Tom Friedman’s Jobs World is Interesting But a Bit Flat


In today’s hyperconnected world without walls — when more Indians, Chinese, computers, robots and software can perform more average blue-collar and white-collar jobs — the only high-wage jobs are increasingly high-skill jobs

Our kids face three big adjustments. First, to be in the middle class, they will need to be constantly improving their skills over their lifetime. Second, to do that, they will need a lot more self-motivation. … And third, countries that thrive the most will be the H.I.E.’s — the high imagination-enabling countries — that attract and enable talent to be constantly spinning off new ideas and start-ups, the source of most new good jobs.

Thomas Friedman, Can’t We Do Better?, New York Times, December 7, 2013.


Tom Friedman is almost always worth reading, but he has yet to acknowledge a societal development that is one of the most consequential for the world’s working families – the transformation of the role that work plays day in and day out in distributing the world economy’s newly created wealth.

Ironically, Friedman identifies the very forces that are undoing the role of work in distributing newly produced wealth, but fails to follow through. He takes us right to the door through which he could walk us to the real solutions to growing poverty and inequality.  He then turns away and offers up the same old failed conventional wisdom.

Friedman and so many others define the problem of low wage jobs and growing inequality as due to the inadequacies of workers (low skills, outdated skills, lack of drive).  They fail to seriously consider the possibility that the world of work is changing in such fundamental ways that no feasible amount of improvement in the skill levels of working people or change in their approaches to getting and keeping jobs can reverse the trend toward lower wages and greater poverty and  inequality.

As Friedman rightly notes, global integration and advancing productive technologies have great consequences for working families and societies, but not because they are creating demand for highly skilled workers and destroying demand for low skilled workers.  The core systemic change is that those forces are producing an enormous and growing surplus of labor, both skilled and unskilled.

The role of machine energy in the production of the world’s goods and services has advanced to such a large proportion of the combination of human energy and machine energy that the available human energy far exceeds the demand for human energy.  Even human thinking energy is being displaced by machine energy.

The trend shows up in the long term decline in the proportion of the world’s population that is employed.  Friedman and others apparently believe that this trend won’t eventually bring us to a point in time when more than half the world’s people are effectively outside the world of work.

How then will we distribute the world economy’s newly created wealth day after day?

The era in which employment could be the primary way in which a person could legitimately claim a fair share of the world economy’s income is nearly over.  Yet Friedman and other experts still have not asked the question in public of what will give a person a right to a fair share of income in this increasingly jobless world.

The world’s people desperately need a new kind of right to income, and until we invent that right, inequality will keep getting worse and more of the world’s people, including Americans, will be shoved into lives of destitution, begging, scavenging, and violence.

The Global Policy Crisis Keeps Growing Because We’ve Never Seen This Kind of World Economic Crisis


But it is no accident that so many of the world’s economies are sputtering at the same time, or that so many people around the globe are angry. … One reason for the synchronized gloom, of course, is the synchronization of the global economy. … Rather, we are all, both together and apart, trying to figure out three big questions. … The first is how nation-states fit into a globalized world economy.

Chrystia Freeland, The three questions of global importance, Reuters, June 21, 2012.


In an era of globalization, there are no innocent bystanders. There are certainly no oases of prosperity in the face of yet another major shock in the global economy. America’s growth mirage is an important case in point.

Stephen S. Roach, The Great American Mirage, Project Syndicate,  June 27, 2012.


The possible conclusions are stark. One possibility is that those investing in financial markets expect economic policy to be so dysfunctional that the global economy will remain more or less in its current depressed state for perhaps a decade, or more. The only other explanation is that even now, more than three years after the US financial crisis erupted, financial markets’ ability to price relative risks and returns sensibly has been broken at a deep level, leaving them incapable of doing their job …

J. Bradford DeLong, The Perils of Prophecy, Project Syndicate, June 27, 2012.


If we are to thrive as a global community of almost 10 billion – the projected population by 2050 – these new models are not optional, they are an absolute necessity.

From the Introduction, Outlook on the Global Agenda 2012, World Economic Forum.


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. … By the end of this fascinating conference, we knew that we had entered a brave new world and that the crisis is generating enough questions to fill our research agendas for years to come.

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.


We are living in very unusual times,” said Mohamed A. El-Erian, the chief executive of Pimco, the world’s largest bond manager. “History may not be as reliable a guide as it’s been in the past.”

Jeff Sommer, Flights to Safety Can’t Hide the Dangers, New York Times, May 12, 2012.


A significant number of economists and policy experts have wondered whether this global economic crisis is different – for two reasons: very few experts saw such a severe crisis coming and, even after absorbing that surprise, very few expected the crisis to be so resistant to policy interventions and to persist for so long.

The crisis is different this time – because it is embedded in a confluence of historical developments that the world has never seen before.  It involves the following developments:

  • Global climate change is damaging agricultural, tourism, fishing, and other weather sensitive industries, forcing producers to invest in very costly efforts to move and/or modify productive activities
  • The scale and scope of global production is running up against absolute resource limits, substantially curtailing practices that once were common and allowed market based productive activities to increase at low cost:
    • discovering easy to extract oil, natural gas, and mineral  deposits
    • opening up frontiers (territories not organized under western models of political authority) to invading waves of farmers, miners, loggers, entrepreneurs, and investors
    • adapting to dwindling fish stocks by fishing farther from shore and deeper
    • finding and harvesting virgin forests
    • abandoning aging and polluted cities, rivers and lakes (increasingly costly to maintain) to build newer cities in regions where rivers and lakes are untarnished
  • The centuries long era of incorporating the world’s territories and peoples into the western system of nation-states and coercing and bribing the world’s peasants, tribal peoples, and unpaid family and community workers into labor and consumer markets has come to an end; this has all but eliminated one of the primary ways in which the growth of demand for goods and services generally kept pace with the growth of productive capacity
  • The global spread of advances in productive technology, which entails the substitution of machine energy for human energy and machine thinking for human thinking, is slowing the growth of demand for goods and services by reducing opportunities to gain income through work.

This confluence emerged in recent decades and has permanently damaged the capacity of the world economy to generate the large pulses of consumer demand that historically called forth the productive investment responses that produced pulses of demand for labor.  The pulses of demand for labor increased wages and moved families from the ranks of the poor into the ranks of the middle class.  Over the longer term, more wealth was also pumped into the hands of the people at the top, preparing those people to respond to the next pulse of consumer demand.

Today, there is no mechanism for generating that heartbeat of economic growth.  The confluence of forces has damaged both phases of the cycle.

On the demand side, the first response to the confluence was a massive increase in global debt levels.  Debt growth sustained the growth of demand.  However, debt growth had to come to an end.

Today, with global debt levels very high and with global corporations wielding enormous political power in the world economy, it is not politically feasible to generate a Keynesian pulse of global consumer demand (either by massively expanding global debt levels or by  redistributing a large amount of wealth from the affluent to the have-nots).  But, even if the world economy’s leaders did find a way to generate a large pulse of consumer demand, it would largely fail to restart world economic growth.

On the supply side, the productive investment responses to a large pulse of consumer demand can no longer produce the employment and income gains that they produced in the past.  The ratio of machine energy to human energy in the world economy is so high now that demand for labor would not increase sufficiently to drive up global wage levels to the degree that was the case in the past.  Moreover, and more importantly for the long run, increasing the production of goods and services in the context of a world of resource limits that are becoming more difficult to overcome will drive up consumer prices. Whatever wage gains are realized will be offset by a higher cost of living..

From time to time in the history of the capitalist world economy, its magic has faltered and then been restored. This time the magic will sporadically flicker on for a while here and there in the world economy, but it will not be restored.  Something else will happen.

Hard Working? Creative? Strong Language and Computer Skills? Earn Up to $4 Per Hour in the New Global Labor Force


The job didn’t pay much: four bucks an hour if you really hustled. But for Catherine Fraser, a recent community college graduate from Mountain View looking to pick up a little extra spending cash, the work was a hoot.

… said analyst Martin Schneider with 451 Research. “Like manufacturing has done forever, crowd-labor lets us break down a job into tiny components, where one bit of fact-checking or writing a few sentences is now the equivalent of gluing that chip onto a computer board.”

… The larger question — and one with huge global implications as crowd-sourcing redefines and in some cases kills traditional jobs and long-established labor-management models — is whether the crowd-labor pool could essentially become one big worldwide digital sweatshop. While industry studies show average hourly earnings across all categories range from about $7 in India to $16 in Western Europe, the fast-growing segment of micro-taskers earn half that on average, and some make only $1.50 an hour.

Patrick May, ‘Crowd labor’ helps spur social networking revolution, San Jose Mercury News, Updated: 05/01/2012.


Series Index May

Series Index Apr

Rate of Change

Employment Index




Business Activity/Production




New Orders



Source: May 2012 Non-Manufacturing ISM Report On Business, Institute for Supply Management, June 5, 2012


For Great Wall, a private sector Chinese car maker that employs 50,000 workers, the Swiss robots and other machinery that line its bright factory floor produce more than cost savings. The company hopes they will help it build cars good enough to compete with the global auto makers.

According to Nomura, 28 percent of factory machines in China use numerical controls – one measure of automation. That may be far lower than Japan’s 83 percent, but China is growing far faster than Japan did at a comparable stage of development, says Ge Wenjie, a machinery analyst with Nomura.

In other words, China may soon be known less for cheap Christmas toys and more for high-end medical equipment, luxury cars and jet engines.

By Don Durfee, Analysis: Robots lift China’s factories to new heights, Reuters, June 3, 2012.


Unit labor costs fell in 23 of 47 service-providing industries, the most since 2003 …

Output per hour increased in 32 of the 47 [service-providing industries] industries studied.  In most of these industries, productivity rose as output growth was accompanied by declines or more modest increases in hours.  Several  industries posted double-digit productivity gains as a result: local as well as long-distance general freight trucking; refrigerated warehousing and storage; radio and television broadcasting; wireless telecommunications carriers; and travel agencies.

In a few industries, productivity rose despite falling output.  In industries such as postal service; couriers and messengers; video tape and disc rental; photofinishing; and newspaper, book, and directory publishers, rising labor productivity reflected declines in both labor hours and output, with hours falling more rapidly than output.

Productivity and Costs by Industry: Selected Service-Providing and Mining Industries, 2010, Economic News Release, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 31, 2012.


During the 20th century each new generation of U.S. workers faced declining employment opportunities in agriculture, mining, and manufacturing.  But those lost employment opportunities were offset by growing employment opportunities in government and private service sector industries.

This is no longer the case.  Job growth in government and service sector industries has slowed considerably.  Moreover, some government agencies and service sector industries are embracing new production technologies and becoming job shedders themselves.

The hallmark of the first half of the 21st century may well be a decades long global employment crisis.  National governments are still trying to apply economic remedies carried over from the 20th century in a world that is vastly different.  National economic sovereignty is gone.  Rich and poor nations alike are now joined at the economic hip in a single world economy.

Sticking with the “each nation goes it alone” strategy for addressing the global employment crisis isn’t working.  Rather than getting increasing prosperity, U.S. working families and local business owners are getting a larger share of the world’s very high level of poverty.

The practical alternative for the U.S. is to join with the world’s other nations to build institutions that coordinate national economic policies and set minimum global standards for corporate behavior, working conditions, wages and benefits.

Globalization cannot be undone, so there is no other choice.

The Rapid Global Deployment of Increasingly Smarter Machines Overturns Traditional Economic Policy Assumptions About Employment Growth and Income Distribution


Last week Amazon, the online retailer, announced it was buying a robot maker called Kiva Systems for $775 million in cash. … Kiva Systems’ orange robots are designed to move around warehouses and stock shelves.

Or, as the company says on its Web site, using “hundreds of autonomous mobile robots,” Kiva Systems “enables extremely fast cycle times with reduced labor requirements.”

Nick Bilton, Disruptions: At Amazon, the Robot World Comes a Little Closer, New York Times, March 25, 2012.


The value of the global industrial robot-system market will double to $41 billion by 2020, according to an estimate by Christine Wang, an analyst at Daiwa Capital Markets in Hong Kong. Global unit sales last year jumped about 30 percent to a record 150,000 units, the IFR said.

Reuter, the Kuka CEO, said higher wages in China make investing in robots a simple trade off.

“It comes down to the question: at what cost can a robot do the job more efficiently?”

Richard Weiss, Kuka Robots Invade China as Wage Gains Put Machines Over Workers, Bloomberg, April 12, 2012.


This is the potential of the “Internet of Things”: billions and billions of devices and their components connected to one another via the Internet. 50 billion devices by 2020, according to companies like Ericsson.

The basic building block of the Internet of Things is machine-to-machine communication (M2M), devices equipped to communicate without the intervention of humans.

Large scale M2M users may offer their services dozens of countries, selling the same devices globally.

Rudolf Van der Berg, The Internet of things, OECD Insights,  January 31, 2012.


IBM says Watson’s skills — interpreting queries in natural language, consulting vast volumes of unstructured information quickly, and answering questions with a defined level of confidence — can be applied to many industries. It has already sold the technology to WellPoint Inc. (WLP), the U.S. insurer, and Citigroup Inc. (C), and expects to generate billions in new revenue by 2015 from putting Watson to work.

… Martin Kohn, IBM’s chief medical scientist, said in an interview. Using Watson “we have access to much more information than we could possibly accomplish by reading on our own, or even 100 people reading.”

Beth Jinks,  IBM’s Watson to Help Memorial Sloan-Kettering With Cancer, Bloomberg, March 22, 2012.


There is reason to believe that code kernels for the first Turing-intelligent machine have already been written.

“Two revolutionary advances in information technology may bring the Turing test out of retirement,” wrote Robert French, a cognitive scientist at the French National Center for Scientific Research, in an Apr. 12 Science essay. “The first is the ready availability of vast amounts of raw data — from video feeds to complete sound environments, and from casual conversations to technical documents on every conceivable subject. The second is the advent of sophisticated techniques for collecting, organizing, and processing this rich collection of data.”

Brandon Keim, Artificial Intelligence Could Be on Brink of Passing Turing Test, Wired, April 12, 2012.


The prevailing U.S. policy approach to creating jobs and distributing income reflects the traditional optimism of economists about long term employment and income distribution trends.  It treats employment growth and the widespread distribution of income through private sector payrolls as beneficial side effects of economic growth that require little attention from government.  The primary concern for government is providing optimal conditions for private sector investment.

The general optimism of economists about employment and income distribution includes a specific optimism about the impact of technology driven productivity growth.  Economists generally acknowledge that the implementation of new production technologies reduces the demand for labor in the industries in which those technologies are introduced.  But, they go on to argue that the workers who are displaced (or their children) find work in new industries (also created by the new technologies).  The net result is greater wealth for society and no permanent upward trend in unemployment.

Assumptions Underlying This Optimism Are Obsolete

In the past, this logic worked fairly well in the U.S.  Today, however, three key assumptions underlying this logic are violated in the real world.

The first assumption is that technological innovations will not be implemented faster than displaced workers can retrain for and find alternative work in emerging industries.  This assumption is no longer operative because unprecedented efficiencies in research and development fields, unprecedented fluidity of capital flows, and unprecedented levels of global competition are generating employment displacement and new skill requirements faster than human institutions can respond.

The second is that global market institutions will always evolve fast enough to keep the global capacity to consume growing as fast as the global capacity to produce grows.  The expanding role of debt financed consumption in the growth of global markets in recent decades and the prolonged duration of the financial and economic crisis that began in 2008 because of the tightening of credit show that this assumption is at least questionable.

The third assumption is that machines can displace only a small portion of human work activity.  This is no longer true.  Recent years have brought businesses massive increases in computing power, lower cost high capacity information storage, and computer programs that use highly sophisticated computational algorithms.  These hardware and software advances are now being deployed to mimic an expanding range of human work activities.

Job Creation and Income Distribution Must Become Direct Goals of  U.S. Economic Policy

If the assumptions on which economists rest their optimism about employment growth and income distribution are now obsolete, then public policies that succeed in stimulating private sector investment growth are unlikely to produce the employment growth and income distribution outcomes needed by the majority of people.  Creating good jobs and implementing policies that widely distribute incomes must become direct goals of government policy making, rather than secondary goals.

To continue with the current focus only on providing optimal conditions for private sector investment will only bring us more of what we now have: declining middle class incomes, more families living in poverty, and too much wealth owned and controlled by too few people.