “sent the phone’s precise location… about 20 times while it was open during an eight-minute walk.”  The seventh article, “Where Even The Children Are Being Tracked” could have referred to everywhere, as such surveillance does not distinguish by age.
The back-page wrap-up, “Total Surveillance Is Not What America Signed Up For,” summarized the findings above and concluded that we “deserve the freedom to choose a life without surveillance.”  That won’t be easy.

Next week, I look at what some companies involved with location data collection are doing, what the laws are like now, and what has already happened on the legal front.  I will also cover some views on possible, and impossible, solutions.  Two weeks from today I will address the best courses of action. 

Friday, February 7, 2020

January Employment Data: 225,000 New Jobs, Some Improvements, But AJSN Latent Demand Now 16.25 Million

I read a projection of 164,000 net new nonfarm positions for this morning’s Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Situation Summary, and thought that might be high.  It wasn’t.

That came in at 225,000.  Along with it the two measures of how common it is for Americans to be working or directly connected to the job market, the employment-population ratio and the labor force participation rate, each gained a substantial 0.2% to reach 61.2% and 63.4%.  Average private nonfarm payroll wages, including an adjustment, jumped 12 cents per hour to $28.44, about double the inflation rate. 

After those results, though, the good news ended.  Seasonally adjusted unemployment edged up from 3.5% to 3.6%, and the unadjusted figure, though mostly showing the difference between Decembers and Januarys, rose 0.6% from 3.4% to 4.0%.  The total number of unemployed, adjusted, gained 100,000 to 5.9 million, and the count of those working part-time for economic reasons, or laboring less than full-time but wanting that, was also up 100,000, reaching 4.2 million.  The total of those unemployed for 27 weeks or longer stayed at 1.2 million.   

The American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, the statistic showing how many more positions could be quickly filled if all knew they would be easy to get, jumped over 1.2 million as follows:

Three-fourths of this difference came from higher official unemployment, followed by 176,000 from those wanting work but not looking for it for the past year, 78,000 from those institutionalized, in the armed services, or off the grid, and 66,000 from people reporting discouragement.  Compared with a year ago, though, the AJSN declined 857,000, with about two-thirds due to lower official joblessness and a 184,000 improvement from those not looking for a year or more.  The share of the AJSN coming from unemployment was 36.0%, three percent higher than in December.

Where are we now?  Overall, there wasn’t much of a change this time.  The good results listed first above, though, should carry the day.  An increase in jobs that much more than the rising population absorbs is nothing to take for granted now, and labor force participation and employment-population results were up more than a nominal amount.  The employment rate increase and the AJSN rise, the latter when taken in monthly context, do not indicate any problems.  Accordingly, the step the turtle took was small, but it was real and it was forward.   

Friday, January 31, 2020

Views on Opioid Abuse Off and On the Job: What’s Right and What’s Wrong

A true epidemic involving drugs is in progress in the US.  Products containing opium, including heroin, methadone, painkillers, and the extremely powerful Fentanyl, were responsible for 47,000 2017 American overdose deaths, about the same as the number of suicides and more than all with guns, and has certainly increased since.  It is different from previous concerns about cocaine and marijuana, not only since the fatality numbers are vastly higher but that the substances are legal. 
A lot has been written about this problem during the past half-decade, but our understanding of it is still badly deficient.  We know that opioids are most abused by whites in relatively poor areas, and that deaths, spurred mostly but not completely by Fentanyl, have decupled in 20 years.  Beyond that, what is being written lately in major-publication articles?

The first is Olga Khazan’s boldly titled “The True Cause of the Opioid Epidemic,” in January’s The Atlantic.  Khazan considered a lot of material, starting with “should they be arresting people?” (no, not for a public health issue), and moving on to a JAMA study showing a correlation between opioid deaths and auto assembly factory closings (did not mean causation), including speculation that such downturns made people feel that “it’s not really worth investing in myself” (but what does that have to do with careless drug use?).

The strangest finding mentioned in this piece, though, was a study showing “that with each percentage-point increase in the unemployment rate, the death rate from opioids rises by 3.6 percent.”  If that is true, then why, from 2010 to 2017, did opioid deaths more than double when joblessness dropped from 9.6% to 4.3%? 

Other things mentioned in Khazan’s article include comparisons with alcohol, hard since drink’s effects are almost always behavioral and chronic, along with an excellent note that in states where doctors were required to fill out three copies of controlled-substance prescriptions, such death rates were far lower, and one researcher calling the epidemic “an everything problem.”  One point I add is that the line between legitimate medical use and dangerous abuse is not as clear as just following directions, especially when those can be “as needed,” and that restrictions can impede those who require these drugs the most.

Now on to workplaces, with “As nation struggles with opioid crisis, workers bring addiction to the job” (Charisse Jones and Jayne O’Donnell, USA Today, December 26th).  This effort started with a restaurant table busser, inexperienced with marijuana, being unable to fulfill her assignment after partaking, and moved to the general topic of people using mind-altering drugs at work.  As with overdose deaths, this issue is not clear-cut.  One problem is that many workers, especially at low-level jobs, function as well or even better while under various influences, and some do even better.  One writer documented during the 1980s, when cocaine use by major league baseball players reached a peak, that a number of them performed their best in years when they were using, and authority Bill James wrote that most players, though with their tendencies often changed, only broke even in performance during and after substance rehabilitation.

Yet while the highest shares of workplace psychotropic drug use are in low-level positions, it does often turn up in other ones.  Unrestricted telecommuting can mean more drugs, and as long as there have been jobs there have been workers under alcohol influence.  If it is clearly detrimental to performance, management is reasonable to take the approach advocated 36 years ago in Robert Townsend’s Further Up the Organization: “Don’t try to tell people how to conduct themselves at home.  But if someone comes to the office zonked a third time, fire him without bothering to find out what he’s using.”  While alternative methods, such as clear threats and placement in rehab programs, can be better, Townsend’s approach still gets to what is and is not a problem.  That is what, with drugs of any kind, we need to address.  

Friday, January 24, 2020

2020’s Brave New World of Work: Uncomfortable Toilets, Hiring on Health Habits, and Tracking Detailed Behavior

It’s been a while since I’ve seen “Big Brother” invoked in a headline or even an article.  Maybe George Orwell’s 1984, which was itself shorthand for the sort of things in today’s post, is fading out of our collective knowledge.  Yet it’s never been more pertinent. 

Off and on over the past ten years people have suggested doing away with cash, which, aside from messing up the likes of flea markets and private poker games, would potentially allow authorities, and anyone else who paid their way in, to see neat, categorized, comprehensive reports of how much so-and-so spent, and did not spend, on what.  Otherwise, such techniques have moved into areas at least people are choosing to occupy:  workplaces. 

First is a Fox News December 26th piece by Kim Komando, “Shocking facts about how much your employer monitors you.”  The author and radio host gave us at least a fine summary of what your bosses can collect and view:  anything running on your computer, including your keystroke count and amount of time spent online; any emails you receive or send; “mileage,” “route,” “driving behavior, including speed,” and even “time spent in and out of” any corporate vehicles you operate; location information from company smartphones (or your own if that’s the one you use for business), including after hours; and, even if you have not provided any passwords, your social media activity.  Whew!  The best thing about all this is that a very low percentage of this capability is actually being used and seen by management – the worst is that this capability is here, and workers will now always wonder what they will hear about at performance review time.  As well, there are now a whole new set of metrics which can be selectively used to document justification to favor those most personally liked in pay, promotion, travel, and training decisions.

Second was Amanda Mull’s “Workplace Wellness Comes for the Working Class,” dated January 3rd in The Atlantic.  It related that, beginning February 1, U-Haul will, wherever legal, bar nicotine users from becoming new employees.  There are 21 such states, of which 17 allow testing for it.  On one hand I sympathize with corporate wishes to “cut costs” – I read around 1990 in Boardroom Reports that smokers cost their companies an average of about $9,000 apiece per year, divided roughly equally into extra workplace cleaning and damage, higher health insurance costs, work time lost on smoke breaks, and the correlating higher absenteeism – on the other, restrictions of this sort cross the line between work activities and personal lives, and I see no reason why, using comprehensive data now available, firms could not also choose, say, to bar prospective workers buying a lot of cholesterol-rich food. 

The third piece was sort of bizarre, and its subject could head – pun intended – a list of business trends we hope will not last long.  Joe Pinsker’s December 19th The Atlantic “Slanted Toilets Are the Logical Extreme of Hyperproductivity” described how a new commode, called in yes-I’ll-say-Orwellian fashion “the StandardToilet,” is equipped with “a seat that’s set at an incline and lightly strains users’ legs, making it unpleasant to sit on for longer than five minutes or so.”  Its primary purpose, per its manufacturer, is “getting employees back to work in a timely manner.”  No, I don’t think this productivity device will get too far – aside from discriminating against women and causing issues for some people with physical problems, it is laughably mean-spirited, evoking Dickens as well.  The need to allow for time spent in the john is inherent to hiring living creatures, and once again we have an example of management’s tendency to punish everyone instead of dealing with individual problem performers.  All in all, a defensible but poopy idea.     

Will these three things happen in most 2020s workplaces?  No, clearly not.  But they will exemplify ways that employers can increase, and threaten to increase, control.  There will be well-publicized instances of problems caused by these or similar solutions.  How the people involved, including the courts, handle them will determine whether the 2030s are more or less worker-friendly.  

Friday, January 10, 2020

December Jobs Data: Everything Stayed the Same, Including the American Job Shortage Number (AJSN), Which Showed Latent Demand with Third Straight Month at 15.0 Million

This morning’s Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Situation Summary, with two published projections of 160,000 additional jobs and one with the 3.5% unemployment rate going unchanged, was supposed to be a little bit better than lukewarm.  The results came in a little bit worse than that.

We got 145,000 net new nonfarm payroll positions, 5,000 to 15,000 more than our population increase absorbed, and indeed seasonally adjusted joblessness held at 3.5%.  The other numbers didn’t do much of note either.  The total number of unemployed, 5.8 million, stayed the same, as did the count of those out for 12 months or longer (1.2 million) and the two measures of how common it is for Americans to be working, the labor force participation rate (63.2%) and the employment-population ratio (61.0%).  Unadjusted unemployment went up expectedly with the season from 3.3% to 3.4%.  Average hourly private nonfarm payroll earnings fell short of inflation, with a 3-cent rise to $28.32.  The only clear piece of good news came from the number of those working part-time for economic reasons, or holding on to shorter-hours positions while looking thus far unsuccessfully for full-time ones, with a second straight monthly decrease, down 200,000 to 4.1 million. 

The American Job Shortage Number, the metric showing how many more opportunities could be quickly filled if all understood they would be easy to get, rounded for its third straight month to 15.0 million, as follows:


Compared with a year before the AJSN has improved over 800,000, with over half of that from lower official unemployment, but almost 200,000 from fewer people expressing interest but not looking for a year or more, almost 100,000 from those discouraged, and a surprising 54,000 from fewer people in school or training.  The share of the AJSN from those officially jobless went up 0.4% to 33.0%.  Since December 2018 the front-line BLS numbers are all substantially better, with long-term unemployed down 100,000, total unemployed off 500 000, those working part-time for economic reasons now 600,000 fewer, adjusted unemployment down 0.4%, unadjusted unemployment down 0.3%, the labor force participation rate up 0.1%, and the employment-population ratio 0.4% higher.  The 84-cent wage increase, or 3.0% for the year, was slightly more than inflation. 

How did we do?  That’s easy to answer – we didn’t do anything.  We are now, though at a good high level, at an employment plateau.  Where we will go from here isn’t clear, but for now we aren’t going anywhere.  The turtle didn’t budge.

Friday, January 3, 2020

Looking Back on 2019, and What 2020 Starts With

A fine choice of publications for a quick glance at anything is The Week.  It is a newsmagazine with an especially compact format, excerpts from other periodicals, and pithy original articles.  One of the latter was January 1st’s “the big things we learned about the economy in 2019.” 

After calling 2019 “not the most dramatic year of the past decade” and contending that “wages, growth, and livelihoods are not doing as well as some headline figures suggest,” this piece offered five points.  The first was “we have no idea where full employment is.”  A look at my American Job Shortage Number provides one view, that, despite jobless rates at 50-year lows, we could still fill 15 million more positions.  There should be no mystery about why “inflation was nowhere in sight,” despite double-figure annual gains in money supply measures – it is from cash pooling up and not circulating in its historically usual Keynesian fashion.  The second, “lots of rich geniuses aren’t all that smart,” discussed Adam Neumann, CEO of business space rental company WeWork, of which “the IPO fell apart,” but Neumann proved to be plenty intelligent indeed, as the concern paid him $1 billion (!) to leave.

The third item, “private businesses aren’t good at self-policing,” used Boeing’s mysteriously apparently unresolvable 737 Max problem as an example.  The fourth, “The Trump administration’s economic policy still isn’t working,” was controversial but reasonable, calling the 2017 tax cuts a “complete dud” with “no discernible effect on business investment, on wages, or on employment,” evidently just making the aforementioned money pools larger, and the trade war achieving “nothing of significance.” 

The system is so large and open, though, that we don’t know how good or bad those policy changes really were.  The same thing goes for The Week’s fifth item, that “the minimum wage, however, is working.”  This issue, and even research done on it, is so politicized that we can’t be sure.  As I have said before it is logically virtually impossible, without 100% of the extra money circulating, that forced pay increases cannot cost any jobs at all, but a small number would be permissible for studies to show, per the article, that such “hikes generally have no significant effect on employment.”  Especially in good times, such work must also consider how many jobs higher mandatory pay caused to go uncreated, something almost impossible to accurately assess.   

That last point is a good transition to our new year, in which “minimum-wage workers in more than 20 states just got a raise,” published on New Year’s Day by Wise Publishing in Yahoo Finance.  Although I am against government-set floors on pay in general, it makes much more sense to me for states, cities, or even neighborhoods to agree on higher ones for themselves instead of imposing them on the entire diverse nation.  Here we learned that 29 states have lowest hourly rates higher than the federal $7.25, and 21 of those had January 1 increases.  The amounts range from Montana’s 15 cent boost to Washington state’s $1.50, with the latter now having the highest rate of those at $13.50, followed by California’s larger-employers $13.00 mandate, Massachusetts’s $12.75, and $12.00 in Arizona, Colorado, and Maine.  It seems to me quite reasonable that New York City has $15 per hour, less so for one of its congresspeople, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, to require that much “to give labor dignity” throughout the country, which, per the “nonpartisan” Congressional Budget Office, could cost 3.7 million Americans their jobs.

Will we have a recession this year?  Probably not.  Our conditional prosperity may be stuck in place for a while.  And accordingly, the money-backed line of our president being reelected, now 3 to 2 in favor of that happening, may stay at about that level.  Beyond that, 2020 is already ticking away.