Friday, January 28, 2022

Restaurant Delivery Apps, Job Training, General Education, Tech Jobs, and Male Burnout: Around the Horn

Once in a while I accumulate a little pile of articles worth sharing, but which don’t fit with others.  Here is the latest.

The oldest is from over a year ago, but still pertinent: “Apps Are Helping to Gut the Restaurant Industry” (Greg Bensinger, The New York Times, December 8th 2020).  The author related how the likes of DoorDash, UberEats, and Grubhub, which bring restaurant food to customers, are charging those places “30 percent or higher per order,” often too high for eatery profitability.  Although this is a classic free-market situation, where the app companies can charge what they want and their two sets of customers can govern themselves accordingly, some cities and states have put limits on fees.  If this service is too expensive, it will not be used, and, as it is hardly necessary to life or prosperity, that is fine.  Meanwhile, if people are willing to pay, say, $10 to have a pizza brought to them, why should they be denied?

When commentators call for more job training, they are often vague about how it should work.  In the April 7th New York Times, Steve Lohr got more specific in “Job Training That’s Free Until You’re Hired Is a Blueprint for Biden.”  A good idea, and puts pressure on training organizations to ensure what they offer can lead to actual opportunities, but could get them too many students, so if so they would emerge with admission requirements.  The schools would be forced to care, validating the article’s last four words: “They fight for you.” 

As well, and not contradictorily, per David Epstein in Slate on April 27th, “General Education Has a Bad Rap.”  In the late 1970s when I was in college there was a great controversy on whether that should mainly be for mind-furnishing, the choice I made, or for vocational preparation.  Early in the next decade the careerists won, accounting became the most popular undergraduate major, and since then the names of some majors have looked like those for week-long corporate classes.  The conflict, though, seems too timeless to go away forever, and it’s revisited here.  Points in favor of learning less focused subjects Epstein made include excessively early specialization, problems when targeted careers end early or do not materialize at all, inflexibility, and narrower life experiences.  As someone who took undergraduate courses in 15 different departments and eventually had careers in a 16th and 17th, I am biased, but doubt that was unique.

On October 8th in the New York Times, Peter Coy told us that “Tech Jobs Are Everywhere Now.”  His now-data-backed claim was that, with more remote work, such positions are becoming less concentrated, with employees “moving all over the place.”  That trend will not last forever, as the pendulum between home and office has moved back and forth since Clinton was president, but it is good for potential employees to know, as they are more likely to get started, from their hometowns, now.

We see far more material on how women are suffering, both from the pandemic and for other reasons, so in a way it’s refreshing to learn something about “How Men Burn Out” (Jonathan Malesic, The New York Times, January 4th).  While less burdened by childcare, men are still under real pressure to be main or often only breadwinners, “are much less likely than women to talk about it,” and still too often buy in to career success as a proxy for personal worth.  Extra-hours tasks and off-hours contacts make that worse, and it is clear that employers, who pay a real tangible and intangible price when their workers burn out, have choices to make here.  That, if you include valuing less career-focused education, ties these five pieces together.

Friday, January 21, 2022

Picking Through the Remnants of Autonomous Vehicles: What’s There?

What I, along with many others, thought would be the massive technical improvement of the 2020s seems to have failed.  Four years ago, there were so many articles about that effort that I could have dedicated this entire blog to it, and in fact, for a few months, I did just about that.  It seemed worth it, as it promised titanic changes, equivalent to cars becoming widespread a century before, many unexpected.  As the Ford assembly line was to transform romance, autonomous vehicles, just to name one, might have slashed smoking, as vehicles filling their tanks without occupants would have made human trips to gas stations, during which many cigarettes are bought, unnecessary.

Here is my latest file of what has been written.  Given that I did not save pieces only on future possibilities, whether judicious or hyped by companies providing them, I had to go back nine months to have enough for a post.

The oldest is Aaron Mak’s “The Most Disturbing Part of the Latest Tesla Crash,” from April 19th in Slate.  This story was about an incident not involving a fully autonomous car, but an electric vehicle with an “autopilot” feature, abused by the occupants as neither was in the driver’s seat.  That was nothing against current or future autonomous vehicles, but was ripe to be misperceived as such.

Next is “Silicon Valley is resetting expectations for self-driving cars and settling in for years of more work” (The New York Times, May 25th).  The unbilled author started with “after years of hype, bullions of dollars of investments and promises that people would be commuting to work in self-driving cars by now, the pursuit of autonomous cars is undergoing a reset,” and seemed to blame excessive expectations, yet in 2017 such vehicles were already quite adept and drew intense and extensive efforts zeroing in on remaining problems.  Per this piece, Uber and Lyft, expected to be early and large customers, have sold and “offloaded” their driverless divisions, and, in the year before the article date, “three prominent self-driving start-ups have sold themselves to companies with much bigger budgets.” 

Less optimistic is Ashley Nunes’s May 31st Business Insider “The dream of the truly driverless car is officially dead.”  In this self-described “opinion column,” Nunes wrote about the lack of truly self-sufficient systems elsewhere, without acknowledging the value of a mere reduction in human involvement.  Despite requiring overseers, store self-checkout lanes have hardly petered out, as the number of people per unit is less than one, and the same could work here.  The reason for autonomous vehicles not becoming widespread is elsewhere.

Distant emergency command is prominent in “How Germany Hopes to Get the Edge in Driverless Technology” (Jack Ewing, The New York Times, July 14th).  A Hamburg “ride-hailing service” used vans which could “steer themselves, but technicians working from a remote control center keep an eye on their progress with the help of video monitors,” allowing these workers to “take control of the vehicle and steer it our of trouble.” That was the old “Level 4 autonomous driving, in which a vehicle can steer and navigate by itself most of the time but may occasionally require human intervention.”  Although German law still required at least one human driver or supervisor on board, and such vans were only used to “navigate a predictable course, such as from an airport parking lot to a departure terminal,” such niches may be where autonomous efforts can thrive.

The count of foolish accidents is probably increased by sloppy use of promotional language, as shown on August 30th in the New York Times, in Cade Metz’s “Tesla Sells ‘Full Self-Driving,’ but What Is It Really?.” That is the name of a “package… which can be purchased as an extra on Tesla cars,” and is no such thing, rather “a collection of services that add to Tesla’s Autopilot,” also an overstated title.  Indeed, that is the subject of a customer lawsuit mentioned here, alleging misrepresentation. 

Beyond “Alphabet’s Waymo launches autonomous taxi service test in San Francisco,” by Brock Dumas in Fox Business on August 24th (didn’t that happen in 2018?), we got a post-mortem of Tesla’s bad things mentioned here in “Inside Tesla as Elon Musk Pushed an Unflinching Vision for Self-Driving Cars” (Cade Metz and Neal E. Boudette, The New York Times, December 6th).  Musk, Tesla’s owner, understandably touted his technology, but seemed to have conflated what the hardware could do with progress in software and testing. 

What can we conclude about the true state of driverless cars?  Metz, two articles above, quoted a Consumer Reports’ Auto Test Center director as saying “These systems are good at dealing with the boring, monotonous stuff.  But when things get interesting, I prefer to drive.”  That is our overall situation.  I had thought that with test-ranges and scrutinizing problem situations, the technology would be developed, and it still could be.  I refuse to believe it cannot be done. 

The real problems are societal.  Can we accept occasional, even fatal, mishaps in the service of removing America’s 27,000 annual driver-error-caused deaths?  Can companies find enough people willing to go years without product for a potentially gigantic long-term gain?  Can we regain the national will to embark on long, expensive, and uncertain efforts?  Until then, all we will have here, outside a few well-protected enclaves, is driving assistance technology.  That, though valuable, is a far cry from the benefits true vehicle autonomy would get us.  Yet again, the choice is ours.

Friday, January 14, 2022

Our Inflation: More About It, and Six Truths

It’s strange to realize that most people in this country have never experienced price increases of more than 4% annually, but that’s correct.  We have not seen inflation as high as the annual 7% the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced Wednesday since 1981.  Accordingly, many can’t be counted on to understand it.  So here’s more.

It exceeds the money things cost, as pointed out by Neil Irwin in “There Is Shadow Inflation Taking Place All Around Us,” revised October 11th in The New York Times.  The author was writing about reductions in service which aren’t counted in tabulations of price increases, such as rarer cleaning of restaurants and hotel rooms and slower and less comprehensive product availability. 

If you think prices will increase more slowly soon, Matt Phillips, on October 26th also in the New York Times, disagreed with “The Bond Market Says Inflation Will Last.  You Should Be Listening.”  Per Phillips, bond prices can be measured by determining a “break even,” assuming that their five-year returns equal the projected inflation rate.  That reached “about 3 percent a year,” which, as low as that seems, would be “far higher than any time in the decade before the pandemic hit.” 

Back to Irwin, who, on December 31st and again in the Times, told us “What We Learned About the Economy in 2021.”  One of his four points was “people really, really, really don’t like inflation.”  It has been a source of “generalized discontent,” and has caused “poorer customer service,” “more hassle planning Christmas gifts far ahead of time,” and beyond.  It is too easy, as Irwin put it, to take attitudes of “that pay raise was money I earned fair and square” but “that higher grocery bill is an affront done to my by powerful forces beyond my control.”

Once more in The New York Times, we had Paul Krugman, in January 7th’s “Wonking Out:  Through A Price Index, Darkly,” give us some of inflation’s technical details, along with the sound observations that “economic developments since the pandemic began have taken place in Covid time – that is, they’ve moved at a pace that makes past ups and downs look as if they were filmed in slow motion” and “the one-year rate of change is more or less guaranteed to show continuing high inflation for a while even if actual price pressures are quickly fading away.”  The last, exemplified by the price of gasoline, is because such statistics show what has happened over the entire time period, and can conceal recent leveling-off or even dropping.

So what observations can we make about our current price increases?

First, this is not typical inflation with root causes self-sustaining and hard to pinpoint.  It is due to temporary supply-chain disruptions cutting supply, higher wages increasing business costs, and irregular demand from the pandemic’s changes.  That means the usual recommended measures may not be effective or necessary. 

Second, the past 40 years notwithstanding, we have had inflation during much of our history.  Per, the average rate since 1914 has been 3.25 percent, which means that at times it has been more.  It’s normal.

Third, zeroing in on cutting inflation would mean more shortages of both goods and workers and higher unemployment, neither of which is popular either.

Friday, January 7, 2022

December’s Jobs Numbers: Almost a Repeat of November’s Improvements, But with a Reservation – AJSN Down to 16.3 Million as Latent Demand for Work Descends to Almost Pre-Pandemic Levels

Not too often have I seen back-to-back Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Situation Summaries this similar. 

We start with the current marquee number, that of net new nonfarm payroll positions, which again came in well below the consensus prediction, this time 199,000 or half of multiple 400,000 estimates.  The rest, though, were strong.  Seasonally adjusted and unadjusted unemployment shaved 0.3% and 0.2% to reach 3.9% and 3.7%.  There are now 6.3 million officially jobless, off 600,000 from last month’s initial report, and although the count of people on temporary layoff was 12,000 higher, those out for 27 weeks or longer fell another 200,000, to 2.0 million.  The two measures of how common it is for Americans to be working or one step away, the employment-population ratio and the labor force participation rate, logged 0.3% and 0.1% improvements to 59.5% and 61.9%.  The number working part-time for economic reasons, or holding that kind of job while looking for something full-time, ditched 400,000 to 3.9 million.  Average hourly private nonfarm payroll wages did better than inflation this time, up 28 cents since the last report to $31.31. 

The American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, the statistic showing how many more positions could easily be filled if all knew they were easy to get, got 348,000 better as follows:


All but 44,000 of this month’s improvement came from lower official joblessness, with the other components light and mixed.  The share of the AJSN from this piece dipped 1.2% to 32.8%, meaning that, of people not working now, more than two thirds of latent demand for new positions comes from those not eligible for such benefits.  Compared with a year before the AJSN is down 4.9 million, with almost exactly four million of that from those unemployed, almost 700,000 from a lower count of those wanting work but not looking for it for a year or more, and over 100,000 apiece from people discouraged and in the “other” category above.

On the pandemic side, although the Omicron effect was only starting we saw, for the first time in months, a cause for concern.  Per the New York Times, between November 16th and December 15th or 16th, the seven-day weighted average of new daily cases jumped 44% to 122,368, people hospitalized from Covid rose 43% to 68,222, and pertinent deaths increased 22% to reach 1,302.  The same measure of vaccination doses given, though, was up 23% to 1,799,583.  The worsening numbers, here including deaths, suggest there now may be a real increase in people exposing themselves to the virus at workplaces who should not be. 

How are we looking?  Once more, we must not confuse erroneous forecasts with poor results.  Our country’s population growth has slowed considerably in the past two years, and now we only need about 50,000 net new jobs each month to cover it.  We got four times that.  The other figures, including the AJSN, are quickly heading for where they were two years ago.  Since we know now that the Omicron variant, accounting for the overwhelming majority of new cases, is much less deadly than those before, it is easier for people to justify risking their health at work.  Whether that is worth it is for you to decide.  In the meantime, the turtle took another robust step forward.