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The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

Silicon Valley Will Escape the Revolution

The Daily Escape:

Waterfall Jumping Competition (from 69 feet up), Bosnia, August 5th – photo by Amel Emric

Antonio Garcia Martinez:

Every time I meet someone from outside Silicon Valley – a normy – I can think of 10 companies that are working madly to put that person out of a job…

Well, that makes most of us “normies”. In context, we are the people who do not work in Silicon Valley. We are the people who use technology, rather than invent technology, and many of us ought to see technology as a threat to our jobs and our place in society.

We are not in the beautiful peoples’ club. Our names are not on the list. We’re not software engineers who work just to pay the taxes on their company stock.

And who is this Martinez guy? From Mashable:

He’d sold his online ad company to Twitter for a small fortune, and was working as a senior exec at Facebook (an experience he wrote up in his best-selling book, Chaos Monkeys). But at some point in 2015, he looked into the not-too-distant future and saw a very bleak world, one that was nothing like the polished utopia of connectivity and total information promised by his colleagues.

Martinez pointed out that there are enough guns for every man, woman and child in this country, and they’re in the hands of people who would be hurt most by automation:

You don’t realize it but we’re in a race between technology and politics, and technologists are winning…

Martinez worries about how the combination of automation and artificial intelligence will develop faster than we expect, and that the consequences are lost jobs.

Martinez’s response was to become a tech prepper, another rich guy who buys an escape pod somewhere off the grid, where he thinks he will be safe from the revolution that he helped bring about. More from Mashable: (brackets by the Wrongologist)

So, just passing [after turning] 40, Antonio decided he needed some form of getaway, a place to escape if things turn sour. He now lives most of his life on a small Island called Orcas off the coast of Washington State, on five Walt Whitman acres that are only accessible by 4×4 via a bumpy dirt path that…cuts through densely packed trees.

He’s not alone. Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn told The New Yorker earlier this year that around half of Silicon Valley billionaires have some degree of “apocalypse insurance.” Pay-Pal co-founder and venture capitalist Peter Thiel recently bought a 477-acre escape hatch in New Zealand, and became a Kiwi. Other techies are getting together on secret Facebook groups to discuss survivalist tactics.

We’ve got to expect that with AI and automation, our economy will change dramatically. We will see both economic and social disruption until we achieve some form of new equilibrium in 30 years or so.

It will be a world where either you work for the machines, or the machines work for you.

Robert Shiller, of the famous Case-Shiller Index, wrote in the NYT about the changing meaning of the “American Dream” from the 1930s where it meant:

…ideals rather than material goods, [where]…life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement…It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of a social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable…

That dream has left the building, replaced by this:

Forbes Magazine started what it calls the “American Dream Index.” It is based on seven statistical measures of material prosperity: bankruptcies, building permits, entrepreneurship, goods-producing employment, labor participation rate, layoffs and unemployment claims. This kind of characterization is commonplace today, and very different from the original spirit of the American dream.

How will the “Normies” survive in a society that doesn’t care if you have a job? That refuses to provide a safety net precisely when it celebrates the progress of technology that costs jobs?

The Silicon Valley survivalists understand that, when this happens, people will look for scapegoats. And we just might decide that the techies are it.

Today’s music is “Guest List” by the Eels from the 1996 album “Beautiful Freak”:

 Takeaway Lyric:

Are you one of the beautiful people
Is my name on the list
Wanna be one of the beautiful people
Wanna feel like I’m missed

Are you one of the beautiful people
Am I on the wrong track
Sometimes it feels like I’m made of eggshell
And it feels like I’m gonna crack

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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Is Taxing Robots a Solution to Fewer Jobs?

The Daily Escape:

(Slot canyon with dust devil – photo by Angiolo Manetti)

Yesterday, the Dutch voted in an election pitting mainstream parties against Geert Wilders, a hard-right, anti-Islam nationalist whose popularity is seen as a threat to politics-as-usual across Europe, and possibly, as an existential threat to the EU.

Wilders, who wants to “de-Islamicize” the Netherlands and pull out of the EU, has little chance of governing, as all of the mainstream parties have already said they won’t work with him. Given Holland’s complicated form of proportional representation, up to 15 parties could win seats in parliament, and none are expected to win even 20% of the vote. OTOH, polls show that four in 10 of the Netherlands’ 13 million eligible voters were undecided a day before voting, and there is just 5 percentage points separating the top four parties, so Wilders could surprise everyone.

As Wrongo writes this, the Dutch election results are not known, but PBS NewsHour coverage on Tuesday surfaced a thought about taxing robots. PBS correspondent Malcolm Brabant was interviewing workers in Rotterdam:

Niek Stam claims to be the country’s most militant labor union organizer. He says the working class feel insecure about their prospects because of relentless automation and a constant drive to be competitive. The union is campaigning for robots to be taxed.

Brabant then interviewed a worker:

Robots do not buy cars. Neither do they shop for groceries, which leads to a fundamental question: Who’s going to buy all these products when up to 40% of present jobs vanish?

This isn’t an entirely new idea. Silvia Merler, blogging at Bruegel, says:

In a recent interview, Bill Gates discussed the option of a tax on robots. He argued that if today human workers’ income is taxed, and then a robot comes in to do the same thing, it seems logical to think that we would tax the robot at a similar level. While the form of such taxation is not entirely clear, Gates suggested that some of it could come from the profits that are generated by the labor-saving efficiency…and some could come directly in some type of a robot tax.

The main argument against taxing robots is made by corporations and some economists (Larry Summers), who argue that it impedes innovation. Stagnating productivity in rich countries, combined with falling business investment, suggests that adoption of new technology is currently too slow rather than too fast, and taxing new technology could exacerbate the slowdown.

It can be argued that robots are property, and property is already taxed by local governments via the property tax. It might be possible to create an additional value-added tax for robots, since an income tax wouldn’t work, as most robots are not capable of producing income by themselves.

Noah Smith at Bloomberg argues that the problem with Gates’ basic proposal is that it is very hard to tell the difference between new technology that complements human work, and new technology that replaces them. Shorter Noah Smith: Taxation is so hard!

Why are Western economies stagnant? Why has wage growth lagged GDP growth? Automation is certainly a key factor, but rather than point the finger at the corporations who continually benefit from government tax policies, let’s just assign blame to an object, a strawbot, if you will. That way, we won’t look too carefully at the real problem: The continuing concentration of economic and political power in the hands of fewer and fewer corporations.

Automation isn’t the issue, tax laws that allow economic treason by corporations in their home countries are the issue.

Why is nationalism on the march across the globe? Because fed-up workers see it as possibly the only answer to the neoliberal order that is destroying the middle class in Western democracies.

Let’s find a way to tax robots. Something has to offset Trump’s tax breaks for the rich.

Now, a musical moment. Did you know that “pre-St. Patrick’s Day” was a thing? Apparently, some dedicated celebrators prepare for the day itself by raising hell for up to a week beforehand. With that in mind, here is some pre-St. Pat’s Irish music, with Ed Sheeran singing “Nancy Mulligan” a love song about his grandparent’s marriage during WWII, against the wishes of her parents, and despite their Catholic/Protestant differences:

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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Saturday Soother, January 7, 2017

Happy Birthday today Kelly!! Other than that happy fact, little went right in America this week. Our Overlord, Donald I, rode to a presidential win by saying he would bring jobs back to America that have been lost to automation and offshoring by US companies.

But economists have said for years that creating jobs for low skilled Americans will be difficult. Here is further evidence that bringing back jobs may be tougher than Trump thinks. Salon reports that for men ages 25 to 54, the work statistics are poor:

For this group, labor force participation has sunk to 88.5% from a 1954 peak of 97.9%. Most of that loss has occurred among men who have a high school degree or less, according to a report this year by the Obama administration.

And there are interesting facts to consider where unemployed men are concerned. The NYT’s Upshot reports that the jobs that have been disappearing, like machine operator, are predominantly those that men do, while the occupations that are growing, employ mostly women. More from Upshot:

Of the fastest-growing jobs, many are various types of health aides, which are about 90% female. When men take these so-called pink-collar jobs, they have more job security and wage growth than in blue-collar work, according to recent research. But they are paid less and feel stigmatized.

Upshot quotes David Autor, an economist at M.I.T.:

The jobs being created are very different than the jobs being eliminated…I’m not worried about whether there will be jobs. I’m very worried about whether there will be jobs for low-educated adults, especially the males, who seem very reluctant to take the new jobs.

The issue is America’s culture of masculinity. Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist and public policy professor at Johns Hopkins says:

Traditional masculinity is standing in the way of working-class men’s employment…We have a cultural lag where our views of masculinity have not caught up to the change in the job market.

Why is it that men can get away with saying that they deserve better than women? Perhaps that is a rhetorical question. After all, we elected Donald Trump, who can get away with anything.

The Salon article had this snippet: (emphasis by the Wrongologist)

Health problems and the opioid epidemic may also be a major barrier to work, according to research by Alan Krueger, a Princeton economist and former Obama adviser. Nearly half of men ages 25 through 54 who are neither working nor looking for work, take pain medication daily.

Some of these men may have been injured on the job and were subsequently laid off. But some may also represent part of the huge increase in opioid use in America. They may be part of the increase in disability cases since the Great Recession: More than 10 million Americans received Social Security disability benefits in 2014 (most recent statistics). Benefits paid to disabled workers totaled $11.4 billion per month nationwide, a substantial increase from the $6.1 billion paid monthly in 2004. The top three states receiving disability benefits are West Virginia, Alabama and Arkansas.

We became this society honestly. Our politicians hold our corporations in high esteem. The corporations repay us by automating most jobs and shipping other jobs overseas. They do this with little or no responsibility to help displaced workers retrain, or find new work. They do this while asking for bigger tax breaks to remain domiciled in the US. They do this while blaming our education system for not providing trained, ready-to-work job entrants at no cost to them.

We just cannot count on them to be good corporate citizens.

Those on pain killers may or may not have disabilities that prevent them from working. But in any case, society does not owe unemployed working age men permanent, high paying manufacturing or mining jobs, despite whatever efforts Trump may make.

It is time for them to adapt.

We need a soother. Here is Grex Vocalis a Norwegian chorus formed in 1971. Grex Vocalis has reached the finals of the BBC contest “Let the Peoples Sing” three times. In this video they are performing “An Irish Blessing” (May the road rise to meet you) written by an American, James E. Moore in 1987, live at the Amadeo Roldán Theatre in Havana Cuba:

A Norwegian chorus performing an Irish tune, written by an American, in Cuba. That’s gotta be soothing.

For those who read the Wrongologist in email, you can view the video here.

Sample Lyrics:

May the sun make your days bright

May the stars illuminate your nights

May the flowers bloom along your path

Your house stand firm against the storm.

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How Do You Solve a Problem Like Ohio?

Our industrial heartland has withered away, in that there are fewer manufacturing jobs than ever, while manufacturing revenues have never been higher. Forty years of promises by politicians have come to nothing: These people are victims of a world order in which corporations have either exported or automated those jobs, with no responsibility to workers. It is left to the towns of Middle America and the federal government to clean up their mess.

This world order we live in today was born in 1980, with Thatcher and Reagan. According to Ian Welsh, the world order made a few core promises:

If the rich have more money, they will create more jobs.

Lower taxes will lead to more prosperity.

Increases in housing and stock market prices will increase prosperity for everyone.

Trade deals and globalization will make everyone better off.

Those promises were not kept, and in America’s Midwest, economic stress is now the order of the day. That stress has contributed to rising rates of drug addiction and falling life expectancy.

Understandably frustrated, Ohioans and other Midwesterners gave Donald Trump a victory in November. His win has refocused attention by pundits and pols on the plight of our failing de-industrialized areas. While we have economic growth, we also have growing inequality. Here is a graphic illustration of the problem, comparing the US with the EU:

The Economist reports that from 1880 to 1980, the incomes of poorer and richer American states tended to converge, at a rate of nearly 2% per year. The chart above shows that the pattern no longer exists. This causes us to ask if the shift of resources and people from places in decline to places that are growing is simply taking longer to adjust, or has the current world order failed our people? In econo-speak, the gains in some regions should compensate those regions and towns harmed by the shift, leaving everyone better off.

But that is a political and financial lie promulgated by the very corporations that benefited, and by their political and economist cheerleaders.

With economic decline, some towns and cities became poverty traps. A shrinking tax base means deterioration in local services (think Detroit). Public education that might provide the young with new skills and thus opportunities, fails. Those that remain are on government subsidies or hold low-wage service jobs, or both. It is impossible to tell these citizens that the decay of their home town is an acceptable cost of the rough-and-tumble of the global economy.

Politicians are short on solutions. Since housing costs have risen sharply in towns and cities that are growing, underemployed Americans are less likely to move, and those who do, are less likely to head for richer places. Enrico Moretti of the University of California, Berkeley and Chang-tai Hsieh of the University of Chicago argue that our GDP could be 13.5% higher if this wasn’t the situation in America.

But if moving isn’t an option, what can be done to improve the outlook for those who are left behind?

Would more government subsidies help? Prosperous tax payers already support poorer ones. Subsidies for health insurance costs with Obamacare, as well as industrial tax incentives provide some cushion, but they are not likely to deliver long-run economic recovery, and they have not stemmed the growth of populist political sentiment.

To be fair, many people in Ohio and elsewhere want good jobs, but without having to move too far to get them. That may be impossible.

In the 19th century, the federal government gave land to states, which they could sell to raise proceeds for “land-grant universities”. Those universities, including some that are among our finest, were given a practical task: to develop and disseminate new techniques in agriculture and engineering. They went on to become centers of advanced research and, in some cases, hubs of local innovation and economic growth.

Politicians and academic economists might disdain a modern-day version of the program, one that would train workers, foster new ideas, and strengthen weakened regional economies.

But if our politicians do not provide answers, our populist insurgents will.

Time for a Christmas song. Here is Elvis with “Santa Claus Is Back in Town & Blue Christmas”, from his comeback special on NBC. This was recorded over six days in June, 1968 and aired on December 1, 1968. Elvis flubs “Santa Claus is Back in Town”:

Despite his flub, he does get this line right:

You don’t see me comin in no big black Cadillac

Kind of like out-of-work Ohioans.

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Capitalism Is Past Its Sell-By Date

“This is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people no longer. It is a government of corporations, by corporations, and for corporations…” Rutherford B. Hayes (March, 1888)

Nearly 130 years ago at the height of the Gilded Age, President Hayes had it right. Capitalism then was an economic free-for-all. Today, capitalism again is rewarding too few people. And data show that the problem is worse than we thought. The WSJ reported on a study by economists from Stanford, Harvard and the University of California that found:

Barely half of 30-year-olds earn more than their parents did at a similar age, a research team found, an enormous decline from the early 1970s when the incomes of nearly all offspring outpaced their parents.

Using tax and census data, they identified the income of 30-year-olds starting in 1970, and compared it with the earnings of their parents when they were about the same age. In 1970, 92% of American 30-year-olds earned more than their parents did at a similar age. By 2014, that number fell to 51%. Here is a chart showing the results:

wsj-30-year-olds-make-less

And we know that real median household income in the US today is basically the same as in 1989. The paper doesn’t provide specific reasons for the decline in incomes for younger Americans, but it generally blames slower economic growth and, especially, the rapidly widening income gap between the top 20% and the rest of society.

They found that the inability of children to out-earn their parents is greatest in the Midwest. This underlines that those who voted for Trump have a point: The Midwest has been hit harder by import competition, especially from Japan and China, and by technological changes, than other regions of the US.

When looking only at males nationally, the decline is even starker: In 2014, only 41% of 30-year-old men earned more than their fathers at a similar age.

There are some issues with the study worth mentioning: Most kids born in the 1940s did well in their thirties, maybe because their parents were 30 during the Depression and WWII. By the 1960s, an industrialized economy brought significantly higher wages to 30 year olds. A high denominator in the ratio of parent’s income to child’s income (compared to the past) made it more difficult for succeeding generations to exceed their parents’ incomes.

The economy also has shifted in the past 30 years and is now service-based, as factories moved overseas, and automation became prevalent. This change swapped higher wage manufacturing jobs for mostly lower wage service jobs. That alone could make it all but impossible for young adults to hit the ratios that their parents did relative to their grandparents.

Maybe the American Dream didn’t die; it just never really existed in the sense of broadly-based income mobility. Have another look at the chart, upward mobility (as measured by making more than your parents) has been declining since the mid-1940s.

Why? Between rising globalization and rapid advances in automation, we now have more people than jobs. And no matter whom we elect, this trend will continue. Those manufacturing jobs are never coming back. Even in China, robots are now displacing workers in factories.

We don’t need “good paying manufacturing jobs”; we need good paying jobs.

This is the most serious challenge capitalism has faced in the US. Without improving personal income, there will be fewer who can afford college, or afford to buy the things that capitalism produces. Low personal income growth puts sand in the gears of our economy.

The left offers a critique of contemporary global capitalism but no real practical alternative. Neither does the right, but their memes of America First, nostalgia for a golden (gilded?) age, and more tax cuts seem like less of a stretch than a Bernie Sanders-like frontal assault on capitalism.

No one in either party has a plan for a world in which robots displace the demand for labor on a large scale. And the under-30 cohort is now spending at least 4 times more (in the case of Wrongo’s university, 10 times) for a college education than what their parents paid, and they are earning less.

If people matter at all to our leaders, and if 90+% of them lack the means to live without working, America must make employment our top priority, despite the fact that many have been deemed redundant by capitalists in the private sector.

Surplus labor drives the price of labor down; allowing the employer class to afford a pool boy, or a nanny, or another cook.

And it makes the waiters more attentive to Mr. Trump.

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