Friday, December 30, 2016

Driverless Cars This Fall: Technology and Business

Beyond the views, what’s been happening with self-driving vehicles over the past several months?

In “A Lesson of Tesla Crashes?  Computer Vision Can’t Do It All Yet” (The New York Times, September 19), Steve Lohr recapped May’s fatal Florida accident, correctly judging that “the man placed too much confidence in Tesla’s self-driving system.”  The issue is that naming it something like “autopilot,” when it is designed only to spell operators for problem-free and probably short times, is asking for trouble, and now, what with the well-publicized state of advancement in the field, is unnecessary.  When more progress is made with technologies such as the one Lohr described, Stanford and Princeton Universities’ ImageNet, and problems such as the connection between Tesla’s driving and braking systems which caused that crash are fixed, drivers will be more able to disengage.

On that same date, in Business Insider’s “Uber’s self-driving cars are impressive – but there’s still a lot we can’t do,” Danielle Muoio described her experience riding in one of Uber’s Pittsburgh test cars, summarizing that they had real problems “simply having to deal with other human drivers on the road.”  As she photographed in action, during her ride the operator needed to take over control when an 18-wheel truck turned right, from the left lane, in front of them.  The Uber test, per Muoio, is also uncovering issues these vehicles have:  with bridges, given the lack of buildings next to them; with snow, since it covers up lane markings and other orientation markers;  and even with trees, which look different enough in summer and winter for the systems to identify specific ones.  On the other hand, these tests are running up miles, and Google’s has, as of October 5th (Wall Street Journal), reached 2,000,000 of them. 

Sunday Review in The New York Times is a good place for issues we should be thinking about, even without solid conclusions, and that perfectly describes Azim Shariff, Iyad Rahwan, and Jean-Francois Bonnefon’s November 3rd “Whose Life Should Your Car Save?”  This was not the first time I or others have mentioned the issue of how driverless cars should be programmed when faced with a choice “between risks to its passengers and risks to a potentially greater number of pedestrians,” but it didn’t need to be.  We learned here that when Science magazine presented the results of people being surveyed on life-or-death scenarios, “a large majority… agreed that cars that impartially minimized overall casualties were more ethical, and were they type they would like to see on the road,” but also that “most people” showed “a strong preference for buying the self-protective one” instead.  That looks like a crime of the 2030s – people illegally modifying their driverless vehicle software to protect themselves first. 

In that same newspaper the next day, Henry Fountain’s “A Slow Ride Toward the Future of Public Transportation” raised some less commonly presented issues.  He mentioned the appearance of driverless buses around Helsinki campuses and factories, and suggested, correctly for once, that self-driving cars would cut auto sales “in cities” – not in the country.  Those, along with a first experimental bus in public territory, use a combination of environment-detecting sensors and an approach described 64 years ago for automating barbers in Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano, capturing and replicating the motions of human drivers.  The piece also mentioned a local computer application, Whim, which Finns can now use to not only plan but book transportation, the forms to be determined by the system, by keying in starting point and destination.

On December 13 in Salon, we found that Google’s driverless effort is now named Waymo, and that the company, ever optimistic, officially expects their vehicles to be “commonplace” in four years or less.  That same day, Cecilia Kang in the Times (Cars Talking to One Another?  They Could Under Proposed Safety Rules) suggested something I should have thought of myself, that driverless vehicles routinely broadcast, air-traffic-control style, their location, speed, and direction to each other.  This plan has the backing and involvement of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and, when technical and bureaucratic issues with radio frequencies are resolved, seems a huge favorite to be implemented.

From December 14th to December 21st, covered by the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, we saw the rise and fall of Uber’s San Francisco self-driving taxi service.  On that first date they announced that it, though only provided by five cars, would be available throughout that entire city.  They tried to sidestep local regulations by claiming they were not autonomous, and indeed each would have two people, a driver and an engineer, in front, but the imprecision of the laws ended up working against them, and, after the California Department of Motor Vehicles cancelled the cars’ registrations, the service was discontinued.  It will come back, though, at another place, most likely within months.

On December 22nd in Salon, Angelo Young told us that Google’s first Waymo vehicle is now planned to be a minivan.  It’s as least as good as any, since, as modern-day station wagons, minivans accommodate a variety of occupants and cargo, and the expected much greater safety of self-driving cars would appeal to the same demographic. 

Fox Business peeked at the stock investment merits of two major driverless players, including Google’s parent company (“How Apple and Alphabet are De-risking their Self-Driving Car Efforts,” December 23rd).  Commentators Dylan Lewis and Daniel Sparks reached the same conclusion that I did months ago, that producing such things is too much for any single firm.  They added properly that, unlike what these companies are accustomed to in the smartphone market, they will not be able to achieve “high-30%” profit margins, and that both would like to minimize the manufacturing they do themselves.  Yet somebody must make them – could they get away with pawning off this tangible product bearing their nameplate on someone else?  We will see.

Finally, two days ago, Brent Snavely mentioned a name not as commonly mentioned in the driverless world as its competitors.  In “Brain in the Trunk:  Ford to unveil next self-driving car” (Detroit Free Press), he says that Henry’s old company is, along with the others, “investing heavily” in the technology, and is focusing farther down the road, “to develop a fully autonomous car that does not require the driver to operate the vehicle.”  I’m not sure this is a good place to try to leapfrog competitors, but what do I know?  They are hoping to do that without any special roadway technology, by reading where they are going through LIDAR and visual sensors.

So how about jobs?  Hang on to your hat – 2017 will be quite a year.  Expect an updated look at how many truck driving, cabdriving, auto sales, and other positions might be lost by when, sometime in the middle of it. 

Friday, December 23, 2016

Driverless Cars This Fall: Regulations and Questions

Another three months has gone by in this almost $1 trillion area of investment and future promise.  What has happened on the government and commentary side?

On September 19th, the U.S. Department of Transportation released its first set of what could be called guidelines on semiautonomous and fully self-driving vehicles.  In an apparent attempt to guide the technology’s progress without putting up roadblocks, this federal agency named 15 points just short of formal laws.  Per Cecilia Kang in The New York Times the next day, they were sharing data on accidents with regulators, defining privacy expectations for drivers, manufacturers getting safety algorithms validated by others, hacking prevention, effective capability to move control back and forth from systems to drivers, ensuring damage to cars from accidents would be no worse than to today’s ordinary meatmobiles, operation education, a technological-improvement certification requirement, preventing dangerously damaged driverless cars from operating before repairs, ability to follow local traffic laws but being able to violate them in order to prevent a crash, attention to the ethical issues of vehicles protecting their occupants or others first, proof of operational testing and validation, ability to respond to normal and abnormal driving situations, assessing the driver’s fitness to take control, and adequate technology validation including simulations, test-track and road testing.  These make up a comprehensive set of areas to be addressed, and, especially when framed as strong suggestions rather than laws, seem truly positive to me, with one exception.  The idea that, as Kang put it, “any software updates or new driverless features must be submitted to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration,” could be a recipe for bureaucratic backlogs, and, with the developers of these vehicles knowing far more than federal regulators, would be better replaced with something more cooperative, along the lines of corporate technologists making cases to their managements for upgrades or implementations with quick, perhaps emailed, approvals or requests for more information.  Otherwise, government’s attitude toward self-driving capability seems excellent, with President Barack Obama saying, in a Pittsburgh newspaper editorial also that Monday, that such vehicles could save tens of thousands of lives a year, and that the guidelines above were “flexible and designed to evolve with new advances.”  In all, Washington, in contrast with its response to many other things, hit the right notes here.

Two weeks later, the Times editorial staff, in “Ushering in a Safe, Driverless Future,” took a more regulatory and less positive view, saying that self-driving cars would scare people, with “those fears… made all the more real by a fatal crash involving a Tesla Model S that was traveling on autopilot in May.”  Although the piece tipped its hat to the 35,000 auto accident fatalities last year, at which rate there have been over 20,000 since this last driverless one, it said that “automakers and technology companies might resist mandatory rules, but they shouldn’t,” as that would reassure all that “companies are not using them as crash test dummies.”  I was disappointed to see advocacy of stricter standards than what the Department of Transportation seems to intend, and think that the potential for slow regulatory approval could cost many more lives than one in seven months. 

Eleven weeks after the announcement above, Bill McGee’s “Driverless cars for travelers:  More questions than answers” appeared in USA Today.  The December 7th piece presented many queries, mostly answered already as above by the Department of Transportation, but with more emphasis on driver training and how to avoid excessive distraction.  It also brought up enough follow-on issues for an entire speculative book, such as the effect on auto insurance, determination of who or what is responsible for mishaps, taxation impacts, and even what might happen to the travel industry. 

The most negative response I saw, though, was from Jamie Lincoln Kitman, again on the New York Times op-ed page.  December 19th’s “Google Wants Driverless Cars, but Do We?” was a compendium of the worst anyone could say about self-driving technology, ranging from its most doubtful, extreme, and uncommonly touted advantages (lower harmful emissions?  no airbags?), to allegedly required enormous infrastructure improvements, job losses by “millions of truck and taxi drivers,” the idea that it will cause mass transit to go away, and even questioning federal accident statistics.  Some of his concerns have validity, but the piece was strangely one-sided.  It was especially odd to see someone connected with the driving-related press, in this case “the New York bureau chief for Automobile Magazine,” with this attitude.  There is a story behind this article, but unfortunately I don’t know what it is.

Many technical and organizational things have also happened in the past three months – they will be the subject of next week’s post.  In the meantime, you and your family have a great Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or whatever your brand may be! 

Friday, December 16, 2016

The Backlash on Globalization: It’s Real, But What Will Be Put into Law?

It never was one world, and it may be splitting up even more.

The perception that the world might be getting less flat hit the press well before Donald Trump’s unexpected presidential election victory.  On September 6th, Martin Wolf’s Financial Times column “The tide of globalisation is turning” went back to 2008, citing a study showing that “the ratios of world trade to output” had been much the same since that year, with “cross-border financial assets” and direct foreign investment not only leveling off but peaking around then.  He showed in a chart that trade between countries, as a percentage of gross domestic product, went up irregularly but clearly from about 24% in the early 1960s to 59% in the late 2000s, where, after a 2008 to 2010 dip and recovery, it was through at least 2013.

That same day, Robert Reich’s “The reality of free trade deals – they don’t benefit all” appeared in Salon.  Reich pointed out that only 35% thought free trade benefited most Americans, and, although he is an economist, blamed increasing income inequality along with “unraveling” safety nets.

On the Sunday after the election, The New York Times published author and Morgan Stanley global strategist Ruchir Sharma’s “When Borders Close” comparing 2016 to 1914, when the forces underlying the outbreak of World War I “ended an extraordinary four-decade period of rising migration and trade.”  Movement of goods between countries was to fall from 30 percent of world GDP that year to 10% in 1933, three years after the American Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act caused what Sharma described as “a global trade war.”  Per his article and Wolf’s chart, it would be 60 years before intercountry trade matched that 30%.  He also mentioned a rise in protectionist legislation since 2008, and, along with Wolf, named that year as globalization’s high-water mark, and, in step with Reich’s conclusions, noted the increase in income inequality, specifically the share going to the top 1%, as greatly widening during the time of freest trade.  He finished by saying that “deglobalization” has proved itself to be as natural, and as long-lasting, as its opposite.

Adrian Wooldridge, in The Economist’s late-November “Bolshiness is back,” reached similar conclusions, saying that “this golden age is coming to an end” with “the first shots” coming from the political right, those backing Brexit in Great Britain and Trump in the United States.  He implied that we might also have equivalents of Hitler and Mussolini, and also cited higher top-end income concentration.

All of this may well be happening – if the next administration makes it reality.  As credited to Reagan-era journalist Helen Thomas, war makes strange bedfellows, and we have that now.  Concern about income inequality, jobs moving to other countries, accumulation of corporate money overseas, and wishes for trade restrictions, all historically liberal viewpoints, are now being addressed by Republicans.  Yet that could be more of a party shift than an ideological one, when, arguably, the Democrats as represented by Hillary Clinton are now pro-establishment and therefore conservative, and the Republicans at least purport to support common people as Democrats did for so many decades.  That means it should have been no surprise to see Salon, usually well to the left of even the major eastern newspapers, publishing, four days ago, Les Leopold’s “This is how you stop jobs from leaving American soil:  A game plan to fight outsourcing,” containing eight suggestions, ranging from a good use for unions (making lists of companies planning to move jobs out of the US), one bad idea (passing laws to stop outsourcing; the way to do that is through tax penalties), and on to pressuring Trump to take action, protesting, lobbying, and finding ways to “encourage allies to join the fray.”  If they can succeed and our president-elect turns this piece of his campaign rhetoric into reality, we can say that this is how the country is changing.  If not, we may be looking at 1930s Germany, in which Hitler went from speaking strongly and respectfully of workers to instituting the permanent-record Work Book, to make employers “once again the master of the house.”  That would be even worse than protectionism, which benefits the few at the expense of the many.  But I don’t know which it will be, and you don’t either.   

Friday, December 9, 2016

A Six-Month Miscellaneous Jobs Round-Up

Many articles pertinent to American employment reach my desk, and not all of them are on subtopics, such as self-driving cars, Uber-Lyft-Airbnb, robots, or the minimum wage, which can support an entire post.  Still, they are important, and any of their subjects could, as the driverless vehicles did last year, grow into a booming and attention-getting area.

The first, from June 23, is on a subject on which I have written several times, that of a guaranteed citizen’s stipend.  In “Basic Income Revisited” (Project Syndicate, June 23), Robert Skidelsky, a British emeritus political economy professor, doesn’t revisit as much as introduce it, naming ever-increasing inequality from automation as a possible future cause, saying that “unless we change our system of income generation, there will be no way to check the concentration of wealth in the hands of the rich and exceptionally entrepreneurial.”  As we will see, he’s hardly the only observer seeing that.  I maintain that the perceived problem with inequality, which indeed will not go away by normal means, is actually one of insufficient resources for ordinary people, which can be resolved in a variety of ways, including guaranteed income.

In Forbes, George Anders, a grade-school friend of mine many decades ago who, like me, loved chemistry but ended up in business instead, wrote July 26th’s “Is Tech Killing U.S. Jobs?  The Actual Data Is Surprising.”  He correctly pointed out that relatively few people even now are employed in information technology, but that many more have jobs connected with business-related services much less used a couple of decades ago, such as surveys, planning events, and graphic design.  He acknowledged that computers had ended many positions, such as executive secretaries (down from 1,130,000 to 666,000 from 2010 to 2015), and yet that, Expedia and the like notwithstanding, there were still 67,000 American travel agents.  His points seem to be that jobs come and go in unexpected places, and that the effect on information systems on employment has been neither great nor horrendous but somewhere in the middle.  I think the time we spent together poring over 1966 baseball cards helped him learn how to understand numbers, as it did for me, and it shows here.

In a counterpoint to last year’s press on the intensity of their jobs, we found out from the late Scott Eric Kaufman in Salon on August 29th, in “Amazon to test full-time, full-salaried 30-hour work week” that the online retailing behemoth will try something I’ve recommended for years.  Although that company’s management’s intentions may be good, I see no chance that their managers will truly end up working that little.  The trap they are falling into is similar to that of eliminating performance reviews, which does not end employee assessment and selection for promotions but merely pushes it underground.  As they are knowledgeable enough to be aware of that, I can’t take their effort seriously.

A new set of temporary employees, “Migrant Workers in Recreational Vehicles,” made the pages of The New York Times on October 21.  Author Christopher Farrell described “modern-day nomads” who move around the country, working seasonal opportunities.  They may take difficult physical jobs, such as bringing in agricultural harvests, but are hardly poor, with many old enough to get pension, retirement account, and Social Security income as well.  There are now millions of over-50 Americans with similar work and life characteristics, who in decades past would have been either fully retired or still in their earlier careers, forming a growing set of gig workers providing another way for companies to fill jobs without expensive full-time employees.  That is only one more effect of the permanent jobs crisis.      

In Harvard Business Review on the same date, Avivah Wittenberg-Cox asked “What Happens When Careers Last 20 Years Longer?”  The article didn’t match the title, a good thing since while lives are getting longer careers are not, and addressed how companies might deal with those in different stages of life, from emerging adults not ready for permanent full-time work to the mushrooming count of those over 60 starting businesses.  She made a good common-sense point rebutting those avoiding nepotism, that “it may prove a lot easier to manage dual career couples which they both work for you.”  When I was at AT&T two decades ago, 13% of company employees were married to another one, and that did, indeed, help them continue professionally and stay together personally.

Should we be optimistic or pessimistic about technology and innovation?  The Economist’s October 22nd Schumpeter column, “Techno wars,” surveys both sides and how they both get confused about productivity as opposed to jobs, progress as opposed to lifestyle improvement, and cash income as opposed to unquantified free resources unavailable scant years before.  These are all different things, and this page-long piece could be expanded to a book in which the author would keep them straight. 

Two November 27th articles, “Q&A:  Political economist Eberstadt on men without jobs” in Fox Business and “Jobless by choice – or pain?” from Robert J. Samuelson in The Washington Post, addressed the issue of fewer men in the workforce, which I documented in Work’s New Age almost five years ago.  Nicholas Eberstadt additionally told us that over three times as many men aged 25 to 54 are “neither working nor looking for work” for every one officially unemployed, and that the United States has “had by far the worst drop in male workforce participation.”  Samuelson also seemed to be just discovering things he could have read in my 2012 book, such as “the work ethic is such a central part of the American character that it’s hard to imagine it fading” and that those out of the workforce “spend about eight hours a day… watching TV, playing video games or just hanging out.”  Though he added the depressing news that “nearly half of male dropouts report taking pain pills every day,” he, and Eberstadt, are behind the curve.

“A Dilemma for Humanity:  Stark Inequality or Total War.”  What a title!  It’s from The New York Times on December 6th, on a piece in which Eduardo Porter interviewed history professor Walter Scheidel, whose January book, The Great Leveler, will argue that only something as extreme as “all-out thermonuclear war” can stop our increasing inequality.  That echoed my second-to-last Work’s New Age paragraph, in which I warned that “if we maintain the idea that any decent person has the opportunity to work” we would choose between various disastrous consequences, including “vast numbers of our countrymen without hope, health, or possessions.”  I disagree with the implication here that equality should be our goal, and don’t understand why guaranteed income, to name just one possible comprehensive solution, would not be effective.  Maybe that will be in Scheidel’s book.

Two more pertinent articles came out only Wednesday, but both can be addressed quickly.  Dylan Love’s NBC News “Is Universal Basic Income the Answer to an Automated Future?” is a short overview of that idea, punctuated by recent automation-related news.  Samuelson’s Washington Post “What’s really to blame for the productivity slowdown” starts with “our thinking about productivity is cockeyed,” which it is, if we refuse to realize that so many of our new positions are in areas such as restaurants, retail, and home health care where employers don’t get even $25 per hour value from their workers. 

I’ll end on a more forward-going note by mentioning “Luxembourg boldly goes into asteroid mining” (Financial Times, May 5th).  There is almost unimaginable mineral wealth on those things between Mars and Jupiter, and if you see science fiction writer Larry Niven’s Future History series, you will get an idea of the prosperity, the culture, and, yes, the jobs that harvesting it could create.  Full marks to little Luxembourg with its second-in-the-world GDP per capita, which, if they get somewhere with that, will become even richer.  If they’re not big, at least they can think big – and so can we.

Friday, December 2, 2016

November: Unemployment and AJSN Both Down, Latter Showing a Shortage of 16.9 Million More Jobs

It was another good, steady, positive month on the employment front. 

The marquee number of seasonally adjusted joblessness will take the headlines this morning, and well it should, since it fell 0.3% to 4.6% to reach the lowest level since December 2006.  The unadjusted figure matched that with a drop to 4.4%.  The next best was the count of those working part-time for economic reasons, or keeping shorter-hours positions while seeking full-time ones, down 200,000 to 5.7 million.  The number of people officially unemployed for 27 weeks or longer was also off, 100,000, reaching 1.9 million.  There were 178,000 net new nonfarm jobs created, below a published estimate of 208,000 but continuing its steady trend of coming in at more than needed for incoming people.  The employment to population ratio remained at 59.7%, and the labor force participation rate worsened, down 0.1% to 62.7%.  The poorest news was in average private nonfarm hourly earnings, which, following a 13-cent gain in October, fell back 3 cents to $25.89. 

The American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, which shows in one non-seasonally-adjusted number how many more positions we could fill if getting one were quick, easy, and routine, hit another post-recession low, though its change was not as extreme as in the unemployment percentages.  That was because while the count of people officially unemployed fell almost 400,000, and those wanting work but not looking for it during the previous year was off a surprising 331,000, those improvements were offset somewhat by gains in those discouraged, people claiming no interest in a job, and the “other” category of those wishing to be employed but having a specific reason why that was not possible now.  Overall, the AJSN was off 455,000 from October, as follows:

Compared with November 2015, the AJSN is down 347,000, with demand from those counting as unemployed showing a 456,000 improvement, but with that from other statuses, particularly the number of expatriates, the Other category above, and those wanting work in general but now in school or training, working against that.  We would need to go back to 2008 to find any month at all with a lower AJSN. 

Overall, despite the small negatives and lack of truly large job creation, November gets a thumbs-up.  Our incoming presidential administration will have its hands full improving further.  I hope those responsible for understanding our need for more employment opportunities know that less than 38% of them, even after disregarding those filled by people working already, would go to those officially jobless.  Meanwhile, the turtle, once again, took a modest but unmistakable step forward.   

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Two Weeks of Turmoil, And Trump Won’t Be President for Eight More

A mere fortnight since our country chose Donald Trump, and about everything’s been happening, showing that if he were a Dungeons & Dragons monster he’d have a classic “chaotic” alignment.  Here are some observations, which should be good for at least a few hours after this post comes out.

First, almost day by day Trump has been walking back his campaign blather, moving him ever closer to what might be his only solid convictions, against immigration, especially if illegal, and for protectionism.  The New York Times was actually critical of his changing his mind about things like prosecuting his unsuccessful opponent Hillary Clinton and advocating less torture in suspected terrorists’ interrogations, but we need less of this garbage, not more. 

Second, it’s become clear that the modern partisanship split is not conservative against liberal, but Democrat versus Republican.  If you’re not sure, notice how few bad things conservative politicians and commentators say about him, even when he advocates ideas to the left of the Democratic platform.  That will cause problems if Trump becomes more worthy of impeachment than Bill Clinton was for lying under oath about his sexual affairs, since with both the House and Senate controlled by his party, they probably won’t.

Third, he is on track, if that expression has any meaning when talking about him, to do some good things.  We can certainly use what his strategist Steve Bannon called a “trillion-dollar infrastructure plan,” if, counter to what Times columnist Paul Krugman claimed in his recent “Build He Won’t,” it will materialize.  Arranging for large companies’ money supplies to be held here instead of overseas would be positive, as would tax-code changes favoring American jobs.  We can also stand to take some edge off political correctness in general.  There is more, but I’m too cautious about him overall to sing his praises, since, after all, Adolf Hitler built hospitals.

Fourth, I’m not looking forward to seeing constant criticism of everything Trump does.  Those attacking him should pick their battles, and cut back on snide comments when he only acts the same way he did during his ultimately successful campaign.  We have enough to worry about with our constitutional rights, his finger on the button, and his capability for other extreme destruction to fuss about what he said about a Broadway musical.  Even if the BBC, which asserted this morning that his early-morning tweets represent “the real Trump,” is correct, that’s not how his presidency will be measured.

Fifth, protectionism, now fashionable for little reason beyond faulty evaluation of solutions for the permanent jobs crisis, will prove objectively destructive.  Vastly more Americans are helped by lower-priced foreign products than could ever get jobs making them here, and the amounts of money involved are also enormously greater.  If such nutty ideas as 45% tariffs for Chinese and Mexican products came to pass, we would have a recession or worse along with the slashed prosperity, which would more than offset any employment improvement. 

Sixth, with that said Trump will come under pressure, to the extent that his own party is willing to apply it, to create jobs.  That could take any number of good forms, and we have plenty of reason to be hopeful, even if we’re short of sufficient justification.

Seventh, we will probably see the left-leaning major media, headed by the Times and the Washington Post, become the coordination center for anti-Trump civil disobedience.  That has already started, with articles suggesting ways of resisting and protesting.

That’s all for today.  I wish I could say more about what Trump will mean for jobs, but about him I feel like the policeman who said he didn’t believe anything he heard and only half of what he saw.  He may not even last long in the office, ending up, as columnist David Brooks predicted, gone within a year through impeachment or truly voluntary resignation.  In the meantime, the Chinese curse has hit all of us:  we are living in interesting times.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Pitfalls on the Way to Getting a Job – Bad Recruiters, Information Gobbling Interviewers, and Excessively Urgent Job Offers – and One Set of Countermeasures

Three articles on dangers on the way to being hired have come out.  The first was from top employment writer Liz Ryan of Forbes, this past weekend.  Titled “Ten Ways Lousy Recruiters Use Fear To Keep Job-Seekers In Line,” it reports on the problem of headhunters, who work in the gaps between employers and the prospective employed, acting as if they have all the power in relationships with the latter.  It outlines ways that some of these recruiters intimidate those looking to be hired, seeking “to keep candidates feeling fearful and desperate,” by insisting on collecting “personal financial information,” threatening to drop them if they don’t cooperate with unreasonable requests, telling them their credentials are commonplace and marginal, and pushing them to accept any offers immediately.  Ryan points out that top-flight candidates are rarely common, even in an employer’s market, and that even bad headhunters would not submit anyone for positions for which they were not solidly qualified. 

Second, last month and also by Ryan, addressed companies bringing in people for job interviews only to collect information that would help them solve problems.  That is a common potential concern, as answers to questions assessing applicants’ skills may reveal ways of doing things better than the organization has known previously, and is hard to completely avoid.  Yet there is a point at which such gathering becomes not only primary but even the exclusive reason for the interview.  Per Ryan, that may have been reached if “your interviewer has very detailed questions for you, and takes notes on everything you say” but will not share much about their own situation, if queries about the rest of the hiring process and the job itself elicit no substance, and if the interviewer generally seem to be more interested in the candidate’s specific methodology than in how they might fit in.  She suggested, logically enough, that someone being treated as a consultant should act like one, giving only general ideas and even offering a contract. 

Third, by J.T. O’Donnell in Inc. in March, dealt with an “ugly recruiting tactic,” also called “the exploding offer,” one which expires in 48 hours or less.  (I’m not sure that two days is an insufficient time, but requiring an answer sooner than the end of the next business day would clearly qualify.)  O’Donnell saw these short deadlines as a pure pressure tactic, indicating not only an urgent need but fear that longer amounts of time would precipitate losing the potential employee.  She advised against that device, not only since it could encourage workers to leave later, but would cause “employer shaming” on online forums.     

How can jobseekers defend themselves against measures like these?  One way, described by Ryan on October 30th, is being willing to leave a job interview in progress.  That may seem taboo to people in a process where the other side is known to hold most or even all of the cards, but it’s not as simple as that.  Sometimes in these meetings things can happen that mean the end of any future there.  They would include a long impersonal set of interview questions followed by a refusal to talk about the job itself; a bait-and-switch replacement of the position with something less desirable; a requirement to pay for office equipment, office supplies, or the likes of background checks or drug testing; a need to sell products to friends and family members; or a need to work unpaid for a day or more as part of the hiring process.  If such information comes to light, Ryan advocated politely standing up and saying something like “it’s been wonderful to meet you, but I’m very conscious of the demands on your time and it’s clear we don’t have a good match.  I’ll get going now, and let you get on with your day.  Thanks very much for your time!”

As I have written before, the hiring process will always be an adversarial situation where each side tries to get the other to make mistakes.  New ideas there, and revived old ones, pop up all the time.  And, despite the permanent jobs crisis, a jobseeker is not, as Ryan put it, “a desperate beggar,” but has personal and professional value along with choices.  That thread runs through this entire post.  If you are looking for work, don’t let yourself be conned out of that.      

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Trump’s Been Elected – Where Do We Stand Now?

This outcome, accurately described by one columnist as “cataclysmic” and accompanied by incoming Republican majorities in both the House and Senate, held me to an hour’s sleep last night.  And judging by the number of pieces published since Hillary Clinton conceded at 2:30am, I wasn’t the only one. 
Presidents usually have a remarkably small effect on people’s lives, but this one threatens to be an exception.  Thinking about that is what kept me up.  Here is what I mean.       

First, I’ll get the old expressions out of the way.  Be careful what you wish for.  Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.  In a democracy, people get the government they deserve.  All of these are trite, but are fully appropriate now.

Next, many people have explanations for what shocked offshore sports books as well as pundits and prognosticators – you or I could have quintupled money by betting on this candidate on as recently as yesterday morning – and I will add only one.  Ever since this actor’s escapade with a 16-year-old made his career go up, up, and away, I have invoked, and found other examples of, what I named the “Hugh Grant Rule” – any publicity is good publicity.  For at least a year and a half Trump got incredible amounts of coverage, especially about unpleasant statements he had made, and that, sadly but truthfully, helped him more than it hurt.    

So where are we now? 

We have just elected, as president and presumed nuclear and other best-in-the-world military resources decision-maker, someone who almost every commenting observer considered dispositionally unfit.  Trump managed only about a half-dozen major newspaper endorsements – fewer than Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson – nationwide, and precipitated several outlets not normally publishing them saying  he was totally inappropriate.  Thus, he is scheduled to become the least popular president with the media in any of our memories, and has at times suggested that the free press, and the First Amendment along with it, be stifled.  He has made few consistent campaign promises, which, given his enormous number of documented lies, is not so relevant, but except for his opposing immigration and free trade we have little reason to know where he stands on anything.  In a field where the most successful practitioners can hardly go to the john without working with others, he, overall, already has an air of considering himself a superior being who need not involve anyone, except various females in certain activities, with anything.  If you want more along these lines, find almost any endorsement for anyone else, including mine, which is at  

Between Trump and the thinking that brought his victory, the American social fabric has already been badly torn.  As another columnist put it, we are putting ourselves in two separate tribes much like Muslim Sunnis and Shiites, divided on ideology.  Since his awful behavior did not stop him from winning, we need to wonder if it will become more acceptable in other circles to lie, offend, boast, retaliate in petty ways, and insult people’s sex and ethnicity.  And last night on Facebook I saw what I’m afraid is the first of many views that whites in general are responsible not only for his election but by extension for whatever damage he ends up doing.  That sort of thing is high on the list of what America does not need.

As for the next several years, since Trump is so unpredictable, we don’t know much at all about what they will be like.  We could have a recession or even a depression, whether caused by his actions or not.  The chance is certainly higher now, and in fact, as the returns came in last night and this morning, after-hours trading dropped the Dow Jones Industrial Average as much as 800 points.  As I have not thought about any presidential candidate since I followed the 1968 campaign in detail, he has a real chance of becoming a dictator.  His administration may well extinguish what is left of foreign admiration of America – I heard Rush Limbaugh yesterday claiming and expressing disappointment about our respect abroad deteriorating during Obama’s terms, but foreign reactions to Trump, with the expected exception of Russia’s, have been consistently much more negative.  I have already been insulted once by a foreigner accusing me of supporting Trump, and, with my amount of international travel, I expect more.  Further statements along the line of those he has made about other countries can only damage our ability to cooperate with them, and, ultimately, hurt or eliminate our standing as perceived leader of the free world.  And, even more tragically, his election, showing those in positions of power what can happen if uninformed and uneducated people choose presidents, could actually be the beginning of the end of the 250-year-old American experiment.  Overall, while a worst-case scenario for Hillary Clinton might have been being pushed out of office like Richard Nixon, with little permanent damage to the country, that might be one of the best for Trump.   
We already know that the domestic political scene has profoundly changed.  Since Trump is not a conservative, the Republican Party, which had not won a presidential election since 2004, can no longer be considered to consistently support that philosophy.  That leaves conservatives without a political party of their own, which they may remedy over the next few years. 

What can we do?  Most important is for those in his inner circle to find the courage to contain him enough to stop or forestall at least his worst destructiveness.  The rest of us need to watch for signs of totalitarianism.  The Soviet and Nazi governments did not reach their worst for years after they were installed, and ours would not either.  For that, we must know our constitution, and not only the First and Second Amendments – if you don’t have a copy, it’s at and prints out to only 21 pages. 

This Donald Trump presidency may not be a disaster after all.  He may precipitate enough good things, such as his briefly proposed infrastructure project, to more than offset what could, if we are lucky, add up to no more than the behavior of a jackass.  If he does not finish this term, his incoming vice president Mike Pence has proven himself to be a reasonable man who would serve with dignity.  (He is too conservative for many, but it’s almost quaint now to worry about those suddenly mild differences.)  But as it comes to dealing with totalitarian regimes, we are soft.  Except for those who served in the armed forces, were in Holocaust camps, and some others, we know about the worst governments only secondhand.  Doing so would be the greatest challenge of most of our lives.  We need to stay vigilant – much more than ourselves may depend on that.   

Friday, November 4, 2016

A Good Month for Work, as AJSN Down 300,000 to 17.3 Million Jobs Short

At first glance, this morning’s Bureau of Labor Statistics October employment report was nondescript.  There were 161,000 net new nonfarm positions created, a tad below the publicized 175,000 expectation, but still more than needed for population increase.  Official seasonally-adjusted joblessness was down a tenth of a point to 4.9%, offset by labor force participation down the same to 62.8% and employment to population also off 0.1% to 59.7%, with all three of those results returning to where they were in August.  The count of those out of work for 27 weeks or longer held again at 2.0 million. 

The other primary metrics, though, were better.  Those working part-time for economic reasons, or unsuccessfully seeking full-time employment while holding on to something shorter, kept its 200,000 September improvement to stay at 5.9 million.  Unadjusted joblessness improved a tenth of a percent to 4.7%.  And, most dramatically in this generally dull month, average private nonfarm hourly earnings rose 10 cents per hour, and 13 cents over the originally stated September result, to reach $25.92.  That is double the inflation rate, and noteworthy to see after last month’s net 9 cent gain. 

What really made these results a success were changes in the categories of marginal attachment.  Those reporting wanting to work but not having looked for it in the previous year tallied 78,000 fewer.  People describing themselves as discouraged fell 66,000, a lot for one month, to 487,000, and counts of those in the “other” and “family responsibilities” groups declined 59,000 and 56,000. 
So how many more positions could be quickly filled if getting one were as easy as getting a pizza?  The American Job Shortage Number, which takes shares of all of these statuses, shows that we could now absorb 300,000 fewer than in September, as follows:

The AJSN also improved over a year ago, when, at 17.485 million, it reflected higher official unemployment and many more with discouraged status, but fewer expatriates, fewer interested but not having looked for a year or more, and of course fewer people claiming to not want work at all, which rises annually like clockwork.  That is an improvement from September, when the AJSN had its first year-over-year worsening since 2010.  With unemployment down, only 38.6% of these jobs would be taken by those officially jobless, a yet smaller share.

Overall, October was positive, especially since, per last month’s post, we are approaching the good times’ limit.  I am glad to see the less publicized statuses improving.  Will it last?  We will see.  In the meantime, the turtle did, once more, take a small step forward.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Iceland and Jobs: What’s Going On There?

Last week I returned from driving around a country about which people make many erroneous statements.  First, Iceland is not outrageously cold – its winters are about the same temperatures as Chicago’s.  Second, while it has permanent glaciers, most of it looks green, actually rivalling Ireland.  Third, while its population was once unusually homogeneous, now only a minority are stereotypically blonde Scandinavians.  Fourth, while once poor it is now hardly rustic, with a per-capita GDP, 30th in the world at $46,100, fitting in with others nearby, one spot above Denmark’s and four below Sweden’s. 

Despite a low share of natural economic resources (world-class scenery doesn’t quite count), Icelanders have done, in many ways, an outstanding job with their country.  In 2015, it was ranked the world’s 13th most developed by the United Nations, down from first in the world, soon before their three-year political and economic crisis, in 2007-2008. It has universal health care, the fourth highest life expectancy, lower smoking and obesity rates than in most of Europe, and unusually low pollution.  In 2015 it had almost 1.3 million foreign tourists, four times the resident population.  For those who like that sort of thing, Iceland also has one of the lowest rates of economic inequality, and is informal enough that their people still have, in effect, no last names.  I can personally attest that it has its share of gravel roads, but most of them and all of its paved ones seem in excellent condition.  Taxes are not obscene, and include a flat 22.75% on personal income, only 18% on corporate, a value-added tax (VAT) of 11% on food, room rentals, and other things consumed by humans, and a 24% VAT on everything else.  Unemployment was last seen at 3.1%.  Their government aggressively dealt with financial transgressions during their crisis, and required some bankers to make up a part of their microscopic total of 147 prisoners, a real reason why their currency, the Icelandic krona (ISK), is stable and strong today. 
On the other side, there’s one thing that pervades the experience of locals and visitors alike.  It’s expensive!  Not only, as one would think, are the mass of imported goods higher than in their original countries, but so is almost everything else.  In Alaska, locally caught salmon is a relative bargain.  Not so for the lamb and fish raised and caught in Iceland.  Restaurant meals, even plates of those things, seemed to start at ISK 3000, or over $26.  Although tips and tax are included, that’s a lot.  The largest supermarket chains, Netto, Kronan, and especially Bonus, mitigate that somewhat, and while fast food is often available and cheaper it is around double American rates, with the lowest-priced Subway footlong ISK 1199 or $10.51.  Postage on a domestic letter in that small country is ISK 160 ($1.40), and even a postcard to the United States, or elsewhere outside Europe, costs ISK 285 ($2.50).  Items for tourists were no exception either, with ordinary souvenir magnets usually ISK 899 and playing cards almost always more.  Even things where I would not think prices would vary much from one country to the other, such as silver bracelet charms, were at least double those of similar items elsewhere.  That puts a lot of pressure on locals as well as tourists, and is probably the main reason why many have more than one job.  Although I suspect high pay for workers is a real reason, and accounts for such things as unmanned fuel stations, there is no national minimum wage as such.  Yet what is in effect a lack of positions paying comfortable wages in relation to cost of living, and a general sense of balance, did not stop large numbers of Icelanders from unsuccessfully protesting a $3 billion aluminum smelting installation, despite its thoroughly modern environmental safeguards.    

To what does all this add up?  Iceland is certainly an admirable country, but, despite its long-time cultural emphasis on self-reliance, people’s choices are more limited.  There are far fewer opportunities to become truly wealthy there than in the United States.  However, its advantages in health and life expectancy are real, and lofty food prices may help that.  Almost everyone there who wants to can work, which, in 2016, is quite a strength for anywhere fully developed.  Accordingly, while I would never want to force such a system on Americans, little Iceland has plenty to teach us.  And as we have, in the past anyway, excelled at borrowing from other countries, we should keep their ways in mind.  

Friday, October 21, 2016

The Three Reasonable Presidential Candidates on Jobs: Good, Bad, and Indifferent Proposals

Three people running for president are worthy of your consideration.  What do they say they will do about employment?

In March, Hillary Clinton, later to become the Democratic Party nominee, put forth an economic plan.  She asked to roll back tax breaks for American companies moving jobs out of this country (excellent idea, and in the right direction), and create a new levy for those taking their headquarters overseas (also good, since many people work at these offices).  She wanted to raise the minimum wage (bad – we don’t want to reduce the number of positions right now), and upped her proposed floor from $12 to $15 later in the campaign (even worse).  She thinks employers should be required to pay for family leave (wrong – let them compete by offering these benefits voluntarily), and proposed the College Affordability Plan, to refinance student debt and provide free or discounted tuition to all university enrollees in need (not sure – seems off beam in principle, but could stave off a huge bubble in the form of what is now almost $1.4 trillion in US student debt).  Over the summer she spoke of a National Infrastructure Plan, costing $27 billion per year to build, repair, and improve highways, bridges, airports, water mains, and more.  That last item is the best of the candidates’ employment proposals, and I am glad to see more people suggesting it. 

Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson believes that those in government, including himself, do not create jobs – they come from, as his website puts it, “entrepreneurs, businesses, and economic prosperity.”  Accordingly, he emphasizes deregulation as the best tool to achieve employment growth – he and running mate William Weld credit that for the unusual improvement achieved in joblessness in New Mexico and Massachusetts, where they were governors.  Unfortunately, as much as I like him, and am impressed by his and Weld’s succeeding this way in their states, that course seems insufficient.  I hope, and expect, that a President Johnson would take more aggressive steps if we had a recession.

Green Party nominee Jill Stein expects to generate what she calls “millions of jobs” by changing energy use, nationally and completely, to renewable sources by 2030.  She also would get more people working by “investing in public transit, sustainable agriculture, and conservation.”  She considers employment to be “a right,” and says we should “create living-wage jobs for every American who needs work.”  I would feel better about her basis for putting more people to work if she were not against petroleum and natural gas-based sources, fields with many jobs, so much.  Since hardly every person who wants to be employed needs a “living wage,” I can’t support her there either.  However, her opinion on people’s entitlement to work does match one of the five comprehensive jobs-crisis solutions.

Those are your choices.  My views are above, but others also have strong, and sometimes differing, ones on these initiatives’ merits, how we could pay for them, and on the effect they would have on budget deficits and the national debt.  Which of these solutions are realistic and which are not?  How much are we willing to spend to get more Americans working?  Those are questions for you to answer, as you prepare for your November 8th decision.

Monday, October 10, 2016

"The Wealth of Humans" – The Latest Work’s New Age Successor Hits and Misses

Ever since I published what was the definitive book on the permanent jobs crisis almost five years ago, I have been possessive about that topic.  I think of it as mine.  That may seem imperious and probably is, but if you have written an award-winning volume based on a clear-cut but truly neglected thesis, you are likely to share that feeling. 

Last month, Ryan Avent, senior editor and columnist at The Economist, released about the third American book since the fall of 2011 on that subject, though he didn’t quite call it a permanent crisis, opting for “labour abundance” instead.  The Wealth of Humans attempted a broader scope, as shown by its subtitle Work, Power, and Status in the Twenty-First Century.  How good a descendant is it?

First, Avent did not cite Work’s New Age, but recapped, and had slightly different views, on the core issues I presented there.  He settled on the phrase “the labour glut” for what I called excess capacity, which he also called “the sheer abundance of labour,” and said that workers’ numbers “hold down wages.”  Indeed, he spent an entire chapter explaining the simple supply and demand truth that “higher wages are so economically elusive.”  He described why we are not going back to “the bygone age of mass employment,” which as I showed was due to new products never needing large amounts of employee time per item to produce.  He explained the breaking of the connection between pay and output through Baumol’s Cost Disease, an American economist’s principle, instead of by invoking scalability, or the production of iterations of goods and services at tiny additional cost, as I did.  He referred to the “digitally disappointing era,” which I specified as the lack of widespread computer-driven productivity improvement before the late 1990s.  He was also skeptical of the ability of further schooling as a solution to economic weakness, being in all fairness more eloquent than I by saying that “the low-hanging educational fruit has been picked.”    

Since The Wealth of Humans was published in 2016 instead of 2012, Avent had access to much newer information, and he covered it well.  He touched on writings by Thomas Piketty and others.  He discussed what he called “hyperglobalization,” and noted that many countries, the “never-developing world,” are not only still not contributing intellectual resources but have bleak prospects to do so soon.  He acknowledged the pooling of masses of money in a small set of companies and individuals by calling it “reserve accumulation,” correctly noted that that phenomenon explains why less of it has trickled down than it would if it were in more needy hands, and said that has led to “secular stagnation.”  He summarized progress up to press time in robotics and driverless cars, and showed its importance to the future of American employment.  He named and interpreted many other news items, including previous Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s infamous comment about 47% of Americans being “victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them” (referring mostly to those collecting Social Security at retirement age after decades of work).  He said, as I have implied but not put as pithily, that “in a way, it would be much easier if the robots were simply taking all the jobs,” meaning that our relatively good times have unduly blunted our awareness of the historical transition we are living through.

On one subject, though, the author fell into traps.  He stated that “car ownership could be obsolete,” which has no chance to happen soon among rural residents.  He cited Uber drivers averaging $19 net per hour as opposed to traditional taxi operators earning $13, which can only be due to poor cost accounting, but followed it up with descriptions of how cab driving is becoming more automated, and thus, according to his other examples, will allow them to be less skilled and in turn to be paid less.  These slip-ups, though, look suspiciously old in this fast-moving field, and may reflect his collecting information a year or more before the book’s publication date, when these issues were not as well understood.

As opposed to these two errors, I flagged four places where I thought Avent’s analysis was especially insightful.  One of his subtheses was that the ways of managing technological growth socially are lagging behind the progress itself.  He advocated more government spending, without which we are most unlikely to adequately deal with the jobs crisis.  He proposed an immigration policy similar to those I saw in Australia, New Zealand, and the European Union, that of allowing people in who can do jobs where there are not enough workers, and, additionally, those who can perform tasks especially valuable to an aging population.  Last, I’m still working out what he meant by saying “software is eating everything,” but I suspect something about which we all should be aware. 

On conclusions, I found his vague.  He said we should be “generous,” but did not define that clearly enough for me to understand.  I did not see any mention of guaranteed basic income, still the most obvious possible jobs-crisis solution and about which there has been a lot of post-2011 commentary and developments.  He stopped short of evaluating or even mentioning other ways out. 

Overall, Ryan Avent would have benefited by reading Work’s New Age.  That he works for a major publication is no excuse.  Information is available from a variety of sources, and this time it was personally clear, to me, that some were not considered.  The Wealth of Humans has a lot to offer, but it missed too much. 

Who will be next on this topic? 

Friday, October 7, 2016

We’re Leveling Off Now: AJSN Shows We’re Short 17.64 Million Jobs, Worse Than a Year Ago

This morning, the jobs, population, and expatriate-count data told us something unfavorable. 

No, it’s not the net new nonfarm positions added, which, while at 156,000 for September fell a bit short of the apparent consensus 174,000 projection.  No, it’s not the commonly publicized seasonally-adjusted unemployment rate, which rose from 4.9% to 5.0%.  It’s not the number of long-term jobless, those out 27 weeks or longer, which stayed the same at 2.0 million.  And it’s certainly not the other major statistics.  Those improved:  the labor force participation rate was up 0.1% to 62.9 percent; the employment to population ratio, the best metric for determining how common it is for Americans to actually be working, climbed the same amount to 59.8%; the count of people employed part-time for economic reasons, or unsuccessfully seeking full-time labor while on the job but for fewer hours than that, dropped 200,000, a lot for one month, to 5.9 million; unadjusted unemployment was down from 5.0% to 4.8%; and average hourly wages went up a penny more than inflation, 6 cents, to $25.79.   

It’s not even, on the surface of it, September’s American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, which tells in one number our latent demand for work, or how many additional positions could be quickly filled if being hired were quick, easy, and routine.  That improved 356,000, as follows:

This August to September change was nothing meaningful, as more people are employed in the latter month.  Our cause for concern is that we are no longer improving.  Finally, after about 80 months of year-over-year gains, going back gives us a lower AJSN.  Here is that one:

How did we manage to get 221,000 jobs shorter when they have been created faster than our rising working-age population?  The difference is mostly in the fifth category from the bottom, “did not search for work in previous year.”  These people, whose numbers grew 268,000 from a year ago, say they want employment but are not looking for it.  There are also more American expatriates, some of whom would return if they thought they could be hired here, than in September 2015.  The same goes for those in school or training and for people officially unemployed, who, though only 30,000 more numerous, at their estimated rate of 90% taking readily available work still adds 27,000 to the difference.

What does this mean?  First, it tells us that we are not only breaking even with jobs demand, but may be getting worse.  Second, it reinforces that our prosperity improvement is leveling off.  Third, it reminds us that most people who would work if the country had an employment supply similar to that recently in western North Dakota are not officially jobless – in fact, they would absorb only 39% of the new positions those in our country could now fill. 

Beyond that, we’re still looking good.  We’re creating jobs well.  Wages, which still have reason to be held back by the worker surplus, are hanging on.  It is particularly favorable to see the two employment ratios get further away from post-1977 record territory.  Yet we now have no reason to think that in a year or two, times will be better.  The turtle took a small step forward, but he might not soon have many more of those.      

Friday, September 30, 2016

Gary Johnson for President

We, as quadrennially always, are faced with deciding who will lead our country in the next four years.
Primary voters for Democrats chose former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a rock-solid member of their establishment long expected to be nominated.  Those voting for Republicans collectively made a dissimilar decision.  They went with Donald Trump, a businessman who would not have made any commentator’s list of the 20 most likely nominees two years ago. 
Voters have real reasons to be discontented with these choices. 
The most common general objections to Clinton are not the problem.  Her use of private email servers for classified information, and her failure to admit it and work with instead of against investigators, was poorly judged, but minor.  Her lying after murders of Americans in Benghazi was bad behavior, but hardly heinous.  Her disposition, which often seems distasteful, is, for purposes of governance, a trivial matter.  However, because of her mainstream status, she is certain to be overly influenced by her party base, which has already come out in anti-jobs initiatives such as the $15-per-hour minimum wage she now backs.  Also, and more importantly, we are now finishing the second term of a president whose actions are similar to hers.  Barack Obama, when you factor out allegations and unjustified interpretations of his intentions, has governed as a slightly conservative Democrat; Clinton, as shown especially by her views on social issues and foreign policy, promises more of the same.  For a country stuck in legislative gridlock and apparently unable to address many of its worst problems, eight years of one philosophy is enough. 
As for Trump, he has disqualified himself over and over again.  I could write thousands of words recapping his reprehensible statements, but that has already been done well by others, so I only summarize that he has been bullying, undiplomatic, defamatory, hostile, violence-inciting, misogynistic, unapologetic, and much more.  The New York Times has maintained a list of different “people, places and things” he has insulted on Twitter alone, along with documentation – as of Thursday morning, it was up to 258.  He has shown little substance on issues, with almost nothing fleshed out or even consistent beyond immigration and trade policy.  He has shown that he is enamored with Vladimir Putin, Russian president and de facto dictator, to an extent certain to warp his international-relations judgment.  The amount and frequency of his lying has been almost unbelievably prolific, even for a politician.  His ability as a businessman, his claim to fame, is questionable at best, with thousands of lawsuits against him, at least four bankruptcies, a high rate of business failures, a documented record of employee abuse and supplier nonpayment, and, since he has singularly refused to release his tax returns, real doubts about how much he has actually earned.  He arrived shockingly unprepared for September’s debate.  He has repeatedly revealed a hair-trigger mentality totally unsuitable for anyone with the ability to launch nuclear weapons.  And, perhaps more disturbing than anything else about him, his inflammatory rhetoric and his lack of a clearly defined platform (he is no conservative) are unnervingly similar to Adolf Hitler’s; if you read Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here, about the rise of an American dictator through the political system, you will be stunned by the similarities between protagonist Buzz Windrip and Trump.  He contends only with 1908’s William Jennings Bryan as the worst major-party nominee in the latest two centuries, and in the privacy of the voting booth, nobody, except maybe his friends and family members, should choose him. 
Another candidate is worthy of mention.  Jill Stein of the Green Party offers a lot of ideas from the political left of Obama and Clinton.  She is earnest, well-spoken, and admirable in her own way, but is simply too extreme, with her plans such as eliminating all fossil-fuel use by 2030 not only unworkable but in the wrong direction for a country struggling with internal divisions and a permanent jobs crisis.  Against that, we could depend on Congress to keep her worst propositions in check.    
So what can we do?   
Into the gap, like a breath of fresh air, is Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson.  As befitting one with that ideology he chooses freedom over conservatism or liberality, and picks his positions accordingly.  There are weaknesses in this approach – for example, as I have written before, the jobs shortage causes critical damage to the practice and idea of free markets by causing too many people to have nothing to spend – but in general, it is successful.  On social issues, such as abortion, same-sex marriage, and marijuana legalization, it is clear that conservatives are on the wrong side of history.  Remembering how my sister was denied one at the White Sox baseball bat day 50 years ago because she was a girl seems bizarre to me now – when our grandchildren hit middle age, they will think the same about gay couples once being denied the right to marry.  On economic issues, our national debt doubled during the previous Republican administration and is on track to double again during this Democratic one, to about $20,000,000,000,000 – while if that were presented balance-sheet style, with federal assets such as 85% of the land in Nevada offsetting it, it would not seem so scary, but it still seems out of control.  Almost no liberals seem aware that making workers more expensive is certain to cut demand for them.  There are many financial luxuries, from farm subsidies to the National Endowment for the Arts, which we simply cannot afford to cover with taxpayer’s money.
Johnson’s platform, posted in detail on, not only generally takes the best from the Democratic and Republican sides, but adds planks neither one has.  He advocates, and will work for, tax reform to reward “productivity, savings and investment.”  He stands for congressional term limits.  He wants to do what he and his running mate William Weld did in the states they governed, New Mexico and Massachusetts, to cut their unemployment, both absolutely and relative to others.  He would be better on one issue than any of the others, as “having served as a Governor of a border state” he knows that “solving immigration problems is not as easy as building a wall or simply offering amnesty.”  He would push for criminal justice reform, especially by reducing drug-related incarceration, and would turn a great federal expense into a large revenue source by “legalizing and regulating marijuana.”  He would keep abortion legal, and would not only allow more local discretion in school policy, but would eliminate the Department of Education.  He would avoid protectionism.  He has pledged to submit a balanced federal budget, as he and Weld did with their states.  More critical than any one of these stances is that, in order to succeed with them, he would be forced to be bipartisan by getting approval for his efforts from both sides.  It is clear to me that if Johnson had been nominated as a Republican, he would now be way ahead of Clinton and everyone else.              
We do have viable alternatives.  Of the four most prominent presidential candidates, three would not disgrace the office, and would, in the main, represent the country well.  It is reasonable to choose Clinton or Stein instead of Johnson.  As for opening up our choice to all four, if 2016 is not the year we should seriously consider those other than Democrats or Republicans, what one will be?  This time, it allows us to choose the best candidate, the choice of whom is clearer than it has been for several election cycles. 

Royal Flush Press endorses Gary Johnson for president.    

Friday, September 23, 2016

Robots Marching On, Adding to Efficiency, Offsetting Globalization, And, Yes, Cutting Jobs

These may be relatively good economic times, with official unemployment about as low as it can get during a permanent jobs crisis, but that hasn’t stopped advances in the implementation and theory of robotics.  What’s happened over the past five months?

In Financial Times on May 3rd, the title of Sam Fleming’s article, “Why robots are coming for US service jobs,” means it could contain only two words:  They’re cheaper.  Fleming addressed more than that, though, with a good rundown of positions susceptible to replacement by automatons, and correctly showed that the jobs now most at risk were white-collar and caregiving ones.  He also cited a McKinsey Global Institute study claiming that 40% of American workers had occupations in which half their hours went to tasks that could already, with current technology, be automated.  Another piece in the same publication that day, “Rise of the robots is sparking an investment boom,” showed that while venture capital investments there had to double in 2015 just to reach a still-puny $587 million, the entire market projects to reach $135 billion in three years.  That’s not as massive as it could be either, and both numbers are and will be exceeded by those for driverless vehicles.

Two days later, Financial Times continued its series by asking us to “meet the cobots,” automata designed to lighten loads for existing workers instead of replacing them.  Author Peggy Hollinger seemed to imply that, as a result, robots now won’t cost jobs.  This idea is nothing new; when I visited a Florida postal sorting center over 15 years ago, a large yellow one moved heavy packages around alongside dozens of human workers, and precipitated anything but hostile reactions, as our tour guide told us that “everyone likes Big Bird.”  When robots only assist, they serve as tools similar to computers, copiers, or even brooms, so there’s nothing special here on that count either.

On May 14th, Phil Torres weighed in in Salon with “Fear our new robot overlords:  This is why you need to take artificial intelligence seriously.”  He started with the Terminator movie series, which introduced me, for one, to the idea of autonomous goal-seeking devices automatically having potential problems, and showed how artificial general intelligence, or AGI, could, as happened in the first Terminator feature, destroy many or all humans if we fail at “making sure their values,” not just their objectives, “align with ours.”  This material is well worth reading, especially for those not yet familiar with it.

Another Financial Times article, May 16th’s “Legal firms unleash office automatons,” reported something old as if it were new.  Automated legal searches were contemporary enough for me to cite them five years ago in Work’s New Age, and while they are now getting better and more common, their changes seem only incremental.  The idea of “Uberisation,” or more work being done by lower-paid workers, is nothing fresh either, with at least a strong foothold in law long before that label would have been understood.

In Harvard Business Review, Vasant Dhar’s ambitious May 17th “When to Trust Robots with Decisions, and When Not To,” presented a grid of products and needs positioned by predictability (high = fighter drones and cataract surgery;  low = stock trading and effectiveness of online advertising) and cost per mistake (high = driverless cars and diabetes prediction; low = spam filtering and early education support).  Since the best areas for automated solutions are clearly those with high predictability and low cost per mistake, progress will move from those toward the other corner.  Dhar’s Decision Automation Map, showing this and more, is a fine tool, and he succeeded admirably at showing where we might best concentrate upcoming robotic and computer efforts.

On May 25th, Fox News published “Pizza Hut rolling out robot servers in Japan.”  They cost only $1,600 apiece, and offer “a more efficient dining experience” as well as paying for themselves remarkably quickly.  Such automata are also under consideration by Carls Jr. and McDonalds, to name only two fast-food chains, and will certainly spread widely, if they have as little as mediocre customer acceptance, as minimum wages increase.

The Economist, in June 4th’s “I’m afraid I can’t do that,” cited a Centre for European Economic Research working paper claiming that since relatively few entire jobs can be fully automated, we have “reasons to be less afraid about the march of the machines.”  The major flaw in this thinking is that great cost savings motivate employers to rearrange positions by concentrating hard-to-mechanize tasks in those jobs to be still held by humans.  It also makes the mistake of taking the past, where people in manufacturing positions easily found service jobs, as a proxy for the present, in which we know of no type of paid work capable of replacing them in turn.

Trevor Moss reported in the June 21st Wall Street Journal “Robots on Track to Bump Humans from Call-Center Jobs.”  Why not?  And it’s been happening for years – you see it when you call in with a problem and a robotic voice asks you several technical questions.  A decade or more ago, most companies moved what was called Tier 1 support, or preliminary and easy-to-fix problem-solving, to cheaper-labor countries, and now those responsibilities are increasingly being covered by machines.  There is no case that more and more sophisticated issues will not be handled, as time goes on, in the same way.

“Industrial robot sales hit record,” Financial Times pointed out June 22nd. Though worldwide sales reached only 248,000 last year, it is noteworthy that China, once known as a cheap-labor source, got a quarter of them.  The automotive, electrical, and electronics industries are the largest consumers, and we can safely bet that number will increase tenfold within as many years.  Robotic restaurant servers costing only the equivalent of $1,200 apiece are also arriving in that country, with high acceptance offsetting lower labor savings, as documented in The Wall Street Journal’s July 24th “In China, a Robot’s Place Is in the Kitchen.” 

Finally, Xerox released a list of 19 current and near-future robotic innovations.  They are robotic pharmacist, Japan’s robot hotel, digital nursing, robotic process automation, virtual customer service agents, self-flying planes, self-driving cars, driverless trains, digital barista, automated passport control, automatic translation, automatic report writing, legal work, Amazon’s “robot army,” robot security guard, the automated college professor, home automation, the robot bartender, and robot-assisted surgery.  You can read more about them at

After all this reporting of advancement, The Washington Post’s Robert J. Samuelson again told us, on August 17th, that “our robot panic is overblown.”  He again fell into traps by saying “lost jobs and destroyed industries give way, over time, to new industries and jobs” (unless they don’t), and “if robots cut costs, the savings have to go somewhere” (into the massive, stagnant pools of money held by the largest corporations and wealthiest individuals).  He partially redeemed himself by stating that “government’s main role is to maintain the conditions that make hiring profitable,” which, though incomplete, should be a worthy goal for both political parties, but in general, Samuelson, who I am certain does not personally invest only in stocks which have gone up in the past, should know better.

That’s all for now.  There will be more, in this area contending only with self-driving cars for the most press and the greatest effect on American employment.  I will continue to keep you up to date.    

Friday, September 16, 2016

Uber and Lyft Beyond Austin, and Beyond Human-Controlled Cars

On May 8th, unlicensed taxi companies Lyft and Uber were firmly stopped from operating unregulated in this large, politically moderate Texas city.  Since then they haven’t been far from the news, which for these companies, since they reached a million de facto employees last year, automatically constitutes important information about jobs.  What has come out over the past four months?

Only three days after the Austin election result, a Los Angeles Times editorial took one of my long-ago posted points about Uber and Lyft, that while drivers may gross respectable amounts they do not net nearly as much as true cabdrivers, and used it as the basis for concern about exploitation, with author David Horsey saying that getting rides from them would cause him to “feel morally compromised.”  I’m not sure that logically follows, but it’s a good thing for a major newspaper to reveal how little such work can actually pay; Horsey described a freelance writer trying Uber driving spending eleven hours taking in $118 before car expenses and “rideshare insurance.” 

On May 24th, we got news of similar Israeli company Gett receiving a $300 million investment from Volkswagen.  That is one of several partnerships which have recently formed on driverless vehicles.  The day after that, Jefferson Parish, just west of New Orleans, delayed voting on an ordinance to regulate Uber and Lyft – the same thing happened there the next month, leaving, per Baton Rouge’s Advocate, the companies’ operations in “legal limbo.”  At the same time, both firms threatened to stop serving the Chicago area if their drivers were subject to the same rules as those from taxi companies.  Such a measure there passed on June 17th, but Uber and Lyft have not left.

Next, from around the same time, a backed-up prediction, now seeming obsolete, “Why Uber and Lyft Will Have a Short Lifespan,” by Don Peppers in Inc.  That’s exactly what I thought, before those companies decided to join the looming self-driving trend instead of trying to lick it.  Yet he’s absolutely correct that they won’t have the corner on advantages such as easy hailing and computer dispatching forever. 

June 3rd brought a Wall Street Journal piece about Uber and Lyft piloting grocery delivery in Phoenix and Denver.  Although that’s hardly a new or innovative business idea, it may work, if several conditions are met.  Customers must be willing to pay the $7 to $10 fee the article mentions.  The companies cannot afford a dramatic initial promotion, such as waiving that charge, without being buried.  They will need supermarkets to pick and prepare the order, since they can’t do that for that amount.  Even then, if the effort is successful, other firms, including the store chains themselves, will be waiting to pounce.

A further consequence of the Austin vote, and a huge vulnerability in Uber and Lyft’s business model, hit the news June 10th.  All those drivers there, “thousands” of them, were correctly ruled employees instead of independent contractors, and so, when the two companies abruptly stopped doing business there, they ran afoul of a federal rule requiring firms with 100 or more on the payroll to give 60 days’ notice before large layoffs.  The former employees have filed two lawsuits, one against each, which rate to win and provide plenty of incentive for not skirting ethical business practice as well as the law.  The same effect has already come from another Uber setback, a San Francisco judgment penalizing them for firing drivers after obtaining unauthorized background reports.  Also, USA Today reported on August 18th that a rather larger lawsuit in the same city, brought by drivers in 2013 claiming that the company used their classification as contractors to deny them expense compensation, was still in litigation. 

That same firm has now lost another eastern European country, with a July 13th announcement that they were discontinuing business in Hungary, due to new laws they considered threatening to drivers’ safety.  On that continent it is already out of Bulgaria and is endangered in France, where they drew a June 800,000-euro fine for “operating an illegal car service.”

That brings us to veteran employment writer Rana Foroohar’s August 9th Financial Times piece, “Uberisation and the dangers of neo-serfdom.”  She pointed out that a stunning and depressing 35% of American workers now function as “freelancers, independent contractors or for multiple employers,” and described a growing pattern similar to Skid Row day-labor pools, “in which the lord shows up each day and says ‘I’ll take you, and you, and you.’”  As I mentioned in April, the vast majority of such working is an economic inferior good to usual careers, paying less than full-time minimum wage positions after considering irregularity and extra expenses.  However, the problem is not with these gig-economy arrangements, but with the permanent jobs crisis and the 18 million positions the United States is now short.

So where are Uber and Lyft going?  It is clear that their future is not in human-operated ridesharing, but in driverless vehicles.  They are as well positioned as any to put self-driving cars on normal roads – in fact, Uber’s Pittsburgh driverless-taxi trial started this week.  The chances are good that we will still be talking about Ubering from one place to another by mid-century.  However, that will not mean quite the same thing as now.  Between their emerging direction and their incessant, and usually justified, legal problems, they will not long have as many employees.  We will once again have more resources and fewer jobs.  For better or worse, that is what is still happening with, and to, America.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Self-Driving Cars Since The Famous Tesla Crash: A High-Speed Round-Up

As, per John Markoff of The New York Times, “in and around Silicon Valley, at least 19 commercial self-driving efforts are underway,” the topic of driverless vehicles continues to set publication proliferation records among jobs-related subjects.  I am looking at a stack of 29 articles from no fewer than 12 different publications, all within the past 73 days.  I won’t try to review all of them, which would be a waste of space for several reasons, but will summarize what has happened here, sorted into four major themes, since word of the first fatal self-driving mishap broke on June 30.

This crash took place May 7th in Williston, Florida, when a Tesla driver activated the car’s Autopilot feature, completely ignored what was happening on the road, and then died when his vehicle ran full speed into the side of an 18-wheel truck.  After almost three months of investigations (we’ll need to get faster here), and initially saying that the accident happened because the product did not correctly interpret “the white side of the tractor-trailer against a brightly lit sky,” the Tesla company determined that the problem was not that Autopilot failed to perceive that there was a large metal mass straight ahead, but that its braking system did not then stop the car.  In the meantime, Consumer Reports implored the company to block use of this feature while the drivers’ hands were off the wheel. 

A few observations here.  Apparently Autopilot, as well as being named aggressively enough to encourage drivers to, in the findings of another article, play Jenga, watch Harry Potter, and actually sleep, is in fact a beta release, meaning that it has not been fully tested.  If the linkage between its autonomous driving capability and its brakes is insufficient, it is in effect little more than cruise control, around since at least the 1960s and nothing any prudent driver would ever trust with full vehicle operation.  It is not, as I defined the levels in my July 1 post, a true Plane 2 feature, as drivers cannot disengage while it is operating.  Whether the actions above were reckless, appropriate given the name of the feature, or somewhere in between, and even though the cars’ manuals gave warnings, it is clear that Tesla dropped the ball here.  They will probably lose large lawsuits over the product, and will be required to back it off in some ways.  The broader ongoing issue will be to avoid excessively slowing down availability of automated driving products.  There will be more mishaps – in fact, on July 1 another Tesla crashed, rolling over on the Pennsylvania Turnpike without fatal injuries – and their liability here does not mean the maximum acceptable rate of accidents should be zero.

The second subtopic here is about company alliances and consortiums, which I predicted July 1 would ultimately produce these vehicles.  Later that same date, German automaker BMS AG, American chipmaker Intel, and self-driving Israeli software company Mobileye NV announced that they, together, expected to be producing self-driving cars of some autonomy level by 2021.  About three weeks ago, American ridesharing company Uber and Swedish car manufacturer Volvo announced combining to offer automated taxis, which will be on Pittsburgh roads this fall.  In good deference to their necessarily incomplete quality, they will be free, and at Plane 2 or Plane 3 (a driver still inside, but rarely taking the controls).  How this aggressive and possibly premature but fascinating experiment works, or fails, will tell us a lot about what we need to stay on my projected track of 20% Plane 2 United States vehicles by 2021 and 20% Plane 3 ones by 2025.  Uber has also acquired American driverless truck technology maker Otto, which gives it two consortium pieces on that front in-house.  Ford, now with potent production plans of its own, is working with Israeli computer-vision company Saips, has bought 75% of American lidar (radar based on laser beams – expect to see this term more and more) sensor manufacturer Velodyne, and put undisclosed amounts of money into American digital chart firm Civil Maps and American machine-vision concern Nirenberg Neuroscience.

The third theme concerns announced availability dates for various vehicle automation products.  A July 4 article said that Google “hopes” to market what might be called self-driving bumper cars, with 25-mile-per-hour maximums, “a heavy later of foam” on their fronts, and plastic windshields, in 2019.  Those would go all the way to Plane 5, or vehicles without direct human control; although I projected they would not reach 20% of American rolling stock until 2030, we could still reasonably have 0.1% in three years.  General Motors now plans on a 2017 offering of Super Cruise, an apparent Tesla Autopilot competitor, designed as a true Plane 2 product but functional only on highways which the company has mapped in detail.  Ford announced on August 16th offering large numbers of fully driverless cars, at Plane 5 or at least Plane 4 (remote human supervision of vehicles or groups of vehicles; my prediction 20% in USA by 2028), through a ridesharing company to be named by 2021.  And in four miles of Singapore streets, American company nuTonomy has zoomed ahead of Uber and Volvo by offering free experimental semi-driverless taxi service now.

The fourth article concentration is on other updates to issues I raised in my November 20th post.  A July 7th piece proposed that, like 16-year-old humans, new driverless technology pieces should be licensed – a sensible idea, especially if the turnaround time is much shorter than those government often perpetrates.  A second, on July 8th, reinforced the special need for road and other infrastructure improvement.  A third, also out July 7th, again raised the behavior issue, with Plane 2 drivers averaging 17 seconds, or a quarter of a mile at only 53 MPH, to retake control after the vehicle’s command to do so.  An August 18th article addressed one I haven’t seen since bringing it up in November, the threat of hacking, with a graphic example of a researcher stopping a self-driving car by issuing commands on his laptop.

As far as jobs go, my July projections on those, as with the percentage implementation dates, are still current.  Uber seems to be insisting that driverless vehicles will slash the number of privately owned cars, which seems unlikely in small towns and low-density suburbs and absurd in rural areas.  I’m still expecting 20% of American vehicles at Plane 2 by 2021, privately owned or not, with the world’s self-driving leaders there by 2018.  And eventually our terminology will change.  Per Ben Zimmer on August 26th, we may come to know of self-driving cars as just “cars,” and the ones we have now as… “meatmobiles.”  I leave it to you to propose other names for what were once known as “horseless carriages” – in the meantime, enjoy watching the progress of what might, arguably of course, be the most exciting, and most promising, area of technical growth we have seen since Apollo.