Tag Archives: employment

File Under: We Ain’t Seen Nuthin’ Yet…

A business school colleague of mine recently drew my attention to an article predicting how our lives will change in the next twenty years.

The changes that are predicted are all consequences of technology–mostly existing technology– and they are entirely plausible. If even half of them come to pass, however, we are likely to experience an economic and social upheaval that will far surpass the dislocations of the industrial revolution.

A few of those predictions:

  • Software will disrupt most traditional industries within the next 5-10 years. (We already see this with retailing.)
  •  Online legal advice (already widely available on the internet) will reduce the number of lawyers by 90%–only specialists will remain.
  • Self driving cars will be available in 2018;  by 2020, the entire auto industry will begin to be disrupted. People won’t own personal vehicles; they’ll call a car on the phone, it will show up and drive to the specified destination. (“You will not need to park it, you only pay for the driven distance and can be productive while driving. Our kids will never get a driver’s licence and will never own a car.”) The implications are enormous: fewer accidents will reduce the need for insurance–and the companies that sell it; many car companies will go bankrupt, millions of jobs (truck drivers, taxi drivers, etc.) will disappear. Land used for parking will be redeveloped. There’s much more.
  • Electricity will become incredibly cheap and clean: We will see the true impact of solar production, which has “been on an exponential curve for 30 years.”
  • Companies will introduce a medical device (called the “Tricorder” from Star Trek) that works with your phone, takes your retina scan and your blood sample and analyzes your breath.  It will then analyze 54 biomarkers that identify nearly any disease. It will be inexpensive enough to give everyone on the planet access to world-class medical analysis, nearly for free.
  • 3D printing will be ubiquitous. The price of the cheapest 3D printer went from $18,000 to $400 within 10 years, and over that same timeframe it became 100 times faster. Major shoe companies have already started 3D printing shoes; spare airplane parts are already 3D printed in remote airports, and the space station now has a printer that eliminates the need to stockpile large amount of spare parts as before. The Chinese have already 3D printed/built a 6-story office building.  By 2027, 10% of everything that’s being produced will be 3D printed.

These are just a few of the changes the article lists–there are many more.

It is difficult to envision the combined impact of these technologies; the author predicts that 70-80% of today’s jobs will disappear in the next 20 years. There will be new ones, of course, but it is unlikely that there will be enough new jobs to replace those going the way of the dinosaurs.

During my own lifetime, the pace of change has steadily accelerated. Much of the social and economic dysfunction we are currently experiencing is a direct outgrowth of that change–not just the economic stresses involved, but the disorientation people suffer as cultural attitudes shift and expectations about their future lives are upended.

If there is one thing that’s clear, it is that our current political system is not capable of meeting the challenges we will face. How will ideologues like Paul Ryan and those like him–lawmakers who think unemployed folks can just “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps”– react to massive joblessness? What about the “alt-right” bigots who justify their anti-immigrant rhetoric with the claim that the newcomers are taking American jobs? What will those on the left do when they can no longer blame job losses on outsourcing and trade? Where will all these culture warriors turn without their overly-simplified, convenient culprits? And who will they turn on?

And a far, far more important question: how will the fortunate remnant–the still-employed, highly skilled specialists–respond to the needs of the suddenly un- and under-employed? What policy interventions will they support? What sort of social contract will they recognize?

Twenty years isn’t a long time. It’s practically tomorrow.

Sauce for the Goose

Evidently, sauce for the goose is not sauce for the gander.

We’ve become accustomed to the breast-beating and recriminations that accompany decisions by American businesses to manufacture goods in other countries, or to move existing operations overseas. In the latter case, the loss of jobs is a genuine “hit” and efforts to retain them are understandable–although, as we’ve seen with Trump’s Carrier deal, often costly and counterproductive.

We almost never hear about the other side of the equation, however. Indiana, in particular, has benefited mightily from outsourcing decisions made by foreign companies. According to the Indiana Business Research Center at Indiana University, in 2015, Indiana had 152,700 workers employed by foreign-owned firms. (Think of the Honda plant in Greensburg, the Isuzu plant in Lafayette, etc.) Of the jobs created by foreign companies located in Indiana, 97,900 were manufacturing jobs that accounted for 3.1 percent of the state’s private employment.

Similarly, automation–not trade– accounts for most of the job losses in the United States. Trade actually creates jobs (although often the jobs created are different from those that are lost, and that does make for winners and losers). According to a January 2010 report from the Business Roundtable, at that time, 761,500 jobs in Indiana depended on trade.

In 2008, 20.5 percent of jobs in Indiana depended on trade, up from 10.0 percent in 1992. Indiana’s trade-related employment grew more than five times faster than total employment from 2004 to 2008.

This is not to minimize the issues raised by job losses; the impact on workers who find themselves unemployed–and often, due to age or lack of other marketable skills, unemployable–is very real. The impact on communities when a major employer closes or downsizes are equally real, and challenging. But addressing the consequences requires an accurate understanding of the causes.

To use a medical analogy, prescribing the proper remedy requires a correct diagnosis of the disease being treated.

The globalization of the economy has proceeded too far to be undone, even if we wanted to mount a retreat. History teaches us–or should teach us–that erecting trade barriers, punishing companies with tariffs on their foreign operations, and the other measures Trump has threatened–simply invite retaliation that hurts everyone.

It’s comforting to have a target for our economic frustrations, a “bumper sticker” solution to a problem. Unfortunately, modern life is more complicated than such “solutions” recognize. Automation has multiple virtues, but it does cause troubling job losses. There are good trade agreements and bad ones. Losing jobs as a result of American outsourcing is painful; gaining jobs as a result of Japanese or Canadian or British outsourcing is gratifying.

The world is a complicated place.



Connecting More Dots

I’ve often argued that universal healthcare–Medicare for All–would spark an outpouring of entrepreneurship. If you want to open a shop, or go into the widget-making business, one significant barrier to doing so is the need to offer (very expensive) health insurance to your employees. Of course, you could decide not to provide that benefit, but you wouldn’t be very competitive in the market for good workers.

I understand, dimly, the historical reasons why the U.S. linked employment to health care, but it has always seemed to be a bad idea. What about people who don’t/can’t work? What about independent contractors? Why should an employer have to assume the costs–and risks–of employees’ health? Other countries do not couple jobs and insurance in this way–health insurance is provided as part of the social safety net, and the costs are spread much more widely.

Yesterday, in a Facebook post, a friend of mine explained why medical insurance provided through government–decoupled from employment–would boost the economy and make American businesses more competitive.

As he noted in his post, when you buy a product, all the costs of creating that product are reflected in the price: production, workers’ wages and benefits, materials. Most of the nations with whom we trade big-ticket items have had government-sponsored health care for decades, and at far lower cost. As a result, Saab and Mercedes, among others, are able to compete unfairly with American-made autos whose prices include a hefty private-sector health care premium. (I’ve seen numbers suggesting that this was one of the reasons GM and Chrysler went bankrupt; healthcare coverage for current and retired employees added over 2000 to the average price of their cars.)

If we really cared about keeping U.S. businesses competitive–and the health insurance system comprehensible–we’d have Medicare for All, or at least for anyone who wanted it.  Given our political environment, and the lobbying clout of Big Insurance and Big Pharma, that was never in the cards.

Obamacare was (barely) politically feasible because it was originally the Republican alternative. With all its warts, it’s a step in the right direction, but if we want America to remain competitive,  we will eventually need to separate access to health insurance from the vagaries of employment.

Conspiracy Theories

I’m not much for conspiracy theories.

In my long-ago days in City Hall,   we often encountered folks–sometimes they were neighborhood activists, sometimes representatives of organizations aggrieved about some action–who were absolutely convinced that city officials had cleverly and surreptiously implemented a plan to screw them. What they didn’t understand was that we lacked the cunning and imagination needed to carry out the nefarious plots they attributed to us. As a former co-worker used to say,  incompetence explained so much more than conspiracy.

But just because most accusations of intentional conspiracies tend to come from paranoid folks doesn’t mean that  bad behavior is never intentional.  (As the old saying goes, even paranoids have enemies.)

Which brings me to an unsettling theory advanced by Robert Reich in a recent blog post.

Robert Reich, as most readers know,  was Secretary of Labor in the Clinton Administration. He now teaches at Berkeley. His politics tend to be considerably to the left of mine; that said, however, his is a credible and very respectable voice, and he is not given to conspiracy theories.

Reich writes about persistently high unemployment, and the unwillingness of Congressional Republicans to do anything about it. These are facts. Unemployment remains high, and the House GOP remains stubbornly opposed to even the most reasonable measures to address that problem. The question is, why? Reich dismisses the notion that Republican obstinacy is entirely due to hatred of President Obama (aka the black guy in the White House).

First, high unemployment keeps wages down. Workers who are worried about losing their jobs settle for whatever they can get — which is why hourly earnings keep dropping. The median wage is now 4 percent lower than it was at the start of the recovery. Low wages help boost corporate profits, thereby keeping the regressives’ corporate sponsors happy.

Second, high unemployment fuels the bull market on Wall Street. That’s because the Fed is committed to buying long-term bonds as long as unemployment remains high. This keeps bond yields low and pushes investors into equities — which helps boosts executive pay and Wall Street commissions, thereby keeping regressives’ financial sponsors happy.

Third, high unemployment keeps most Americans economically fearful and financially insecure. This sets them up to believe regressive lies — that their biggest worry should be that “big government” will tax away the little they have and give it to “undeserving” minorities; that they should support low taxes on corporations and wealthy “job creators;” and that new immigrants threaten their jobs.

I suppose this theory doesn’t really amount to a conspiracy, but it does suggest that the GOPs blocking maneuvers are prompted by actual reasons, no matter how much their behavior resembles a two-year-old’s tantrum.

If Reich is correct–and I’m still dubious–members of the House GOP are both smarter and much more despicable than I had previously imagined.

A Bigger Pie

I think it was Mark Twain who said “It isn’t what you don’t know that hurts you–it’s what you know for certain that just ain’t so.”

Political debate these days is awash with “facts” that “just ain’t so.” One of those “facts” is that immigrants take jobs from Americans, and that raising the number of foreign-born people we allow to enter the country legally each year would worsen unemployment. A recent study by the Fiscal Policy Institute tells a very different story.

The Institute looked at incorporation figures and determined that immigrants own 18% of all small businesses in the U.S. In other words, more than one in six small businesses is owned by an immigrant. Those businesses employ an estimated 4.7 million workers, and generate some $776 billion dollars in revenue.

That immigrants gravitate to ownership shouldn’t surprise us. You have to be a risk taker to leave the place of your birth and move to a foreign country. Anti-immigrant attitudes make it more difficult for educated and skilled immigrants to find management and professional positions with American-owned firms. So, disproportionately, immigrants start their own small businesses, and small businesses are far and away the largest generators of employment. Small businesses–not massive corporations–are the real “job creators.”

The notion that immigration slows job growth is rooted in a “zero sum” worldview, the belief that the economy is like a pie. In that view, there is a fixed amount of pie, and if you get a bigger slice, mine will be smaller–if an immigrant gets a job, that’s one job fewer for Americans.

The virtue of capitalism is that it encourages people to bake more pie. And that is precisely what immigrants are doing.

Somehow, I doubt that this evidence will make much difference to those who want to raise the gangplank and keep those “others” out. What we know that “just ain’t so” keeps getting in the way of acting in our own best interests.