Thursday, January 18, 2018

Double Issue: Around the Horn on the News, On and Off the Jobs Topic

What’s been happening lately? 

The smelliest story of last week, if not truly deserving of being the largest, was not quite how it was widely interpreted.  Our president’s descriptive term about Haiti and a group of central African countries was vile, highly offensive, gratuitously provocative, and a piece of putrid diplomacy.  It was not racist.  The tendency of many liberals and some others to see any situation involving significant numbers of blacks through a racial lens came through here.  It is true that the countries referred to have predominately non-Arab African populations, but so do many others, such as Barbados, The Bahamas, and Botswana, which would never, even in his mind, suggest that label.  The citizens of almost all the world’s poorest countries are predominately of that overly general racial type, so unless he had gone out of his way to name one of the exceptions, say, Afghanistan, his statement would draw that accusation.  In our generally reasonable efforts to assess what this president is doing and saying, even when it is as here spectacularly repulsive, we must still be fair.

Prejudicial responses also came from last week’s top business news, Walmart’s boost of their lowest chain-wide pay from $9 to $11 per hour, with additional benefits and many $1,000 add-on bonuses, and their almost simultaneous announcement of their decision to close 63 Sam’s Club stores later this year.  Walmart is to liberals much as Jane Fonda is to old-time conservatives, and their reaction to these business decisions, the first of which will cost the chain $700 million, was no more positive and believing than what those on the right would say if the former actress posed with a cache of guns and expressed fealty to the Second Amendment.  The point of this sharp attack may have been John Foley’s January 11th New York Times “Walmart’s Minor Act of Retribution,” which called the over-two-thirds-of-a-billion-dollars “just a sliver of what it could save in taxes,” though according to analysts it was actually about 30 percent, or rather more if you imagine that portion of a pie.  The company also announced it would be cutting 1,000 corporate positions, which also seemed to get no favorable press.  It was noteworthy that while the closing Sam’s Club locations are heavily located in urban, suburban, or other relatively high-wage areas, a much larger share of the workers benefitting from these 22% wage increases are not, meaning not only that the company will now be sending a greater part of its money to the poorest American areas, but that it will get even more applicants for jobs already in heavy demand.  Investors were not moved much, and it may prove to be a lose-lose proposition for the firm, costing itself money while failing to satisfy its inconsolable opponents. 

Another large news item was from the previous week, that of Oprah Winfrey giving a fine if very partisan speech at the Golden Globes award ceremony, and emerging almost instantly as not only a possible 2020 presidential candidate but as a potential juggernaut of one.  She seems the perfect Democratic response to our current president – she is widely beloved for reasons other than substance, she is a woman, her fame is mostly from entertainment, her previous political experience borders on nonexistence, her party orientation is secondary but clear-cut, and she is black but transcends racial limitations similarly to Colin Powell who decades ago could have run and won.  Given the bizarre turn presidential politics took two years ago, she is deserving of the oddsmakers’ present choice of her as the most likely Democrat to win.  If she wants it she should go for it – it is quite possible that she is actually the only person, aside from the president himself, who can limit our current, potentially disastrous situation to four years. 

Moving to the subject of an article appearing in a Monday-dated magazine but appearing online the week before that, we, along with Alexandra Schwartz in The New Yorker’s “Resolutions” (electronic-version title “Improving Ourselves to Death”), look at the state of self-help literature.  Schwartz showed us how the genre has responded to higher work standards and requirements, gained diversity, and of course built on its own history, giving us approaches based on self-acceptance, telling others off, setting measurable and quantifiable goals, multifaceted development including such as cleansing diets and 1,000-digit pi memorization, making radical situational changes, and even choosing to “content ourselves with being average.”  It’s a good check-in on the field, but does not quite touch on what I have long considered its largest problem, that no matter how much most people can improve, their success will be determined by others who usually will not care about, or even like, your progresses.  Unless you want to do it as a hobby, or you have the aptitude, opportunity and sustained intensity necessary for a serious business venture or other project (and, as the world is closing in, realistic settings for such things are getting rarer and rarer), raising yourself from the 90th percentile to the 99th in public speaking, self-awareness, physical health, organization skills, work habits, or self-esteem will generally not, in money or even happiness, justify itself.  The outcome for people in the great middle capability and ambition zone is more likely, per Schwartz writing freely and quoting various authors, to contribute to high suicide, body-dissatisfaction, and anxiety rates; succumb to perfectionism, “the idea that kills”; and, if conveyed to others, add to the current situation, where “parents continue to feed their children the loving, well-intentioned lie that there are “no limits” and they can “be anything,” which leaves the kids blaming themselves, rather than the market’s brutality, when they inevitably come up short.”  If you find yourself the likes of morbidly obese, emotionally unable to chair a meeting at work, or stopping yourself from social behavior you know would be fun as well as beneficial, get the help you need, but once you surpass problems of this severity it may not be healthy for you to consume figurative platefuls of vitamins.

Another issue that keeps coming up is the possibility of removing our president through the Twenty-fifth Amendment, which, if “the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office,” the vice president can indefinitely act for him.  Our current one may be as objectionable as anyone to ever hold that office, and be the best likewise at bringing out negative emotions, but is not in this territory.  He maintains an excellent chance of being impeached, especially if Democrats take over both houses of Congress this fall, but it’s a waste of hope and effort to get him out before 2021 otherwise.  On a similar note, it’s wrong to overstate how much he is damaging our country’s reputation, as a clear problem with our form of government is that, once a century or two and with luck no more often than that, we elect a stinker. 

Here is one more paragraph on three more issues.  One, sex, often called gender, is becoming more of a social construct, defined by which one people decide to present as, which may be a change for the better, but doesn’t make transsexuals biological members of their new one, and it is positively Orwellian to change sexes on birth certificates, which must reflect anatomical and genetic realities.  Two, sex differences in average pay need not reflect educated and career-focused women, but those who set up their lives to depend on men for most of their money – as long as Seven Sisters graduates and similarly credentialed women are statistically tethered to others, we will not know the extent of the discrimination they face.  Three, in response to Attorney General Jeff Sessions and others, all should know that advocating social conservatism, in anything from drug legalization to religious views, is going against the flow of history – in fifty years, for example, it will stun our great-grandchildren to realize that using a certain wild-growing weed could once, in this country, get you prison time – and should not be done.  

Next week, I will be traveling and well away from both computers and my normal routine, so will not have a blog post.  Rejoin me on February 2nd, for my comments on the January jobs report and the latest update of the American Job Shortage Number (AJSN).  Have a fine fortnight. 

Friday, January 12, 2018

Starting 2018 with Six Proposed Jobs-Related Trends of Merit

We’re now on the twelfth day of the new year.  We don’t know what will happen, but we can predict and project. 

I am in receipt of six interrelated views.  How good are they, and what might the authors not be seeing about our current and evolving situation?

We start with the October 24th New York Times “A Peek at Future Jobs Shows Growing Economic Divides.”  Ben Casselman suggested that the expected 2026 state for our economy is “more dominated by the service sector amid the continued erosion of manufacturing jobs,” appropriate since after those two, which followed extraction, we know of nothing to take over from service positions, which have hardly multiplied in past decades, as the highest level of paid work.  He did well to say that jobs centering on not only machine-compatible tasks but on algorithmic ones are endangered, and that, according to a recent Bureau of Labor Statistics report, “overall job growth will continue to be slow.”  I quarrel with a finding that “computer science and other fields heavy in math or science will grow quickly” – I think in the next decade many American positions in those fields will go away to both globalization and automation, factors mentioned in the article – and don’t think a “steep decline” for typists and telephone operators would now be meaningful, but, overall, Casselman and this study are on solid ground.

Finlay Renwick, writing in Esquire, cited a rather different source in his November 7th “Stephen Hawking Is Reasonably Worried We’re All Going To Be Destroyed By Robots.”  This is not new territory, but hearing it from possibly the world’s most brilliant man gives it extra impact.  As Renwick reported, Hawking told a Web Summit conference crowd that artificial intelligence “could be the biggest event in the history of our civilisation or the worst,” and maintained that “we cannot know if we will be infinitely helped by AI, or ignored by it and side-lined, or conceivably destroyed by it.”  Not only could the technology produce “powerful autonomous weapons,” as we should already know, but also “new ways for the few to oppress the many.” He correctly said that “we simply need to be aware of the dangers, identify them, employ the best possible practice and management, and prepare for its consequences well in advance.”  All worthy of emphasis, especially from such a lofty perch.

There isn’t any consensus on the nature of the first three, but now, per Jim Hoagland in the November 22nd New York Times, “The fourth industrial revolution is upon us.”  After steam engines, electricity, and computers, Hoagland saw some combination of machine learning and autonomous vehicles as the next fundamental leap.  It’s a problem that even two-page articles based on ideas as good as this one are sometimes too long, and here it didn’t help us to hear, erroneously, that “6.1 million jobs currently sit vacant largely because applicants lack either the skills or mobility needed,” or that China is one of two superpowers because we are in “a new bipolar world based on technology.”  Still, full credit to Hoagland.

One large autumn piece of employment news was a McKinsey study concluding that “Automation could kill 73 million U.S. jobs by 2030” (Paul Davidson, USA Today, November 28th), which drew the comment, odd since it was from one of the effort’s co-authors, that “the dire predictions that robots are going to take our jobs are overstated.”  Well, it depends on both the job and the timeframe, and the “huge overhaul of the economy and labor market” advocated in the report won’t, as far as we can see, happen with paid positions.  The vague conclusions Davidson cited, such as that technology will replace from “zero to a third of work activities” and that from “39 million to 73 million jobs could [not will] be destroyed,” fail to inform, but the conclusions that “jobs will be created from rising incomes and consumption” and from “an aging population that will demand more health care professionals and investment in infrastructure and renewable energy” are, if obvious, worth something.  Although, in the absence of something as wide-scoped as a national infrastructure project, training doesn’t seem like a national project, it was good to hear the same co-author putting blame where it belongs, by saying that “governments and businesses already have fallen short in the retraining of workers.”  Ultimately, these study results are down the middle, which should make them noncontroversial and relatively easy to accept.

We have also long known about average Westerners getting older, but how is it that “We haven’t prepared for the aging monster” (Washington Post, December 6th)?  Author Robert J. Samuelson correctly said that “the problem is simple,” but concluded that our only choices are higher retirement ages, cut benefits, or higher taxes.  He left out the effect of not only more jobs but more good jobs for those 60 and older, without which we will indeed make no progress and need no preparation.  The reason the jobs crisis continues despite much improved employment numbers is that so many Americans and others, such as the 96 million out of the labor force, are neither working nor officially jobless, and that people choosing in large numbers to drop interest in working does not mean they would not ultimately want to do that and generate federal tax revenue in the process.  More career positions for those now taking early or other retirement from lack of perceived opportunities is the best aging-trend preparation we could have.

Contrary to its title, Alex Williams’s December 11th New York Times “Will Robots Take Our Children’s Jobs?” is a survey of what individuals should know and can do about our employment situation.  As I covered in Work’s New Age and Choosing a Lasting Career, Wilson identified the problem, documented the rising ability of software to replace human analysis, considered guaranteed basic income, touched on the Singularity, and looked at what career paths might stay or disappear.  Although he seemed to fall into a trap by citing a TED talk saying that bank employees have not reduced in number, but rather replaced “mind-numbing work like counting out 20-dollar bills” with “more cognitively demanding tasks” when the lack of job loss has been completely due to massively more transactions, he ended with a quotation that “the robot plumber is a long, long way away.”  As with other articles here, Williams’s piece is flawed but still well worthwhile.  We might end the decade with the likes of December’s 4.1% official unemployment, but only if we can avoid a recession – if we get one of those, we will see even more truth in the predictions above.       

Friday, January 5, 2018

December’s AJSN Up 113,000 to 16.3 Million Positions Behind in Classically Meh December Jobs Report

The word on the electronic street, coming in to this morning’s Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Situation Summary, was that it was going to be a good month, with 190,000 net new nonfarm payroll positions added.  It didn’t work out that way, though as we will see it was hardly a thumbs-down report either. 

We added 148,000 jobs, not an embarrassment but only about 15,000 more than we need for our increasing population.  Average private nonfarm payroll wages were up 8 cents per hour, a few cents more than inflation, to reach $26.63.  The count of what the BLS calls “long-term unemployed,” or those jobless for the past 27 weeks or longer, fell 100,000 to 1.5 million, but the number of those working part-time for economic reasons, or keeping less than full-time positions while looking thus far unsuccessfully for something beyond that category, rose the same amount to 4.9 million.

The other significant statistics broke even.  There are still 6.6 million officially unemployed.  Seasonally adjusted and unadjusted joblessness are still at 4.1% and 3.9% respectively.  The two measures of how common it is for Americans to be working, the labor force participation rate and the employment-population ratio, held at 62.7% and 60.1%. 

The American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, the metric showing in one figure how many more positions could be quickly filled if all knew that getting one were as easy as getting a pizza, didn’t change much either.  However, with a sharp increase in those claiming no interest in working, and gains or no change in all seven categories of marginal attachment, especially those wanting work but not looking for the past year, the difference was unfavorable, up just over 100,000 as follows:

Compared with a year before, however, the AJSN has shown real improvement, completely in the number of those officially unemployed, down since December 2016 from 7,170,000 to 6,278,000.  There was a drop of 255,000 in the count of people not having looked for work in the past year, but that was more than erased by rises in the numbers of those in the armed services or off the grid and the best estimate of American expatriates.

So where did we go this month?  Once again, nowhere.  As before, where we are camping out is not so bad, with low unemployment and participation rates significantly above their 2015-2016 lows, but that is very much what we are doing.  However, our employment situation has stopped improving.  Whether that is plenty good enough, woefully inadequate, or somewhere in between is for you to judge.  For the third straight month, though, the turtle did not move a leg muscle.