Friday, September 27, 2019

For Overlooked Countries: Eight Ways to Make Travel Easier

It’s not a common subject on this blog, but for a couple of decades I have been visiting places around the globe.  I have now set foot in 58 countries, in all of the continental groups except Antarctica – while my patterns are more frugal than most Americans, perhaps more akin to those of Europeans with more vacation time than money, they are common worldwide.  Travel is not a main source for writing on American employment, but it is related in that tourism has, during all of our lifetimes, been an ever-rising source of jobs; visitor appeal greatly controls how many are working in certain industries, and many more officials would prefer more outsiders coming in and spending money to fewer.  What relatively inexpensive things can destinations, especially but not exclusively the foreign ones which spurred my thinking here, do to get more of that?

First, consistently have and maintain street name signs.  When asked on an exit form what a small island country could do to make my experience better, I wrote “street signs” in capitals, underlined twice, and with three exclamation points.  Those of us who like to walk around can otherwise be blown off course remarkably easily.  And don’t they want them for the locals anyway?

Second, have some sort of competence test for cabdrivers.  It’s infuriating, as I did in this same place, after being pestered constantly by touts of “Taxi?” “Taxi?,” to finally get in one and find the driver, who seems to know English or the other language I’m speaking perfectly well, does not know locations of even the most popular tourist destinations.  If there is such an oversupply of cabs that drivers will often wait an hour or more for customers to finish their sightseeing so they can get another few dollars taking them elsewhere, then, say, a written exam on where things are would correct that as well.

Third, and this time I speak to the most developed places on the planet, have nothing for visitors requiring mobile phones.  I know, we can buy SIM cards, but using such technology also necessitates having such devices on hand, paying roaming charges, getting a clear signal, understanding dialing codes, and more.  With no country close to 100% cellphone saturation anyway, a modicum of pay phones, which have reached near or total nonexistence in some places, could also help travelers more.

Fourth, have more places of any kind to sit down.  To make the same points I made in academia last decade, populations are aging, people often need a few minutes to rest, and concrete benches can last for 50 years.  While loitering is a reasonable thing to discourage, the value to others will soon, if it hasn’t already, more than offset that.

Fifth, facilitate low-priced private room lodging.  Such offerings are nongovernmental-money decisions, but public policy, as shown in countries with few even rural options below maybe US$100 per night, can influence that.  And I’m not talking about Airbnb or other sharing options either, which can seem confusing and offer communication insufficient to many.

Sixth, accept cash everywhere.  Even in the United States, where customer needs have recently caused restaurants taking only electronic payments to change that, many erroneously assume that visitors will be as well-equipped as locals, who pay no credit card transaction fees and have any commonly used small-change-replacement systems (such as Hong Kong’s Octopus transit cards, extensively used in convenience stores).  I’m with a horde of people who use ATMs, themselves becoming less common at some destinations, and then spend as they go, not only getting lower fees but enjoying seeing the local money.  It would be sad to go to Australia and never see the kangaroos, platypus, echidna, and other designs on their everyday coins and notes.

Seventh, have free local maps available anywhere tourists might go.  Advertisements from their sponsors are fine, and are often actually helpful, but please keep them to scale, show what that scale is, and leave in streets or roads even if judged to be of no visitor interest.  Maps, especially in conjunction with good street signs, have no real substitute.

Eighth, and this is where our home country is the worst, have plenty of public toilets.  Walking around without frequent restaurant or museum stops brings this human need to the forefront.  These places need only be reasonably clean and open at all or almost all times.  If they want to, as many do, charge what is almost always a nominal amount, that is no problem (if they can make change!), though businesses, who see gains in sales when people can wander around longer, could pay for them.  One of the largest American portable toilet providers uses the name Comfort House for a reason.

Although some would need to come from changes in laws or company regulations, none of these improvements would be, in the long term, time-consuming or expensive.  All would boost tourism jobs and business income more efficiently than public relations campaigns.  Through online as well as in-person communication, word spreads more than ever before about the merits of Taiwan versus South Korea, or even, and especially, Fiji against Samoa.  Work and money are good things – when it’s relatively easy, let’s do what we can to get more of both.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Uber and Lyft: Heading Toward the End of the Road?

It’s not looking good for America’s premier gypsy cab companies.

In the December 5th, we saw “Uber, Lyft drivers get $17.22 hourly wage guarantee in New York after commission’s vote.”  This move was made by “taxi regulators” who claimed the move would “raise drivers’ annual earnings by $10,000 a year, making it the first U.S. city to set such minimum pay standards.”  That is believable, but since the move makes no mention of that amount being over their expenses, be they average or specific, it cannot be confused with the net $34,000-plus annual pay it would get an ordinary wage earner over a year of 40-hour weeks.  Uber, as expected, cried about that, saying it would cause “higher than necessary fare increases for riders,” which can indeed be the result of workers paid appropriate amounts, “while missing an opportunity to deal with congestion in Manhattan’s central business district” (even if cars trying for Uber fares, some paid by people who would otherwise take buses or subways, actually had that effect, it strains credulity to think that is this company, proven to be as mercenary as any Soldier of Fortune contributor, highly values that).

Six months later, on June 2nd, we got the New York Times’s “Path to Ride-Share Profits Begins With Higher Prices.”  Author Austan Goolsbee started by contrasting Uber and Lyft market capitalization, then $80 billion, with their loss of “a great deal of money,” since then worsened by Uber dropping $5.2 billion in the second quarter and both companies’ capitalization falling to $68 billion.  Per Goolsbee, passengers are less sensitive to the fare increases these companies seem to need than drivers are to the pay raises they would provide.  However, with riders having many alternative ways of getting places, the effect would be significant, and we don’t know how much further the results of a study, that “for every 10 percent increase in price, demand fell by only about 5 percent,” could be extrapolated.  The author also said that drivers might otherwise be working for restaurants, meaning that their “average pay… is likely to end up around minimum wage, too.”  Taxi-commission edict or not, there is no reason for such workers to be getting anything approaching middle-class income – and the more they are paid, the fewer of them the market will need.

A third heavy shoe is about to drop.  As documented in “A fierce battle over defining employees in California nears decisive vote,” by John Myers, Liam Dillon, and Johana Bhuiyan in the September 7th Los Angeles Times, this week the California legislature will vote on a measure, known as Assembly Bill 5 or AB5, which, per “Why Uber and Lyft Are Pushing To Keep Their Drivers as Independent Contractors” by David Jagielski in the same date’s Motley Fool, would require three criteria for workers to be denied classification as employees:  they would need to be “free from the company’s control”; their work “can’t (be) part of the company’s core operations”; and such laborers “would need to have an independent business in the industry.”  Either of the second two would conclusively deny Uber and Lyft ability to keep treating their drivers, who would “receive sick days, have minimum-wage protections, and be eligible for other benefits,” as independent contractors.  As a result, those two and restaurant delivery service DoorDash have spent $90 billion fighting AB5, which would not only raise their expenses but would end much of “their flexibility and being able to have almost anyone being able to drive for them.”  Here also, these companies are looking at some combination of higher customer charges and losing even more money. 

Will Uber and Lyft ever become profitable?  Maybe if and when autonomous vehicles, now delayed and uncertain, arrive.  But it seems more likely that they cannot last that long.  So keep patronizing them if they help you, but choose other investment opportunities.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Friday AM: Some Jobs Numbers Still Improving, Some Advances Reversed, and AJSN Down 200,000 To 16.2 Million

This morning’s Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Situation Summary was another mixed bag.  The headline number of net new nonfarm positions didn’t make its published 158,000 projection and turned in 130,000, close to what we need to cover population increase.  Seasonally adjusted unemployment remained, for the third straight month, at 3.7%.  The unadjusted version dropped 0.2%, mostly due to the typical difference between July and August, to 3.8%.  The adjusted number of jobless people fell 100,000 to 6.0 million, with those out for 27 weeks or longer holding at 1.2% and those working part-time for economic reasons, or working short-hours jobs while seeking thus far unsuccessfully full-time ones, gave up its June and July improvements and is now back at 4.4 million.  The two measures showing how common it is for Americans to be working, the labor force participation rate and the employment-population ratio, each gained 0.2%, with the former having its third straight improvement, to reach 63.2% and 60.9% respectively.  After a neutral month, average private nonfarm hourly wages came in at 13 cents more per hour than the previously announced result, and are now at $28.11.

The American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, the Royal Flush Press metric showing how many additional positions could be quickly filled if all knew that getting one would be routine and easy, went down 207,000, as follows:

The largest AJSN changes over July were those unemployed, cutting 317,000 from the total, followed by those discouraged and not wanting work at all, offsetting much of that with worsenings of 89,000 and 54,000.  The share of latent demand from those officially jobless fell to 34.5%, matching May’s outcome. 

Overall, how did we do?  The net effect was modest, with some measures, specifically the employment-population ratio and the labor force participation rate, continuing to improve, and others, such as the count of those working part-time for economic reasons, losing what I had hoped were sturdier gains.  With better results so common, the lukewarm – and that’s what it is, not the likes of “poor” or “skimpy” – 130,000 jobs gain is no cause for concern.  As there is so much latent demand, the wage improvement is nothing to take for granted.  We’ll continue to track the trends, and see which are real and which, as most of them these days, are only fluctuations.  In the meantime, though, the turtle took a tiny but real step forward.