My Book on the Future of Work is now Available for Your Enjoyment

The Future of Work in the Inclusive World Economy is posted to my website.  Click this link to view and print the book in PDF format: https://iweworkfutures.org/book-download/.

The timing for posting my book is not bad.  Gallup just published a major study of the slowdown in economic growth in the U.S., “U.S. Economy: No Recovery”,  and Robert J. Gordon’s book, The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living since the Civil War, has been getting lots of attention.  Yet, Donald Trump is vowing to buck the U.S. economic growth slowdown and a lot of economists will try to help him do it.  Elsewhere in the world, new leaders are making the same promises.  We have not had such a real world battle of economic policy ideas in a very long time.

A Return to Full Employment With Mixed Signals: This Time is Different for the World of Employment

SOURCE ITEMS

Chart-Employed Full Time Trend

St. Louis Federal Reserve, Accessed December 13, 2015.

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The Netherlands seems to be undergoing a sort of industrial revolution in reverse, with jobs moving from factories to homes. The Dutch labor market has the highest concentration of part-time and freelance workers in Europe, with nearly 50% of all Dutch workers, and 62% of young workers, engaged in part-time employment – a luxury afforded to them by the country’s relatively high hourly wages.

Sami Mahroum and Elif Bascavusoglu-Moreau, Is Jobless Growth Inevitable? Project Syndicate, March 25, 2015. Accessed December 13, 2015.

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Inequality, exclusion, and duality became more marked in countries where skills were poorly distributed and many services approximated the textbook “ideal” of spot markets. The United States, where many workers are forced to hold multiple jobs in order to make an adequate living, remains the canonical example of this model.

Dani Rodrik, The Evolution of Work, Project Syndicate, December 9, 2015. Accessed December 13, 2015.

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Forced labor permeates supply chains that stretch across the globe, from remote farms in Africa and the seas off Southeast Asia to supermarkets in America and Europe. Almost 21 million people are enslaved for profit worldwide, the UN says, providing $150 billion in illicit revenue every year.

Erik Larson, These Lawyers Want Slave Labor Warnings on Your Cat Food, Bloomberg, December 10, 2015. Accessed December 13, 2015.

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Over all, the Labor Department data painted a picture of an economy that is growing steadily and creating jobs at a healthy pace, even as wage gains remain subdued and many Americans are still stuck on the sidelines of the recovery.

Nelson D. Schwartz, Robust Jobs Report All but Guarantees Fed Will Raise Rates, New York Times, December 4, 2015. Accessed December 13, 2015.

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In reality, the 35-hour workweek has become mostly symbolic, because a multitude of loopholes allow companies to work around the law. French employees work an average of 40.5 hours a week — more than the 40-hour average in the European Union — and have high productivity.

Liz Alderman, Smart Car Standoff Pits Social Progress Against Global Competition, New York Times, December 12, 2015. Accessed December 13, 2015.

COMMENTS

A question emerged after 2008 that unsettled the field of economics and is still unanswered: is this time different? Was the financial crisis of 2008 an economic crisis of a unique kind in the history of capitalism; or was it just a very severe version of a routine kind of economic crisis?

This phrase gained currency from the publication of the book, This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly, by Carmen Reinhart Kenneth Rogoff.[1] They argue that the financial crisis of 2008 is not different. But others disagree.

In a 2012 article, Lawrence King et al make the argument that this time is different because it is the result of a level of financial liberalization and a degree of free market economics that did not exist before the 1970s.[2]

A few of our world’s best and brightest economists expressed their uncertainty and sense that this time is different in this way:

“As a world economic crisis developed in 2008 and lasted longer than most economists predicted, it became increasingly clear that beliefs about macroeconomics and macroeconomic policy needed to be thoroughly examined. … we knew that we had entered a brave new world…”[3]

Different Seems More Likely Than the Same

After 2008 optimism about a return to robust economic growth has been the rule. But actual economic growth has not rewarded that optimism. A few economists have been trying to explain this poor record.

Robert J. Gordon, professor of economics at Northwestern University, recently asserted that “It is time to raise basic questions about the process of economic growth, especially the assumption – nearly universal since Solow’s seminal contributions of the 1950s (Solow 1956) – that economic growth is a continuous process that will persist forever.” He went on to propose that U.S. economic growth may grind to a halt because the kinds of technological innovations that drove rapid U.S. economic growth are not on the horizon.[4]

Professor Gordon was speaking only about the U.S., but the logic would apply to all of the world’s affluent nations.  Moreover, the World Bank and other global institutions have repeatedly warned of below par levels of global economic growth, in some cases for years to come.

Weighing anecdotal evidence, some discernible trends, and expert opinion, it seems reasonable to conclude that this time is different for economic growth.

That means this time is almost certainly different for the world of employment.

A Different World of Employment

In mainstream theories of economic development, the future of work is directly tied to the future of economic growth. Economic growth is the engine that pushes us toward the ever expanding prosperity goals that make for widespread affluence: high profits, high wages, and full employment. When economic growth slows down something has to give in the world of employment.  We are trapped in a long period of slow economic growth, so the employment trends of the past cannot continue.

We can be fairly certain that workers in the U.S. and other affluent nations will not experience the kind of return to full employment with high wage conditions we have known in the past. In the context of global competition and slow economic growth,  the world’s economic and political leaders are pressing hard to cap and reduce wage bills at all levels of employment. We have entered into an era of global degradation of employment.

In affluent nations they  are forcing working people to choose between fewer jobs and fewer hours at higher compensation levels or more jobs and more hours with lower wages and less valuable benefits.  In the rest of the world, where such a choice has seldom existed in any meaningful sense,  global competition and slow economic growth mean an end to the dream of jobs that will deliver better lives.  Everywhere, employment rights and workplace protections are falling away.

What we don’t know quite yet is how the ongoing degradation of the world of employment will play out in national and global politics. At the moment it appears that the world’s political and economic leaders have chosen to promote a free-for-all battle struggle among working people by defining rights to crumbs from the capitalist table using the old reactionary lines of difference – race, ethnicity, gender, religion, and nation. And, at the moment, too many workers in affluent nations are falling into this trap, as shown by the rise of Trumpism in the U.S., the growth of reactionary movements across Europe, and the destruction of governing institutions that embody common interests, and the rise of militaristic movements intent on redrawing national boundaries.

Intentionally engendering antagonisms can’t solve the fundamental problems for global economic growth, so the right wing policies can have only one ultimate outcome – a global catastrophe in multiple forms. Hopefully, this  will become clear to the world’s working people well before such a catastrophe becomes unavoidable.

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[1] Carmen M. Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly, Princeton University Press, 2009.

[2] Lawrence King, Michael Kitson, Sue Konzelmann and Frank Wilkinson Making the same mistake again—or is this time different? Cambridge Journal of Economics 2012, 36, 1–15 doi:10.1093/cje/ber045.

[3] From the Preface: Olivier J. Blanchard, David Romer, A. Michael Spence and Joseph E. Stiglitz, In the Wake of the Crisis: Leading Economists Reassess Economic Policy, MIT Press, 2012.

[4] Robert J. Gordon, Is US economic growth over? Faltering innovation confronts the six headwinds, VOX, September 11, 2012. http://www.voxeu.org/article/us-economic-growth-over.

Rose Colored Job Growth Glasses Hide the Main Story

 

SOURCE ITEMS

For all of 2015, the nation added 2.65 million jobs, capping a two-year, back-to-back gain that was the best since the late 1990s, the government reported on Friday.

Patricia Cohen, Robust Hiring in December Caps Solid Year for U.S. Jobs, New York Times, January 8, 2016.

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Ratio of Working Age Population to Jobs Created

Best Two Years of 1990s (1997-98)

Years 2014-2015

Jobs Created in Two Year Period

6.5 million

5.8 million

Working Age Population (ages 18-64) 2000 and 2015 (estimated)

174.1 million

198.9 million

Ratio, Working Age Population to Jobs Created

26.8

34.3

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and U.S. Census Bureau.

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After more than four decades of serving as the nation’s economic majority, the American middle class is now matched in number by those in the economic tiers above and below it. … a demographic shift that could signal a tipping point, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis of government data.

The American Middle Class Is Losing Ground, Pew Research Center, December 9, 2015.

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The decrease in labor force participation lowers incomes independently of wage trends. During an era when employment rates are trending downward, wages will grow faster than household incomes.

Salim Furth, Stagnant Wages: What the Data Show, Backgrounder #3074 on Labor, The Heritage Foundation, October 26, 2015.

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Stock Market Closing Prices

 

Dow Jones Industrial Average

Nasdaq Stock Market

S&P 500

December 31, 2014

17823.07

4736.05

2058.90

December 31, 2015

17425.03

5007.41

2043.94

Source: Dow Jones Close.

COMMENTS

But these rose colored glasses/That I’m looking through/Show only the beauty/’Cause they hide all the truth – Lyrics by John Conlee
 

To say that job creation in 2014-15 has been the best since the late 1990s is misleading and not only because making that statement implies that job growth is now the same as it was in the late 1990s.   It sidesteps an important and related issue: the loss of wealth in American households.

Fewer and fewer American families now have the wherewithal to live middle class lives and real wage growth, even if positive, is so modest that it will never restore the middle class prosperity Americans became used to in the post-WWII decades.

Yet, given the threats from global warming and the increasing flows of goods, information and people from place to place on this earth, we have to ask whether returning to the kind of prosperity that marked the 1960s in America is what we should expect or even want. Perhaps we should not expect it because the rest of the world now reaches into America enough to successfully demand a fairer (and therefore larger) share of the global pie. And, perhaps we should not want it because that way of affluence imposed an enormous cost in wealth and lives on most of the world’s peoples and, as we know so well now, is making the earth unfit for habitation.

Is there an alternative way of affluence? Yes, but we have to invent it.

Robotics, Artificial Intelligence (AI), and the New Era of Labor Exploitation and Coercion

SOURCE ITEMS

But salaries higher than those offered last year might not be part of the deal. … Gardner said about a third of employers surveyed plan to raise salaries this year, compared with 60 percent to 70 percent before the 2008 recession.

Curt Smith, Job market better for recent grads, MSU survey finds, Lansing State Journal, October 9, 2015. Accessed October 10, 2015.

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By one dismal measure, America is joining the likes of Third World countries. … The number of U.S. residents who are struggling to survive on just $2 a day has more than doubled since 1996, placing 1.5 million households and 3 million children in this desperate economic situation. That’s according to “$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America,” a book from publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt that will be released on Sept. 1.

Aimee Picchi, The surging ranks of America’s ultrapoor, CBS News, September 1, 2015. Accessed October 10, 2015.

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There could be between 10,000 and 13,000 victims of slavery in the UK, higher than previous figures, analysis for the Home Office suggests. … Modern slavery victims are said to include women forced into prostitution, “imprisoned” domestic staff and workers in fields, factories and fishing boats.

Slavery levels in UK ‘higher than thought’, BBC News, November 29, 2014. Accessed October 10, 2015.

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Erik Brynjolfsson has a dream of the future. Or perhaps more accurately, a nightmare. … A vision of a world where computers entrench the power of a wealthy elite and push the majority into poverty. … Brynjolfsson is an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and co-author of The Second Machine Age, a book that asks what jobs will be left once software has perfected the art of driving cars, translating speech and other tasks once considered the domain of humans.

Nick Heath, Why AI could destroy more jobs than it creates, and how to save them, TechRepublic, No Date. Accessed October 10, 2015.

COMMENTS

In the distant past, when the worth of a human worker was primarily her/his calorie power (for moving, pushing, pulling, lifting, twisting, and turning materials and equipment used in the production and distribution of wealth), only a very few workers were engaged in highly skilled work and decision-making.   In most of the world of work, one worker could easily replace another (according to one story, a mule was more valuable to a mine owner than a man). Slavery was cost effective, immigrant and seasonal workers and starvation wages were the norm.

In the nearer past, workers in affluent nations had gained substantial economic power as business owners increasingly needed human workers not only as a source of energy but also as a repository of learned production skills (e.g., skill at soldering a resister to a circuit board without leaving an electrical arc point), and as managers, problem solvers (the intelligence to figure out why the assembly line shut down or whether a particular article contained information relevant to a lawsuit) and planners. The nearer past was also a time when much of the world was still not incorporated into nation-states and markets, so capturing more and more of the world’s people as consumers required more and more production and distribution facilities and equipment, which required more and more highly skilled workers and managers.

All of that is going fast. Fossil fuels and solar power (in all its forms) replace human muscle power. Robotic skills replace human skills. AI software and massive computing power combine to make better, faster and more consistent (unbiased by considerations of kin, ethnicity, race, gender, looks, etc.) decisions than human decision-makers.

What is left to give the mere mortal economic importance? Not much.

AI and robotics, in conduction with fossil fuels and solar energy, have dramatically reduced and will continue to reduce the value of working people for the world’s business owners and managers. In the context of global competition, American and European workers are much too costly given the savings achievable through combining AI, robots, and low wage, unskilled workers in the world’s factories and offices. Even the most honorable of business owners and managers must succumb to the competitive pressures – shedding higher wage, skilled workers and escaping regulations and taxes now devoted to protecting employment rights. Wages, benefits, and employment protections must continue to fall in the wealthiest nations and the best of businesses.

Enslavement, indentured servitude, unpaid family labor, and self-exploitation are labor acquisition strategies as old as humanity and there is no reason to believe the less honorable among the world’s owners and managers will not directly and indirectly take advantage of these strategies. Studies are already finding that these things are on the rise. There is no reason to believe the business owners and managers who are fair to their own workers will stop closing their eyes to the exploitation and coercion of working people practiced by the other owners and managers with whom they do business. Relying on the cheapest sources of components and raw materials must be part of the competitive strategy of every business owner and manager, including the most honorable.

Today’s Strengths are Tomorrow’s Weaknesses; Today’s New Hires are Tomorrow’s New Unemployed

In an a single world economy with decentralized policy making, stability for a nation’s economy is not achievable.

SOURCE ITEMS

Cutbacks in demand from overseas customers and domestic energy producers led to the weakest growth in new orders since May 2013, prompting U.S. factories to slow the rate of hiring. At the same time, manufacturing is being underpinned by sustained spending from American consumers who are enjoying low prices at the gas pump.

Bloomberg News, Manufacturing in U.S. Expands at Slowest Pace in a Year, Bloomberg, March 2, 2015.

COMMENTS

Back in the Fall of 2014, economists hailed the strong dollar as evidence of a strong U.S. economy and only whispered warnings about the potential for lost foreign demand for U.S. goods. Similarly, they have hailed the shift in consumer spending that low oil prices allow, but only whisper warnings about the resulting job losses in the energy related industries.

Economists completely ignore the fact that a very large proportion of consumer goods that we American’s buy are produced abroad.  This matters because whatever job growth we get from the shifts from buying gasoline and heating oil to buying furniture, electronic goods, and trinkets will mostly be in lower-wage retail, not in higher-wage production. Moreover, when fuel prices begin to rise again, as they will, consumer spending will shift back into heating oil and gasoline, destroying the retail jobs that were so recently created and restoring jobs in energy industries.

Economists tell us that we have entered a period of positive economic trends; they have been doing this almost every year since the financial crisis of 2008. It’s wishful analysis because economic instability and volatility are build into the institutional structure of world economy.  So, if you just got a new job, don’t count on it lasting.