Friday, January 20, 2017

It’s Inauguration Day: Five Enlightened Views on How to Prepare for This Afternoon and Later, Plus Mine

Here we go.  Whether we are ready or not, it’s only hours until Donald John Trump becomes our 45th president.  Contrary to a remarkable amount of commentary seemingly unaware of it, he hasn’t been in that office yet – all the stock market gyrations and real or imagined business and world-leader reactions have been based on speculation, not policy.  And nobody, not even his wife, knows what he will actually do.  We know by now the kind of thing he will say, but will he turn into a thoroughly uncompassionate conservative?  Will he be as unprincipled as his statements, outside of immigration and protectionism, indicate?  Will he leave policymaking to his cabinet and become sort of a King Farouk-like satyr-in-chief?  Or will he become something not only bad but much worse than any of those?

That last possibility has gathered cogent press from a variety of sources.  These five articles are worthy of your attention.

The first one, “What to Do About Trump?  The Same Thing My Grandfather Did in 1930s Vienna” by Liel Leibovitz, appeared in Tablet on November 14th.   This ancestor of Leibovitz’s was “a promising young violinist and composer” who, when “spooked by the goosesteps of Hitler’s goons,” surprised people he knew, who told him “he was hysterical, that he was getting it all wrong, that it couldn’t possibly be that bad,” by leaving Europe for much less affluent Palestine.  He decided to do that, as well as the author could tell, when “his simple heart advised him to take the thugs at their word.”  Leibovitz named three principles to follow:  to “treat every poisoned word as a promise,” to assume adults are adults responsible for knowing the consequences of what they do, and to “refuse to accept what’s going on as the new normal” and not condone otherwise good things resulting from abuse of our fellow citizens. 

The second, “The moral foundations of fascism:  Warring psychological theories struggle to make sense of Hitler, Mussolini, and you-know-who” (Paul Rosenberg in Salon, December 4th) explained the social psychological theory of “moral foundations theory,” which, good or bad, explains the underpinnings of both conservative and liberal ideology.  Rosenberg showed how the need for social order from either the left or the right can lead to authoritarianism, and how a rising leader can cater to the worst of one side or the other to move his organization in that direction.  If you have any inclination toward sociology or psychology, this piece has a lot to offer you.

The third article, also in Salon, Robert Reich’s “4 syndromes of passivity in the face of pending Trump tyranny,” appeared on December 16th.  He named four destructive reactions common to people who did not vote for our president-elect.  They are “normalizer syndrome,” or believing Trump “will make rational decisions once in office”; “outrage numbness syndrome,” or disregarding his offensive statements and actions from sheer overexposure to them; “cynical syndrome,” determining that Democrats, Republicans, and the media are as complicit and as bad as Trump; and “helpless syndrome,” or feeling too powerless to take any action.  Instead of maintaining any of these views, he recommends “demonstrating, resisting, objecting, demanding, speaking truth, joining with others, making a ruckus and never ceasing to fight Trump’s pending tyranny” instead.

Fourth, by Jeffrey C. Isaac on December 17th in The Washington Post, “How Hannah Arendt’s classic work on totalitarianism illuminates today’s America” demonstrates just that.  That 1951 book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, was written toward understanding what was put together by both Hitler and Stalin.  Conclusions Arendt made that could apply to the years now to come include “freedom is fragile, and when demagogues speak, and others start following them, it is wise to pay attention” (Isaac’s words), “the mob always will shout for ‘the strong man,’ the ‘great leader.’  For the mob hates the society from which it is excluded” (Arendt’s words), “what convinces masses are not facts, and not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system of which they are presumably part” (likewise), and that “peoples made superfluous… were rendered superfluous in a legal and political sense” (Isaac).  This last idea, which led to Nazi concentration camps, suggests that the masses of displaced, formerly working people consuming social services, despite their November support for him, may prove to be surplus and therefore expendable or even undesirable to Trump.

The fifth piece is the best of all.  From Dallas News on November 21, Timothy Snyder’s “What you – yes, you – can do to save America from tyranny,” named no fewer than 20 such things.  They are “do not obey in advance,” “defend an institution,” “recall professional ethics,” “when listening to politicians, distinguish certain words,” “be calm when the unthinkable arrives,” “be kind to our language,” “stand out,”  “believe in truth,” “investigate,” “practice corporeal politics,” “make eye contact and small talk,” “take responsibility for the face of the world,” “hinder the one-party state,” “give regularly to good causes, if you can,” “establish a private life,” “learn from others in other countries,” “watch out for the paramilitaries,” “be reflective if you must be armed,” “be as courageous as you can,” and “be a patriot.”  For more on what the author meant by these, see the article at

To Snyder’s fine list, I add two.  First, know your constitution, so you can see if and when it is being violated.  If Trump arranges for flag-burning to become illegal that would be one clear sign of that, as, as reprehensible as that activity is, it is plainly protected by the First Amendment.  Second, learn more about Nazi German history, which will tell you how a free society devolved so totally and quickly, and heed George Friedman’s 2015 words on that topic, published before Trump arrived on the presidential political scene: “This was a seductive work of art that was judged not by its logic or justification but by the way it resonated.  And it resonated so well that it did not require proof or logical consistency.  It simply had to be a stunningly seductive and effective work of art.”     

Expect more from this blog.  As well as writing more, as usual, on jobs in America, I will publish information on to what extent true American authoritarianism is or is not taking shape.  All you will get from me is, as I see it, the truth.  Stay in touch.   

Friday, January 13, 2017

Jobs General and in Public Policy: A July Through January Round-Up

In this blog I’ve focused mainly on what is happening in various industries, along with monthly numbers which give insight into our employment situation.  More, though, has happened, and been written about, how our laws could help with that.

First is July’s issue of the Northeast Pennsylvania Business Journal, in which Howard J. Grossman, former executive director of what is now NEPA Alliance, an organization promoting economic growth in this area, wrote “unemployment insurance:  an option for joblessness?”.  Grossman discussed private work-loss compensation insurance covering annual income up to $250,000, with premium costs averaging about $1,000.  He advocated it, and showed that it is not only viable but a desirable choice for many.

In The Atlantic, Alana Semuels’ August 8th “Is the U.S. Due for Radically Raising Taxes for the Rich?” considered this issue which seemed headed for change before our presidential election.  The article is mostly a history of top American income tax rates, which almost doubled for the highest bracket under Republican Herbert Hoover and went even higher with his Democratic successor Franklin D. Roosevelt.  They held at 70 percent-plus from 1935 to 1982, but have been under 40%, also under presidents of both parties, since 1987.  The piece noted the correlation, if not the causality, of high levels of income inequality after long stretches of low marginal income taxes over the past 90 years, and concluded that for raising those rates to be effective, it would need to be done by “all the big countries,” and that “the U.S. must really want it to be done.”  That, now, means not soon. 

Former labor secretary and active author and blogger Robert Reich decried “corporate tax deserters” in Salon on September 14th.  He suggested an end to “financial incentives that encourage” it, and opined that United States companies moving their cash or headquarters overseas “should no longer be entitled to the advantages of being American,” including political involvement and use of the domestic litigation system.  That has plenty of merit, and removing tax breaks instead of implementing new levies should in theory have bipartisan support.  I have previously advocated better tax treatment of companies creating and maintaining large numbers of jobs, and Reich’s ideas here could be implemented along with that.

Another viewpoint to which I have subscribed, that of the need for a national infrastructure project, gathered opposing views.  The Wayne Independent and other sources published Heritage Foundation research associate Michael Sargent’s “What both candidates get wrong about infrastructure” (July 29th).  The author cited statistics and studies showing that American pavement, bridges, and highways had improved, not worsened, since 1992, and that such efforts were susceptible to overspending.   George F. Will’s November 25th Washington Post “Infrastructure projects aren’t jobs programs” differentiated between these two purposes, but unfortunately illogically claimed that New Deal public works projects “did not significantly reduce unemployment,” since joblessness then did not drop, and said such efforts would not be as useful as those before since our infrastructure is now more developed.  Both Sargent and Will bring worthwhile points, but nothing in either article convinced me such a plan, perhaps modified to consider the above, would not be worthwhile.

The worst labor-related news of the year came out November 22nd, when a federal judge blocked adjustment of the maximum salary for overtime eligibility.  My May 27th post named six reasons why this change was good, even if a higher minimum wage was bad, and said that I had never seen as many “bad arguments” as put forth by those opposing it.  However, lawsuits filed by “21 states and a coalition of business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce” (Reuters, in Fox Business) provoked the judicial response that the change was unlawful.  The measure is now under nationwide injunction, but further legislation and litigation are sure to follow.  Eventually, though probably not with the incoming presidential administration, the courts will see that low pay is not the same as employee abuse, and resolve the overtime issue appropriately.

In “What a 21st-century safety net should look like” (Washington Post, November 29), Democratic Virginia Senator Mark R. Warner suggested, in response to “modern American capitalism… not working for many Americans,” portable health-care and disability insurance, some type of retirement savings protection, and incentives for companies to retrain workers.  He bemoaned business’s short-term financial focus, but had no ideas on changing that.  Overall there is not much here, except inadvertently pointing up that agreement on the causes of problems is not enough to solve them by itself.

Although there has been a lot of recent press about guaranteed income, there is still some confusion about what it actually is.  That was made clear in reports of Finland’s experimental enhanced unemployment benefits, going to 2,000 jobless people for two years.  Since the money will not be stopped by the recipients’ earnings elsewhere, Peter S. Goodman in the December 17th New York Times, despite his article’s title “Free Cash in Finland.  Must Be Jobless.,” described this effort as “an experiment in a form of social welfare:  universal basic income.”  But it is not.  For earnings to be both guaranteed and universal, they must go to people regardless of employment status.  By skewing the set of people given this money, the outcomes will be misleading and will distort the views of those not realizing this distinction.  Higher unemployment compensation is generally a good thing, though, even if it is represented as something else.

On December 28th, Fox Business published “The Average Retirement Age in Every State in 2016.”  I was stunned by how little variation this study, which used federal data for people aged 40 to 80, found across the nation.  All 51 data points, for the states and the District, came out between 62 and 65, with the relatively largest in New England and nearby New Jersey.  Additionally, despite much talk about later retirements, only 6% of Americans are still in the labor force at age 80.  More interesting would be the share of people who have left what could be defined as their main careers at certain ages – that would not come out anywhere near 20th-century levels. 

Lauren Weber’s January 3rd Wall Street Journal piece “‘Routine’ Jobs Are Disappearing,” discovered what readers of this blog have known since its 2012 inception, that many doing algorithmic work, be it physical or mental, have been losing it.  Weber’s additional statement that “the U.S. must invest in raising the skills of the workers most likely to be affected by the disappearance of routine jobs, labor market experts say” is even less useful, not only no newer but something I debunked five years ago in Work’s New Age

Shorter workweeks have great value, and stand as one of the few comprehensive solutions to the permanent jobs crisis.  Have they failed already?  Liz Alderman, in “In Sweden, Happiness in a Shorter Workday Can’t Overcome the Cost” (The New York Times, January 6th) seems to consider that possibility.  She documented the Swedish experiment with a six-hour workday, which resulted in “happier, healthier, and more productive employees,” but proved too expensive, as others needed to be hired to cover the lost time.  On further examination, though, the trial was held with retirement home workers, who needed to cover predetermined hours.  Under those circumstances, it was clear that shortening their work would mean more employees would be needed.  That would not be the case for most cubicle-job workers who, if they did not have as in this case ten hours a week of idle or expendable time, could have their least essential tasks cut.  Clearly, shortening hours for production workers, or those needed to be present for certain lengths of time, is not as viable as doing that for those with slack time or flexible workloads.  Thus, the headline here was as misleading as the subhead of the Finland article above, “the idea, universal basic income, is gaining traction worldwide.”  Guaranteed income and shorter working hours have great potential, but they must be understood properly.      

There will be more.  If anything else, it is good to see the issues above being discussed.  Even if the unemployment rate stays low, we will need to keep doing that as the years roll on.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Dull but Still Improving Jobs Data Puts American Job Shortage Number (AJSN) At 17 Million

Not much was supposed to happen in this morning’s monthly Bureau of Labor Statistics national employment report – and not much did.

Most of what was there, though, was good.  Although official seasonally adjusted unemployment increased from 4.6% to 4.7%, two behind-the curtain numbers which got better in November improved again.  The count of those out of work for 27 weeks or longer dropped another 100,000 to 1.8 million, as did the tally of people working part-time for economic reasons, or keeping shorter-hours positions while looking thus far unsuccessfully for longer ones, now 5.6 million.  Average private nonfarm hourly earnings, after taking a one-month break with a small loss, almost matched October’s 13-cent increase to reach an even $26.00.  The two percentages which show better than any other figures how common it is for Americans to actually be working, the labor force participation rate and the employment-population ratio, held steady at 62.7% and 59.7%.  There were a population-gain-exceeding 156,000 net new nonfarm positions, and seasonally unadjusted joblessness matched the adjusted’s rise to go from 4.4% to 4.5%. 

The American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, which shows in one metric how many more positions could be filled if getting one were as easy as buying a movie ticket, gained a modest 126,000, as growths in the counts of those wanting work but not looking for it for at least a year (up over 200,000) and officially unemployed (up just over 100,000) more than offset the surprising 165,000 fall in those describing themselves as “discouraged.”  Overall, the AJSN came in at just over 17 million, as follows:

Compared with a year before, the AJSN is down 475,000, reflecting substantially reduced numbers of those discouraged and officially jobless.  The one that keeps climbing, the count of those claiming no interest whatever in working, rose 1.34 million, adding 67,000 to the latent demand which the AJSN measures. 

So how are we looking now?  Favorable.  We could still use many more work opportunities, and there remain too many people working part-time not by choice, but we ended the last full Obama-administration month with not only a massive eight-year improvement but reasonable figures in general.  We will see if Trump’s team will hold the gain, improve further on it, or let it go back to the likes of 10% official unemployment.  In the meantime, the turtle, once again, took a small step forward.