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The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

Saturday Soother – December 1, 2018

The Daily Escape:

Yukon Grizzly before hibernation – 2014 photo by Paul Nicklen

Quite the week. We had barely digested Thanksgiving dinner when we heard about Russia seizing three Ukrainian Navy vessels in the Azov Sea. We learned that Paul Manafort lied to Robert Mueller, and that his lawyer reported everything that occurred between Manafort and Mueller to the White House. Then, we heard that Trump’s former in-house lawyer, Michael Cohen has admitted to lying to Congress, and is now cooperating with Mueller. Who knows what it all means?

But, the big story this week was that we learned that life expectancy in the US fell to 78.6 years, a 0.3 year decline from our peak. From CNN:

Overdose deaths reached a new high in 2017, topping 70,000, while the suicide rate increased by 3.7%, the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics reports.

We are witnessing social decay in America. This is consistent with what Angus Deaton and Ann Case called “deaths of despair” in 2017. The WSJ has a detailed breakdown, and also points out how other countries are continuing to show progress:

Data the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released on Thursday show life expectancy fell by one-tenth of a percent, to 78.6 years, pushed down by the sharpest annual increase in suicides in nearly a decade and a continued rise in deaths from powerful opioid drugs like fentanyl. Influenza, pneumonia and diabetes also factored into last year’s increase.

From Yves Smith:

Americans take antidepressants at a higher rate than any country in the world. The average job tenure is a mere 4.4 years. In my youth, if you changed jobs in less than seven or eight years, you were seen as an opportunist or probably poor performer. The near impossibility of getting a new job if you are over 40 and the fact that outside hot fields, young people can also find it hard to get work commensurate with their education and experience, means that those who do have jobs can be and are exploited by their employers.

The 2017 data paint a dark picture of health and well-being in the US, reflecting the effects of addiction and despair, particularly among young and middle-aged adults. In addition, diseases are plaguing people with limited access to health care.

In the late part of the last century, and the early years of this century, there was a steady decline in heart-disease deaths. That offset a rising number of deaths from drugs and suicide. Now, we’re not seeing those heart-related declines, while drug and suicide deaths occur earlier in life, accounting for more years of life lost.

The worst aspect is that it never had to be this way. These drug and suicide deaths are “collateral damage” caused by the social and economic changes in America since the 1970s.

And we made most of those changes by choice.

Wrongo is reminded that last month, he learned that something similar had happened in Russia under Gorbachev. Under Perestroika, millions of Russians lost jobs. The government’s budget deficits grew. The death rate exceeded the birth rate. Nearly 700,000 children were abandoned by parents who couldn’t afford to take care of them. The average lifespan of men dropped to 59 years.

Are we in a slow motion disaster that could be similar to what Russia went through back in the 1990s?

We’ve become hardened. These American deaths are largely anonymous. When AIDS was ravishing the gay community in the 1980s, people were able to appreciate the huge number of deaths by seeing, or adding to, the AIDS Memorial Quilt, which eventually weighed more than 50 tons.

There is no equivalent recognition for these deaths of despair.

A traitorous American ruling class has sold out its middle and lower classes. If you doubt that, think about Wal-Mart. The Walton’s fortune was made by acting as an agent of Chinese manufacturers, in direct competition with US manufacturers. Doesn’t that seem like treason?

Relax, there’s nothing you can do about all of this today, the first day of December. Time to get what solace you can from a few minutes having a coffee, and a listen to a piece of soothing music.

Start by brewing a cup of Kona Mele Extra Fancy coffee from Hula Daddy Kona Coffee ($64.94/lb.). It has an aroma of dark chocolate, fruit and flowers. And shipping is free.

Now settle back and listen to a few minutes of George Winston’s “December”. Here are Part 1: Snow, Part 2: Midnight, and Part 3: Minstrels:

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

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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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Congress Returns to Do (Not) Much

From Roll Call:

After the longest summer break in modern times, lawmakers are required to accomplish a single legislative task before leaving again. But it’s a job far more politically fraught than it is procedurally simple: Assuring normal government operations continue through the end of this budgetary year and into the new one.

That’s right, once again, it’s time to fight about funding the government. And as Booman says,

This ridiculous election season would not be complete without the threat of another government shutdown, and how much money would you be willing to risk betting on Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan to find a way to pass a continuing resolution that either the majority of their own caucus would support or that relies (again) on mostly Democratic votes?

The potential stalemate over spending is a headache for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-WI) who would like to avoid a shutdown threat just weeks before the election.

The Tea Party and GOP conservatives want to kick the can ahead for six months with a temporary resolution. But Democrats and some Republicans want to finish the annual budget work in the lame duck session after the election.

Both sides are digging in for a fight.

This could become an object lesson on why Republicans shouldn’t be in the majority. The party with the majority in the House is supposed to produce the bills and along with the Senate, supply the votes to pass appropriations. But, John Boehner couldn’t do it, because the Freedom Caucus and the other conservative R’s wouldn’t work as a coalition with other Republicans and/or Democrats to actually pass spending bills.

Ryan was able to do it last time, but it isn’t looking like those Republican factions will roll over again.

If Ryan and McConnell want to buck their own members on the length of the continuing resolution, the Dems are free to refuse to provide any votes. And the Democrats do not have to protect the sitting president, so they can watch as the GOP twists in the wind.

Fun times on Capitol Hill!

Here are a few links to news you may have missed over the holiday:

Experimental new opioid blocks pain without being addictive or deadly in primates. In monkeys, the drug is a highly effective pain reliever without downsides. It needs more trials, including in humans. Meanwhile, the DEA is attempting to ban a natural, safe herb which has been used for thousands of years to do the same thing.

Holy Labor Day: On Friday, an estimated 150 million workers refused to show up for work in India and instead took to the streets to demonstrate against labor conditions. The unions involved issued 12 demands to Prime Minister Modi, including raising the minimum wage, introduction of universal social security, and a minimum pension.

Is an end to the Asian sweatshop in sight? A recent report from the International Labor Organization found that more than two-thirds of Southeast Asia’s 9.2 million textile and footwear jobs are threatened by automation. Here are the numbers: 88% of those jobs in Cambodia, 86% in Vietnam, and 64% in Indonesia. Will this be good for the workers? Doubtful.

13 Tips for reading election polls like a pro. After Labor Day, the polling deluge will begin. A guide to making sense of it all.

Boeing gets $2B in bonuses for flawed missile-defense system. From 2002 through early last year, the Pentagon conducted 11 flight tests of the nation’s homeland missile-defense system. The interceptors failed to destroy their targets in six of the 11 tests — a record that has prompted independent experts to conclude the system can’t be relied on to foil a nuclear strike by North Korea or Iran. Yet the Pentagon paid Boeing, the prime contractor, $1,959,072,946 in performance bonuses for a Job? Well? Done?

Maybe we shouldn’t complain: The US government is spending money. Money = jobs. Of course, money also = corruption. And isn’t it a good deal if Boeing’s shit doesn’t work?

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Corporations Want Europe to Add Refugees

According to The Guardian, the European Union ministers forced through a plan to relocate Middle Eastern asylum-seekers throughout the EU. The plan would distribute 120,000 souls across all EU countries.

The headline yesterday was that Romania, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic voted against the proposal, but could be forced to take immigrants anyway. These Eastern European governments have been among the most vocal opponents of plans to relocate refugees across the EU. But, according to The Economist, this position ignores economic logic:

A survey by Manpower Group, a consultancy, found that two out of five firms in Poland struggle to fill vacancies. In Hungary, almost half could not get the staff they need. In the Czech Republic and Slovakia fewer employers report difficulties (18% and 28%) but the share has been climbing steadily over the past few years.

Here is their chart showing the difficulty in filling jobs in the EU:

Where immigrants are needed

The argument in the countries that need to fill jobs but do not want migrants is that they can fill skill gaps by drawing in labor from neighboring countries with more similar cultures. This may fill some positions, but wages are much lower in the countries needing labor. The Economist reports that wages in Germany are 150% higher than in Hungary. And Germany’s social safety net is superior.

These statistics point to serious problems in the EU’s local economies. But the real issue isn’t under population in the EU. We have been told for years that the unemployment rate among young Europeans is very high. Trading Economics reports that the overall jobless rate in the Eurozone fell to 10.9% in July, from 11.1% in the previous three months. That means 17.4 million EU citizens are unemployed. But, youth unemployment averages 21.9%. Here are some depressing Youth Unemployment statistics from summer, 2015: (Source: Statista.com)

  • Greece:     53.7%
  • Spain:       49.2%
  • Italy:          44.2%
  • France:     23.6%
  • Germany:   7.1%

So, even if people in certain EU countries understand that there might be an economic upside to allowing immigrants into their country, their opening position is: “why aren’t we hiring our own kids?”

Then there is the anti-immigrant issue that transcends economic concerns, the ethnic makeup of one’s own country, and what migrants may do to impact these old European cultures. No argument about the economic merits of increased immigration will likely sway voters if they believe their way of life will be compromised. The fear of a “mob at the gates” drives anti-immigrant feeling throughout the world.

So, who says Europe needs all of this migrant labor? Much like in the US, it is the corporations who say they can’t fill jobs with the requisite talent. What they really mean is, talent at a price.

Why can’t German firms import Italian or Spanish kids to do the work?

This sounds remarkably similar to tech firms in the US saying that they cannot find STEM workers, and so ask the government to add more H-1B visas so that migrants from India can fill jobs in Silicon Valley.

The global picture is clear: Many jobs now done by humans are being taken over by machines. Computers will ease our transition to declining populations. Even many low-skilled jobs in manufacturing and agriculture can be handled by robots, requiring a large jump in the skills humans need to learn in order to get the fewer, better paying jobs that remain.

A partial solution may be to import some migrants to fill a few low skilled jobs, but adoption of new technologies rather than population growth, is a better way to go about raising the living standards in Europe.

And we must shut off global population growth sometime soon. The Wrongologist has reported before on “The Coming Jobs War” by Jim Clifton, in which Clifton says that globally, some 3 billion people are looking for work right now, and nearly all of them are willing to work for less than the average American or European.

Every society will be more secure economically if they can promote a high resource-to-population ratio. Those countries who can become close to self-sufficient in food, water, energy, and renewable resources will be the only ones with middle-class living conditions.

Middle Eastern migrants understand this. Some may be fleeing for their lives, but the vast majority are simply economic migrants. The EU is being led by the nose to focus on asylum-seekers, when even they are economic migrants.

Although the poorer parts of the world experience very high population growth, and the developed world does not, it is a safe guess that not a single country today has a population that is low enough to guarantee success in the future world economic order.

Think about what Agent Smith said in The Matrix:

Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You’re a plague and we are the cure.

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Technology Isn’t Creating Enough Middle Class Jobs

Yesterday we talked about how America is losing middle class jobs to technical outsourcing on our way to becoming a land of spreadsheets and flags. Today, let’s discuss another aspect of that; how technology continues to cost more and more mid-skilled jobs. We usually think of technology as a great panacea, making most of our processes more efficient. In fact, many of us can look back on the “sneakernet” of the 1980s and feel good about how far we’ve come with technology.

But technology has also reduced the number of middle class workers required, at a time when American wages are stagnant and benefits are falling for the remaining available jobs.

The meme used to be that if technology replaced workers, new jobs came along and net-net, more people were employed. Although things weren’t that simple, by 1900 if you were displaced, you could get another job because 99% of all jobs were still done only by humans.

Today corporations tell us that the knowledge economy can take as many workers as we can create, and since we can’t create them fast enough, technology firms need more of the H-1B visas we discussed yesterday. This is false. Facebook is touted as a prime player in the knowledge economy, but it only employs 5,800 to service 1 billion customers! Twitter has 400 million total users. It has 2,300 employees.

What is the value of Facebook and Twitter to the jobs economy? These are two of our very “best” success stories, and they only employ 8,100 workers. They have had a huge impact on society, but the total jobs they have created are only a rounding error in our economy.

Much of what we want to buy is produced in factories increasingly run with robots, and maintained and operated by small cadres of engineers. Increased sales of iPhones only add a few sales jobs at $12/hour in the US and not many new factory jobs in China. Also, keep in mind that globally, some 3 billion people are looking for work and the vast majority are willing to work for less than the average American.

We all know that technology is costing jobs, and by some estimates it could cost half of all current jobs in the next 20 years. So, we can expect an ever-greater number of unemployed chasing an ever-shrinking number of jobs that can’t be eliminated or simplified by technology. Thus, the prognosis for many medium and some higher-skilled workers appears grim. With this being said, technology is benefiting a lot of businesses and the way they operate. You’ll get a better understanding of it just by reading these Quotes about AI. Seeing as technology doesn’t look like it is going anywhere anytime soon, we might as well use it to our advantage in a business.

The oligarchs have seen these forecasts. That may explain their unwillingness to do anything serious to create effective jobs programs here at home. They don’t need to do anything, because there is a (virtually) infinite supply of skilled and unskilled workers in the overpopulated third world.

The issue is not technology, or robots, or restoring our manufacturing base. Nor is the issue better skills, or technology or outsourcing. We have too many people chasing too few good jobs.

Incomes will continue to stagnate, because automation does not threaten unskilled jobs. This is sometimes called “Moravec’s Paradox”, which says that, contrary to traditional assumptions, high-level reasoning requires relatively little computation, but low-level sensorimotor skills require enormous computational resources. The “Roomba” robotic vacuum cleaner is, despite years of development, just an expensive toy. It has had zero impact on the market for janitors and maids, yet, wages for American janitors and maids have fallen because of competition from the currently unemployed and newly arrived immigrants. While the Roomba aims to be a forward-looking cleaning solution, it still cannot compete with the manual vacuum cleaners, like Bissell’s, that still prove to be the preferred choice despite innovative attempts to move towards automation. See this link for Bissell vacuum cleaners – https://www.bissell.com/vacuums/upright-vacuum-cleaners/

If we forecast continuing technology breakthroughs (and we should), and combine that with the 3 billion people currently looking for work globally, we have to conclude that the planet is overpopulated if the goal is a growing global middle class.

This is why the quest for better technology has become the enemy of sustaining middle class growth in the developed world.

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