UBI, or Something Better?

What’s odd about this discussion on Universal Basic Income below is that nobody successful in Silicon Valley participates in a UBI scheme, nor would they. They rely on risk-taking, equity, and reward. Not sure why they don’t advocate this for everybody – after all, because of the way risk is assigned to asset ownership, labor ends up taking all kinds of risk, yet almost never participates in the rewards to that risk. Instead they get a one-time bonus or profit-sharing.

But Zuckerberg would never accept those terms, either now or before he made his first dollar. It looks to me that Silicon valley tech supports redistribution in order to make their outsized gains from network effects more politically palatable.

Unfortunately, this critic of Zuckerberg and Silicon Valley in general wants to double down on failed tax and redistribution schemes instead of empowering people to participate in the risks and rewards of capitalist entrepreneurial success.

“He (or She) who is without capital in a capitalist society is little more than a wage slave and a captive consumer.” 

Another truism about the future: In a world run by robots, he who owns and controls the robots is king. Make sure you own your robot!

Original article here.

What Mark Zuckerberg Gets Wrong About UBI

New Republic, July 7, 2017

By Clio Chang

It’s no secret that tech bros love universal basic income. Sam Altman of Y Combinator is funding a UBI pilot program in Oakland, California, in part because he was inspired by Star Trek. Tesla’s Elon Musk supports the policy because he realizes that the aggressive automation caused by the tech industry will make UBI “necessary.” This week, as part of his “I’m-not-running-for-president” tour around the country, Mark Zuckerberg visited Homer, Alaska, which resulted in him writing a Facebook post lauding the merits of the state’s Permanent Fund as a model for a national form of basic income.

UBI, a concept that dates back centuries, is the idea that every person should receive some amount of money so that no one dips beneath a basic standard of living. For those on the left, it’s seen as an alternative to our country’s woefully limited cash welfare system. For libertarians, a basic income is lauded as a slimmer, less intrusive way to deliver government benefits. It is the rare utopian idea that people of different political stripes can agree on—Zuckerberg himself made sure to note the “bipartisan” appeal of the policy in his post.

But Zuckerberg reveals exactly why the left should be alarmed that Silicon Valley is taking the lead on this issue.

First, the idea that UBI has bipartisan appeal is disingenuous. The left would have a policy that redistributes wealth by funding UBI through a more progressive tax scheme or the diverting of capital income. But libertarians like Charles Murray argue for a UBI that completely scraps our existing welfare state, including programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and housing subsidies. This would be extremely regressive, since money currently directed towards the poor would instead be spread out for a basic income for all. And certain benefits like health insurance can’t effectively be replaced with cash.

Second, Zuckerberg asserts that Alaska’s Permanent Fund—which uses the state’s oil resources to pay a dividend to each Alaskan and is seen as one of the few examples of an actual UBI-like policy—is advantageous because it “comes from conservative principles of smaller government, rather than progressive principles of a larger safety net.” But a UBI policy can only reflect small government principles if one envisions it eating into the country’s existing welfare state, rather than coming on top of it. In this respect, Zuckerberg’s advocacy of UBI “bipartisanship” starts to look more like a veiled libertarian agenda.

This attitude echoes other pro-UBI tech lords like Altman, who sees basic income as providing a “floor” but not a ceiling. In his ideal scheme, no one will be very poor, but people like Altman will still be free to get “as rich as they fucking want.” The tech vision of the world is one where it can wash its hands of the rising joblessness it will generate through automation, but where those at the top can still wallow in extreme wealth. As Altman told Business Insider, “We need to be ready for a world with trillionaires in it, and that’s always going to feel deeply unfair. It feels unfair to me. But to drive society forward, you’ve got to let that happen.”

This is deeply telling of the tech UBI mentality: driving society forward doesn’t mean reducing inequality, but rather fostering more entrepreneurship. The former is viewed as unnecessary and the latter as an inherent good.

Zuckerberg also compares Alaska’s Permanent Fund to running a business—a very specific one:

Seeing how Alaska put this dividend in place reminded me of a lesson I learned early at Facebook: organizations think profoundly differently when they’re profitable than when they’re in debt. When you’re losing money, your mentality is largely about survival. But when you’re profitable, you’re confident about your future and you look for opportunities to invest and grow further. Alaska’s economy has historically created this winning mentality, which has led to this basic income. That may be a lesson for the rest of the country as well.

The idea that a “winning mentality” is what is going to lead to a basic income in the United States reveals how little Zuckerberg understands about politics. This is a pervasive ideology among tech leaders, who believe the lessons that they have gleaned from their own industry are applicable to all of the country’s problems. But remember the last time a disrupter said he was going to step into the political arena and run our country like a business?

For moguls like Zuckerberg, there is never any deep consideration of, say, the fact that racism, sexism, and classism are deeply intertwined with our country’s policies and are some of the biggest obstacles to implementing a highly redistributive policy like a UBI. Nor is there any attempt to consult with lifelong organizers and activists on the issue.

At the end of his post, Zuckerberg states that the “most effective safety net programs create an incentive or need to work rather than just giving a handout.” This echoes the “personal responsibility” rhetoric that drove workfare policies in the 1990s, which ended up kicking millions of people off of welfare rolls, leaving them in extreme poverty. The line also directly undermines the push for a UBI, which is quite literally a handout that can help liberate people from the “need to work.”

It would appear that Silicon Valley’s support for a basic income comes from self-interest. As Jathan Sadowski writes in the Guardian, “the trouble comes when UBI is used as a way of merely making techno-capitalism more tolerable for people, when it is administered like a painkiller that numbs the pain and masks the symptoms of economic injustice without addressing the root causes of exploitation and inequality.”

Tech moguls may seem like tempting allies for UBI advocates, but their vision of an ideal social safety net does not look anything like the left’s. If it did, they wouldn’t be pushing just for a basic income, but also for things like universal health care, free public education (not just for engineers!), and strong labor unions. For Silicon Valley, UBI is a sleek technological means to a very different end.


…Aren’t Presidential Candidates Talking About the Federal Reserve?

Yes, why? Much of our economic and financial lives are being guided by an unelected board of Federal Reserve governors who have been flying blind for about 8 years now…manipulating interest rates and asset markets to what end? Nobody seems to know, except to try to prevent a financial reckoning for previous misguided policies. A less charitable interpretation is the financial industry’s desire to keep the casino open as the only game in town.

By Jordan Haedtler

In an election fueled by populist anger and dominated by talk of economic insecurity, why aren’t any of the presidential candidates talking about the Federal Reserve?

After nearly a decade of high unemployment, severe racial and gender disparities and wage stagnation, voters are heading to the ballot box in pursuit of a fairer economy with less rampant inequality. In California and New York, low-wage workers are celebrating historic agreements to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour. And the economy and jobs consistently rank among the top concerns expressed by voters of all political stripes.

One government institution reigns supreme in its ability to influence wages, jobs and overall economic growth, yet leading candidates for president have barely discussed it at all. The Federal Reserve is the most important economic policymaking institution in the country, and it is critical that voters hear how candidates plan to reform and interact with the Fed.

Related: The Federal Reserve Bank, Explained [Well, kind of.]

The Fed too often epitomizes the problems with our economy and democracy over which voters are voicing frustration: Commercial banks literally own much of the Fed and are using it to enrich themselves at the expense of the American working and middle class. When Wall Street recklessness crashed the economy in 2008, American families paid the price.

At the time, JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon sat on the board of the New York Federal Reserve Bank, which stepped in during the crisis to save Dimon’s firm and so many other banks on the verge of collapse. Although the Fed’s actions helped Wall Street recover, that recovery never translated to Main Street, where jobs and wage growth stagnated.

Commercial banks should not govern the very institution that oversees them. It’s a scandal that continues to threaten the Fed’s credibility. An analysis conducted earlier this year by my parent organization, The Center for Popular Democracy, showed that employees of financial firms continue to hold key posts at regional Federal Reserve banks and that leadership throughout the Federal Reserve System remains overwhelmingly white and male and draws disproportionately from the corporate and financial world.


When the Fed voted in December to raise interest rates for the first time in nearly a decade, the decision was largely driven by regional Bank presidents — the very policymakers who are chosen by corporate and financial interests. In 2015, the Fed filled three vacant regional president position, and all three were filled with individuals with strong ties to Goldman Sachs; next year, 4 of the 5 regional presidents voting on monetary policy will be former Goldman Sachs insiders. Can we trust these blue-chip bankers to address working Americans’ concerns?

Yet despite the enormous power it wields and the glaring problems it continues to exemplify, the Fed has received little attention this election cycle. As noted by Reuters last week, two of the remaining candidates for president, Hillary Clinton and John Kasich, have been mute on what they would do about the central bank. Donald Trump’s sporadic statements about the Fed have been characteristically short on details, prompting former Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank President Narayana Kocherlakota to call for Clinton, Trump and all presidential candidates to clarify exactly how they plan to oversee the Fed’s management of the economy. Ted Cruz has piped up about the Fed on a few occasions, although his vocal endorsement of “sound money” and other policies that contributed to the Great Depression warrant clarification. [One expects that none of the candidates really understand the arcana of central banking and prefer to leave well enough alone.]

The most detailed Fed reform proposal from a presidential candidate to date was a December New York Times op-ed in which Bernie Sanders wrote that “an institution that was created to serve all Americans has been hijacked by the very bankers it regulates,” and urged vital reforms to the Fed’s governance structure.

On Monday, Dartmouth economist Andy Levin, a 20-year Fed staffer and former senior adviser to Fed Chair Janet Yellen and her predecessor Ben Bernanke, unveiled a bold proposal to reform the Federal Reserve and make it a truly transparent, publicly accountable institution that responds to the needs of working families. [That’s pretty vague, as the interests of all are best served by a monetary policy that insures the stability of the price level and value of the currency as a unit of exchange and store of value. Employment growth is best addressed through fiscal policy.]

The New York primary provides a perfect opportunity for the remaining presidential candidates to tell us what they think about the Federal Reserve. Candidates in both parties should specify whether they support Levin’s proposals, and if not, articulate their preferred approach for our federal government’s most opaque but essential institution.

As Trump, Cruz and Kasich gear up for a potentially decisive primary, they would do well to respond to the many calls for clarity on the Fed. And on Thursday night, Sanders and Clinton will have the chance to clarify their stances on the Fed when they debate in Brooklyn, just a few miles away from Wall Street and the global financial epicenter that is the New York Federal Reserve Bank.

As New York voters get ready to decide which of the remaining candidates would make the best president, they will be asking themselves which candidate will better handle the economy. The candidates’ positions on the Fed must be part of the equation.

Over Fed

Bernanke Spinning the Roulette Wheel

The central bank did its job. What about everyone else?

In today’s Wall St. Journal, former Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke offered up this generous performance review of his stint leading monetary policy after the financial crisis (appended below).

Bernanke assertions regarding unemployment and inflation are questionable on both fronts. First, misguided monetary policy has made a mess of full productive resource utilization. Fed policies such as ZIRP and QE4ever distort relative prices and lead to uncertainty of fundamental valuations over time. Thus, investment time horizons and commitments are shortened (who lends out 30 years now at a fixed rate of interest?). Second, the misallocation of resources leads to increased malinvestment (see housing), portending even more dislocations and corrections in the future. The Fed’s fantasies are further aided by distorted statistical measures like “core inflation” and unemployment. The labor participation rate is weak and weakening and the real growth rate is anemic – that is a true lasting drag on Americans’ well-being. All of this will eventually be borne out by empirical studies, proving the ineffectiveness of global central bank policy.

What the Fed has really accomplished is to let the politicians off the hook by accommodating their dereliction of duty over productive fiscal policy. If economic headline statistics had threatened re-election chances, maybe the executive and legislatures would have stopped playing petty power games and gotten down to the business of governing the nation. This is Washington D.C. at work.

How the Fed Saved the Economy

Full employment without inflation is in sight. The central bank did its job. What about everyone else?

By Ben S. Bernanke

Oct. 4, 2015

For the first time in nearly a decade, the Federal Reserve is considering raising its target interest rate, which would end a long period of near-zero rates. Like the cessation of large-scale asset purchases in October 2014, that action will be an important milestone in the unwinding of extraordinary monetary policies, adopted during my tenure as Fed chairman, to help the economy recover from a historic financial crisis. As such, it’s a good time to evaluate the results of those measures, and to consider where policy makers should go from here.

To begin, it’s essential to be clear on what monetary policy can and cannot achieve. Fed critics sometimes argue that you can’t “print your way to prosperity,” and I agree, at least on one level. The Fed has little or no control over long-term economic fundamentals—the skills of the workforce, the energy and vision of entrepreneurs, and the pace at which new technologies are developed and adapted for commercial use.

What the Fed can do is two things: First, by mitigating recessions, monetary policy can try to ensure that the economy makes full use of its resources, especially the workforce. High unemployment is a tragedy for the jobless, but it is also costly for taxpayers, investors and anyone interested in the health of the economy. Second, by keeping inflation low and stable, the Fed can help the market-based system function better and make it easier for people to plan for the future. Considering the economic risks posed by deflation, as well as the probability that interest rates will approach zero when inflation is very low, the Fed sets an inflation target of 2%, similar to that of most other central banks around the world.

How has monetary policy scored on these two criteria? Reasonable people can disagree on whether the economy is at full employment. The 5.1% headline unemployment rate would suggest that the labor market is close to normal. Other indicators—the relatively low labor-force participation rate, the apparent lack of wage pressures, for example—indicate that there is some distance left to go.

But there is no doubt that the jobs situation is today far healthier than it was a few years ago. That improvement (as measured by the unemployment rate) has been quicker than expected by most economists, both inside and outside the Fed.

On the inflation front, various measures suggest that underlying inflation is around 1.5%. That is somewhat below the 2% target, a situation the Fed needs to remedy. But if there is a problem with inflation, it isn’t the one expected by the Fed’s critics, who repeatedly predicted that the Fed’s policies would lead to high inflation (if not hyperinflation), a collapsing dollar and surging commodity prices. None of that has happened.

It is instructive to compare recent U.S. economic performance with that of Europe, a major industrialized economy of similar size. There are many differences between the U.S. and Europe, but a critical one is that Europe’s economic orthodoxy has until recently largely blocked the use of monetary or fiscal policy to aid recovery. Economic philosophy, not feasibility, is the constraint: Greece might have limited options, but Germany and several other countries don’t. And the European Central Bank has broader monetary powers than the Fed does.

Europe’s failure to employ monetary and fiscal policy aggressively after the financial crisis is a big reason that eurozone output is today about 0.8% below its pre-crisis peak. In contrast, the output of the U.S. economy is 8.9% above the earlier peak—an enormous difference in performance. In November 2010, when the Fed undertook its second round of quantitative easing, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble reportedly called the action “clueless.” At the time, the unemployment rates in Europe and the U.S. were 10.2% and 9.4%, respectively. Today the U.S. jobless rate is close to 5%, while the European rate has risen to 10.9%.

Six years after the Fed, the ECB has begun an aggressive program of quantitative easing, and European fiscal policy has become less restrictive. Given those policy shifts, it isn’t surprising that the European outlook appears to be improving, though it will take years to recover the growth lost over the past few years. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom is enjoying a solid recovery, in large part because the Bank of England pursued monetary policies similar to the Fed’s in both timing and relative magnitude.

It is encouraging to see that the U.S. economy is approaching full employment with low inflation, the goals for which the Fed has been striving. That certainly doesn’t mean all is well. Jobs are being created, but overall growth is modest, reflecting subpar gains in productivity and slow labor-force growth, among other factors. The benefits of growth aren’t shared equally, and as a result many Americans have seen little improvement in living standards. These, unfortunately, aren’t problems that the Fed has the power to alleviate. [Does Mr. Bernanke really think Fed policies have had a benign effect on these trends?]

With full employment in sight, further economic growth will have to come from the supply side, primarily from increases in productivity. That means that the Fed will continue to do what it can, but monetary policy can no longer be the only game in town. Fiscal-policy makers in Congress need to step up. As a country, we need to do more to improve worker skills, foster capital investment and support research and development. Monetary policy can accomplish a lot, but, as I often said as Fed chairman, it is no panacea. New efforts both inside and outside government will be essential to sustaining U.S. growth.

Bernanke prayer

The Machines Are Coming

This is a long, but interesting repost from Nouriel Roubini’s blog. I’m posting it here because it raises a number of important issues that transcend our temporal politics and economic policies.

In particular is the section on the subject of work and labor in the machine world (Work in the Machine Age: Humans Need Not Apply?). Machines have long replaced human labor, from plows to car assembly lines to bank clerks and supermarket checkers. This presents a real problem for the labor-centered political paradigm we’ve been operating under since the beginning of the industrial age. Until recently, the wages of work is how the product of capitalism has been widely distributed to the population. When workers are no longer needed, production of the machines continues, but there is no distribution mechanism of the product except through government tax and transfer mechanisms. We already know how limited that policy is because it was tried for 75 years in the USSR and we know what happened with that experiment.

The important question in a world where capital is replacing labor as the means of production is: who gets to own the machines? Will it be multinational corporations? If so, the distribution of profits will be concentrated even more in those corporations. But corporations actually are people (despite what Citizen United objectors claim); take away the people and a corporation is nothing more than a legal charter on so many pieces of paper. The corporate agency problem revolves around who owns the corporate assets (the shareholders) and more important, who controls those assets (usually management).

If machines are replacing labor, the costs of production become embodied in the price of the machines and whoever controls that physical capital. As labor has been minimized, only the owner-shareholders and management remain to divvy up the returns to investment in those machines. So, if we’re not on the receiving end of those payouts, we’re basically out of the capitalist wealth-creating production equation. Not a good place to find oneself.

There is a recourse for labor in this picture, which is to quickly buy some equity in those machines and then defend its ownership interests in concert with other shareholders. The new paradigm is about ownership of productive assets and control of those assets through corporate governance. We had better adjust to this new reality before the cookie jar is empty. The machines won’t wait.

‘Make No Mistake: The Machines Are Coming’

by Nouriel Roubini

Last Friday night, I attended the Bloomberg BusinessWeek 85th Anniversary Dinner. The party was held at the American Museum of Natural History, where Seth Meyers, the former Saturday Night Live star, hosted the evening beneath a massive, life-sized replica of a blue whale.

The party was packed with the usual collection of highly polished New York media and business types. (The entertainment highlight of the night for me was a charming duet by Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett.)

It was a great honor to be asked by Bloomberg and BusinessWeek to give an official toast during the event, along with my fellow toastmasters Henry Kissinger, Henry Kravis, and Melody Hobson. For my toast, I was asked to select the innovation that I thought created the most disruptive change during the last 85 years.

I decided to speak about the microchip—because the microchip may well replace the human race.

Yes, I’m being intentionally provocative here: but it isn’t just because of my nickname (“Dr. Doom”) that I’ve chosen to find the dark shadow in the silver lining of technical progress.

A few weeks ago, Stephen Hawking, the greatest astrophysicist of our time, gave a provocative speech of his own: Hawking suggested that humans should start thinking about colonizing other planets, because eventually artificial intelligence and robots will replace the human race.

It may sound crazy now—but what seems crazy today may not sound so crazy 25, 50, or 100 years from now.

This wave of technological innovation began in 1947 with the invention of the transistor. A little over 10 years later, the microchip appeared; and, soon after that, computers followed. From these basic roots, the rate of innovation simply exploded.

We now live in a digital age where personal computers, supercomputers, robotics, and artificial intelligence are everyday features of our world.

All of these new labor-saving technologies are cheap to deploy—and each will likely play a role in further automating and digitizing our economy.

Without further ado, let’s take a look ahead to what many are calling the Third Industrial Revolution.

Looking back as 2014 winds to a close, I see that a lot has changed in the world economy this year. For example, there is a new perception of the role of technology. Innovators and tech CEOs both seem positively giddy with optimism. And while it is true that some wondrous opportunities may lie ahead, there are also dangers to be wary of as we look to the future.

Technologists claim that the world is on the cusp of a series of major technical breakthroughs. The excitement in this sector isn’t coming just from information technology. It’s also being generated in the fields of biotechnology, energy technology, nanotechnology, and especially from the manufacturing technologies of robotics and automation.

These new manufacturing technologies have spawned a feverish excitement for what some see as a coming revolution in industrial production.

This “Third Industrial Revolution” will provide many investment opportunities—such as green energy development and new kinds of direct investment in those nations most likely to benefit—as well as the potential for a steep rise in returns.

These are life-changing developments, and the consensus among experts is that we will all witness their impact very soon.

The Coming Manufacturing Revolution

In the years ahead, technological improvements in robotics and automation will boost productivity and efficiency, which will translate into economic gains for manufacturers.

It will also benefit highly skilled workers—principally software developers, engineers, and those who work in material science and research. (If you’re a parent or a grandparent, you should encourage the younger generations to explore any talents they possess in these fields.)

Consumers and individuals should also benefit from lower retail prices caused by lower production costs to manufacturers. In short, things will be cheaper.

The quick growth of smart software over the past few decades has been perhaps the most important force shaping the coming manufacturing revolution. The extraordinary rise of the computer software industry has led many of the world’s best minds to focus on the challenges of developing better, smarter, more efficient computer code.

As software development becomes more “glamorous,” the number of bright youngsters studying software engineering increases, creating a virtuous cycle for the software industry.

In addition to software services, a number of new technologies driving the next manufacturing revolution are just now beginning to be felt. They’re like foreshocks, early tremors of the coming earthquake.

On the vanguard of this revolution we find 3D printing. Sometimes 3D printing is called “additive manufacture,” because the process involves computer-controlled robots adding layers of materials to create new things. (Traditional manufacturing usually removes layers from raw material, for example the way a lathe cuts away metal.)

3D printing and related technologies will open the door to advances in manufacturing that have never before been possible:

  • Mechanical engineers will be able to prototype new products more rapidly. New product designs can be created and tested in days rather than months.
  • Manufacturing can be distributed globally to create the greatest efficiencies in marketing and distribution.
  • Finally, customization of products for individual consumers can occur at a price point that was never possible in the past. Not only will things be cheaper, they’ll be your way, right away.

On the plus side of the equation, these changes promise a great boom in productivity. Products will be created more cheaply than ever before. Early adopters of new technology will reap a windfall by perfecting the new techniques. Highly skilled jobs will be created for those educated enough to participate in the new tech-savvy manufacturing world. A few new high-tech manufacturing billionaires may be added to the ranks of the software barons of old.

However, for those workers not fortunate enough to participate in the gains of the new economy, it may feel as though the whole revolution is happening somewhere else. Entire economies risk being destabilized in countries that rely on advanced manufacturing and on service sector jobs. (If you’re reading this, chances are you live in one.)

But remember the dark shadows of those silver linings: with each new gain comes the potential loss of something else.

We know what we have to gain from this automated future. But what, specifically, do we stand to lose?

A Rather Shaky Foundation

In my view, from the economic perspective, the technological forces driving this revolution tend to have the following three downside biases. That is, advances in technology tend to be:

  • capital intensive (favors those who already have money and other resources);
  • skills biased (favors those who already have a high level of technical skill); and
  • labor saving (reduces the total number of jobs in the economy).

The risk is that workers in high-skilled, blue-collar manufacturing jobs will be displaced by machines before the dust settles at the end of the Third Industrial Revolution. We may be heading toward a future where factories consist of one highly skilled engineer running hundreds of machines—with one worker left sweeping the floor.

In fact, the person who sweeps the floor may soon lose that job to a faster, better, cheaper, industrial strength Roomba Robot!

For the last 30 years, emerging-market economies have increasingly displaced developed-market economies in the manufacturing sector as a base of production. This is a story we all know: the transition from the old industrial powers of Western Europe and North America to the new ones in Asia. But despite this shift, developed-market economies have somehow made up for those losses in their labor markets.

Over the last 20 years, the overall unemployment rate in the United States has hovered around 5% on average—except during periods of economic recession, when it has spiked upward for short periods of time.

In general, however, the loss of those manufacturing jobs has not caused catastrophic levels of unemployment.

How? Well, the short answer is the service economy.

Screen Shot 2014 12 09 at 7.47.27 AM

(Of course, this replacement of manufacturing jobs with service jobs has not been equally distributed. Some regions have suffered more than others. For example, the so-called Rust Belt in the upper Midwestern section of the United States has experienced more economic pain than most other regions. But while the local suffering has been great in those regions hardest hit, the overall trend throughout most developed-market economies is that lost manufacturing jobs have been absorbed largely by new jobs created in the service sector.)

In my view, however, there’s no guarantee that this positive scenario—of service-sector jobs making up for lost manufacturing sector jobs—will continue.

In fact, some of the trends mentioned earlier imply that the Third Industrial Revolution will unleash forces that threaten the relatively benign status quo. In addition to the job losses in the manufacturing sector, these trends also threaten the very service-sector jobs that have so far helped us avoid an employment crisis.

To put the coming changes into context, think of what e-books have already done: with a click, you can now download almost any book for about $10 on your iPad or Amazon Kindle.

This is a great service and convenience for consumers. But most of the jobs in the printing and distribution of books—and soon in the newspaper and magazine industry—are already gone. (And so are tons of jobs in the pulp paper industry—though that may come as a relief to environmentalists).

Yet this is all just the tip of the iceberg. The powerful forces unleashed by technology that will radically slash jobs in the future are already upon us. Industries affected will range from health care to retail, education, finance, transportation, real estate, and even government.

One of the affected industries may even be your own.

It’s a Small Step from Offshoring to Automation

Think of the potential risks to service-sector jobs in the context of what I call the “Automated Checkout Economy.” Several decades ago, few people thought that low-paying jobs in the retail sector would be outsourced or eliminated. Technological progress may soon change their tune.

While grocery and checkout jobs cannot be entirely eliminated, at least not quite, technology can assist in drastically reducing the number of human beings needed to fill the remaining positions. A trip into a drug store in New York City, my home for the last several years, will often reveal a single pharmacy clerk watching over four automated checkout terminals, where customers scan and pay for their own purchases. I imagine that you’ve probably seen something similar in your own town.

Other low-wage and labor intensive jobs in retail, such as stocking the shelves of supermarkets with food, will soon be replaced by machines that can do those jobs better and faster than humans could.

This has already begun to happen in traditional brick-and-mortar stores, while automation at online “e-tailers” has gone even further. Giants like Amazon have already built massive robot-staffed warehouses to distribute their orders. One day soon, your friendly neighborhood UPS or FedEx driver delivering those Amazon packages may even be replaced by a drone. And it may be sooner than you think.

In retail, the slashing of middle management jobs has already begun, as computers have become more efficient not just at crunching numbers but at providing managers with the right information at the right time.

Another trend that may result in a decrease in service-sector jobs is something we might call “The Offshoring Pathway to Automation.”

During the first phase of the transition to a truly globalized labor market, New York Timescolumnist Thomas Friedman and others popularized the narrative of high-skilled jobs being outsourced from developed markets to emerging markets. (Friedman’s book The World Is Flat is highly recommended reading on this topic.)

While this trend continues, it supports potential for a still greater transition.

Think, for example, about the process now in place for offshoring medical services. A patient in New York or London may have his MRI sent digitally to, say, Bangalore, where a highly skilled radiologist reads the scan. However, that highly skilled radiologist in Bangalore may only be paid a quarter of what a New York radiologist would earn for reading tests.

It raises the question: how long before a computer can read those images faster, better, and cheaper than that Bangalore radiologist can?

Such a transition is not far off. The offshoring process has already broken down reading an MRI into a series of simple steps resulting in digital output. That digital output can then easily be turned into an input in a fully automated process. This kind of transition, from offshoring to automation, may become a factor in reducing service-sector jobs in developed and emerging markets in the near future.

Work in the Machine Age: Humans Need Not Apply?

The Third Industrial Revolution also coincides with other systemic changes taking place in the economy. Entire industries in the service sector will have to shrink massively for reasons initially unrelated to advances in technology.

Let’s take two of the most obvious examples: the financial-services sector and real estate.

In the years leading up to the economic collapse of 2008-‘09, market bubbles fueled huge run-ups in the prices of financial assets and real estate. With a bubble in asset prices came an explosion in compensation, causing new workers to flood into those sectors. As the last remnants of those bubbles deflate, job cuts in those industries may become inevitable.

But over time, technology may allow even the jobs in real estate and finance to be first outsourced and then totally eliminated.

Today, hundreds of thousands of back-office jobs in the financial sector are outsourced to India and other emerging markets. But tomorrow, a piece of computer code may be able to generate the same sophisticated analytics that some of Wall Street’s highly paid professionals now create.

Real estate—which is now highly labor intensive, with a plethora of agents and brokers—is experiencing a revolution. 12 years ago, in 2002, I was able to buy my first apartment in New York without a real estate agent by using the online New York Times listings. Today, even more sophisticated online tools reduce the need even further for expensive middlemen.

A revolution is also underway in education, which is also currently a very labor-intensive field.

With the growth of ever-more sophisticated online courses, will we still need hundreds of thousands of teachers in the decades to come? And what will all those former teachers do to earn a living instead?

It becomes possible to imagine a future where the top 100 economists in the world, for example, can provide high-quality and cheap online courses in their field. Those changes, however, would mean displacing the jobs of hundreds of thousands of other economics professors in the process.

Indeed, in places like emerging-market Africa, where building brick-and-mortar schools is expensive and where training high-quality teachers is difficult, online courses and cheap tablet computers could gradually begin to replace traditional education, making it even more affordable. Ironically, this would lead to some unemployment, as the demand for highly educated people to fill teaching positions declines.

Governments are shedding labor too, particularly governments burdened by high deficits and debts.

The e-government trend can also lead to labor savings in the way in which government services are provided to the public. You can find tons of public services online and avoid spending hours standing in line in an overcrowded office just to request a few government forms.

Even transportation is being revolutionized by technology. Today a friendly Uber driver or a car-sharing service like Zip Car can replace the need to buy your own car or even rent one. But in a matter of years, driverless cars—courtesy of Google and others—may render the job of a driver or chauffeur obsolete.

So, whether it’s retail or finance, education, health care, transportation, or even government, a massive technological revolution will sharply reduce jobs over time. Low-skilled jobs and medium-skilled white collar jobs will be the first to go, as they have always been.

Industrial Revolutions—Past and Future

In order to better understand the future, it’s helpful to take a look back at the past. During the First Industrial Revolution, which began around the same time as American independence from Great Britain, life began to shift away from agriculture toward increasing industrialization. Farmers moved to cities, and farms became industrialized.

Factories became widespread. A factory owner could take a farmer, perhaps a farmer who could not read or write, and give him a job. New methods—like the division of labor—and new machines allowed that farmer to become more productive. In fact, farmers were able to generate more “output” in a factory than on a farm.

But unlike modern automation, the machines needed to be run by a new generation of workers: Men and women needed to “man” those machines.

Productivity increased—and so did wages.

The Second Industrial Revolution, during the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, was an extension of the first. During those years, there was an explosion in technology and methods of communication. Thanks to the telegraph, the world became “wired” for the first time.

The new advances in technology, however, cut both ways.

Take the case of Frederick Winslow Taylor, a major figure in the Second Industrial Revolution. Taylor, known as the father of scientific management, once wrote that the brawn required for handling pig iron was proof in itself of the intellectual unfitness of ironworkers to manage their own work. This is hardly a democratic sentiment, and it was more or less the common one.

While new “scientific” methods of management increased the productivity of workers, improvements in working conditions lagged behind. (Taylor’s views didn’t help matters.)

Perhaps the takeaway lesson is that it’s easier to improve technical methods of production than workers’ opportunities.

But despite these challenges, the Second Industrial Revolution created a higher demand for labor.

As we sit on the cusp of a Third Industrial Revolution, a revolution that is both industrial and digital in nature, it’s not certain that the demand for labor will continue to grow as technology marches forward—unless the proper policies to nurture job growth are put in place.

The world began to change during the first Digital Revolution—during the rise of the Internet in the late ‘90s. Then, the digital divide between those who knew how to use computers and those who didn’t led to an income gap between more-skilled workers and less-skilled workers.

At the extreme, as I mentioned in my introduction, some serious thinkers are even worried about technology not only replacing humans in jobs—but actually replacing humans entirely.

The implications of artificial intelligence, not just for jobs, but human life, are now being pondered by some of the best minds in technology.

There used to be a science fiction term for a state where human beings were no longer able to control technology: It was called “the Singularity.”

In the future, this Singularity may no longer be just science fiction.

Will There Be a Green Revolution?

Of course, there are more optimistic sides of this story. Some of those perspectives show a much rosier picture. The green revolution in technology is a perfect example.

(Jeremy Rifkin is a believer in this view. In his 2011 book The Third Industrial Revolution, he makes a case for his bullish outlook. Rifkin is optimistic about a great many things: green renewable energy, urbanization of structural power plants, hydrogen cells, and an Internet grid for power transmission and distribution.)

These new technologies carry with them the promise of cleaner and more efficient energy.

This objective, of course, could not be more crucial. The search for green energy technology has become a global goal. The evidence of environmental damage, caused by pollution and the burning of fossil fuels, is now beyond question.To cite just one sobering example of the size of the challenge, a study by the World Health Organization (WHO) recently concluded that one in eight deaths were caused by air pollution. This is especially true in the developing world, where environmental hazards tend to be significant.

As an example, air pollution in Beijing, where senior Chinese government officials live and work, has reached dangerous levels. The pollution in Beijing is now a practical threat to the Chinese economy and to China’s plans for future development.

The Chinese government has begun to come down hard on its domestic polluters by enhancing the power of the state to regulate pollution. In light of the growing pressure to restrict environmental pollution, it seems reasonable to expect that there will be intensified research of green technologies. Hopefully, this research will address the environmental challenges at their root, rather than just fixing the damage of their effects.

Automation and Rising Inequality

While the odds for a green technology breakthrough during the Third Industrial Revolution may be good, it seems very highly likely that serious challenges will follow in the wake of further developments in labor-reducing technologies.

As more and more workers are displaced, governments will need to search urgently for new solutions to the problems of automation.

During the First Industrial Revolution, some of the worst forms of winner-take-all capitalism festered in the newly industrialized cities of Europe and the United States. The rate of social and economic inequality increased rapidly. Despite the political opposition to change, a series of economic shocks ultimately convinced enlightened people in the US and Europe of the necessity of the social-welfare state.

The benefits that workers take for granted in developed markets—restrictions on child labor, pensions, retirement benefits, unemployment benefits—were all created out of necessity.

Enlightened social-welfare policies were ultimately vindicated, not just morally but practically. In places where social reform was not enacted, on the other hand, more destructive forms of change took place. (The most extreme case of this destruction was, obviously, the rise of Bolshevism in Russia.)

Now the concern is that technology, together with other factors, is leading to a sharp rise in income and wealth inequality. There is a further risk that inequality will also lead to social and political instability.

The redistribution of wealth—from labor to capital and from wages to profits—may even undermine growth. This makes perfect sense when we consider that the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few tends to reduce household consumption. In the United States, household consumption makes up more than two-thirds of our total GDP.

The rise in inequality was initially the result of trade and globalization, such as jobs being offshored to emerging markets. However, the technological innovation we’re witnessing now has the potential to seriously worsen that inequality—especially when those innovations are, as we discussed earlier, capital intensive, skills biased, and labor saving.

The view is even more pessimistic when you factor in the winner-take-all effects—also known as the so-called “superstar phenomenon.”

Thanks to these winner-take-all effects, the top earners in any field now get the lion’s share of the compensation. After making a windfall profit, the “winners” are then able to use those riches to influence politicians and write their own legislation, which creates even more inequality.

In the 1930s, John Maynard Keynes had a more optimistic view of the impact of technology: he argued that eventually we could all work 15 hours a week and spend the rest of our time in leisure—like creating art and writing poetry.

But in the Brave New World of labor-saving technology, it seems, 20% of the labor force will work 120 hours a week while the other 80% will have no jobs and no income.

So the ideal world of Keynes may turn out to become a nightmare.

Despite the rapid rate of change and the many uncertainties that lie ahead, the past can help to serve as a model for the future. Governments have a decided role to play in making that future livable—as they once understood. In that spirit, we must search for political and policy solutions to the coming challenges of the Third Industrial Revolution and promote them where we can.

This is not, after all, the first time we’ve faced such problems. At the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, world leaders stepped up to the plate and came face to face with the horrors of industrialization. Child labor was abolished throughout the developed world, work hours were made humane, and a social safety net was put in place to protect both vulnerable workers and the larger (often fragile) economy.

The Past as Prologue

Former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers observed not long ago that we don’t yet have an Otto von Bismarck or a Teddy Roosevelt or a William Gladstone to mediate the current revolution now underway in the technology sector. The Canadian writer and politician Michael Ignatieff picked up on a similar theme in a Financial Times op-ed called “We need a new Bismarck to tame the machines.”

The references to these political giants of the 19th and 20th centuries are revealing. Otto von Bismarck, the father of the unified German state, is usually credited with the creation of the modern social-welfare state in the 1880s. (He’s also credited with militarizing Germany as he unified it—but let’s stick with his good works for now.)

At about the same time as Bismarck in Germany, British Prime Minister William Gladstone was reforming the most archaic aspects of the British electoral system. Ultimately, Gladstone’s work led to a great democratization and distribution of economic benefits in what was then the world’s leading industrial nation.

Here in the United States, Theodore Roosevelt is perhaps best remembered for breaking up the large industrial monopolies then known as trusts. And we could also add Franklin Roosevelt to the list who, in the tradition of his older cousin, sought to reform the worst excesses of capitalism during the Great Depression.

As we begin the search for enlightened solutions to the challenges that the Third Industrial Revolution presents, some of the overall themes begin to emerge. The first and most important characteristic is that the solution must channel the gains of technology to a broader base of the population than it has done so far. [The information age monetizes the value of data. So, the question is whether each of us will be paid for the data we provide to the ‘social network.’ Another way of putting this is how can you get your piece of the Google-Facebook-Alibaba pie? A free browser seems a pittance. How about a share of Google?]

To make that happen, the solution must have a major educational component. In order to create broad-based prosperity, workers need the skills to participate in the wealth that capitalism generates. That is a major challenge in a world where technology is changing the labor markets at a dizzying and increasing pace.

Workable solutions must address the world as it is, not as we wish it to be.

The way ahead cannot be a naïve “Great Leap Forward”: it must embrace the dynamics and creativity of free markets. On the other hand, while the solutions we must pursue can leverage the ideas of enlightened capitalists, those solutions must not rely solely on the generosity of capitalists to succeed.

That most fragile balance—between the freedom of markets and the prosperity of workers—must be sought and found.

Make no mistake: The machines are coming. The question for us is what kind of welcome to prepare for them.

This article originally appeared at Roubini’s Edge. Copyright 2014.

Back to the Races


Terrific. I guess it’s high time to roll the dice again on an overpriced home market. (That’s overpriced relative to median incomes and rent multiples.) People can’t afford homes because of a stagnant labor market, but that’s okay – let’s give everyone cheap loans and easy credit standards, since that worked so well last time. The real problem is that monetary policy has encouraged banks to build reserves and hold those reserves in asset markets instead of taking the risks of lending to home owners for overpriced housing assets. Relaxing lending standards doesn’t change this and only encourages the riskiest lending by marginal players in the mortgage lending business.

U.S. Backs Off Tight Mortgage Rules

In Reversal, Administration and Fannie, Freddie Regulator Push to Make More Credit Available to Boost Housing Recovery

By Nick Timiraos and Deborah Solomon

WASHINGTON—The Obama administration and federal regulators are reversing course on some of the biggest postcrisis efforts to tighten mortgage-lending standards amid concern they could snuff out the fledgling housing rebound and dent the economic recovery.

On Tuesday, Mel Watt, the newly installed overseer of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, said the mortgage giants should direct their focus toward making more credit available to homeowners, a U-turn from previous directives to pull back from the mortgage market.

In coming weeks, six agencies, including Mr. Watt’s, are expected to finalize new rules for mortgages that are packaged into securities by private investors. Those rules largely abandon earlier proposals requiring larger down payments on mortgages in certain types of mortgage-backed securities.

The steps mark a sharp shift from just a few years ago, when Washington, scarred by the 2008 crisis, pushed to restrict the flow of easy money that fueled the housing bubble and its subsequent bust. Critics of the move to loosen the reins now, including some economists and lenders, worry that regulators could be opening the way for another boom and bust.

For the past year, top policy makers at the White House and at the Federal Reserve have expressed worries that the housing sector, traditionally a key engine of an economic recovery, is struggling to shift into higher gear as mortgage-dependent borrowers remain on the sidelines.

Both Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew and Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen last week noted the housing market as a factor holding back the economic recovery.

Mr. Watt, the former North Carolina congressman who took over as the director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency in January, used his first public speech on Tuesday to lay out the shift in course for Fannie and Freddie, and pegged executive compensation at the companies to meeting the new goals.

Fannie and Freddie, which remain under U.S. conservatorship, and federal agencies continue to backstop the vast majority of new mortgages being issued.

The FHFA has recently attempted to lure private investors back into the housing-finance market—and reduce the Fannie and Freddie footprint—by raising the cost of government-backed lending.

With few signs that private investors are returning on a large scale, Mr. Watt signaled a clear break with his predecessor, Edward DeMarco, who left the FHFA last month after nearly five years as its acting director.

“I don’t think it’s FHFA’s role to contract the footprint of Fannie and Freddie,” Mr. Watt said during a discussion at the Brookings Institution in Washington. Winding down the companies without clear proof that private investors are willing to step back in “would be irresponsible.”

His comments signal a move away from treating Fannie and Freddie as “institutions in intentional decline” towards “institutions that should be better prepared to form the core of our system for years to come,” said Jim Parrott, a former housing adviser in the Obama White House.

Mr. Watt’s remarks are significant, given legislation to overhaul the mortgage-finance giants and replace them with a new system that reduces the government’s role in housing appears headed for a dead end in the current session of Congress.

Mr. DeMarco in a separate speech at a banking conference in Charlotte, N.C., on Tuesday, urged restraint: “Do not confuse weakening underwriting standards and underpricing risk with helping people or promoting market efficiency.”

The new steps are the fruit of three years of strenuous pushback by those opposed to tighter lending standards.

In the wake of the 2010 Dodd-Frank law, regulators proposed a spate of new rules intended to eliminate questionable mortgage products and remove any incentive banks had to make loans unlikely to be repaid.

Among the biggest changes that were proposed: Borrowers would either have to put 20% down, or the bank would have to retain 5% of the loan’s risk once it was sliced, packaged and sold to investors.

The March 2011 proposal triggered a huge outcry from lawmakers, affordable-housing groups and the real-estate industry, all of whom said it would put the brakes on homeownership for millions of credit-worthy borrowers, particularly first-time buyers and minorities. [Note: Instead we’ve pushed the prices out of their reach and now want to enable them to borrow more debt! Is this insane?]

The potential for a high down payment also raised alarm bells at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, one of six writing the rule, according to government officials.

HUD officials agitated for a gentler approach, telling counterparts that a high down payment wasn’t the only way to prevent defaults, but would likely destroy any chance for a housing-market recovery.

At a meeting before the rule was proposed, a HUD official warned fellow regulators away from a 20% down payment, saying that “the impact is between uncertain and bad,” according to a person familiar with the discussions.

When the five other agencies were not swayed, HUD took another approach and refused to sign off on the proposal unless a 10% down payment was included as an alternative. Regulators agreed.

By August 2013, more than 10,000 comment letters had poured in to the agencies, and the response was almost universal: Regulators should avoid a high down-payment level.

The groundswell caught the attention of U.S. policy makers, who began to worry about the collective impact of so much new regulation.

Regulators announced a series of steps Tuesday that they said could help ease standards—abruptly raised by lenders during the financial panic—and make it easier for first-time and other entry-level buyers.

Mr. Watt said that he would direct Fannie and Freddie to provide more clarity to banks about what triggers “put-backs,” in which lenders have been forced to spend billions of dollars buying defective loans sold during the housing boom. To guard against future put-back demands, lenders say they have enacted standards that go beyond what Fannie, Freddie and other federal loan-insurance agencies require.

Mr. Watt said that he hoped that the changes would “substantially reduce” credit barriers, “and that lenders will start operating more inside the credit box that Fannie and Freddie” provide.

Shaun Donovan, the HUD secretary, announced on Tuesday similar changes designed to encourage lenders to reduce similar restrictions on loans insured by the Federal Housing Administration, which is part of his department.

The Hidden Crisis: Stagflation

 StagflationMike O’Keefe, The Denver Post

Mismanaging economic policy always hurts the weakest members of society most. Remember the late 70s and the misery index?

From the WSJ:

How the Fed Fuels the Coming Inflation

As Milton Friedman said, ‘inflation is always and everywhere’ a result of excessive money growth.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture forecasts that food prices will rise as much as 3.5% this year, the biggest annual increase in three years. Over the past 12 months from March, the consumer-price index increased 1.5% before seasonal adjustment. These are warnings. Never in history has a country that financed big budget deficits with large amounts of central-bank money avoided inflation. Yet the U.S. has been printing money—and in a reckless fashion—for years.

The Obama administration has run huge budget deficits every year, which, together with the Bush administration, has amounted to $6.7 trillion from 2006 to 2013. The Federal Reserve financed almost $3 trillion of these deficits by purchasing Treasury bonds and notes. The Fed has also purchased massive amounts of mortgage-backed securities. Today, with more than $2.5 trillion of idle reserves on bank balance sheets, there is enormous fuel for greater inflation once lending and money growth rises.

To avoid the kind of damaging inflation the U.S. experienced in the 1970s and early ’80s, the Fed could raise interest rates, including the interest it pays banks on reserves, inducing banks to hold most of the $2.5 trillion of reserves idle. But interest rates high enough to discourage borrowing and lending would likely send the economy into another damaging recession.

Fed Chairwoman Janet Yellen recently admitted that the central bank doesn’t have a good model of inflation. It relies on the Phillips Curve, which charts what economist Alban William Phillips in the late 1950s saw as a tendency for inflation to rise when unemployment is low and to fall when unemployment is high. Two of the most successful Fed chairmen, Paul Volcker and Alan Greenspan, considered the Phillips Curve unreliable. The Fed’s forecasts of inflation ignore Milton Friedman’s dictum that “inflation is always and everywhere” a result of excessive money growth relative to the growth of real output. The Fed focuses far too much attention on distracting monthly and quarterly data, while ignoring the longer-term effects of money growth.

The country’s present dilemma originated in 2008, when the Fed properly and forcefully prevented a collapse of the payments system. But long before idle reserves reached $2.5 trillion, the Fed didn’t ask itself: What can we do by adding more reserves that banks cannot do by using their massive idle reserves? The fact that the reserves sat idle to earn one-quarter of a percent a year should have been a clear signal that banks didn’t see demand to borrow by prudent borrowers.

The Fed’s unprecedented quantitative easing since 2008 failed to lead to a robust recovery. The unemployment rate has gradually declined, but the main reason is that workers have withdrawn from the labor force. The stock market boomed, bringing support from traders, but the rise in asset prices of equities didn’t stimulate growth by inducing investment in new capital. Investment continues to be sluggish.

And some side effects of the Fed policies have had ugly consequences. One of the worst is that ultralow interest rates induced retired citizens to take substantially greater risk than the bank CDs that many of them relied on in the past. Decisions of this kind end in tears. Another is the loss that bondholders cannot avoid when interest rates rise, as they have started to do.

Accumulating data from the sluggish loan market and the weak responses of employment and investment should have alerted the Fed that the growth of reserves and the low interest rates haven’t been achieving much. Similarly, the Fed should have noticed in recent years that instead of a strong housing-market recovery, not many individuals were taking out first mortgages. Many of the sales were to real-estate speculators who financed their purchases without mortgages and are now renting the houses, planning to resell them later.

Most of all the Fed years ago should have recognized that the country’s economic problems weren’t arising from monetary factors. Instead of keeping interest rates low to finance deficits, the Fed should have explained that costly regulation, increased health-care costs, wasteful spending and repeated threats to raise tax rates were holding back the recovery.

Broadly speaking, the Obama administration has pursued a course the opposite of that taken by the Kennedy and Johnson administrations in the 1960s (and the Reagan administration in the 1980s). Kennedy-Johnson enacted across-the-board tax cuts: Promoting growth came first, redistribution later. By putting redistribution first and sacrificing growth, the Obama administration got neither.

Ironically, despite often repeated demands for increased redistribution to favor middle- and lower-income groups, the policies pursued by the Obama administration and supported by the Federal Reserve have accomplished the opposite. When the president campaigns in the midterm election, he will talk about the relative gains by the 1%. Voters should recognize that goosing the stock market through very low interest rates, not to mention the subsidies and handouts to cronies, have contributed to that result.

We are now left with the overhang. Inflation is in our future. Food prices are leading off, as they did in the mid-1960s before the “stagflation” of the 1970s. Other prices will follow.

Cheap Capital + Expensive Labor = ???

Interest-Rate-Grinch Low interest rates aren’t working? Depends on who you talk to. They’re working very well for corporations, banks, and leveraged asset holders, not so well for workers and savers. The only response I can add to this essay is, “Duh.”

From the WSJ:

Soaring Profits but Too Few Jobs

Low interest rates aren’t working, but we need a debate about what will.

Facts often speak for themselves, but sometimes they scream out at us. That is what the employment market is doing.

Today, 75 months after the Great Recession began, 57 months after it ended, and 32 months after real gross domestic product surpassed its previous high, fewer Americans have jobs than in December 2007.

Before the recession, the average duration of unemployment was about 16 weeks. It then surged to more than 40 weeks in 2011 and still stands at 37 weeks today. The long-term unemployed (27 weeks or more) constitute 37% of the total, and research by Princeton’s Alan Krueger, Judd Cramer and David Cho suggests that the odds of these Americans ever regaining permanent full-time jobs are dismal.

During the recession, 60% of job losses occurred in middle-wage occupations paying between $13.83 and $21.13 per hour, while 21% of losses involved jobs paying less than $13.83 hourly. During the recovery, however, only 22% of new jobs paid middle wages while fully 58% were at the lower-wage end of the scale. In other words, millions of re-employed workers have experienced downward mobility.

Median household income fell for four consecutive years (2008-11) before making marginal gains in 2012 and 2013. The income of the median household now stands 6.1% lower than it was at the beginning of the Great Recession and—remarkably—4.4% lower than when it ended.

According to a report last week from the Commerce Department, corporate profits after taxes in the fourth quarter of 2013 rose to an annual level of $1.9 trillion—11.1% of GDP, a postwar high. Meanwhile, total compensation—wages and benefits such as health insurance and pensions—fell to their lowest share of GDP in at least 50 years. From December 2007 through the third quarter of 2013, the compensation share of national GDP declined to 61% from 64%. A simple calculation shows that if compensation had remained at the 2007 share, workers would have earned $520 billion more in 2013.

There’s no end in sight. The Wall Street Journal’s Justin Lahart reported recently that analysts expect profits for the S&P 500 to grow by 7.4% in 2014, far faster than nominal GDP. So profits will once again command a larger share of national output. Some of this, he says, reflects short-term factors. Persistently low interest rates have allowed companies to refinance debt, cutting interest costs even as they have increased net debt for 14 consecutive quarters. Moreover, companies have been able to offset gains in gross profits with losses incurred during the recession, reducing their effective tax rates.

But less cyclical trends are at work as well. Companies have not boosted hiring in line with revenues, or wages in line with productivity. As Richard Cope, the CEO of a rapidly growing firm, told this newspaper’s Jonathan House, “Businesses are sitting on tons of cash . . . and they’re choosing to invest their capital in hardware, rather than hiring.” The reason: They believe that “investing in technology is likely to have [a] better effect on sales than hiring more people.” But even these investments slowed in 2013 after robust gains in the years immediately following the recession.

Economists don’t agree about why the recovery has been so grindingly slow. Let me offer my own non-economist’s suggestion: However necessary a low-interest-rate regime may have been at the beginning of the recovery, it has moved through a phase of diminishing returns, which have now turned negative.

The current regime has allowed the banking system to recover and spurred gains of 250% in the equities markets from their spring 2009 low. No doubt the “wealth effect” boosted consumption among those fortunate enough to hold substantial amounts of stock. Homeowners who have been able to refinance have benefited as well.

That’s the upside. But the downside has been sizable. Low interest rates have reduced the purchasing power of retirees struggling to supplement fixed incomes with decent returns on low-risk investments. And the low rates have altered business decisions, at least at the margin. Today’s interest-rate regime lowers the cost of capital—and therefore of capital investment relative to labor. To be sure, the substitution of technology for labor is a continuing process. But the pace of that substitution is crucial for the job market, and current policies are having the unintended effect of accelerating it, further retarding job creation.

We should be having a robust national discussion about these trends, which polls say are of intense concern to the American people. Instead, Republicans are banging away at the Affordable Care Act while Democrats are busy scheduling votes on a grab bag of subjects designed to boost turnout from the party’s base in the fall elections. The economic problems we face are getting lost in the partisan din.

We need new policies—not just monetary, but fiscal, tax and labor-market policies as well—that focus relentlessly on aligning growth with job creation and compensation with productivity. The alternative is more of the same for average American households.


Time to think outside the box.

Economics 4 Dummies


Good Luck!

An Economics Lesson for Joe Biden

If the minimum wage tracked inflation, it would be $4.07 per hour.


Speaking at the White House on June 25, Vice President Joe Biden claimed that a higher federal minimum wage was practical and long overdue. “Just pay me [for] minimum wage what you paid folks in 1968,” Mr. Biden said, echoing the argument numerous labor unions, left-wing think tanks and activist groups have made.

The logic goes something like this: Had the minimum wage tracked inflation since 1968, it would today be over $10 an hour, so Congress should seek to bring it up to at least that amount. There are two problems with this logic. First, it is inconsistent with other Labor Department inflation data. And second, it presumes that entry-level employees can’t get a raise unless the government gives them one.

The federal minimum wage was first set in 1938 at 25 cents an hour. Had it tracked the cost of living since, it would today be $4.07 an hour, based on Labor Department data and the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ inflation calculator. This is the only logically consistent “historic” value of the minimum wage, and it’s 44% less than the current amount of $7.25.

Advocates of a higher minimum wage arbitrarily selected 1968 as the historical reference point. It’s no wonder: That’s when federal minimum wage hit its inflation-adjusted high point.

How about picking other arbitrary years to track the minimum wage and inflation? If you used 1948 instead of 1968, the minimum wage’s inflation-adjusted value would only be $3.81 an hour. If you chose 1988, the adjusted minimum wage would be $6.50 an hour.

There are other variations on this argument about inflation adjustments, and they are just as intellectually bankrupt. Earlier this year Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.) championed a $22 minimum wage that tracked economy-wide productivity over the past few decades. But these economy-wide gains—that include, for example, dramatic leaps in productivity in computers and wireless technology—look very different from the changes in productivity in the sectors where minimum-wage employees work. Since the early 1990s, productivity in food services has increased minimally or not at all.

The basis for both the inflation and productivity arguments is the suggestion that minimum-wage employees are helpless to earn a raise without a government mandate. Nothing could be further from the truth. Economists at Florida State and Miami University found that two-thirds of minimum-wage earners receive a raise after 1-12 months on the job. Even the Labor Department—whose acting Secretary Seth Harris has also been calling for a 1968 minimum wage—published a paper in the Monthly Labor Review (2001) showing that the “vast majority” of people who start at the minimum quickly move beyond it after leaving school.

Entry-level employees can only move up the career ladder if they have experience. To get experience, you need a job in the first place. These jobs will be more difficult to come by if Congress embraces the flawed logic of a 1968 minimum wage.


The lesson to be learned is that the world is different – the world price of labor has been driven down for the past 30 years. If we set the minimum wage at the 1968 all-time US high, more jobs will be created in India, China and Brazil, not here. Mr. Biden may have the best political intentions, but the result will be disastrous for employment of young, low skilled job hunters. We need to think outside the box and that’s probably not possible coming from Washington.

ZIRPing: Is It Working?


Nope. From the WSJ:

The Hidden Jobless Disaster

At the present slow pace of job growth, it will require more than a decade to get back to full employment defined by prerecession standards.

…the various programs of quantitative easing (and other fiscal and monetary policies) have not been particularly effective at stimulating job growth. Consequently, the Fed may want to reconsider its decision to maintain a loose-money policy until the unemployment rate dips to 6.5%.


The market tanked Wednesday on bad preliminary job news. And so, when Friday’s jobs report is released, the unemployment rate and the number of new jobs will come in for close scrutiny. Then again, they always attract the most attention. Even the Federal Reserve focuses on the unemployment rate, announcing on a number of occasions that a rate of 6.5% will indicate when it is time to start raising interest rates and winding down the Fed’s easy-money policies.

Yet the unemployment rate is not the best guide to the strength of the labor market, particularly during this recession and recovery. Instead, the Fed and the rest of us should be watching the employment rate. There are two reasons.

First, the better measure of a strong labor market is the proportion of the population that is working, not the proportion that isn’t. In 2006, 63.4% of the working-age population was employed. That percentage declined to a low of 58.2% in July 2011 and now stands at 58.6%. By this measure, the labor market’s health has barely changed over the past three years.

Second, the headline unemployment rate, what the Bureau of Labor Statistics calls “U3,” uses as its numerator the number of individuals who are actively seeking work but do not have jobs. There is another highly relevant measure that captures what is going on in the economy. “U6” counts those marginally attached to the workforce—including the unemployed who dropped out of the labor market and are not actively seeking work because they are discouraged, as well as those working part time because they cannot find full-time work.

Every time the unemployment rate changes, analysts and reporters try to determine whether unemployment changed because more people were actually working or because people simply dropped out of the labor market entirely, reducing the number actively seeking work. The employment rate—that is, the employment-to-population ratio—eliminates this issue by going straight to the bottom line, measuring the proportion of potential workers who are actually working.

During the past three decades the relation between unemployment and employment has been almost perfectly inverse. (See the nearby chart.) When the employment-to-population ratio rises, the unemployment rate falls. When the unemployment rate rises, the employment-to-population ratio falls. Even the turning points are aligned. Consequently, the unemployment rate has been a very good proxy for the employment rate. But that relationship has completely broken down during the most recent recession.

While the unemployment rate has fallen over the past 3½ years, the employment-to-population ratio has stayed almost constant at about 58.5%, well below the prerecession peak. Jobs are always being created and destroyed, and the net number of jobs over the last 3½ years has increased. But so too has the size of the working-age population. Job growth has been just slightly better than what it takes to keep the employed proportion of the working-age population constant. That’s why jobs still seem so scarce.

The U.S. is not getting back many of the jobs that were lost during the recession. At the present slow pace of job growth, it will require more than a decade to get back to full employment defined by prerecession standards.

The striking deficiency in jobs is borne out by the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey. Despite declining unemployment rates, the number of hires during the most recent month (March 2013) is almost the same as it was in January 2009, the worst month for job losses during the entire recession (4.2 million then, 4.3 million now).

Why have so many workers dropped out of the labor force and stopped actively seeking work? Partly this is due to sluggish economic growth. But research by the University of Chicago’s Casey Mulligan has suggested that because government benefits are lost when income rises, some people forgo poor jobs in lieu of government benefits—unemployment insurance, food stamps and disability benefits among the most obvious. The disability rolls have grown by 13% and the number receiving food stamps by 39% since 2009.

These disincentives to seek work may also help explain the unusually high proportion of the unemployed who have been out of work for more than 26 weeks. The proportion of unemployed who are long-termers reached 45% in April 2010 and again in March 2011. It is still above 37%. During the early 1980s, when the economy experienced a comparable recession, the proportion of long-term unemployed never exceeded 27%.

The Fed may draw two inferences from the experience of the past few years. The first is that it may be a very long time before the labor market strengthens enough to declare that the slump is over. The lackluster job creation and hiring that is reflected in the low employment-to-population ratio has persisted for three years and shows no clear signs of improving.

The second is that the various programs of quantitative easing (and other fiscal and monetary policies) have not been particularly effective at stimulating job growth. Consequently, the Fed may want to reconsider its decision to maintain a loose-money policy until the unemployment rate dips to 6.5%.

%d bloggers like this: