Friday, December 30, 2022

Developments in Transportation, from Hyperloop On Down

I’ve published a fair amount of material on driverless cars, but haven’t had much to say about other forms of conveyance, which could also have real effects on jobs and the economy.  Which ones am I talking about, and what’s happening with them?

Starting with the largest, in addition to his other escapades, “Musk floats possibility of hyperloop tunnel between Austin, San Antonio” (Andrew Miller, Fox Business, August 23rd).  The transit form, which uses generally underground tunnels and magnetic-propulsion capsules, has been successfully tested at 100 miles per hour with humans aboard and 200 mph unmanned, and if implemented for longer distances could go over 600 mph.  It could work and could be built, but “Is the Hyperloop Doomed?” (Eric A. Taub, The New York Times, September 22nd).  Taub related that “some industry observers believe that regulatory, financial and political hurdles may doom hyperloop as a viable high-speed alternative to air travel,” mainly because “a hyperloop system would require creating an entire infrastructure,” involving “constructing miles-long systems of tubes and stations, acquiring rights of way, adhering to government regulations and standards, and avoiding changes to the ecology along its routes.”  Various planned efforts, from Alberta to the United Arab Emirates, have stalled or fizzled out also from a lack of capital.  Overall, a few isolated routes could be built, but constructing a tunnel network matching the complexity of European rail lines would be daunting even in an age of adequate civic-project will.

Without changing the logistics of air travel, we have had efforts to ease its hassles.  One is hitting controversy, as if you are “Annoyed with Clear, the Company That Fast-Tracks Its Customers Through Airports?” (David Zipper,, December 20th), you will need to “get in line.”  Customers of that product, designed to jump TSA PreCheck priority lines, have their fingerprints and retinas registered and are escorted to the front.  Zipper called it “a way for a company – and airports themselves – to make money at the expense of passengers,” said “its insertion into aviation security undermines a core government function,” and, unlike PreCheck, provides “no public benefit.”  Although Clear had a successful 2021 IPO, its survival does seem uncertain.

In the age of hybrid and variable work schedules, what new forms is commuter transportation taking?  Per its communication pieces, the Via company has been offering alternatives, now in Germany, Tokyo, Canada, and America’s Silicon Valley.  Via’s on-demand “corporate shuttles” allow employees to walk to nearby points for rides to large corporate building complexes.  Their BASF Standort Shuttle also deals with the problem of getting around a huge office park, and BlueVia works like Lyft or Uber, but is company-provided.  These innovations, which could be called gap-fillers, may become more and more common, and there will be more.

The most basic electric vehicle problem is the inability to power them up, and, as Mark Phelan put it in the August 17th Detroit Free Press, “EV drivers aren’t happy with public chargers, new survey says.  Neither am I.”  What may seem like the number of charging stations not keeping pace with the faster growing number of electric cars has, per Phelan, been worse than that.  He reported that “just this month” he “had a charger stop working long before the battery was full” and had “been double-billed for a single charge.”  Even an industry president asked, “what if one of every four times you went to the gas station, the pumps weren’t working?,” and called the current state of charging facilities “totally unacceptable.”  These malfunctions have been particularly irritating to users shopping during charging and then discovering they had received little or no power.  In general, drivers expect the same readiness and reliable refueling, and refilling times almost as short, as they get from gas or diesel-powered vehicles.  They don’t have that yet.

However, per Jack Ewing and Peter Eavis in the November 13th New York Times, we are seeing “Electric Vehicles Start to Enter the Car-Buying Mainstream.”  Sales for the first nine months of 2022 made up 5.6% of new vehicle sales, up from 2.9% for the same time last year.  Although this article took a more favorable view of electric cars than the previous one, it still pointed out that “chargers are few and far between outside coastal urban areas,” that planning trips is much harder since the locations of charging stations and the time they take need to be incorporated, that they use more power when more loaded, that many owners also see a need to have gas-powered vehicles, and that home charging, the cheapest and most convenient method, usually takes “all night.”  Electric vehicles are most suitable when they are in cities and driven limited miles, but any idea that most people will be happy to trade in their liquid fuel-powered ones is not yet justified.

Finally, we have the smallest transportation form.  Are you ready for “Green Technology” (David Zipper, again in, August 15th)?  He’s not kidding – he’s talking about golf carts!  Some places, notably Sun City West in Arizona, allow them on roads, while others, such as Peachtree City, Georgia now have many on bicycle routes and other paths.  There, these roughly $10,000-when-new items do not require licenses or insurance and can be driven by people aged 12-15 with adults on board and by anyone 16 or older.  I could see these becoming popular nationwide, and, yes, they do consume less power.  It may be that the best and most practical new transportation form is the smallest – be ready.

Friday, December 23, 2022

Driverless Vehicles and Technology: Progress, Problems, and the Same Merits

How are we groping along with what we expected, five years ago, to now be widespread?

The partially autonomous version, per “11 more crash deaths are linked to automated-tech vehicles” (Fox Business, October 18th) has issues of its own.  While it’s not as bad as it sounds, for “mid-May through September,” and is not really “alarming” – we don’t hear about how many fatalities come from, say, faulty tires – it’s still getting attention.  Ten of these deaths involved Teslas, of which there are 830,000 in the United States with this technology.  But driver errors still kill over 40,000 Americans annually.

One application having real if small-scale autonomous success is taxicabs.  In the November 1st Emerging Tech Brew, Hayden Field looked at how it might continue growing in “Why some robotaxi companies are looking for their Goldilocks cities.”  Waymo, the implementation leader, has decided to focus on “scaling up an individual city rather than trying to be in 15” simultaneously.  When the company wanted to operate in “a city that was semi-challenging but not impossible,” Phoenix offered “medium-high speed limits across many roads; a friendly regulatory environment; a fast-growing population; challenging maneuvers like unprotected left turns across three lanes of traffic; neighborhoods with varying population density;” and no snow or ice on roads.  Next up is San Francisco, where similar efforts have been tried, valued for technical proximity and compactness.  The piece also mentions a potential financial hurdle, as cities not wanting excessive numbers of empty robotaxis driving around might levy a “zombie tax” on them.

Soon thereafter, we got bad news from there, in “Self-Driving Taxis Are Causing All Kinds of Trouble in San Francisco” (David Zipper, Future Tense, December 8th).  They had a 140-passenger trolley stopped as an autonomous vehicle “halted on the streetcar tracks and wouldn’t budge,” though human intervention held the delay to seven minutes.  Such cars also have “blocked a travel lane needed by a siren-blaring fire engine” headed for a three-alarm blaze, and “dozens” of them “drove daily into a quiet cul-de-sac before turning around, much to the frustration of nearby residents.”  Accordingly, people there and elsewhere “should brace for strange, disruptive, and dangerous happenings on their streets.”

Reporters have told us before what it is like to take rides in autonomous vehicles, so how different was the latest, from Cade Metz et al. in the November 14th New York Times, as they told us “What Riding in a Self-Driving Tesla Tells Us About the Future of Autonomy”?  This six-hour ride was in Jacksonville, Florida, not a hub of self-driving activity.  The story, which with pictures printed out to 14 pages, showed a mixed bag, with “more than 40 unprotected left-hand turns against oncoming traffic,” ability to change lanes and recognize green lights, and general success at dealing with “highways, exit ramps, city streets, roundabouts, bridges and parking lots,” but also, when going to a restaurant, “veering from the road into a motel parking lot,” almost “hitting a parked car after we rolled over a low curb,” and a need for the test driver to retake control “every so often” as the vehicle “makes a mistake.”  The authors concluded that this “Tesla Model Y provides a glimpse of the future we are moving toward, which may prove to be safer, more reliable and less stressful, but it still years away from reality.” “Experts,” they maintained, “say no system could possibly have the sophistication needed to handle every possible scenario on any road,” as “this would require technology that mimics human reasoning – technology that we humans do not yet know how to build.”  This conclusion seems after-the-fact, as it was not present in the great expectations of 2017 – we don’t know if it is true or not, and if so, how long it would take to create it.

After returning from a family driving vacation, Ross Douthat held forth on “What Driving Means for America,” in the July 20th New York Times.  He invoked a Matthew Crawford book, Why We Drive:  Toward a Philosophy of the Open Road, in which the author backed “the human being who moves purposively through the world rather than simply being carried through it,” and advocated being “mentally involved in our own navigation and locomotion.”  Douthat considered driving a way “to a nonvirtual experience of the America beyond your class and tribe and bubble,” but admitted there might be other means to that end.  We could relate experiences of airline passengers, who go from airport to plane to possibly very distant airport just as passively.  It is certainly a tradeoff, but seems like a problem more comparable to that of choosing only more entertainment instead of fdgconstructive and self-directed pursuits.  We won’t solve either one soon, but driverless cars, to the extent that we can get them effective and common, can offer us a great deal, and should not be precluded or rejected.  On that we need to aim.

Friday, December 16, 2022

Employment: Shorter Hours (or Just Fewer Official Working Days), and Beyond

This week, I bring my focus to the “jobs” part of “jobs and the economy.”  What’s been happening?

We start with a “new” idea in the works so long it seems like an old chestnut – and, indeed, as this piece reported, it dates at least from 1956.  Per Jenny Gross in the September 22nd New York Times, “4-Day Workweek Brings No Loss of Productivity, Companies in Experiment Say.”  The advantages aren’t new – it gives them “more time to exercise, cook, spend time with their families and take up hobbies, boosting their well-being and making them more energized and productive when they were on the clock,” with 33 of 41 involved companies seeing “productivity” unchanged, with six reporting gains.  You say I seem skeptical?  Yes I am, and you would be too it you realized these were studies for fixed amounts of time where it was in employees’ interests to make it look good in hopes of permanent implementation.  The author also finished the roughly 700-word piece without mentioning either whether that really meant 80% of previous obligations, or how many hours workers who were previously doing more than 40 a week put in under the newly-official 32. 

Another on this topic, “Increased revenue, fewer resignations:  New data spotlights benefits of a 4-day workweek,” by Arianne Cohen of Bloomberg News, came out in Benefit News on December 1st.  It was based on another study, after which “not one of the 33 participating companies is returning to a standard five-day schedule.”  Here, in this trial of American, Irish, and Australian companies, they found that “dozens of indicators, ranging from productivity to well-being and fatigue, all improved as the companies transitioned,” and 97% of employees continued four-day workweeks afterwards.  The only comment on what that meant for hours worked, in this longer piece, came in a dissenting view from a human resources consulting firm CEO, who said that “if companies are really committed to this, they would demonstrate it by turning off network access on the days that they’re not scheduled to work, and asking people to leave their laptops in the office, but I just don’t see companies doing that.”  I would also like to see some corporate leader saying straight-out, especially about a pure-production setting, that shorter workweeks would mean less completed work.  Until then, what some might view as a great discovery should be held to a test of years instead of months.

On other aspects, we saw, first, “10 jobs most likely to recover from the pandemic,” in other words with the largest expected employment percentage gain though 2030, by Deanna Cuadra in the September 12th Benefit News.  I was glad not to see any IT technician positions, riper than ever for outsourcing, in this list, which comprised medical and health services managers, financial managers, nurse practitioners, management analysts, general and operations managers, postsecondary health specialties teachers, computer and information systems managers, market research analysts and marketing specialists, lawyers, and construction managers.  A heavy emphasis on managing instead of doing here, but a better set of projections than many I’ve seen.

On November 9th, Laura Amico took a look at “Fear and Stress on the Job” in the Harvard Business Review.  This article was about supporting customer-facing employees being abused.  Most important was for supervisors or managers to physically intervene when such situations materialized, and their need to “try to defuse the angry person quickly and get them out of the store” and then discuss the problem with the worker and document what happened.  These are appropriate guidelines, for cases when it is clear that the customer is, this time, not right.

I have written before about how science, technology, and engineering fields are overrated as good-job sources, and so are not worthy of the superior reputations they have enjoyed over the past decade or more, so was glad to see, by Natasha Singer and Kelley Huang in the December 6th New York Times, that “Computer Science Students Face a Shrinking Big Tech Job Market.”  This piece was mainly about how recent layoffs at technology companies have cut demand for new workers, fleshed out with anecdotals, but the overall message was that focusing on very specific opportunities may fail, and that even favored fields come with no guarantees.  That, along with the immaturity of four-day workweek efforts, is, this time, most important.

Friday, December 9, 2022

Cryptocurrency: Maturity, or the End?

When historians look back on 2022, they will see, along with the midterm elections, the recession that wasn’t, the shifting of Covid-19 from a pandemic to another bug, and Aaron Judge’s steroid-free 62 home runs, the rise of a new medium of exchange.

I start with the entire March 20th New York Times Sunday Business section.  That’s right – except for a Square ad on the back, the entire 10-page thing had nothing else in it.  The first article’s title, “CRYPTO IS HERE TO STAY” (all capitals in the balloon-like letters used), set the tone.  The second one, “THE BASICS” also by Kevin Roose, told us that cryptocurrencies “involve blockchains,” the “public, permanent databases that nobody owns” which are “distributed ledger systems” “allowing people to send and receive money over the internet without needing to involve a central authority.”  The blockchain databases generate new units of Bitcoin and 10,000 other currencies by allowing “crypto-mining,” “a process… played by computers all competing to solve cryptographic puzzles in order to add new information to the database and earn a reward in return.”  So more of these currency units are created, and their value is determined by supply and demand.  At the time this piece was written, one Bitcoin was worth “about $40,000.”

Since then, what has happened?  On May 22nd, Justin Baer related in The Wall Street Journal, reprinted in MarketWatch, that “Wall Street reluctantly embraces crypto,” as “many banks are moving towards storing and trading cryptocurrencies,” some in effect creating mutual funds where investors can buy and sell Bitcoin or others without dealing directly with the blockchains, while others consider that “the opportunity today is not big enough to take the reputational risks of being early.”

On the regulatory side, Clive McKeef reported on August 20th in MarketWatch that “’There’s no reason to treat the crypto market differently from the rest of the capital markets just because it uses a different technology’: SEC chief Gary Gensler.”  Per McKeef, “across decades of cases, the Supreme Court has made clear that the economic realities of a product – not the labels – determine whether it is a security under the securities laws.”  Accordingly, total freedom from government involvement is not realistic for cryptocurrency.  That was also the point of Will Gotsegen’s September 9th The Atlantic “Crypto’s Core Values Are running Headfirst Into Reality,” which chronicled legal wrangles between regulators and those in the cryptocurrency industry.  Although the federal government is dominating, the matters are clearly not all resolved.

After more time, and further Bitcoin price drops, Paul Krugman asked “Is This the End Game for Crypto?” (The New York Times, November 17th).  He cited the bankruptcy of FTX, “one of the biggest crypto exchanges,” caused when, most likely, “the people running it simply made off with billions of depositors’ money.”  He said that “after 14 years… cryptocurrencies have made almost no inroads into the traditional role of money,” because “they’re too awkward” and “their values are too unstable.”  For most, they have become another item bought through “exchanges like Coinbase, and, yes, FTX, which take your money and hold crypto tokens in your name,” requiring trust, meaning that “the crypto exchange has basically evolved into exactly what it was supposed to replace:  a system of financial intermediaries whose ability to operate depends on their perceived trustworthiness.”  Krugman concluded that “even if the value of Bitcoin doesn’t go to zero (which it still might), there’s a strong case that the crypto industry, which loomed so large just a few months ago, is headed for oblivion.” 

In the November 23rd Economist, Buttonwood explored “How crypto goes to zero.”  The person or group behind this pseudonym concluded that it wasn’t at all likely, as its distributed technology would make hacking all of it almost impossible, and while “unravelling,” or dropping demand and hosts not wanting their systems, would still leave some investors remaining, especially as “crypto’s reputation has been undermined before” and “has collapsed in value repeatedly throughout its lifetime.”  As of December 8th evening, one Bitcoin, per, traded at $17,219. 

But the chance of all value going away is not the only, or even the primary, measure of evaluating investments.  Cryptocurrency has the same problem as Uber, Lyft, or Airbnb – its regulatory situation is unsettled.  If Uber and Lyft were held to the same rules as traditional taxi companies, they would be greatly reduced or extinct altogether.  If Airbnb was subject to the same regulations as true hotels, it would similarly suffer.  The same may or may not be true for Bitcoin and the others, but it is a real exposure not shared by buyers of Walmart, Amazon, or PepsiCo.  That is the problem, and how it is resolved will tell whether cryptocurrency is just taking another punch, or, this time, going down for the count. 

Friday, December 2, 2022

This Morning’s Jobs Report and AJSN: Strong Gain in Their Numbers, Otherwise Light and Variable Changes with Latent Demand Now Down to 15.8 Million


As with a month before, published predictions were for 200,000 net new nonfarm positions.  As was within 2,000 of a month before, it turned out to be 263,000.  As with almost every month since mid-2020, our population added far fewer people, not all aging into prime working years, and the gain here was nothing to take for granted.

As for the other numbers, nothing changed greatly.  Unadjusted and seasonally adjusted unemployment stayed the same at 3.4% and 3.7%, the latter in its ninth consecutive month between 3.5% and 3.7%.  The adjusted number of jobless fell 100,000 to 6.0 million, with the count of officially unemployed out for 27 weeks or longer still 1.2 million, and the number of those working part-time for economic reasons, or looking thus far unsuccessfully for full-time work while maintaining lower-hours propositions, remaining at 3.7 million.  While the two measures showing how likely Americans are to be either actually working or one step away, the employment-population ratio and the labor force participation rate, were each off 0.1% to 59.9% and 62.1%, for the first time since inflation this decade was more than 4%, average private nonfarm payroll wages exceeded it, up 24 cents per hour to reach $32.82. 

The American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, the statistic showing how many new positions could be quickly filled if all knew getting one would be easy and routine, decreased about 150,000 as follows:

Almost the entire difference came from those wanting work but not looking for it for the previous year and those officially jobless – the others each contributed differences below 52,000, for a net total of plus 28,000. 

The share of the AJSN from those unemployed as above was only 31.5%, down 0.2% - it has been telling us that if someone takes a job without immediately having one before, on average it is almost 7 to 3 against that their job status, using the categories in this chart, was not “unemployed.” 

Compared with a year before, the AJSN has fallen almost 900,000, with 700,000 of that from those officially unemployed, with substantial reductions from those in the non-civilian et al. category above and those wanting jobs but not pursuing that for 12 months or longer. 

In the Covid area, per the New York Times, the November 16th number of new daily cases had a seven-day weighted average of 39.265, up 3% from October 15th.  The same measure of hospitalizations also went slightly up, 4% to 27,859, but deaths were off 25% to 279.  With cases typically less severe, especially for those fully vaccinated and boosted, there is still no indication here that people are imprudently working.

What can we make of this data?  I previously said we were in a good rut, and we remain there still.  Although more people are leaving the labor force, jobs are more than keeping pace with demand.  We have areas for improvement, but these are still unusually strong employment times.  The turtle, once again, took a good-sized step forward.

Friday, November 25, 2022

Three Months of Growing Union Activity Where It’s New, And Its Cause

Another characteristic of today’s labor situation - unwillingness to put up with what workers consider unacceptably bad times on the job – keeps unfolding.

To start, “Chipotle workers in Michigan to join teamsters, first for restaurant chain,” by Ken Martin in Fox Business on August 26th, documented workers in a Lansing branch seeking representation “to improve their work schedules, increase wages, and gain the respect from management that they’ve rightfully earned.”  The victorious Teamsters general president issued a clarion call, saying “now is the time for working people in this country to take back what’s theirs.  No matter your industry, no matter your age or how intimidating your employer mat seem, you too can protect your labor with a union.”  That towered over Chipotle’s chief corporate affairs officer saying that “our employees are our greatest asset,” and those not backing up that stale boilerplate will meet the same fate.

A combination of social media and those on payrolls at a world-famous coffee chain is proving effective, as “Starbucks workers are winning the union fight on TikTok” (Jo Constanz, Benefit News, September 1st).  A video posted there “showing employees staging a walkout after the firing of a coworker got 28 million views,” a massive number even given that company employs 402,000.  More to follow there…

That same day, it happened that “Amazon loses attempt to scrap historic union win,” also by Ken Martin in Fox Business, published September 2nd.  The retailer “filed more than two dozen objections with the National Labor Relations Board” to unionizing workers at their Staten Island warehouse, but they were all denied.  Martin also noted that “other campaigns have kicked off at Amazon warehouses in North Carolina, Kentucky and elsewhere.”

As well, “4,000 Google contractors quietly unionized, a big win for a labor movement that has struggled to make inroads with Big Tech,” as reported on September 5th in The Washington Post.  They were not technicians, though, but “cooks and servers” at their cafeterias.

Beyond only organizing, we see “Strikes becoming more common amid inflation, tight labor market” (Kris Maher, Fox Business, September 16th).  A Cornell University group found that during the first six months of 2021 there had been 102 strikes with 26,500 workers, but at that point this year it was 180 with 78,000, and 87 more by article time.  The piece did not mention the activities above.

Part of another large company joined the trend, as an “Apple Store in Oklahoma City Becomes Second to Unionize,” by Noam Scheiber in the October 14th New York Times.  Employees there will join the Communications Workers of America, long at AT&T and now also representing at Verizon and The New York Times itself.  They, interestingly, had no issues with pay or benefits but “complained that supervisors’ decisions about hiring, pay and job assignments were often opaque.”  If those views become common reasons for unionization, look out for a tidal wave of that in office parks all over the country.

To show that unions aren’t winning everything, we were informed by the October 18th Washington Post as “Amazon workers vote overwhelmingly against unionizing at a warehouse near Albany, N.Y.”  The vote was 206 for and 406 against.  We were also told, by Steven Greenhouse in the November 3rd Slate, that “Starbucks’ Aggressive Union-Busting Is a New Model for American Corporations,” which, per the author, the company accomplished by closing stores with union authorization, and had since been done by Chipotle, Trader Joe’s, and Amy’s Kitchen.  That, along with Starbucks’ giving “new benefits to its nonunion workers, but not to its unionized ones,” assertions that the Albany election was marked by “intimidation and retaliation on a daily basis,” and Apple “withholding some education and health care benefits” from union employees, seems certain to be settled in court, where new precedents will likely be established.

Yet the coffee chain, per the article above, now has at least 200 unionized locations, and, per Noam Scheiber again in the New York Times, we saw “Starbucks Workers Strike at Dozens of Stores Nationally” (November 17th), caused by “the company’s refusal to bargain in good faith and anti-union tactics like firings and store closings.”  There will be more, unless companies adjust quickly to the times we have been in since the pandemic.  And that statement goes for all of the union activities described here.

Friday, November 18, 2022

Big Ideas - II

On we move from last week’s look at larger propositions relating to jobs and the economy.  Here are five more recently published ones.

Peter Coy, in the September 5th New York Times, reached the philosophical peak with “Work is intrinsically good.  Or maybe it’s not?”  That fair question has been discussed for centuries, maybe millennia.  Coy discussed pertinent survey results showing people tended to think work was good for its own sake, but the idea is certainly critiquable, as the reasons respondents came up with seemed to assume that labor was valuable because it would produce things of value.  The author did not clearly hit the issue of whether work which could not achieve anything constructive was worthwhile, and I don’t think it is. 

“What Role Should Business Play in Society?”  This question was posed by Mariana Mazzucato in the September 19th Harvard Business Review.  It’s not a new one either, and its answers often fall along political lines, with conservatives echoing Nobel economist Milton Friedman’s statement that businesses are only responsible to their shareholders, while liberals call for social obligations of some sort.  The author here looked for a variety of ways companies can have positive social and technological impact beyond their profitability, and decried the likes of stock buybacks, which indeed do not increase income.  I don’t see clear answers here – while we should not be able to demand that corporations follow agendas outside their business objectives, it would be sad to see them turn into investment firms offering nothing to outsiders or even customers – so the resolution is still a long time, and a large amount of thinking and debate, away.

Related to the first idea from last week’s post is “The end of academia’s Gilded Age,” by Tom Cotton in Fox News on September 21st.  This United States senator has written legislation holding universities accountable for their failures, by starting to “disincentivize and penalize colleges that indebt their students in undesirable and unmarketable programs, causing graduates to default years later,” by compelling “colleges to reduce the cost of tuition and to stop hoarding large amounts of endowment money,” and levying “a 20 percent luxury tax on undergraduate tuition above $40,000 and a one percent tax on the richest private college endowments,” those collections to fund “workforce education to help the majority Americans that don’t have a college degree.”  Cotton’s idea implicitly makes a distinction between programs designed mainly for student economic betterment and less vocational ones frankly suiting only those able to afford them.  While not perfect, I endorse the proposals here as steps in the right direction.

In the October 16th New York Times, Tish Harrison Warren told us “How to Fight Back Against the Inhumanity of Modern Work.”  Her complaints were about “productivity monitoring,” and the tendency of people to engage in work activities, such as checking work email accounts, during ostensibly off hours, and she recommended individual selections.  I don’t have much sympathy for workers or their bosses in the latter, as it is a subject for labor-management negotiations and career-choice decisions, but the former can be legislated.  Should it be, and if so, what limitations should be placed on it?  We must decide.

Last is another issue coming up in recent years, whether “Globalism Failed to Deliver the Economy We Need,” by Rana Foroohar in the New York Times on October 17th.  What also might be called capital without borders had been the developed-world standard, until derailed by more repressive governments, what has been called populism, and what might have been the first shooting war between two countries with McDonald’s restaurants.  There is no reason why that system can’t permanently change, as not every public policy decision even in the likes of Western Europe and the United States was consistent with it, and in some cases, such as the Euro currency preventing individual participants from devaluing their money, globalistic measures hurt instead of help the prosperity they are supposed to improve.  Foroohar made a valid case here, but once again, informed decisions will take time – as they will for the others as well.

Friday, November 11, 2022

Big Ideas – I

Since spring, I have been getting employment and economy-related articles that aren’t about specific events as much as conceptual areas which the authors think should change.  What are they saying? How much merit do their suggestions have?

Working in chronological order, we start with “College Became the Default.  Let’s Rethink That,” by John McWhorter in the April 5th New York Times.  I’m looking at my copy of Caroline Bird’s The Case Against College, the classic in the field and now 47 years old.  It has some quaint-looking figures, such as students as of 1973 owing $6.8 billion to lenders – it’s now 256 times that amount – but tells us this issue is nothing new.  McWhorter’s emphasis is on a variety of possible choices, including other educational experiences, going before finishing high school, and immediately working.  It is true that colleges have been getting a free pass for a long time – paying high salaries to professors working in effect part-time, massing endowment nest eggs in some cases higher than the budgets of the states in which they are located while raising tuition much more than inflation, arranging to admit more wealthy and upper-class students by rigging acceptance requirements to favor them, and maybe more than anything else getting credit for their graduates’ success, when they were the smartest and most ambitious young people to start with.  The problem, as McWhorter does mention, is companies requiring bachelor’s or master’s degrees for jobs not requiring them.  I support fewer people going to college, but until it ceases to become necessary when it is not, it remains the prudent thing to do.

Yes, I was one of no doubt many wanting to see “Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid” (Jonathan Haidt, The Atlantic, April 11th), so I skimmed this article and printed all 24 of its pages.  The author said “the story of Babel is the best metaphor I have found for what happened to America in the 2010s, and for the fractured country we now inhabit,” and saw communities, epitomized by but hardly limited to the two main political sides, fragmenting and disappearing largely due to the effects of social media.  If this is familiar, you may have read Allan Bloom’s 1987 The Closing of the American Mind, or Mark Bauerlein’s 2008 The Dumbest Generation” – this one’s not a new concern either.  His solutions, “harden democratic institutions,” “reform social media,” and “prepare the next generation,” are mixed – that our guardrails continue to hold makes the first one valuable if necessary, but the others may not be implementable.

I also was interested in why “It’s Time to Stop Living the American Scam” (Tim Kreider, The New York Times, July 7th).  This piece harkened back to Craig Lambert’s 2015 Shadow Work, about which you can read my two-post review and agreeing viewpoint in this blog, dated June of that year.  Kreider focused more on workplaces, but, although it bears repeating and is still a real problem, he gave us only a subset of Lambert’s 7-year-old issue.  The only long-term solution here is for the market to speak, with people stuck with shadow work either paying for alternatives or simply refusing to do it. 

As I posted on May 20th, my view on electric vehicles is negative, and so was glad to see “Electric Cars Too Costly for Many, Even With Aid in Climate Bill,” by Jack Ewing in the August 8th New York Times.  Along with their perpetual driving-range problem, apparently their costs are staying high, cited here as being an average of $20,000 more than the mean for “all new cars,” since they have been hit hard by raw-battery-material shortages and pushed up further by high demand.  They may have established a niche, but I nonetheless see electric vehicles useful for limited-distance applications such as buses, but otherwise not becoming the norm, until they have the likes of reliably-available half-hour charging times and high-three-figure daily mileage ranges.

What has changed about the nature of labor?  Per the Washington Post Editorial Board on September 4th, “Out of office:  The pandemic and the new meaning of work,” plenty.  The relatively short editorial touched on high demand for employees, many “seeking fulfilling lives,” quiet quitting as a phenomenon and misnomer, and the home-office conflict.  People who “proved in the pandemic to be resilient and adaptable” can expect to “be tested anew in a future of work that looks far different from the past.”  Or resembles how it looked in some, yet-unknown postwar decade.  The role of remote work has been a pendulum ever since George H. W. Bush was elected president, and while its swing has been disturbed, it will go back to moving back and forth.

Expect at least five additional ideas next week.

Friday, November 4, 2022

October: A Mixed Employment Report, AJSN Latent Demand Unchanged at 16.0 Million, and Two Things Still Clear

This morning’s Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Situation Summary was not supposed to be especially critical or revealing – did it turn out that way?

We gained 261,000 net new nonfarm positions, well over the published consensus 200,000 estimate and still far more than our population increase could absorb, but most of the other numbers were unfavorable.  Seasonally adjusted and unadjusted unemployment both increased, 0.2% to 3.7% and 0.1% to 3.4% respectively, with 300,000 more officially jobless people and 100,000 additional, or 1.2 million, out for 27 weeks or longer.  The two measures showing how common it is for Americans to be either working or at the front line of not working, the labor force participation rate and the employment-population ratio, both lost 0.1% to reach 62.2% and 60.0%.  Average hourly private nonfarm payroll wages were $32.58, up 12 cents but once again less than inflation.  Improvers were the count of people working part-time for economic reasons, or doing that while thus far unsuccessfully seeking full-time employment, down 100,000 to 3.7 million, and the number employed, which, oddly in conjunction with these other results, rose 141,000 to 159,144.000. 

The American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, the measure telling how many more positions could be quickly filled if all knew they were easy and routine to get, differed less than 8,000 from the previous month’s, as follows:

The largest increase came from the count of unemployed, offset by reductions in those discouraged and those wanting work but not available for it.  The share of the AJSN from those officially jobless grew 0.8% but stayed below one-third, reaching 31.6%.  Compared with a year ago, the AJSN has lost 1.3 million, about 90% of that from lower unemployment.

On the Covid-19 front, we saw great improvements from mid-September to mid-October.  Compared with September 16th, the seven-day average of new cases on October 15th fell 39% to 38,079, hospitalizations were off 18% to 26,679, and deaths dropped 16% to 375.  Helped by the new improved booster, the same measure of daily vaccinations soared 75% to 522,283. 

So what do we make of this still-crucial hodgepodge?  Lots of the results above worsened if not massively, but we once more gained employment, added many jobs, and have unemployment in the six-month 3.5% - 3.7% range – not a bad rut.  The two facts we cannot reasonably debate are that we are regularly getting more positions and have unemployment wildly inconsistent with being in a recession.  Although it was smaller, it was still indisputable that the turtle took another step forward. 

Friday, October 28, 2022

Home or Office? – III

The series from last month continues, with plenty more reports and views from the past month.

Oldest is Trey Williams’s September 28th Yahoo Finance “Employees worry they’ll be fired first in layoffs if they’re working remotely.”  Yes, being out of sight and out of mind is a real situation, and it’s easier than some might think to be almost forgotten, or put unconsciously in a lower category.  This piece also named a recent GoodHire study finding that of those over 25, the share of those saying they would most like to work from home fell, since last year, from 68% to 44%.  Only one data point, but could it be the beginning of a trend?

Next, it’s “Remote work could be the reason you don’t have a job in 10 years,” by Jane Thier in the September 29th Fortune.  I haven’t really understood why information technology jobs, for example, haven’t already largely gone to lower-paid foreigners, as most can be done from anywhere, and predicted that in my 10-year-old book Work’s New Age.  This article quoted an MIT professor apparently newly taking the same view, saying that increased work from home will prompt companies to consider “outsourcing those kinds of jobs that didn’t used to be outsourced.”  There must be more than that, though, as certainly people knew of that possibility decades ago and have only rarely acted on it, meaning they had other reasons for not following through. 

We visit the sunny side of the non-office street with Deanna Cuadra’s October 17th Benefit News “5 reasons why hybrid work is a win-win for employers and employees.”  That variety, featuring mandatory office appearances but less than five days per week, could indeed become the great compromise, but that would come from business decisions using current information more than from new insights.  We already know these five factors, which invoke commuting costs, home quietness advantages, possible use of coworking spaces, work-life balance, and the aforementioned career bias, but there are others such as facilitated quiet quitting making the opposite case.

Suspect productivity, something I encountered in the 1990s, is the subject of “Microsoft’s remote-work-friendly CEO puts his finger on the big problem with working from home,” in Fortune on October 17th and also by Jane Thier.  Here’s a 20,000-person, 11-country survey claiming that while 87% “say they’re more productive when they work remotely or in a hybrid setup,” but also that “85% of employers say it’s difficult to have confidence in their workers’ productivity levels when they’re not in-person.”  I am glad to see someone acknowledging in print this elephant in the room – the businesses which deal most effectively with it will have the best working-from-home results.

And now, “Remote employees are working less, sleeping and playing more, Fed study finds” (Chris Matthews, MarketWatch, October 18th).  This “new analysis from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York” found that “younger Americans using the saved commuting time to engage in leisure activities like eating out, exercising or attending social events,” and those over 30 “spent more time on childcare, home maintenance and meal preparation.”  This does not mean actual work hours differ, but the lines around it at home are often thin or blurred entirely.

One leader in an industry claiming happiness with working outside offices spoke up in “United Airlines CEO says hybrid work has caused ‘permanent structural change’ in leisure travel demand” (Aislinn Murphy, Fox Business, October 19th).  The executive, Scott Kirby, called it “one of three industry tailwinds,” as with hybrid work “every weekend could be a holiday weekend,” and such arrangements “untether (workers) from the office and give them the newfound flexibility to travel far more often than normal.”  Does this mean people agreeing to appear two or three days in person might take non-business trips on the others?  Do their companies actually allow that, or is this tacit recognition that time spent at home may not include full amounts of work?  Nobody I know of is talking.

Perhaps, though, that party could end, as considered in Paul Davidson’s October 20th USA Today “A forced return to office?  As job market cools, companies may regain upper hand with workers.”  I have thought that remote hours should be treated as a perk, a privilege for certain employees that could be offset elsewhere, and, if the advantage in the job market shifts back to employers, they may pull it back. 

If you can set your home office anywhere, what location would you choose?  Michael Kolomatsky, in the October 20th New York Times, took a quantitative stab at that in “The Best Cities for Remote Work.”  The author’s components were “workspace” for suitable residences, “amenities” for “larger yards and convenient food delivery,” “connectivity” for Internet quality, “affordability,” and “earning potential.”  Topping the list of “large cities” was Plano, Texas (a Dallas suburb), followed by Frisco in the same state, Tampa, Atlanta, Seattle, Durham, Austin, Kansas City, Jacksonville, and Charlotte.  The ten worst were all in California, mostly southern.

Finally, we have “Remote Work Is Here to Stay.  Lean In, Employers.”  This opinion piece, by Jessica Grose in the October 22nd New York Times, took the view that its advantages are too strong for it to go away.  It read like one side of a debate.

So, the issue of home or office is still evolving.  As the Temptations put it over half a century ago, round and around and around we go, where the world's headed, nobody knows.  By decade’s end, we may still not, and even if we do, it will eventually change.  That is how business usually functions, and this issue will not be an exception. 


Friday, October 21, 2022

Artificial Intelligence is Pushing Against Its Boundaries

Over the past several months, articles chronicling the state of AI had something in common.  What is it?

The first, by Nico Grant and Cade Metz in the June 12th New York Times, “Google Sidelines Engineer Who claims Its A.I. is Sentient,” described a sad situation where a worker’s views, though milder than those of many in the field of consciousness, got him placed on leave and, after the article was published, fired.  Some eminent observers in that field think that consciousness, about which we know very little, may come from computations, making it inherent even to $5 pocket calculators.  Blake Lemoine, the engineer, could be right, and none of us know that he isn’t.

Yes, now as always “We Need to Talk About How Good A.I. Is Getting” (Kevin Roose, The New York Times, August 24th).  The author ran down recent artificial intelligence achievements, from generation of art of sorts based on requests giving its subject, to one able to “predict the three-dimensional structures of proteins from their one-dimensional amino acid sequences,” and in the process solving “what’s known as the “protein-folding problem,” which had vexed molecular biologists for decades,” and recently making “predictions for nearly all of the 200 million proteins known to exist – producing a treasure trove of data that will help medical researchers develop new drugs and vaccines for years to come.”  Roose claimed that “the conversation in Silicon Valley is starting to shift,” as experts “now believe that major changes are right around the corner, for better or worse.”  He said “regulators and politicians need to get up to speed,” AI companies should communicate better about what work they are doing, and “news media” must improve at explaining it – all constructive ideas.

The sentience would be helpful to fulfill “One Man’s Dream of Fusing A.I. With Common Sense,” by Steve Lohr in the August 28th Times.  His startup, Elemental Cognition, is working to develop artificial reasoning along with the pattern recognition AI systems have excelled at.  This company trains them through “machine learning algorithms” to change human-language document contents into “a form a computer can interpret.”  A strong potential growth area, with success promising but uncertain.

I have been predicting that foreign workers would greatly reduce both jobs and pay for American computer programmers, but will automation instead be their demise?  As shown in “Coding Made AI – Now, How Will AI Unmake Coding?” (Craig S. Smith, IEEE Spectrum, September 19th), it seems quite possible.  The author held that while programming and software development “appears poised to remain a very human endeavor for the foreseeable future,” at the same time “coding as we know it may indeed be doomed.”  It’s easy to imagine, within a decade or two, giving human-language written instructions to an AI system and asking for it to create a program, letting the facility use its own chosen methods, not necessarily computer languages as we know them, to do that, and consistently getting excellent results.  As AI develops, “hand-coding software programs will increasingly be like hand-knitting sweaters.”  If that happens, it would be impossible not to expect the number of positions to vastly decline.

On the applied section of artificial intelligence known as robotics, we have reached a historic point, as a certain “Robot Fast Food Cook Costs Less Than Half a Human Worker” (John Koestler, Yahoo Finance, September 28th).  Now available to rent for about $3,000 per month, The Wingman might be the first restaurant robot fundamentally cheaper than employees.  If it succeeds under sustained production pressure, it could be used by tens of thousands of eateries nationwide, replacing workers in its wake – and every effort to mandate or just implement higher wages will only speed the transition.

This concern is described further in “Nouriel Roubini:  Why AI poses a threat to millions of workers” (Daniel Howley, Yahoo Finance, October 18th).  The interviewed author reminded us that people in fields from not only the obvious algorithmic ones but, as above, in the arts, will not only be thrown out of work but will have shaky prospects elsewhere.  Nothing’s new here but the scope, and indeed, if I need to “create a script or a movie, or make a poem, or write… or paint, or even (write) a piece of music” that does not need verve, I may soon not need human creators at all.  That driverless cars have stalled does not mean that all automated interfaces will do the same.

So what ties these six pieces together?  All are about artificial intelligence’s forward progress.  They combine for a huge, underreported news story.  AI is moving ahead in real life – we need to prepare.

Friday, October 14, 2022

Driverless Technology as of Fall 2022: Bleak, but Redirected

It’s been five years since the world was expecting an end, or nearly so, to people driving “meatmobiles,” a briefly-used name for human-controlled vehicles.  Since then, for various reasons from legislative balking to overreactions about driverless deaths, it has not seemed that way at all.  However, there are still useful pieces being written.  What has come out over the past four months?

The first was “Self-Driving and Driver-Assist Technology Linked to hundreds of Crashes, U.S. Data Shows,” by Neil E. Boudette and Cate Metz in the June 15th New York Times.  This one dealt mostly with the widespread spinoff from fully autonomous cars, “advanced driver-assistance technology” in conventional ones.  Per the authors, “over the course of 10 months” there were 392 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration “cataloged” accidents, with six people dead and five “seriously injured.”  Almost 70% of them involved Teslas and three-fourths of the rest were with Hondas.  A good point from a former Department of Transportation officer was that we don’t have a “baseline” for this information, so don’t really know if it’s high due to developing technology, excessive in general, or a reasonable tradeoff. 

Is it meaningful to say that “Driverless cars shouldn’t be a race” (Shira Ovide, The New York Times, August 11th)?  Apparently, companies and their observers are using that as a metaphor, for this wide-open and once highly promising area which requires standardization and benefits massively from cooperative seller attitudes and pooled efforts.  It’s especially damaging when undue fear of autonomous vehicles is a problem anyway, and the image of a road race without drivers is jarring.  So let’s go with “building the future,” or some such, instead.

There have been a few driverless mini-rollouts, and one was “Lyft Unveils Self-Driving Car Service in Las Vegas (With Caveats)”, by Cade Metz, once again in the Times.  It’s in a limited sort of structured area, that city’s Strip, which in its most developed parts has a relatively small set of turnoffs, has a minimal number of pedestrians on the road itself, and for various reasons is not as chaotic as it once was.  But the “caveat” that “reporters are not allowed to use these services without a driver behind the wheel” says something about Lyft’s confidence, and it isn’t good.  We’ll see how long this one lasts.

“As Driverless Cars Falter, Are ‘Driver Assistance’ Systems in Closer Reach” (Lawrence Ulrich, The New York Times, September 16th)?  We already have them, but here’s some mention of where this technology might be headed, that instead of moving toward being “entirely driverless,” it might become “more like a no-nonsense chaperone,” including monitoring drivers’ eyes and alerting them if they “look away for more than a few seconds.”  That may be the right way to go now, and perhaps later in this decade, when enough have unlearned the idea that partially autonomous systems can allow them to stop driving, emphasis can be returned to work-saving functionality.

One of the largest players in driverless technology late last decade is still around, but, per the content if not the title of “Chipmaker Nvidia launches new system for autonomous driving” (Reuters, as published in Fox Business, September 20th), its debuting DRIVE Thor platform is designed to “centralize autonomous and assisted driving,” following a trend in deemphasizing fully driverless vehicles.  The product is supposed to “replace numerous chips and cables in the car and bring down the overall system cost.”  Expect other companies to position their merchandise similarly.

Back we go to the New York Times, where Cade Metz again, of all people, wasn’t happy to be “Stuck on the Streets of San Francisco in a Driverless Car” (September 28th).  His go in a GM Cruise vehicle seemed to provide a combination of driving “gingerly” and “cautiously” and “skidding to a stop in the middle of a crosswalk,” precipitating a pedestrian giving the empty driver’s seat a familiar one-finger gesture.  It didn’t end well, as “the car detected a possible accident and pulled over,” after which, though it was “a false alarm,” “the car wouldn’t budge” and his “ride was over.”  Sad that these things are still happening.

The worst, though, was a, October 9th piece in Futurism, claiming that the “Godfather of Self-Driving Cars Says the Tech Is Going Nowhere.”  That view was from Anthony Levandowski, who founded a pertinent Google division, now Waymo, as one of its “key engineers.”  Among his non-cheerleading statements were “you’d be hard-pressed to find another industry that’s invested so many dollars in R&D and that has delivered so little,” “the industry still amounts to little more than a bunch of glorified tech demos (paraphrased),” “it’s an illusion,” and “why are we driving around, testing technology and creating additional risks, without actually delivering anything of value?”  The time and money, described elsewhere in the piece as “nearly twenty years and some $100 billion,” haven’t been lacking, but have solved neither the general problem of not knowing when to ignore “slight changes in the environment” nor the specific one of not effectively executing “the elementary move of cutting left across traffic when there’s no light to make it easy.”

Is Levandowski, who had serious problems within the industry later in his career, correct?  If not, we need to see autonomous vehicles indefinitely usable beyond the smallest and most protected of niches.  If not, the action will continue to be in technology that helps drivers, who, along with the jobs of the professional ones, aren’t going away.

Friday, October 7, 2022

What Recession? Another Strong Employment Data Set, with Over a Quarter Million More Jobs and AJSN Showing Latent Demand Down Almost Triple That

Per this morning’s Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Situation Summary, the good work times are still rolling.  We gained 263,000 net new nonfarm positions, close to the two published 250,000 estimates I saw.  Adjusted and unadjusted unemployment fell to 3.5% and 3.3% respectively, down 0.2% and 0.5%.  At 5.8 million, there were 200,000 fewer unemployed people than a month before, with 758,000, down 24,000, on temporary layoff, and again 1.1 million out for 27 weeks or longer.  The two measures of rank-and-file Americans’ connections to work, the labor force participation rate and the employment-population ratio, lost 0.1% and held to reach 62.3% and 60.1%.  The count of people working part-time for economic reasons, or keeping less than full-time arrangements while seeking thus far unsuccessfully longer hours, is still oscillating, and this time improved 300,000 to 3.8 million.  Average private nonfarm payroll hourly earnings increased 10 cents per hour, still less than inflation, and are now at $32.46.  The number of people working rose 300,000 and is now 159 million. 

The American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, the metric telling how many new positions could be quickly filled if all knew they were easy to get, lost over 700,000 to reach the following: 


The difference from August almost matches the effect of reduced joblessness, although the shrinking number of Americans wanting employment but not looking for it for a year or more, mostly offset by higher numbers of discouraged and the seasonal increase in willing workers in school or training, contributed significantly also.  Compared with a year before, the AJSN is almost 1.7 million lower, also with very close to that amount from lower official unemployment.  Only 30.8% of the AJSN is from that, meaning that nearly 70% of non-working people who would fill new positions have other statuses. 

On the coronavirus front, per the New York Times, between August 16th and September 16th the 7-day average of new daily cases plunged 38% to 62,194, hospitalizations fell 22% to 32,441, and deaths were off 4% to 449.  Daily vaccinations, helped by the new specialized booster, were up 9% to 299,222. 

What I see here is a strong match between employers and potential employees, with the increase in jobs again way higher than what our shrinking population gain absorbed.  We have Covid-19 looking more and more endemic instead of a pandemic and ever-improving numbers there, so plenty of people long out of work are returning.  It is possible that interest rate hikes will strongly influence this data next time, but people are still spending freely, more businesses are willing to pay current market rates, and high inflation, at least for now, is continuing.  Overall, we have real prosperity, so the turtle, once more, took a good step forward.

Friday, September 30, 2022

Home or Office? – II

On to this month, and reaching out in scope a bit:

“Working from home around the world,” by Cevat Giray Aksoy et al. in Brookings on September 7th, offered that “no other episode in modern history involves such a pronounced and widespread shift in working arrangements in such a compressed time frame.”  That could stand up even with differing definitions of “modern history.”  The authors looked at 27 countries, and found that in all 27, men with children wanted remote work more than that in offices, with women in 25 agreeing.  They also opined that working from home would become and stay more common than in the past 18 months.  Will the 30-year pendulum track really shorten that much?

Speaking of going back and forth, a day later we also got David Brooks in The New York Times, telling us about “The Immortal Awfulness of Open Plan Workplaces.”  After calling such arrangements “exhibit 4,000” of “folly on a grand scale,” he explained that they reduce “face-to-face collaboration” as “people can take only so much social interaction,” with one study showing that not only did not increase but dropped 70%.  As well, in such setups “people will create norms that discourage communication,” they often “held back their sincere thoughts on phone calls because they didn’t want their co-workers to overhear them,” they lost “morale and productivity,” and their “health” was worsened outright.  As Brooks said, “a lot of the evidence I’m citing here is not new” – I can attest to that, as such office arrangements came and went in my AT&T workplaces almost thirty years ago.  In all, this is another case of disregarding lessons of the past being more expensive than extra office space.

Something possibly new, however – at least its misnomer of a name – has appeared lately, for example in Deanna Cuadra’s September 8th Benefit News “’A silent protest’: CPO at Headspace Health explains why workers are ’quiet quitting’.”  One definition of this phenomenon, provided by Gallup, is “workers fulfilling their job description, but refusing to go above and beyond or invest themselves emotionally in their work.”  It’s a combination of setting personal boundaries and just plain reducing engagement, one positive and one neutral for workers but both negative to their management.  Quiet quitting has been a response to blurred lines both in time, with so many people responding to emails and the like around the clock, and in space with remote work, along with the general trend of workers feeling they have more personal and professional choices – it will get other names, some reflecting biases and interests, and will mushroom.

One way, described on the same day and in the same publication, to encourage people to report in person is Natalie Wong’s “Free NFL tickets?  It’s the latest attempt to get workers back to the office.”  These are actually drawings, provided by a New York City landlord with a rich supply of VIP-suite passes to Giants and Jets games, and follows a similar offering for concerts in the same stadium, along with more pedestrian “ice cream socials, free coffee and donuts.”  Sexy ideas for some, but the 238 pairs of football tickets may not be enough to get people thinking of that as a perk instead of just another lottery. 

A look at the damage of in-person interruptions was the core of “So You Wanted to Get Work Done at the Office?” (Emma Goldberg, The New York Times, September 11th).  The author cited studies showing more done by remotely-located coders and call center workers, not whether non-production workers would improve.  One idea she uncovered was practiced in a Washington law firm, in which employees have lights on their desks indicating availability to be approached, a green meaning yes.  Reasonable but abusable, and only one facet of this situation.

It may be true that “There’s a Better Way to Reclaim Your Time Than ‘Quiet Quitting’,” (Laura Vanderkam, The New York Times, September 13th), and Vanderkam’s suggestions of getting more fulfilling activities and managing time better out of work is not much of an antidote.  Indeed, the times when my work attitude was closest to this new concept was when I had the most happening outside of it, and I needed to severely compartmentalize my job.  What energizes people varies as much as the life-structure choices they make, and pushing them indirectly, as the author here might be advocating, has little chance of long-term success.  Line workers will decide – and that will guide the theory and execution of both remote and office work.

Friday, September 23, 2022

Home or Office? – I

What I get for not writing posts on this timely topic for eight weeks is enough material for two – and some intriguing and worthy ideas have come up.  So here are ones from August.

The first I saw was “What Remote Work Debate?  They’ve Been Back at the Office for a While.” (Emma Goldberg, The New York Times, August 1).  It shows how different the rules can be between companies, with high in-person-turnout tendencies for those based in areas with less than 300,000 people and “where Covid lockdowns were shortest,” and the lowest in the most “competitive markets where employees are more likely to call the shots.”  Although New York and San Francisco “office occupancy” had reached 41% and 39% of its pre-coronavirus levels soon before article time, in many other places it was somewhere around 75% - a huge geographical difference. 

Some people quoted in that story were glad to get out of their houses, which may be good for them, as opined by Edith Cooper in the August 6th New York Times in “Don’t Return to the Office For Your Boss.  Go Back for Yourself.”  This business co-founder and former Goldman Sachs executive cited “the value of actually being in a room with co-workers,” because of “the shared experience, the serendipity of talking to people not directly related” to their work, “the exposure to a diversity of ideas and perspectives,” and “the chance to look up and say, “I never thought about that.”  She said if she had worked remotely earlier in her career, she “would have missed out on finding the friends and mentors who played critical roles,” and that being there in person helped her learn “how my industry works, the nature of power hierarchies and how to get along with all kinds of people.”  Only a partial view, but one with merit, and that’s all we have now anyway.

On the same side, the next day Bradford Betz told us in Fox Business that “Malcolm Gladwell says people must return to the office to regain ‘sense of belonging.’”  Gladwell claimed “he was frustrated with the inability of people in positions of leadership to effectively communicate to their employees the importance of returning to the office.”  I have read about managements insisting that their workers do that, but little about selling them on its value, which though may not be much to those less ambitious or willing to trade possible involvement and advancement for the advantages of their jobs having smaller footprints.

Turning the tables on an issue facing mind workers was Laura Vanderkam’s August 13th New York Times “Don’t Feel Guilty about Working on Vacation – or About Vacationing at Work.”  Since we saw that “a 2022 survey of over 20,000 professionals found that 54 percent of people said they weren’t sure they could fully “unplug from work” while taking paid time off,” why not the opposite as well?  Maybe “it is also OK, however, to take little vacations during working hours,” such as “an hour outside reading a novel, an afternoon bike ride, lunch with a friend, leaving the office (or desk at home) a little early to shop for and cook a special dinner:  If you’re thoughtful and intentional about it, dispensing with strict boundaries between, work and the rest of life can make a fuller, less burned-out life possible.”  This philosophy, for some, could be just the ticket.

Most businesses would prefer employees come into the office, so is it surprising that “You may soon be asked to take a pay cut to keep working from home” (Don Lee, Los Angeles Times, August 23rd)?  This extension of paying less for people in lower-priced markets has popped up in Great Britain, and could become common here if the “tight labor market” eases.  The differentials should not be large, as companies benefit from not needing to furnish as much office space, but workers may respond by putting in fewer hours when at home – it would be tempting for many to arrange for their employers to gain nothing on the deal.  I will watch this one to see if it becomes a trend.

Finally for August, we go back to Emma Goldberg in the New York Times, where the August 28th Sunday Business section led with “The Office’s Last Stand,” subtitled “It’s either the end of the era of hybrid improvisation around where work takes place – or the beginning of outright rebellion.”  Goldberg started with management’s attempts “to get employees to return” to offices, moved to the “more than one-third of U.S. workers” able to work remotely who want to do that all the time, corporate concern that “if they don’t persuade their employees to come back now, the new norms of flexible work will be hard to unstick,” and confrontations where “bosses say the office deadlines are real; workers are testing just how much they mean that.”  A battle, but nothing like a last stand.  That’s a long time off.  For now, there are other perspectives – for more, see next week’s post.

Friday, September 16, 2022

Uber, Lyft, and Other Gigs: What’s Happened, and Where Are They Now?

I haven’t checked in on this section of work for a while, where news has been slow, but there has been some.  The last time we looked, ridesharers Uber and Lyft, along with lodging-provider Airbnb, were losing money, and owed their ability to do business at all to the failure of governments to regulate them as the hoteliers and taxi companies they are.  The other gigs, such as TaskRabbit work assignments running from minutes to months, were flourishing, especially since the pandemic messed up many jobs in particular and the ability to work physically with others in general.

A gaping hole was sealed in one place, as “California’s Gig Worker Law Is Unconstitutional, Judge Rules” (Kate Conger, The New York Times, August 20th, 2021).  This, approved by voters in late 2020, “backed by Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and other gig economy platforms, carved out a third classification for workers, granting gig workers limited benefits while preventing them from being considered employees of the tech giants,” was overturned, as it “restricted the Legislature from making gig workers eligible for workers’ compensation.”  Unfortunately, the law’s “unusual provisions” may have prevented this decision from becoming a solid national precedent.

That, though, would have been unnecessary if all agreed that, per Greg Bensinger in the October 17th New York Times, “For Uber and Lyft, the Rideshare Bubble Bursts.”  This piece focuses on representations these companies have made, that they would remove the need for vehicles to be privately owned, that they would cut traffic congestion, that they would reduce pollution, and that they would even increase city transit use.  None have materialized, and Lyft and Uber have neither been profitable nor consistently able to offer low fares. 

Another problem with ridesharers insisting that their workers are independent contractors was exposed in “Drivers’ Lawsuit Claims Uber and Lyft Violate Antitrust Laws” (Kellen Browning and Noam Scheiber, June 21st, also in the Times).  This suit, which explored what conditions for rideshare drivers would be like if they were actually autonomous, would go away if the companies would admit their drivers were employees, which, as they are correspondingly controlled and restricted, is clearly true.  And such a case got one of these firms a clear loss, as “Uber Agrees to Pay N.J. $100 Million in Dispute Over Drivers’ Employment Status” (Cade Metz, The New York Times, September 12th), in which Uber “owed four years of back taxes because they had classified drivers in the state as contractors rather than employees.”

As the differing above show, there has been no unified front against these abuses, so it is not surprising to read that “Gig Workers Tire of Waiting for Action From Biden’s White House” (Kellen Browning and Michael D. Shear, September 2nd, once more in the Times).  The president, when campaigning, spoke out against “the refusal by ride-hailing companies to treat their drivers as employees,” but “a year and a half into Mr. Biden’s presidency, little has been done at the federal level to address independent contractors” and “enforcement of existing labor laws has not been notably beefed up,” concerns shared even by his “longtime allies.”  Perhaps, if cases such as the above keep popping up, we can get the national effort we need. 

Have you been wondering “If the Job Market Is So Good, Why Is Gig Work Thriving?”  Author Lydia DePillis told us on August 15th in The New York Times that such propositions, with numbers of participants “rebounding steadily after a sharp decline,” are still popular for “the ability to work when and as much as you want” and that they can “supplement primary jobs that don’t provide enough to live on or are otherwise unsatisfying.”  These things mean that gig propositions in general will be here to stay.  But with stronger conventional employment, it should be expected that “Job Hunters Are Increasingly Searching for Gigs That Pay $20 (or More) an Hour” (Sarah Hansen,, August 30th).  That is a rising cut-point, as, on Indeed’s Hiring Lab, “searches for jobs with $20-per-hour wages have spiked more than 35%, while searches for $15 wages have fallen more than 57%.”  So, if your gig proposition is going unfilled, the solution may be the same as for nonproductive conventional job ads – raise the pay.  And that is where they are now.

Friday, September 9, 2022

Work-Related Technology: What’s Been Happening, and a Good Question About It

For something progressing since Willy Loman’s 1940s admonition to his son that he shouldn’t do anything menial when in one, since “they have office boys,” improvement this century so far, except for things involving telephones, has been lethargic.  Will it stay that way?

For the first potential exception we have a labor-replacer, “Biometric Payments Are Replacing Cash and Card at Grocery Stores” (Neil Campbell, Vision Times, June 10-16).  The month before, “Mastercard announced its Biometric Checkout Program,” which allows people, possibly laden with purchases, to authorize payments with “a quick smile or wave.”  As of press time, the service was only used in a Sao Paulo grocery chain, but something related has been in place in China for five years or more.  I see no reason why it couldn’t work throughout this country as well.

A sort of old laggard, long promising to employ more specialized technicians and far fewer line workers, may be getting new life, as shown in “3-D Printing Grows Beyond Its Novelty Roots” (Steve Lohr, The New York Times, July 3rd).  I see no leaps and bounds here, and we knew that “we have proven the technology works” – that is its strongest point, though one leavened by it being “too slow, too expensive, and too ridden with defects” – but other steady, revenue generating applications beyond the “specialized parts” that have barely justified it are reasonable enough for one company, VulcanForms, to have “six giant 3-D printers” with expectations for 20 more in 2023.  The technology still lacks its big purpose – until it gets one that works and fulfills high demand in practice, 3-D printing must be considered only a niche service.

The title of Kate Dwyer’s August 19th New York Times piece may have been “Don’t Worry, We’re Not Actually Monitoring Your Productivity,” but its subject is nothing new – I experienced that as a late-1980s data entry clerk in a shop that didn’t even have personal computers.  This article was about a simulation of an unnamed program that harassed workers with laughably short-term progress assessments.  As I have written before, that sort of thing is fertile soil for growing unions.

Now we know that at least one chief executive officer has read science fiction!  “Entirely robot-run, Mezli launches its first ‘fully autonomous’ restaurant in California” (Kristen Altus, Fox Business, September 2nd) seems overdue if anything, but is actually in business in San Francisco’s Mission Bay area – you can go there and order “Mediterranean-style bowls,” with detail requests quantified into “more than 60,000 menu combinations,” and no human will touch them until “customers retrieve their food from a smart locker.”  This store, less expensive to build as well as to operate, does, for now, have people on locations to handle complaints, but even those will be replaced by “email and phone contact.”  There are nontechnical issues here, such as potentially reliving the failure of mid-century automats to last, but this company and the rest of us will learn a lot from this experience.  I say such restaurants, helped by their smaller footprints, will get at least a significant long-term niche. 

Another reminder from my corporate past arrived in a previous New York Times piece from Steve Lohr, “Why Isn’t New Technology Making Us More Productive?” (May 24th).  In the mid-1990s, managements were high on Internet connections, but they were then mainly for games and pornography – the user interfaces, reliability, and speed had not yet arrived.  Among Lohr’s general principles, a “vital ingredient” in building economies is “a nation’s skill in creating and commercializing innovation, which makes investment and workers more productive.”  After a remarkably standstill 20 years, we may be improving by, for example, using artificial intelligence to assist instead of replace help-desk personnel.  We also needed the reminder that simply creating advancements hardly means that they will be implemented and durable, especially valuable since our problems are almost always after that – see, for example, our experience with driverless cars.  It may turn out that many improvements will have to sneak in through the back door of incremental changes – but if they get there, we will, eventually, benefit.  And that’s what matters.