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The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

Automation Will Cost 75 Million US Jobs By 2030

The Daily Escape:

Torres Del Paine National Park, Patagonia, Chile. Torres Del Paine is known for its mountains, glaciers and grasslands that shelter rare wildlife like Guanacos.

Wrongo has written many times about automation taking jobs that will not be replaced onshore. McKinsey & Co. has a new study that finds that job losses due to automation will take out anywhere from ten to twenty percent of the current global workforce by 2030:

As many as 800 million workers worldwide may lose their jobs to robots and automation by 2030, equivalent to more than a fifth of today’s global labor force.

The report covers 46 countries and more than 800 occupations. The McKinsey Global Institute study found that even if the rise of robots is less rapid than they expect, 400 million workers could still find themselves displaced by automation and would need to find new jobs over the next 13 years. McKinsey said that both developed and emerging countries will be impacted. Machine operators, fast-food workers and back-office employees are among those who will be most affected if automation spreads quickly through the workplace. Bloomberg made a chart summarizing the jobs lost by country:

Source: Bloomberg

This implies that some 75 million jobs are at risk in the US by 2030, to be replaced by…something.

The bottom line is that many of the unemployed will need considerable help to shift to new work, and as a result, starting salaries will continue to flat line. McKinsey paints a rosy picture about the future jobs market post-automation. They say that the economies of most countries will eventually replace the lost jobs, but are a little unclear on what the new jobs will be. They mention health care, infrastructure, construction, renewable energy and IT as likely job areas.

But the challenge is how the displaced workers learn the new skills necessary by 2030. Axios quotes Michael Chui, lead author of the report on the needs for retraining:

We’re all going to have to change and learn how to do new things over time…It’s a Marshall Plan size of a task…

How will America fund a Marshall Plan for retraining 75 million of us, particularly when we’ve just given the very corporations who are automating our jobs even more of a break on their tax bills? It’s unlikely that the Republican-controlled Congress will have any desire to fund the necessary comprehensive re-training effort. If Congress had any foresight, they could have made their new corporate tax cuts conditional on these same firms paying for the job retraining that their automation will cause for American workers.

But, it will be our job to figure out where these new training funds will come from, right along with the funds we have already given to the job creators Republican donors.

And what if you don’t have the money or learning aptitude to acquire these new skills? Well, you are likely to be both unemployed and poor. And that mean tens of millions more Americans will not have the resources to stay out of poverty.

Perhaps CEOs and Congresscritters ought to remember that there are enough guns for every man, woman and child in this country, and many are in the hands of the very people who would be hurt most by automation.

We can’t hold back the tide of automation, but we can be smart about how we, as a country make the transition to fewer very highly-skilled workers and many narrowly-skilled workers. There are questions to ask, and solutions to craft for the post-2030 world.

How will America’s forgotten workers survive in a society that is led by people who don’t care if they have a job?

How will America’s forgotten workers survive if the political establishment tries to unwind the social safety net while celebrating the progress of technologies that cost jobs?

That could lead to torches and pitchforks.

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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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Why Trump Doesn’t Talk About Jobs Anymore

The Daily Escape:

(Bamboo after snowfall in January, near Kyoto. Photo by Hiroki Kondo)

During the 2016 presidential race, Trump campaigned on populist themes. Now that he is in office, it is clear that his policies will be neither populist nor popular, but strictly pro-business. The first clue was his choice of Cabinet members. Despite promising to “drain the swamp”, nobody realized that he could do that by making lobbyists pointless, as their clients are in charge of the government: The CEO of Exxon is head of foreign policy, a former Goldman Sachs partner heads Treasury, the daughter of a ship owner heads Transportation, a corporate raider is at Commerce, and so it goes.

Two months into his presidency, it is clear that the Trump economic policy is pro-business, not pro-jobs, or pro-little guy. If you still have doubt, the Republicans just rolled back a series of Obama-era worker safety regulations. The Senate voted 49-48 to kill a rule that required federal contractors to disclose and correct serious safety violations.

It’s clear that industry CEOs can’t believe their good luck, despite having opposed Trump at every step before the election. He’s only asking them for some vague promises to add new American jobs in return. Acting normal when they are interviewed after leaving a Trump meeting must be the hardest part of their day.

Trump hardly mentions jobs anymore, because he knows there aren’t many. His bogey man of weak domestic manufacturing needs to be addressed: China’s total exports in 2015 were $2.3 Trillion. The US total exports in 2015 were $1.5 Trillion, second in the world.

And the total value of US manufacturing in 2015 was $6.2 Trillion and we are doing it with fewer people than ever before. Today, US factories produce twice as much stuff as they did in 1984, but with one-third fewer workers.

Trump’s carrot and stick approach with US companies is theater. He is now industry’s number one value creator: When he commended Ford for deciding not to build a new plant in Mexico, the price of its shares rose 4.5%.

Softbank shares went up 6.2% after being praised by Trump for investing $50 billion in the US. Softbank’s motive was simple: Softbank owns Sprint, who would like to merge with T-Mobile. The authority to permit this merger lies with the new head of the FTC, yet to be named by Trump. Trump’s positive tweets feed Softbank’s hopes that the merger will be approved.

The Trump presidency has begun in the worst possible way for all who believed he would be an activist in new jobs creation for the lightly skilled, the people who overwhelmingly helped to elect him.

If the opposition wants to take Trump down, they should stop talking about Russia, and focus on Trump’s record with jobs creation. He made big promises – a job for everyone. It will be a long time (if ever) before a significant number of new manufacturing jobs materialize. This is true because Trump’s plan is to cut the fat out of government, cutting so many jobs that he might never add enough to make up for those he eliminates.

His plan is to use the freed-up funds to do something splashy with infrastructure. This would allow him to boast significant job creation, while downplaying the lost jobs in government. If Trump can figure out how to take unemployed, 50+ year old white males living in small town West Virginia, and make them productive, employed workers, then he’s a genius.

Capitalism hasn’t changed. A subset of oligarchs led by Trump have seized control of the US government. They are “nationalists”. Another subset, the “globalists” lost control of the state.

OTOH, the American people would have lost regardless of who won.

This is being repeated around the industrialized world, from Brexit, to Marine Le Pen’s right-wing challenge in France, to far right challenges to Angela Merkel in Germany.

The chaos described in Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism is engulfing the world.

In honor of those who still believe that Trumpy will solve the jobs equation, here is Alan Jackson with “Hard Hat and a Hammer”:

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

Sample Lyrics:

Lace-up boots and faded jeans
A homemade sandwich, and a half a jug of tea
Average Joe, average pay
Same ol’ end, same ol’ day

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Who Moved My Cheese?

Some may remember the book by this name by Spencer Johnson, published in 1998. The underlying message of the book is “Don’t waste time fighting against change: accept that bad stuff will happen to you for no good reason and just keep moving”.

This outdated and simplistic message remains the message of the Democratic Party to the White Working Class (WWC). Donald Trump’s message is different. He offers them nothing but a dream, to limit immigrants working in the US and to cut off the US market from China. And since the WWC knows that more of the same isn’t going to work, they’re voting for Trump.

It is useful to remember that since our “Most Favored Nation” trade deal with China in 1979, we have lost 35% of all manufacturing jobs in this country.

The WWC thinks that the Democrats have not been able to do anything to help them keep their jobs. The reasons for failure can be at least equally shared by the Parties, but since Dems have said for years that they are the party of the working class, they are getting the greater share of the blame for 35 years of no results.

There are two issues that dominate the discussion: Illegal immigration and transition assistance when jobs are lost. Regarding Immigration:

  • The WWC knows that Dems need the political support of the Hispanic community, and that requires Dems to show sympathy with illegal immigration.
  • The WWC believes that illegal immigration has put downward pressure on job opportunities and wages in the trades, in restaurant and hotel work, and in service sectors where immigrants may be overly represented.
  • That’s why Trump’s stance on immigration is so popular with the WWC. They probably know in their hearts that kicking all the Mexican workers out, or building a wall is ridiculous. But the Democrat’s position on immigration is diffuse, and is viewed as “soft” on illegals by the WWC.

Despite anything the Dems say about retraining or “transition assistance”, the WWC knows that someone on job transition assistance can’t earn enough to support a family. Other problems:

  • Identifying the fields/industries that workers can train in that will produce stable, living wage employment is an inexact science. So, demand for retrained workers is often less than the supply for any given job type.
  • Businesses have been very successful at shifting the burden (and cost) of training displaced workers from themselves to society. This is helped along by a corporate critique that public and not-for-profit private schools are failing to maintain standards, and they can’t churn out sufficient grads with qualifications that meet the corporations’ highly specific requirements.
  • Hence the continuing financial opportunities for for-profit technical schools and for-profit universities, (can you say Trump University?)

And Ford Motor Co. just gave Trump a big wet kiss:

Ford Motor Co. says it’s moving all of its US small car production to Mexico…The company is building a new $1.6 billion assembly plant in San Luis Potosi, Mexico. It will make small cars there starting in 2018.

What can the Pant Suit say about this that would go beyond what the Pant Load will certainly say? And if she did, would WWC people believe her?

On the macro level, our current capitalism has turned to technology to produce much of what is needed with far less human labor input than ever before. That leaves job growth (and job opportunity) in only the low-skilled, low-paid “service” jobs; or in highly advanced, specialized jobs requiring very advanced training/skills/talent.

This means that the dogma of Endless Economic Growth, which we have accepted since the Industrial Revolution, is dead. Along with killing that, we need to kill off the current organizing principle of our economic system, where humans exist solely to fulfill the needs of businesses.

Work helps us find our place in society. It is something that we see as having an inherent value, something that fills a basic human need, similar to food and shelter. But our current economic system no longer recognizes that, and our economy provides little opportunity for fulfilling that basic need for a large portion of American citizens, including many in the WWC.

The idea of government deploying under-utilized labor to build and repair our infrastructure, or to re-tool our country to reduce carbon emissions would be a step that might return the WWC to jobs and a place in society. It would cost a ton.

But the idea that the government would create demand is too socialist for most politicians to accept, despite the fact that the rest of the tools just haven’t worked in 35+ years.

Tell me again why Bernie Sanders was a terrible choice.

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More Political Lessons From Brexit

There is a neoliberal aspect to Brexit that has many Brits in the 1% quietly (and tentatively) quite happy. Fraser Nelson, editor of the Spectator and a columnist for the Daily Telegraph, writing in the WSJ, said the Brexiteers:

…think the vote for Brexit was about liberty and free trade, and about trying to manage globalization better than the EU has been doing from Brussels.

Neoliberalism at its finest. You could substitute “No Obama” for “Brexit”, and “Washington” for “Brussels”, and think it was the GOP talking.

Mr. Nelson says that a major problem was that the EU’s centralized, command-type structure makes local issues difficult to manage. He says that regulations issued at the European level, rules promulgated by officials whose names Brits didn’t know, people they never elected and cannot remove from office, became law in the UK. More from Mr. Fraser: (emphasis and brackets by the Wrongologist)

Mr. Cameron has been trying to explain this to Angela Merkel…He once regaled the German chancellor with a pre-dinner PowerPoint presentation to explain his whole referendum idea. Public support for keeping Britain within the EU was collapsing, he warned, but a renegotiation of its terms would save Britain’s membership…Mr. Cameron was sent away with a renegotiation barely worthy of the name. It was a fatal mistake [by the EU] not nearly enough to help Mr. Cameron shift the terms of a debate he was already losing.

The EU took a gamble: That the Brits would not vote to leave. A better deal—perhaps aimed at allowing the UK more control over immigration, a top public concern in Britain—might have stopped Brexit. But the absence of a deal sent a clear message: The EU isn’t interested in reform.

The EU apparently needs fixing, but it won’t be the UK who does it. Cameron tried in a lukewarm way to fix Europe a little around the edges, and failed. A final point from Mr. Fraser:

The question is not whether to work with Europe but how to work with Europe. Alliances work best when they are coalitions of the willing. The EU has become a coalition of the unwilling, the place where the finest multilateral ambitions go to die.

Perhaps. It IS clear that not all regulations are created equal, some are inefficient, and some are just stupid. But, a business environment with fewer government regulations is the wet dream of most business owners, while it often harms consumers. It is also true that the Brexit supporters were able to conflate in the minds of voters all the discontent with UK austerity, benefit cuts, poor quality job creation and wage stagnation along with the EU’s hegemony, into a big ball of emotion.

And it worked.

The inside-the-bubble UK neoliberal view is that the EU was the problem, and the British voters solved that. America doesn’t have an analogue. We could leave NAFTA, but that has none of the earth-shaking possibilities. We could fail to pass the TPP. That would be a yuuge anti-neoliberal event.

There is an economic malaise in blue collar UK. Once an industrial powerhouse, it has become service driven, with finance and lawyering representing a significant portion of its economy. Sounds just like America in 2016.

Let’s link all of this up with our domestic political economy:

  • Income inequality has grown in the US since at least the 1980s.
  • Real median income is the same as in 1996.
  • Our Labor Participation Rate (the share of American civilians over the age of 16 who are working or looking for a job) is about where it was in the 1970s.
  • Despite a rosy headline unemployment rate of 4.7% (which counts only people without work seeking full-time employment), the U-6 rate (includes discouraged workers and all marginally attached workers, plus those workers who are part-time purely for economic reasons) is much higher at 9.7%. In human terms, that is 15.3 million souls who need a job.

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton both see these things. The candidate who convinces voters that s/he will really address them will win.

Trump is correct when he says if there are millions out of work, how can we permit immigration? He wrongly focuses on Mexicans, but he’s right: We need fewer people pursuing the fewer jobs we will have until at least until 2025, when finally, all the Baby Boomers retire.

America is in a class war, but it’s the working class versus the middle class rather than workers versus billionaires, as Bernie talks about. Joe Six-pack doesn’t hate the billionaire class. Therefore, Trump is acceptable.

The Pandering Pant Load sees this, and has moved to exploit their anger.

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The Pant Suit vs. the Pant Load – Jobs, Part Infinity

We are in a time when a presidential candidate’s personality counts for more than the candidate’s policies. Candidates obfuscate on most policy issues and the media lets them get away with absolutely outrageous declarations of near-facts or outright half-truths.

One policy we must make them nail down explicitly is their jobs policy.

The key to making America great again is adding more jobs. Wrongo is a pest on this subject, but without more jobs, growth in GDP is harder to achieve. Tax revenues are more difficult to grow. People who are idle get into trouble.

The Pant Suit and the Pant Load know this, so they will talk from here to November about adding manufacturing jobs back to cities that lost them starting in the 1970’s. Those jobs are never coming back, but both of them are working hard to convince you they can do it. Consider this, from Parallel Narratives:

We’re now being told by folks who know better that all we need to do to bring those jobs back, to resurrect a future we can believe in, or make America great again, is to elect the outsider politician who is not beholden to elite interests like banks, CEOs and politicians. Unfortunately, that horse has left the barn, those jobs are gone for good…

A great example of a politician braying the “I can bring jobs back” mantra was in Sunday’s NYT business section’s column, “Preoccupations. In it, a young couple had the option to work from home, so they moved from Austin, TX, that hot-bed of tech, to South Portland ME, not so techie. They work for two different firms from two home offices. Then, they are invited to attend a funds-raiser for a gubernatorial candidate: (emphasis by the Wrongologist)

The candidate raising campaign funds was a hard-working lawyer who seemed genuinely well meaning, but no one had told him that his economic platform of protecting manufacturing jobs and Maine’s traditional industries wasn’t going to fly with an audience of health care professionals, programmers, web designers and researchers…We muttered to each other that this guy didn’t have a place in his platform for people like us, many of whom worked for employers in other states. Our checkbooks stayed in our pockets.

If you hear this kind of BS from the Pant Suit or the Pant Load, your checkbook should also remain hidden.

While the low-wage jobs problem has been around for more than 40 years, America’s politicians are still peddling the same solutions. In fact, a new analysis from the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) released Monday shows that only 88% of men ages 25 to 54 are participating in the US workforce. The CEA reports that the US has the third-lowest labor-force participation rate for “prime-age men” among the world’s developed countries. We have done so well that, on a percentage basis, Greece, Slovenia and Turkey all have more men working than the US does. Greece! The decline is concentrated among less educated. Here is a chart:

Male Labor Force Part by Edu

More than 95% of men used to work in 1964, regardless of their educational attainment. Today, you better have at least a bachelor’s degree if you want to be sure you will get a job.  But it is worse than that. The CEA said:

In recent decades, less-educated Americans have suffered a reduction in their wages relative to other groups. From 1975 until 2014, relative wages for those with a high school degree fell from over 80% of the amount earned by workers with at least a college degree to less than 60%.

Clinton and Trump would have you believe that the problem is bad trade deals with China, the TPP, or immigration. Trump in particular, is saying that the political elites have knowingly caused this all at the expense of the American worker. There is a modicum of truth to that, but it is the American corporation and the American tax code that is closing out US jobs, and hammering the middle class. American corporations now pay about 11% of our total US taxes, down from about 30% of US taxes in 1960, as jobs (and markets) have moved abroad.

What are the Pant Suit and/or the Pant Load going to do in the face of advancing automation now facing us not just in manufacturing, but also in the service and knowledge industries?

It is time to make the candidates talk about this on the campaign trail.

The basic policy choice we have is to put people to work, or to continue to allow the profit motive to dominate. If the profit motive remains supreme, we will continue our relentless drive to reduce labor costs — by eliminating jobs, or by paying workers less for the same work.

To date, our leaders have chosen the latter path, and we have reaped the results. We have become a land of spreadsheets and flags.

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More Questions for The Pant Suit and the Pant Load

Yesterday, Wrongo broke the bad news about the May job report. Exactly one year ago, Wrongo wrote “Technology Isn’t Creating Enough Middle Class Jobs.” That article spoke about how deploying new technologies continues to cost more and more mid-skilled jobs.

With low interest rates, the cost of capital investments have fallen relative to the cost of labor, and businesses have rushed to replace workers with technology. Because of technology, since the mid-1970s capital and labor have become more substitutable, and it’s a major global trend. Some proof of this is in the article in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, where  Loukas Karabarbounis and Brent Neiman from the University of Chicago found that the share of income going to workers has been declining around the world.

As Brad Delong, economist at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote recently, throughout most of human history, every new machine that took the job once performed by a person’s hands and muscles increased the demand for complementary human skills — like those performed by eyes, ears or brains.

This is no longer true. From Wrongo’s June, 2015 column:

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.

These firms have had a huge impact on society, but the total jobs they have created are only a rounding error in our economy.

As the idea sinks in that human workers may be less necessary than in the past, what happens if the job market stops providing a living wage for millions of Americans?

How will people afford to pay the rent? What will happen if the bottom quartile of workers in the US simply can’t find a job at a wage that could cover the cost of basic staples?

What if smart machines took out the lawyers and bankers? Bloomberg is reporting that job loss is on the way for bankers. Banks are racing to remake themselves as digital companies to cut costs. In other words, they’re preparing for the day that machines take over more of what used to be the sole province of humans: knowledge work. From Bloomberg:

State Street had 32,356 people on the payroll last year. About one of every five will be automated out of a job by 2020, according to Rogers. What the bank is doing presages broader changes about to sweep across the industry. A report in March by Citigroup…said that more than 1.8 million US and European bank workers could lose their jobs within 10 years.

They close by saying that Wall Street will go on—but without as many suits.

Some estimates say that automation could cost half of all current jobs in the next 20 years. The OECD thinks the number is smaller. They argued last month that lots of tasks were hard to automate, like face-to-face interaction with customers. They concluded that only 9% of American workers faced a high risk of being replaced by an automaton.

9% of today’s American workforce equals 13.6 million jobs. It just took us seven years to gain 14.5 million jobs, most of which were contractors and temp jobs.

The prognosis for many medium and some higher-skilled workers appears grim.

The corporatists have seen these forecasts. It explains 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.

So, these are today’s questions for the Pant Suit and the Pant Load, and their answers need to be specific:

  • Where will the household’s income come from when jobs alone can’t provide it?
  • How will we deal with large-scale inequality that requires large-scale redistribution?
  • Is it time to think about how to provide more income that isn’t directly tied to a job?

From Eduardo Porter:

For large categories of workers, wages are already inadequate. Many are withdrawing from the labor force altogether. In the 1960s, one in 20 men between 25 and 54 were not working. Today it’s three in 20. Although the population is generally healthier than it was in the 1960s; work is almost uniformly less demanding. Still, more workers are on disability.

The issue is not technology, or robots, or restoring our manufacturing base. It isn’t better skills, or technology or outsourcing. We have too many people chasing too few good jobs.

This is why we need the presidential candidates to speak the truth about job creation in America.

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The Pant Suit vs. the Pant Load – Jobs

The 90% know they’ve gotten the short end of the stick for way too long. Now, with the bad May jobs report that came out last Friday, there is concern that our seven-year recovery, which has not helped everyone, may not last a lot longer.

So, a quick review of the numbers: The BLS reported that the economy had added 38,000 jobs in May, the lowest since September, 2010. Furthermore, the April job gains of 160,000 were cut by 37,000, while the March job gains of 208,000 were cut by 22,000.

So, with 59,000 jobs revised away, and with only 38,000 jobs “created” in May, the net total in today’s report was a net loss of 21,000 jobs in the last 3 months. We haven’t seen this since the 2008 Financial Crisis. And the labor participation rate dropped for the second month in a row, to 62.6%, which doesn’t bode well for the future either.

But the true bad news was that the number of temporary jobs also fell by 21,000. Temporary employment is a predictor of future employment trends, both on the way up, and on the way down.

The temporary-help sector has been the best thing about the economy; we reported in March that more than 100% of the jobs created in the US since 2005 were temp or contracting jobs. The temporary jobs sector peaked in December 2015 at 2.94 million, and has lost 63,800 jobs since then:

Temp Jobs 2006-2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wolf Richter thinks that the decline in temporary workers isn’t just a one-month statistical blip, but a five-month trend, and that the sector has become a warning sign that the labor market could be heading towards deeper trouble. From Richter:

This also happened in 2007, when the temporary help sector started shedding jobs even as the overall economy was still adding jobs until right up to the official beginning of the Great Recession. And it happened in 2000, before the 2001 recession kicked in.

We lost nearly 8 million jobs in the Great Recession. Since 2009, the economy has added 14.5 million new jobs. But if we subtract the 8 million jobs lost during the recession, our net job growth was 6 million added, while our population grew by 16.5 million.

Now, not all of the growth in population is a person currently looking for a job. The big contributors are immigrants (both legal and otherwise), and births. Most of the immigrants want work, but they are the smaller fraction of our population growth, while infants, toddlers, and young children do not need access to employment just yet. The Boomers are trying to stay employed and not retire, while Millennials have moved into the workforce.

All of these groups are jostling for jobs. If US job growth can’t accommodate them, their individual situations will get worse, even while the overall numbers might look acceptable on paper.

So the questions for the Pant Suit and the Pant Load are:

  • Do they think that the lack of GDP growth and our lack of jobs growth is politically sustainable? How long could it go on without seeing pitchforks in the streets?
  • Where are the jobs going to come from?
  • What will they do if the jobs fail to materialize?

Hillary Clinton has the bigger problem, since she is presenting herself as the heir of Obama’s (and earlier, Bill Clinton’s) economic policies. She has to play defense on the economy. Trump can jump on the bad data, saying he can fix it, and many people will accept that uncritically.

But don’t count on hearing either candidate say anything that you think is useful. They will look for, and fail to find, “market” solutions to this dilemma created by the “market.”

And market solutions are what they will tell us we must wait for.

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100% of Jobs Created Since 2005 Were For Contractors or Temps

And that’s why so many Americans are scared. Neil Irwin in the NYT’s Upshot brought us the bad news that 9.4 million new jobs created during the period from 2005-2015 were temp jobs or contracting jobs.

What’s worse is that those jobs add up to more than 100% of the jobs created by the US economy during that period. That means there was an overall decline of about 400,000 in people working as employees for an American corporation during those 10 years.

The news is based on a study by labor economists Lawrence F. Katz of Harvard and Alan B. Krueger of Princeton that found that the percentage of workers in “alternative work arrangements” — including working for temporary help agencies, as independent contractors, for contract firms, or on-call — was 15.8% of total employment in 2015, up from 10.1% a decade earlier. More from Irwin:

By contrast, from 1995 to 2005, the proportion had edged up only slightly, to 10.1% from 9.3%. (The data are based on a person’s main job, so someone with a full-time position who does freelance work on the side would count as a conventional employee.)

This raises bigger questions about how employers managed to shift much the burden of providing our social safety net to workers, and about the economic and technological forces driving the shift.

The change has profound implications for social insurance. More so than in many advanced countries, corporations in the US carry a large share of the burden of providing their workers with health insurance and paid medical leave when employees are sick. US corporate employers pay for workers’ compensation insurance, and for unemployment insurance benefits for those who are laid off.

These are part of the government-sponsored safety net in other countries.

In addition, US employers help fund their workers’ retirement, formerly, through pensions, but now more commonly, through 401(k) plans. These are also part of the government safety net elsewhere.

While the Affordable Care Act has made it easier for independent contractors to get insurance, there’s little doubt that these workers are now carrying more of the financial burden of protecting themselves from misfortune than they would have shouldered with a more traditional company-employee relationship.

Perhaps most significant, the implicit contract between an employer and an employee is that there is a relatively high bar for firing employees. If the economy turns down or business slows, a contract worker is far more likely to be out of a job or out of the job faster, than a conventional employee.

This is a large factor in the growing job insecurity we see since the Great Recession.

Moreover, the study shows it was likely that companies caused this shift in terms of employment, not employees who were looking for more freedom and flexibility. If 2005 to 2015 had been a period when workers had a lot of power in the job market that might have been plausible, but it wasn’t. More from Irwin:

The unemployment rate was above 7% for nearly half of the period, from the end of 2008 to late 2013. Employers had the upper hand. That suggests it’s more likely that employers were driving the shift to these alternate arrangements.

So, companies took advantage of the weak job market since the Great Recession. In addition, improvements in technology have enabled the shift. New technology allows remote measurement of how successful each worker is, regardless of their location, and it allows the employer to monitor contractor progress, giving the company the power it needs to move to contracting, or to a temp workforce.

Making employees into contractors benefits only the employers, not the workers, and it may help explain the disconnect between the anger and insecurity we see on the 2016 presidential campaign trail, and the clearly positive employment and economic news we’ve seen each month for the past few years.

Both are true, and that has profound implications, both politically and economically, for the next 10 years. A big question for the next decade is whether the rise in temp employment was a one-time shift, or whether it will continue in the years ahead, even in a tightening labor market.

At risk is whether employer-provided social insurance that has been a backbone of the 20th-century American middle class economy will still be with us in the 21st century.

And if the shift to contracting continues,and we become more of a 1099 nation,  it is a certainty that we will see a growing populist, anti-corporate electorate.

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Robots Are Coming For Your Job

Americans worry that robots could make their jobs irrelevant. A new study shows that they may be correct. The report, Technology at Work v 2.0: The Future Is Not What It Used to Be, was conducted at University of Oxford in association with Citibank. Researchers Carl Frey and Mike Osborne, co-directors of the Oxford Martin Programme on Technology and Employment, found that 47% of US jobs are at risk of automation in the next two decades.

They also found that the city where you live may influence the risk of your work being automated. Among metro areas, Boston faces the lowest percentage of jobs likely to be automated, while Fresno, Calif., faces the highest. The cities that fared best in the survey have a cluster of skilled jobs, typically because they have developed a strong tech sector. Boston, for instance, which is home to a number of top universities and has many well educated residents, has become a global technology hub, transitioning successfully from its roots as a shipping center and manufacturing economy to a tech/finance center.

Here are the best/worst rankings:

FireShot Screen Capture #079 - Cities at risk of automation-page-001

Even in cities with the lowest percentage of jobs at risk of automation, nearly 40% of jobs could disappear because of technological innovation, the report finds. So how many workers are we talking about? The BLS reports that in December, 2015 our working population was 149.9 million; 40% of that number would be 60 million people unemployed in the next 20 years. Perhaps it won’t be that bad, maybe 20-30 million jobs will replace the approximately 60 million we stand to lose.

No politician will be able to paint a happy face on THAT.

Skeptics will say not to worry, that the economy has always adapted over time, and created new kinds of jobs. The classic example they use is agriculture. In the 1800s, 80% of the US labor force worked on farms. Today it’s 2%. Obviously, mechanization didn’t destroy the economy; it made it better. Food is now really cheap compared to what it used to cost, and as a result, people have money to spend on other things and they’ve transitioned to jobs in other areas.

But, the agricultural revolution was about specialized equipment that couldn’t be transferred to other industries. You couldn’t take farm machinery and have it flip hamburgers. Information technology is totally different. It’s a broad-based general purpose technology.

There just won’t be new jobs available for all these displaced workers.

There will certainly be many new industries, (think nanotechnology and synthetic biology), and those jobs will be highly paid. But they won’t employ many people. They’ll use lots of technology, rely on big computing centers, and be heavily automated.

Think about what Facebook and Twitter have added to the jobs economy: They are two of our very “best” success stories, and they only employ 8,100 workers. They have had a huge impact on society, and have created significant value for their owners, but the total jobs they have created are only a rounding error in the US economy.

Much of what we buy is produced in factories increasingly run with robots, and maintained and operated by small cadres of engineers. Also, keep in mind that globally, some 3 billion people are already looking for work and the vast majority are willing to work for less than the average American.

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 of our medium and some higher-skilled workers appears grim.

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 remains 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.

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 job growth in the developed world.

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