Thursday, July 11, 2024

A Directionless Month for AI – What Do Its Scattered Reports Say?

Artificial intelligence seems to be moving into another phase, or subphase.  There have never been so many concerns, not about the technology causing a major disaster, but about it being adequate and worthwhile at all.  At the same time, there are new perceptions and more progress in related employment, and, if I am perceiving it correctly, growing acceptance that where AI is now might be where it is for months or even years, so stakeholders are realizing they cannot just wait for the next big eruption. 

A look at one chronic AI problem is the subject of “How Game Theory Can Make AI More Reliable” (Steve Nadis, Wired.com, June 9th).  The author bemoaned the tendency of large language models to give different answers, not all correct, to generative (open-ended) and discriminative (choice of options) questions.  Researchers have invented a game of sorts where “two modes” of LLMs are asked to agree on answers.  Excellence at games is a long-time AI strength, so engineers have reason to be optimistic such inconsistencies will go away.

Top AI workers are scarce, and many, soon after starting work with an organization, move on to another for more pay.  That is why, on one level, “Retention is all you need” (The Economist, June 15th).  As, per a market analyst, “20,000 companies in the West are hiring AI experts,” “AI talent, previously hoarded at tech giants, is becoming more distributed.”  Indeed, AI hiring at Amazon, Apple, Google, Meta, and Microsoft has only about broken even since the beginning of 2023.  Advertisements for many more software positions now mention AI, as do those for math, scientific research and development, and information design.

Defining another clear problem, Sherin Shibu’s “How Can AI Help Small Businesses?  It’s A Matter of Trust, According to a New Report” (Entrepreneur, June 17th), tells us that “just 7% of U.S. desk workers see AI answers as completely trustworthy,” the share of American businesses as of June was only 5% although 96% of “surveyed executives felt pressure to bring AI into their business,” and “privacy” and “data quality” were the other two top issues.  These tell AI companies where they should focus, perhaps above all other considerations.

Unsurprisingly, more universities and technical schools are preparing students for jobs using the technology.  A Brock Dumas June 17th Fox Business piece, “Want an AI career?  These colleges offer degrees for the best chance” provides a current look.  “A new study by software development firm Vention shows which U.S. colleges are offering bachelor’s degrees with the best chance of landing a job fresh out of school – and the potential for the biggest paychecks.”  The top five were California Polytechnic State University, Wake Forest University in North Carolina, Trinity University in Texas, Clarkson University in New York state, and Knox College in Illinois.  There are more, and this list will change, but these may be the ones currently most worth investigating.

Also, for now, “We’re Still Waiting for the Next Big Leap in AI” (Will Knight, Wired.com, June 20th).  Knight wrote that “the world is still waiting for another AI leap forward… akin to that delivered by GPT-4” 16 months ago.  He described possible contenders, but then concluded “it’s unclear how long the world must wait for that next big leap in AI.  OpenAI has said it has started training its next big model.  In the meantime, we will need to figure out new ways to measure how useful the technology really is.”

On June 27th, Fox News released “US tops world ratings for AI preparedness:  China, Russia and Iran lag in key measures, report finds” (Peter Aitken).  The rankings were on countries’ “ability to immediately adopt artificial intelligence… into their economies.”  The American “value of preparedness” tied the Netherlands, and was followed by Finland, Estonia, New Zealand, Germany, Sweden, Australia, Japan, and Israel.  That may or may not prove to be valuable information.

There must be something noteworthy about a source called Futurism.com having the most consistently negative AI articles of anyone.  Here are two more.  The first is “There’s a Small Problem with the AI Industry:  It’s Making Absolutely No Money” (July 4th).  Author Sharon Adarlo noted that “Goldman Sachs analysts have concluded… that AI just isn’t making any serious money yet,” and that “Goldman found that companies that hoped to profit from using AI to boost productivity – ranging from H&R Block to Walmart – have seen their shares vastly underperform the broader stock market since the tail end of 2022.”  She also found that “the only companies making much actual revenue off AI are the ones selling the hardware it needs, like Nvidia.”  While “companies using it want to see major returns,” “so far, it sounds like they aren’t.  Maybe the real question is how much runway the AI industry has before business leaders move onto the next thing.”  This piece is consistent with my previous comments.

The second Futurism.com piece was “Expert Warns That AI Industry Due for Huge Collapse” (Victor Tangermann, July 9th).  He named a “founding partner” at a “macroeconomic research firm” calling AI “completely unproven,” saying that its hallucinations may never go away and that it was “too energy hungry,” along with a previous Stability AI CEO telling bankers that “this will be the biggest bubble of all time.”  Hardly universal views, but with merit.

Overall, is it true that, per New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman on July 9th, “the artificial intelligence revolution of the past four years is widely expected to slam into the white-collar job market in the next four like a Category 5 hurricane”?  We don’t know that.  As with actual storms, we will benefit from tracking them and projecting their courses and times of landfall, but this one is way too weak and distant to fear.  We don’t need to buy flashlights, batteries, and water, and may never need to.  The future of artificial intelligence is still up in the air – and it may never come down.

Friday, July 5, 2024

Jobs in June: Seasonal Worsenings Mostly Offset Elsewhere, with AJSN Showing Latent Demand Up Almost Half a Million

The published projections I saw for this morning's Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Situation Summary was that it would be worse than for May’s data a month ago.  The two estimates of net new nonfarm payroll positions were 190,000 and 200,000, and unemployment might be going up again.  So what happened?

Employment as above, at plus 206,000, was quite close to the predictions.  Seasonally adjusted joblessness had its third straight 0.1% gain, to 4.1%, with the corresponding total of people up 200,000 to 6.8 million.  (We now can ignore when the BLS says something “changed little.”)  Long-term unemployed, for 27 weeks or longer, gained 100,000 to 1.5 million, up 36% from June 2023, with so many people joining the labor force that its participation rate increased, 0.1% to 62.6%.  The measure of how many Americans are actually working, the employment-population ratio, stayed at 60.1%.  The count of those working part-time for economic reasons, or holding onto shorter-hours positions while looking for full-time ones, shed 200,000 to get to 4.2 million.  Average private nonfarm payroll earnings rose 9 cents per hour, close to the inflation rate, to $35.00.

Since May and June have different employment characteristics, the seasonally unadjusted figures did not match the others.  Unemployment that way jumped 0.6% to 4.3%.  The count of those not interested in working lost 637,000 to 93,776,000.  Those employed rose 433,000 to 161,774,000.

The American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, the statistic showing how many additional positions could be quickly filled if all knew they would be easy and routine to get, was up 478,000, as follows:


The share of the AJSN from those officially jobless was 4.3% higher at 37.7%.  Compared with a year earlier, the AJSN grew 504,000, with almost 800,000 more from unemployment partially equalized by, among others, 174,000 from fewer people wanting work but not looking for it for a year or more, and 200,000 fewer from expatriates. 

What patterns can we get from this report?  The new jobs, once again plentiful and nothing to take for granted, went largely to people with statuses other than simple unemployment.  Many more people returned to the labor market, and enough were unsuccessful to bring overall joblessness up.  A goodly number of those without work are not finding it, even after six months away.  Latent demand is not only alive and well but increasing.  Still, June is a tougher month than May, and the smaller, marginal categories show that this was, overall, a good one.  The turtle took a moderate step forward.

Friday, June 28, 2024

Driverless Cars in Mid-2024: A Niche, A Great Future, or Stalling Out?

Autonomous vehicles, through thrown off their horse (strange pun intended) years ago, have not gone away, and aren’t even out of the news as artificial hearts have long been.  What has been happening with them?

The largest recent news item was “Feds are investigating Waymo driverless cars after reports of crashes, traffic violations” (Corina Vanek Natalie Neysa Alund, USA Today, May 16th).  The National Highway Safety Administration got “reports of nearly two dozen incidents where a Waymo vehicle was the sole vehicle operating during a collision or the driving system allegedly violated traffic laws.”  There were no injuries, but “17 involved crashes or fires,” and the automated driving system “was either engaged through the incident, or, in certain cases when supervised by an in-vehicle test driver,” it “disengaged in the moments just before an incident occurred.”  Waymo gave itself a vote of confidence, with a spokesperson saying “we are proud of our performance and safety record over tens of millions of autonomous miles driven”; additionally, “according to data released by Waymo in December 2023… which was peer-reviewed by experts outside the company, Waymo vehicles were involved in 0.4 collisions with injuries per million miles driven, compared with humans who were involved in 2.78.”  This story graphically shows how autonomous vehicles are being held to vastly higher standards.

Travelers are showing an interest in “San Francisco’s Hot Tourist Attraction:  Driverless Cars” (Lauren Sloss, The New York Times, May 22nd).  There they “have been operating commercially since August,” though only through Waymo, as “popular pickup and drop-off locations” include “the Ferry Building, Pier 39, Coit Tower, and the Japantown Peace Plaza.”  They are “all-electric Jaguar I PACEs,” and are accessed through an app.  Trips are remotely monitored.  Although different in some ways, “perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of a first-time Waymo ride is how quickly it feels normal.”

A company not doing as well is the subject of “The Very Slow Restart of G.M.’s Cruise Driverless Car Business” (Yiwen Lu, The New York Times, May 30th).  General Motors is still using its “sprawling complex in Warren, Mich.,” but “G.M.’s driverless future looks a lot further away today than it did a year ago,” before “a Cruise driverless car hit and dragged a pedestrian for 20 feet on a San Francisco street, causing severe injuries.”  Since then, it has “slowed its breakneck development to a crawl,” and, per a consultant, “catching up with Waymo technologically is going to take three to five years at best.”  Yet GM’s CEO said the subsidiary “has made tangible progress.”

Meanwhile, we saw “Waymo, Zoox expand autonomous ride-hailing operations despite recent AV setbacks” (Jordyn Grzelewski, Emerging Tech Brew, June 11th).  Zoox is moving from three cities to five, but is only testing; Waymo “revealed that it expanded its ride-hailing service area in Metro Phoenix by 90 square miles, bringing its total service area to 315,” and as well as San Francisco, “operates… in Los Angeles, and is testing in Austin.”

For now, Waymo is the only normally available option.  But another competitor, nation-sized, is emerging, as “China Is Testing More Driverless Cars Than Any Other Country” (Keith Bradsher, The New York Times, June 13th).  In the city of Wuhan, “a fleet of 500 taxis navigated by computers, often with no safety drivers in them for backup, buzz around,” operated by “tech giant Baidu.”  No mention here, though, of a date when paying customers can ride in them.  That seems better though, than another major country, as, although resumed in March, “last fall, Japan suspended its test of driverless golf carts that travel seven miles per hour after one of them hit the pedal of a parked bicycle,” causing no injuries. 

All of this is much the same as 2023’s reports, and largely like the past five years’ worth.  While Waymo is piling up miles and a record, the others are too often stopped by small mishaps.  Companies’ levels of caution are based on the correct perception that such blips unduly scare people.  However, as before, we are paying too little attention to the upside of driverless technology.  Over 40,000 died in American car crashes last year alone, compared with zero in the accidents above.  A tenuous niche has been established – a great future autonomous vehicles still have, if we allow that.  Will we get to the point where extensive testing efforts are not halted for months by the likes of hitting a bicycle pedal?  The answer to that question is more important than any possible driverless technology improvement.  The choice, once again, is ours.

Friday, June 14, 2024

Five Weeks of Artificial Intelligence – Where Is It Now?

A lot has happened with AI over the past several weeks.  I’m not talking about projections, assumptions, justified or other worries, 100-to-1 price-to-earnings ratio stock run-ups, market capitalizations, self-serving representations, CEO hijinks, and other things at the fringes of substantive news making up the great bulk of writing on the technology.  There is real stuff here, so much that I’m calling this piece an expanded edition, appropriate since I won’t be posting next week.

The oldest article is “The great AI power grab” (The Economist, May 11th).  It addresses the “awful lot of electricity” the software will need, and asks “where will it come from?.”  With “Dominion Energy, one of America’s biggest utilities” being “frequently” asked for “several gigawatts,” when the company has only 34 installed, it’s getting up there.  That power is consumed “at a steady rate,” regardless of sunlight and wind conditions.  It has already started affecting AI companies’ choices of location, and will do so more as long as anyone anywhere has what they need.

It took some digging to show, on my last AI post, what actual sales were, but how about number of transactions?  That is the metric used in “The 10 most popular AI companies businesses are paying for” (Jordan Hart, Business Insider, May 12th).  The list, which includes “specialized tools” as well as “generative AI,” in order, are OpenAI, Midjourney, Anthropic, Firefiies.ai, ElevenLabs, Perplexity AI, Instill AI, Instantly.ai, Beautiful.ai, and Pinecone.  I found it noteworthy how many are not household words, even in my house.  It shows not only that there are firms being quietly effective, but that some with the noisiest press releases aren’t selling to many people at all.

“As A.I. search ramps up, publishers worry” (Andrew Ross Sorkin, New York Times DealBook, May 15th) shows cause for concern among those using an “ad-focused business model.”  They are fearful, as “AI Overviews will give more prominence to A.I.-generated results, essentially pushing website links farther down the page, and potentially depriving those non-Google sites of traffic.”  They will need to work this out, as the presence of AI does not please everyone.

Something remarkably lost in the outpouring of manufacturer claims got its own article: “Silicon Valley’s A.I. Hype Machine” (Julia Angwin, The New York Times, May 19th).  Although in early 2023 “leading researchers asked for a six-month pause in the development of larger systems of artificial intelligence, fearing that the systems would become too powerful,” now “the question is… whether A.I. is too stupid and unreliable to be useful.”  Results have lagged the previous intensity, but corporate statements haven’t – for example, OpenAI CEO Sam Altman, the week before, had “promised he would unveil “new stuff” that “feels like magic to me,”” but delivered only “a rather routine update.”  One “cryptocurrency researcher” asserted that AI companies “do a poor job of much of what people try to do with them” and “can’t do the things their creators claim they one day might.”  The author agreed that “some of A.I.’s greatest accomplishments,” such as its 2023 law bar exam performance critical to perception of AI being amazingly high quality turning out to be in the 48th percentile instead of the 90th as stated, “seem inflated.”  The technology, per Angwin, “is feared as an all-powerful being,” but now seems “more like a bad intern.”  There will be growing discontent about blatant exaggerations as products fail to meet the stunning standards we were told to expect by now.

The big May story, which many probably confused with higher AI sales, was “Nvidia, Powered by A.I. Boom, Reports Soaring Revenues and Profits” (Don Clark, The New York Times, May 22nd).  For this leading supplier, “revenue was $26 billion for the three months that ended in April, surpassing its $24 billion estimate in February and tripling sales from a year earlier for the third consecutive quarter.  Net income surged sevenfold to $5.98 billion.”  These numbers show how much more companies such as OpenAI have bought than they have sold.

A related area was the subject of “OpenAI Insiders Warn of a ‘Reckless’ Race for Dominance” (Kevin Roose, The New York Times, June 4th).  Per “a group” there, the firm, “racing to build the most powerful A.I. systems ever created,” “published an open letter… calling for leading A.I. companies, including OpenAI, to establish greater transparency and more protections for whistle-blowers.”  That firm, “still recovering from an attempted coup last year” and “facing legal battles with content creators who have accused it of stealing copyrighted works to train its models,” has big issues to go with its big chip purchases.

For June, the largest news item so far has been “Apple Jumps Into A.I. Fray With Apple Intelligence” (Tripp Mickle, The New York Times, June 10th).  This company, ancient and entrenched by the standards of its industry, “revealed plans to bring (AI) to more than a billion iPhone users around the world,” including “a major upgrade for Siri, Apple’s virtual assistant.”  This business decision has a huge possible upside for AI, as it could “add credibility to a technology that has more than a few critics, who worry that it is mistake-prone and could add to the flood of misinformation already on the internet.”  That would close some of OpenAI’s sales-to-purchases gap – I don’t say “will,” since, per Forbes Daily on June 12th, “to utilize these AI features, iPhone users will have to wait until the iOS 18 operating system becomes available later this year,” which, per the Angwin story above, seems less than a sure thing.

It has been slow on the national regulatory front lately, so we are seeing “States Take Up A.I. Regulation Amid Federal Standstill” (Cecilia Kang, The New York Times, June 10th).  Although, per the Institute for Technology Law and Policy’s director, “clearly there is a need for harmonized federal legislation,” current and anticipated violations are prodding other governments to quicker action.  “Lawmakers in California last month advanced about 30 new measures on artificial intelligence aimed at protecting consumers and jobs,” including “rules to prevent A.I. tools from discriminating in housing and health care services” and ones that “also aim to protect intellectual property and jobs.”  Legislation has already passed in Colorado and Tennessee, the first against “discrimination,” and the second, through the snappily named “ELVIS act,” guarding “musicians from having their voice and likenesses used in A.I.-generated content without their explicit consent.”

Two AI achievements have reached the present, as described in “This is, like, really nice” (Vlad Savov, Bloomberg Tech Daily, June 11th).  Here, even though “the breathless bluster about AI changing industries, jobs and lifestyles has obviously not been met by reality,” it has come up with the “Descript editing tool” for audio files, which “eliminates pauses, verbal fillers like “like” and “um,” redundant retakes and anything else that’s not essential.”  Listening to its end results, the author “couldn’t tell where the seams were,” and noted that when “everything takes far longer to edit than its actual running time,” “automating the process is invaluable.”  The second was “AI noise cancelling” with “the Audeze Filter,” “a smartphone-sized Bluetooth conference speaker” that “effectively cancels even unpredictable and high-pitched noises, such as the crying of a baby,” and in a demonstration “a cacophonous cafĂ© was made tranquil with the flip of a switch.”  Not world domination, but perhaps it can help with wedding audiotapes damaged by unwanted sounds.

To end a bit lighter, new technologies get us new word usages, with one of the latest in “First Came ‘Spam.’  Now, With A.I., We’ve Got ‘Slop’” (Benjamin Hoffman, The New York Times, June 11th).  The author identified that as “a broad term that has developed some traction in reference to shoddy or unwanted A.I. content in social media, art, books, and, increasingly, in search results.”  As a two-years-ago “early adopter of the term” was quoted, “Society needs concise ways to talk about modern A.I. – both the positives and the negatives.  ‘Ignore that email, it’s spam,’ and ‘Ignore that article, it’s slop,’ are both useful lessons.”  And so it will be.  Beyond that, though, we have no idea.

Friday, June 7, 2024

The Lukewarm Reports Continue: Plenty of New Jobs, but AJSN’s Latent Demand Is Up to 16.8 Million, with Unemployment and Other Key Figures Worse

This morning’s Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Situation Summary was important for other observers and me for different reasons.  Most were concerned with whether the job market was cooling off, meaning that if it was, we might see lower interest rates sooner.  They got a mixed result – while the number of net new nonfarm payroll positions again beat expectations, coming in at 272,000 instead of 180,000 or 190,000, seasonally adjusted unemployment broke upward out of a 10-month range to 4.0%.  I was looking to both the second of these and other figures, which taken together give us more insight than any one or two can provide.

There, the results were more bad than good.  Unadjusted joblessness rose 0.2% to 3.7%, mostly not for seasonality.  We reached 6.6 million adjusted jobless, up 100,000.  The count of people out of work for 27 weeks or longer also hiked 100,000, to 1.4 million.  The two measures of people with jobs and those also officially jobless, the employment-population ratio and the labor force participation rate, fell 0.1% and 0.2% to reach 60.1% and 62.5%.  The number of people working, unadjusted, fell 249,000 to 161,341,000. 

On the plus side, the count of those not interested in working shed 667,000 to 94,413,000.  Those working part-time for economic reasons or keeping less than full-time employment while looking for something with more hours lost 100,000 to 4.4 million.  Average private nonfarm payroll earnings rose 12 cents, more than inflation this time, to $34.91. 

The American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, the measure showing how many additional positions could be quickly filled if all knew they were easy and routine to get, increased almost 800,000 to reach the following:

 


The largest contributor to higher latent demand was people available for work but not looking for it over the past year, which added almost 400,000 more than last time to the metric.  Most of the rest of the increase was from unemployment itself, but those discouraged and those wanting work but not available for it now also added significant amounts.  Compared with a year before, the AJSN has also gone up, mostly from official unemployment, just over 400,000.  The share of the AJSN from unemployment rose 0.3% to 33.4%.

With all those new jobs, which the reduced number of people not interested more than absorbed, why can’t I rate this report higher?  Adding to the preponderance of evidence from the second through fourth paragraphs above, and the worsened AJSN, are the smaller categories therein.  There will be little discussion elsewhere about the effect of more people discouraged, not looking for the previous year, and temporarily unavailable, but they conceal a lot of people not making it in today’s market, new jobs notwithstanding.  Just as the count of those claiming they do not want a job decreases during truly good times, fewer people turn up in these smaller groupings when they see employment opportunities they like.  If they were counted as unemployed, their effect would be on front pages. 

Overall, we’re no longer in our best job market times.  That 272,000 can only go so far.  The turtle, last month, stayed right where he was.

Friday, May 31, 2024

Where Gig Work and Side Hustles Have Been Going, and What They Mean

There’s nothing new about either gig work or side hustles.  The first was called off-the-books, or in some circles, “owlhooting,” with pay or other compensation unknown to the authorities.  I engaged in it at age 10 or so when a fruit delivery truck driver offered me a “nice yellow apple” if I helped him find an apartment receiving his products.  The second type was known as “moonlighting,” and was generally not revealed to primary employers – I did that for almost my entire business career, ending over 20 years ago, and kept it to myself.

Both forms of work have evolved in significance as well as legally.  One problem is a tendency to illegitimately classify ordinary jobs that way.  The latest case I have seen was described by Terri Gerstein in “More People Are Being Classified as Gig Workers.  That’s Bad for Everyone” (January 28th, The New York Times).  It’s bad for the workers but not for employers, as they can thereby avoid providing benefits such as a minimum wage, overtime, and sick leave.  The law is simple – per Gerstein, “an independent contractor is considered someone who works primarily free of control and direction and is “customarily engaged” in an independent trade or business related to the service performed.”  In the case of temporary employees, seemingly a gray area between employment and gig work but a clear case of the former, companies in Colorado have been drawing fines from governmental department Denver Labor for treating restaurant “servers, bartenders, line and prep cooks, and… dishwashers” as if they could choose their own hours, uniforms, and work locations.  That’s a legal matter, as it should be.

One explanation for increased appeal of these two labor types to some people is “Why do women look for freelance, gig jobs?  Avoiding the ‘old boys network’ at the office” (Paul Davidson, USA Today, February 9th).  The author said that “there’s a reason lots of women are freelancing, doing contract or gig jobs and saying goodbye to the traditional workplace – and it’s not just about flexible hours.  They don’t want to deal with co-workers.”  That factor was the most common reason why, in a December survey, “they find gig work more attractive than working in an office,” with flexibility, “setting their own hours,” and “avoiding time-wasting commutes” also common reasons.  The difference between men and women was huge, with 77% of women naming the problem with fellow employees but only 23% of men agreeing.  A National Women’s Law Center executive thought “women don’t always feel empowered and don’t feel comfortable,” and “a feeling of uneasiness” about “work-life balance” affects them often as well, all worsened by lowered amounts of allowed remote labor.  Yet “thirty-eight percent of men and 17% of women describe themselves as flexible or gig workers.”  I have read elsewhere about Generation Z employees, especially, wanting more flexibility – it is probable that there will be some common workplace practice changes along these lines in the next decade or sooner.

That cohort is prominent in “Rising number of workers depend on side jobs” (Christopher Murray, Fox Business, April 16th).  Per a February study, “22% of workers in the U.S. had side gigs,” with 53% of those “living paycheck to paycheck.”  Of Generation Z, 32% had outside jobs.  Although that is easy to explain because of lower income and net worth, that number sounds higher than for other generations at similar ages.  Consistently, from a different source, the “Share of gig workers hit a new high in March” (Eric Revell, Fox Business, May 3rd).  Bank of America customers make up a different set of people, and the 3.8% of them “who received income from gig platforms through direct deposits or debit cards” may seem puny but was “above the previous peak that was reached in early 2022.”  That may be only a small subset of people working that way, but the comparison with early data is worthwhile.

What about gig employment and other secondary work would be beneficial change?  One thing likely to happen is that, whether their employees talk about it with others or not, managements will expect that a good share of their people have such ventures.  That has consequences for human resources practices – for example, de facto requirements that workers put in extra time may meet with greater resistance than before.  Understanding people is an important business skill, and helps with deliverables as important as cutting turnover.  Accordingly, firms that tolerate more of workers’ off-hours choices, including earning money elsewhere, will be more successful.  We may be seeing the end of work’s centrality to identity, and organizational handling of gig work and side hustles rates to be an important part.  That, beyond the income they provide, is their true significance.

Thursday, May 23, 2024

Around the Economy: Consumer Shifts, Productivity, the Stock Market, And Of Course Inflation

How are we doing now?  If not consistently well, what’s the problem?

According to Emily Stewart, in “America has a ‘trapped in place’ economy” (Business Insider, March 20th), your economic happiness depends on whether “you like your situation right now – your job, your house, your car,” in which case “you can keep it.”  However, “if you aren’t so satisfied,” then ”well, tough luck, because you might have to keep it anyway.”  Her thinking was that buying things in general costs more from the past few years’ inflation, interest rates have gone up with mortgages up from 2.5% in 2019 to about 7% recently, substantially fewer businesses are hiring, and housing prices are “47% higher than they were in 2019.”  Although our 3.9% unemployment is historically low, that is more a matter of existing positions staying than new ones opening.

One improvement relatively new to 2024 is that “Productivity is way up” (Neil Dutta, Business Insider, March 21st).  The boost from artificial intelligence hasn’t much happened yet, but “labor productivity – the wonkish measure of how much a worker can get done in a given hour – is already on the rise.”  Productivity results have previously been distorted by factors having little to do with people creating more – for example, it jumped in the early pandemic because workers in the least productive fields, such as food service and preparation, were losing their jobs and dropping out of the calculation.  One element that legitimately contributes, though, is the thinning out and consolidating of corporate positions, as slack time is reduced.  In all, higher productivity is good, but it must be accompanied by other positive measures to be meaningful.

One area of prosperity has been fantastic – stock performance.  As of late yesterday morning, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was up 5.69% this year and Nasdaq has risen 14.12%.  Both have seen frequent all-time highs, with a large milestone for the former, about which Paul Krugman asked “What Does the Dow Hitting 40,000 Tell Us?” (The New York Times, May 20th).  He concluded that while “by the numbers, the economy looks very good,” with 27 straight months of sub-4% joblessness, inflation “way down from its peak in 2022,” and “U.S. economic growth over the past four years… much faster than in comparable major wealthy nations,” stock prices are not “a good measure of economic success.”  There is still no denying, though, that they are “hitting new highs.”

That brings us to inflation in particular.  First, Krugman in the Times again, with “Remember that news report about low gas prices?  Neither do I.” (May 7th).  The author presented several graphs intended to debunk common incorrect assertions.  The first showed “rates of wage growth” of the bottom and top income quartiles, showing that for every month from 2020 to 2023 the bottom quarter’s average percentage increases had been higher.  The next compared “wages and inflation” for almost the same period, with the latter, different for every income cohort, being outstripped by wage growth for “bottom,” “middle,” and “top” groups, the largest difference in the lowest.  His second-to-last chart was a stunning look at “TV mentions vs. nominal gas price,” with a consistently close relationship between higher levels of both.  That showed how easy it is for distorted price perceptions to be facilitated, even if unintentionally.

On May 15th a key measure came in, reported on that same day in “Inflation Moderated Slightly in April, Offering Some Relief for Consumers” (Ben Casselman, The New York Times).  The Consumer Price Index edged down from March’s 3.5% year-over-year reading to 3.4%, as “the “core” index – which strips out volatile food and fuel prices… – rose 3.6 percent last month, down from 3.8 percent a month earlier.”  Later that same day, also in the Times, Krugman returned with “Is Disinflation Back on Track?”  He concluded, considering business price-change expectations, that “underlying annual inflation is probably around 2.5 percent, maybe even less,” but said “even if I’m right, it’s going to take at least a fer more months of good inflation news before this happy reality sinks in.”

Yet, consistent with the first article mentioned in this post, not all recent economic news is good.  I end with “Rent Is Harder to Handle and Inflation Is a Burden, a Fed Financial Survey Finds” (Jeanna Smialek, The New York Times, May 21st).  “American households struggled to cover some day-to-day expenses in 2023, including rent, and many remained glum about inflation even as price increases slowed.”  However, “households feel good about their job and wage growth prospects and are saving for retirements.”  On inflation, though, “65 percent of adults said that price changes had made their financial situations worse,” as a depressing “ninety-six percent of people making less than $25,000 said that their situations had been made worse.”  Overall, “the report underscores that even though inflation is cooling, it remains a major concern for many Americans, one that may be a big enough worry to take the shine away from an economy that is growing quickly and adding jobs.”

That’s the problem.  Lower current inflation does not mean prices are returning to even 2022 levels.  They are higher, and people are feeling it.  That is the reason why so many Americans say the economy is going poorly.  That is also why as small as inflation seems to be, it is still important that we bring it down.  I expect we will, but if we don’t, we can expect some real social problems – and a presidential election result many of us do not want.