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Posts Tagged ‘unemployment’

Trump’s Bid to Pit Black and Brown Workers Against Each Other

Monday, August 7th, 2017

President Trump has resurrected an old canard in his effort to sell a new effort to restrict immigration into the United States. The legislation he backs, he said at a White House ceremony, was necessary in part to protect “minority workers competing for jobs against brand-new arrivals” under the current immigration system.

This theme is a hardy perennial in right-wing media and think-tank reports, often featuring members of a small but persistent cadre of conservative black people willing to be the face of the pernicious idea that in order to boost the fortunes of African Americans, we have to keep new immigrants out of the country.

This notion keeps getting debunked, but Trump trotted it out anyway as his administration launches key assaults against the core concerns of African-American people.

This comes the same week as news reports that the Justice Department is gearing up a new assault on affirmative action programs at colleges, based on the lie that these programs discriminate against white and Asian college applicants.

Career civil-rights lawyers in the Justice Department are so aghast at the idea that their agency’s efforts are being redirected from addressing the continuing effects of structural racism that Attorney General Jeff Sessions plans to use political appointees and outside lawyers to lead the effort.

Remember that this pronouncement also is in the shadow of a speech Trump gave before police officers in Long Island, New York, in which he encouraged police officers to rough up criminal suspects.

“[W]hen you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon — you just see them thrown in, rough — I said, please don’t be too nice,” Trump told the assembly of law enforcement officers.

Even people in his own administration denounced the speech as inappropriate, as did prominent police chiefs. Later, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders dismissed Trump’s comment as a joke.

But in African-American communities around the country, where the drumbeat of stories of police officers using clearly unwarranted deadly force against African Americans continues to reverberate, no one was laughing.

Vice senior editor Wilbert Cooper convincingly took on the black-people-harmed-by-immigration myth in a 2016 essay. Not only is it false that immigration of lower-skilled people harms African-American employment prospects, he wrote that “counter to what Trump and others contend, there’s evidence that immigration can actually help low-skilled blacks get back to work.”

Denver University economist Jack Strauss analyzed a wide breadth of data from metropolitan areas across the US in 2013 to determine whether blacks in particular lose out when it comes to immigration. He found there to be a “one-way causation from increased immigration including Latinos to higher black wages and lower poverty.” In other words, immigration is good for black workers. According to Strauss’s summary of his findings, a “1 percent rise in Latino immigration contributes to a 1.4 percent increase in employment rates among African Americans,” and “for every 1 percent increase in a city’s share of Latinos, African median and mean wages increase by 3 percent.”

The reality is, as Cooper writes, cities like Cleveland and Detroit are working to attract immigrants, because of the impact immigrants have on the overall economic vitality of the communities they make their home.

Jobs Tell The Story

On Friday, the federal government will release an updated picture of the nation’s employment situation. The previous report, covering June, showed that the nation’s unemployment rate was 4.4 percent, and African-American unemployment was 7.1 percent, down significantly from 8.8 percent in June 2016.

The significant decrease in black unemployment is in itself a direct rebuke to the idea that drastic measures to restrict immigration are necessary to lower unemployment rates in African-American communities.

What that progress affirms that economic growth combined with economic justice and fairness is essential to closing the gaps between black, brown and white employment prospects.

What The Nation Needs

What the nation needs is not an assault on immigration, but an assault on the effects of structural racism and economic inequality. Instead of dismantling affirmative action, we need investments in schooling for African-American children that start at preschool – and before.

We need to reinvest in communities that have been left behind by the free-market idolatry of too many state governments and, now, the federal government itself. We need every worker to have a living wage and access to affordable housing.

Above all, we need to end the assaults on the fundamental dignity of African-American people – from the coded reference to “thugs” who need to be roughed up by police to the active exalting by White House officials of the nostrums of white nationalism.

Thanks but no thanks, President Trump. The overwhelming majority of African Americans don’t want your faux paternalism at the expense of our immigrant brothers and sisters.

This blog was originally published at OurFuture.org on August 3, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Isaiah J. Poole is communications director of People’s Action, and has been the editor of OurFuture.org since 2007. Previously he worked for 25 years in mainstream media, most recently at Congressional Quarterly, where he covered congressional leadership and tracked major bills through Congress. Most of his journalism experience has been in Washington as both a reporter and an editor on topics ranging from presidential politics to pop culture. His work has put him at the front lines of ideological battles between progressives and conservatives. He also served as a founding member of the Washington Association of Black Journalists and the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association.

Public transportation is a jobs and equality issue

Monday, June 12th, 2017

Public transportation is a jobs issue. If you don’t believe that, take a look at Philadelphia, where lack of efficient mass transit from the city to the suburbs is keeping a lot of people out of work—and a coalition of progressive and religious groups is pushing the city to offer improved options:

The coalition says SEPTA’s system centers on an outdated reality: suburban dweller commuting to city job. In 1970, about half of the region’s jobs were based in Philadelphia, the coalition said in a letter to Council. By 2013, only one in four jobs were in Philadelphia, as urban employment declined and suburban jobs increased. Meanwhile, the city has a higher unemployment rate, 6 percent in March, compared to suburban rates of 3.5 percent to 4.4 percent.

Workers trying to get from the city to the suburbs for jobs face long commutes. Looooong. Just 24 percent of jobs in the area are accessible within 90 minutes on public transit. That’s a major obstacle:

Another survey, by Temple University’s Institute of Survey Research, found that lack of transportation was the biggest barrier to employment, with 39 percent of respondents below the poverty line saying that not being able to get to work was more of an obstacle than a criminal history, child care problems or language barriers.

That’s just one more way infrastructure investment—the kind Donald Trump isn’t interested in making—boosts employment.

This blog was originally published at DailyKos on June 10, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. and Labor editor since 2011.

98,000 Jobs Added to the Economy in March, Unemployment Is 4.5%

Tuesday, April 11th, 2017

The U.S. economy added 98,000 jobs in March and the unemployment rate declined to 4.5%, according to figures released this morning by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

While the job growth was tepid in March, and the revisions for the numbers for January and February are weaker than earlier reported, the economy is continuing close to the trend of job growth that started under President Barack Obama. If we continue the trend of job growth over the past seven years he established, the economy will add another 25 million jobs in eight years. Oddly, the claim President Donald Trump has made is that he will create 25 million jobs.

Still, wage growth needs time to recover as does the share of workers employed so household incomes can recover to their 1999 peak. With modest job gains in March, the Federal Open Market Committee of the Federal Reserve that sets monetary policy needs to pause ahead of its proposed interest rate hike in June. The higher interest rates are meant to signal a return to normal, but we are not there, yet.

The biggest gains were in professional and business services (+56,000) and in mining (+11,000), while retail trade lost jobs (-30,000). Other sectors of note include health care (+14,000) and financial services (+9,000). According to BLS, construction employment saw little change in March (+6,000).

Employment in other major industries, including manufacturing, wholesale trade, transportation and warehousing, leisure and hospitality, and government, showed little or no change over the month.

Among the demographic groups of working people, the unemployment rates for adult women (4.0%), white people (3.9%) and Hispanic people (5.1%) declined in March. The jobless rates for adult men (4.3%), teenagers (13.7%), black people (8.0%) and Asian people (3.3%) showed little or no change.

This blog was originally posted on aflcio.org on April 7, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

The Economy Adds 227,000 Jobs in January, and Unemployment Little Changed at 4.8%

Monday, February 6th, 2017
The U.S. economy added 227,000 jobs in January in the last employment report of the the Barack Obama administration. Unemployment was little changed at 4.8%, according to figures released this morning by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. President Donald Trump is inheriting a relatively strong economy based on years of work that Barack Obama and his administration did to bring us out of the horrible recession brought on, in part, because of George W. Bush-era deregulation and weak enforcement. Obama inherited a failing economy, with 589,000 jobs lost in January 2009 and an unemployment rate in February 2009 of 7.6%. Trump, on the other hand, is inheriting a much stronger jobs market, with 227,000 jobs added in January 2017 and an unemployment rate of 4.8%. Trump’s challenge is to continue the pattern of job growth and rising wages. The administration needs to create policies benefiting working people so the recovery continues.
The Economy Adds 227,000 Jobs in January, and Unemployment Little Changed at 4.8%

In response to the January jobs numbers, AFL-CIO Chief Economist William Spriggs tweeted:

 

Last month’s biggest job gains were in retail trade (46,000), construction (36,000), financial activities (32,000), food services and drinking places (30,000), professional and technical services (23,000), health care (18,000), transportation and warehousing (15,000), professional and business (15,000), and financial activities (13,000). Employment in other major industries, including mining and logging, manufacturing, wholesale trade, transportation and warehousing, information, and government, showed little change over the month.

Among the major worker groups, the unemployment rate for Asians (3.7%) increased in January. The jobless rates for adult men (4.4%), adult women (4.4%), teenagers (15.0%), whites (4.3%), blacks (7.7%) and Hispanics (5.9%) showed little or no change over the month.

The number of long-term unemployed (those jobless for 27 weeks or more) was little changed in January and accounted for 24.4% of the unemployed.

This blog originally appeared in aflcio.org on February 3, 2017.  Reprinted with permission.

Kenneth Quinnell: I am a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist.  Before joining the AFL-CIO in 2012, I worked as labor reporter for the blog Crooks and Liars.  Previous experience includes Communications Director for the Darcy Burner for Congress Campaign and New Media Director for the Kendrick Meek for Senate Campaign, founding and serving as the primary author for the influential state blog Florida Progressive Coalition and more than 10 years as a college instructor teaching political science and American History.  My writings have also appeared on Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.  I am the proud father of three future progressive activists, an accomplished rapper and karaoke enthusiast.

More U.S. Workers Have Highly Volatile, Unstable Incomes

Tuesday, January 3rd, 2017

The U.S stock market may be at record highs and U.S. unemployment at its lowest level since the Great Recession, but income inequality remains stubbornly high.

Contributing to this inequality is the fact that while more Americans are working than at any time since August 2007, more people are working part time, erratic and unpredictable schedules—without full-time, steady employment. Since 2007, the number of Americans involuntarily working part time has increased by nearly 45 percent. More Americans than before are part of what’s considered the contingent workforce, working on-call or on-demand, and as independent contractors or self-employed freelancers, often with earnings that vary dramatically month to month.

These workers span the socioeconomic spectrum, from low-wage workers in service, retail, hospitality and restaurant jobs—and temps in industry, construction and manufacturing—to highly educated Americans working job-to-job because their professions lack fulltime employment opportunities given the structure of many information age businesses. As Andrew Stettner, Michael Cassidy and George Wentworth point out in their new report, A New Safety Net for an Era of Unstable Earnings, what all these workers have in common are highly volatile, unstable incomes and a lack of access to the traditional U.S. unemployment insurance safety net.

“The programs we have to help people are very biased toward traditional incomes,” says Stettner, senior fellow at The Century Foundation. “Volatility in earnings is a really big problem.”

“Those with the least to lose are most likely to lose it”

Published by The Century Foundation, a progressive, nonpartisan think tank, in collaboration with the National Employment Law Project (NELP), which advocates for policies that expand access to work and labor protections for low-wage workers, the report found that those in the contingent or nontraditional workforce “experience nearly twice as much earnings volatility as standard workers.”

It also found that because of this situation, between 2008 and 2013, three out of five prime earners experienced at least as much as a 50 percent drop in their month-to-month income. Half experienced month-to-month income drops of more than 100 percent.

“This broad issue of underemployment,” says NELP senior counsel George Wentworth, “there’s less of a light on it and these people are not showing up in national unemployment figures. But these workers are struggling and many of them are not making ends meet.”

Central to this problem is that most workers now employed part time are making less than what they made previously, working full time. At the same time, their part-time or independent contractor status means they are likely not eligible for a full complement—if any, in the case of self-employed freelancers—of standard employment benefits, including employer paid health insurance or any form of unemployment insurance, explains Wentworth.

As the report notes, “Those with the least to lose are most likely to lose it.”

Policy recommendations

Both Stettner and Wentworth explain that historical policy responses—and those set up to help workers laid off during the Great Recession—focus on traditional employment situations. Typical unemployment insurance is also biased against those who take up part-time or self-employment gigs while they’re looking for new full-time jobs by reducing unemployment payments. Some states have partial unemployment benefits designed for part-time workers, including those who’ve involuntarily had their hours reduced, but these vary widely. The report found that for workers whose hours are cut from full time to part time, “ten states would replace half of their lost earnings while fourteen states would provide no benefits at all.”

To address what’s becoming the new normal for U.S. workers, the report makes several recommendations. It proposes that states offer partial unemployment benefits to workers earning less than 150 percent of what they’d qualify for weekly if they were laid off (rather than working part time). This would substantially improve coverage for workers whose hours have been cut or who take part-time jobs after losing fulltime jobs.

“It also should be easier to file for these benefits,” says Stettner, explaining that current work documentation requirements don’t necessarily reflect the reality of how part timers work and get paid.

The report also recommends broadening unemployment insurance support for work-sharing programs. Work-share programs, explains Wentworth, are designed to help employers avoid layoffs by retaining their existing workforce but with reduced hours.

The report proposes beefing up existing financial support for work-share programs to reduce the impact to employees of reduced hours. “This is basically for high road employers,” says Wentworth.

The report also recommends a pilot program to provide unemployment insurance to freelancers who don’t have a traditional employer relationship. This is perhaps the most challenging of the report’s proposals since it seeks to address circumstances that extend well beyond the issue of reduced hours. Ideas include giving freelancers better access to certain tax credits in ways that help even out swings in earnings. It could also involve building on international examples such as professional guilds in Europe, where people contribute in order to draw benefits when needed, Stettner explains.

These proposals go beyond and build on those already being discussed at the state, local and federal level to require employers to provide more stable scheduling, pay a minimum number of hours if workers are called for a shift and that protect workers who request schedule changes. They would also begin to address the situations of the estimated 19.1 million Americans who depend solely on freelance income and are currently without any employment safety net.

“We’re just scratching the surface to understand how to come up with a better set of market-based and government solutions,” says Stettner. “We’ve created a whole view of the world that now applies to only about half the working people in America,” he says. “We have this huge divide we need to hammer on. It should concern everyone.”

This article originally appeared at Inthesetimes.com on December 28, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Yale e360, Environmental Health Perspectives, Mother Jones, Ensia, Time, Civil Eats, The Guardian, The Washington Post, Salon and The Nation.

The letter from Carrier to its employees that Donald Trump doesn’t want you to read

Monday, December 5th, 2016

aaron ruparOn Thursday, President-elect Donald Trump traveled to the Carrier factory in Indianapolis, Indiana to tout the deal he helped orchestrate to keep about 800 manufacturing jobs in the United States in exchange for state and federal incentives, including $7 million from Indiana.

“Companies are not going to leave the United States anymore without consequences. Not going to happen. It’s not going to happen, I’ll tell you right now,” Trump said during a speech at the factory.

What Trump didn’t mention, either then or during a subsequent “thank you” rally later Thursday in Cincinnati, is that the deal he and Vice President-elect Mike Pence helped broker won’t prevent Carrier from outsourcing more jobs than are being saved in Indiana. The company will keep about 800 jobs at the Indianapolis plant, but will still move 600 jobs from Indianapolis to Mexico. Another 700 jobs are being moved to Mexico from a separate factory in Huntington, Indiana, which will be closed.

In sum, about 800 American jobs are being saved, but another 1,300 are disappearing. Those painful details were acknowledged in a letter Carrier sent to affected workers on Thursday that was posted to Twitter by Indianapolis-based journalist Rafael Sánchez.

screen-shot-2016-12-06-at-11-57-12-pm

Trump’s deal with United Technology, the company that owns Carrier, is good news for the workers who will keep their jobs, of course. But doling out huge tax breaks and other incentives to entice companies to keep jobs in the United States is bad economics, as Trump himself acknowledged on the campaign trail when he denounced government officials for believing that providing economic incentives to corporations keeps jobs in the United States.

During a Thursday appearance on CNBC, conservative economic policy analyst Jimmy Pethokoukis went so far as to call Trump’s speech at the Carrier plant “absolutely the worst speech” about economics in more than 30 years.

“The idea that American corporations are going to have to make business decisions, not based on the fact that we’ve created an ideal environment for economic growth in the United States, but out of fear of punitive actions based on who knows what criteria exactly from a presidential administration,” Pethokoukis, a scholar with the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute, said. “I think that’s absolutely chilling.”

On Friday, the latest jobs numbers reinforced that Trump’s Carrier deal comes amid a long-term downturn in manufacturing jobs in the country. While a net 178,000 private and public positions were added in November and the unemployment rate fell to 4.6 percent, the lowest since August 2007, manufacturing jobs fell by 4,000. For the year, manufacturing jobs across the country have fallen by 78,000.

If the trend continues into 2017—manufacturing jobs in the country have been declining since before George W. Bush took office—Trump would need to strike roughly 100 Carrier-equivalent deals to stem the tide, at an untold cost to taxpayers.

This blog originally appeared in ThinkProgress.org on December 1, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Aaron Rupar is a Journalist at ThinkProgress. Twitter: @atrupar. Email: arupar@americanprogress.org

This week in the war on workers: What happens if Obama's overtime expansion is reversed?

Monday, November 21st, 2016

LauraClawson

President Obama’s expansion of overtime pay goes into effect on December 1. But what happens if it gets rolled back in 2017? Here are some of the Department of Labor’s takeaways from a Congressional Budget Office report:

  1. CBO finds that reversing the rule would strip nearly 4 million workers of overtime protections. According to the report, there are nearly 4 million workers whose employers will be required to pay them overtime when they work more than 40 hours a week when the rule goes into effect.
  2. CBO finds that reversing the rule would reduce workers’ earnings while increasing the hours they work. The report finds that if the rule is reversed, the total annual earnings of all affected workers would decrease by more than $500 million in 2017. Further, these workers would earn less money while working more hours.
  3. At a time when income inequality is already of great concern, CBO finds that reversing the rule would primarily benefit people with high incomes. If the rule were reversed, affected workers, most of whom have moderate incomes, would experience a loss in earnings. These losses would be accompanied by an increase in firms’ profits, of which the vast majority (CBO estimates 85 percent) would accrue to people in the top income quintile.
  4. CBO finds that reversing the rule would not create or save jobs. The report finds no significant impact on the number of jobs in the economy.

Nearly 4 million workers.

This article originally appeared at DailyKOS.com on November 19, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. Labor editor since 2011.

Enormous, Humongous August Trade Deficit Prompts Trade Deficit Bill

Tuesday, October 11th, 2016

dave.johnsonThe U.S. Census Bureau reported Wednesday that the August trade deficit rose 3 percent to $40.73 billion from July’s $39.5 (slightly revised). Both exports and imports rose, with imports rising more than exports. August exports were $187.9 billion up $1.5 billion from July. August imports were $228.6 billion up $2.6 billion.

The goods deficit was $60.3 billion, offset by a services surplus of $19.6 billion.

Imports from China increased 9.5 percent.

Is Increased “Trade” Good If It Really Means Increased Trade Deficits?

“Trade” is generally considered a good thing. But consider this: closing an American factory and firing its workers (not to mention the managers, supply chain, truck drivers, etc affected) and instead producing the same goods in a country with low wages and few environmental protections, then bringing the same goods back to sell in the same stores increases “trade” because now those goods cross a border. This is how “trade” results in a structural trade deficit. Goods once made here are made there, the economic gains move from here to there.

Offshoring production can be a good thing, but only in a full-employment economy. This is because with everyone employed companies can’t find people to do things that need to be done. Meanwhile workers in other countries need the jobs. The people there can afford things made here, and trade balances. Everyone benefits.

But since the 1970s the US has used “trade” and other policies to intentionally drive unemployment up and wages down, to the benefit of “investors” (Wall Street) and executives, who then pocket the wage differential. This pushes the economy’s gains to a few at the top, increasing inequality, which increases the power of plutocrats to further influence policy in their favor.

The US has run a trade deficit since the 1970s. Coincidentally, see this chart:

The stagnation of wages for working people just happens to correspond with the introduction of the intentional “trade” deficit. Again, “trade” in this case means deindustrialization: closing factories here, opening them there and bringing the same goods across a border to sell in the same stores.

Trade Deficit Reduction Act

This week Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY) introduced a bill designed to identify and reduce our enormous, humongous trade deficits. RochesterFirst.com has the story, in Slaughter introduces legislation to reduce trade deficits,

On Monday, Congresswoman Louise Slaughter unveiled the Trade Deficit Reduction Act, which calls for a change in how we approach international trade in order to benefit our workers.

The legislation would put a government-wide focus on addressing the most significant trade deficits that exist between the United States and other countries. The U.S. has run trade deficits since the 1970s.

… “The last thing our community needs as we work to reignite our manufacturing base with advanced technologies like optics and photonics is to undo this progress by enacting another NAFTA-style trade deal. We need a whole new direction in our trade policy, which is why I am standing with workers from PGM Corp. today to unveil the Trade Deficit Reduction Act. This legislation will change how we approach international trade and make it benefit our workers and manufacturers,” said Slaughter.

The bill would require the administration to identify the countries with which the U.S. has the worst trade deficits.

The bill also directs the administration to develop plans of action to address the trade deficits with those countries, with strict deadlines and oversight from Congress.

The intentional trade deficit and other policies to drive up unemployment and drive down wages greatly enrich a few, but history tells us the consequences are dangerous to society. For example, the rising support for Trump and other far-right populists like him around the world.

This post originally appeared on ourfuture.org on October 6, 2016. Reprinted with Permission.

Dave Johnson has more than 20 years of technology industry experience. His earlier career included technical positions, including video game design at Atari and Imagic. He was a pioneer in design and development of productivity and educational applications of personal computers. More recently he helped co-found a company developing desktop systems to validate carbon trading in the US.

Will Artificial Intelligence Mean Massive Job Loss?

Friday, September 30th, 2016

arthurmacewan_cla_fall2012_hb_bioIn the late 1970s, my early years at the University of Massachusetts Boston (UMB), the Department of Economics had two secretaries. When I retired, in 2008, the number of faculty members and students in the department had increased, but there was only one secretary. All the faculty members had their own computers, with which they did much of the work that secretaries had previously done.

I would guess that over those thirty years, the number of departmental secretaries and other secretaries in the university declined by as many as 100, replaced by information technology—what has now become the foundation of artificial intelligence. As I started writing this column, however, I looked on the university’s web site and counted about 100 people with jobs in various parts of the Information Technology Department. Neither this department nor those jobs existed in my early years at UMB. The advance in technology that eliminated so many secretaries also created as many jobs as it eliminated—perhaps more.

My little example parallels the larger and more widely cited changes on U.S. farms in the 20th century—a century when the diesel engine, artificial fertilizers, and other products of industry reduced the percentage of the labor force working on farms from 40% to 2%. No massive unemployment resulted (though a lot of horses, mules, and oxen did lose their jobs). The great expansion of urban industrial production along with the growth of the service sector created employment that balanced the displacement of workers on the farms.

Other cases are cited in debates over the impact of artificial intelligence, examples ranging from handloom weavers’ resistance to new machinery in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution to a widespread concern about “automation” in the 1960s. Generally, however, the new technologies, while displacing workers in some realms of production, also raised productivity and economic growth. There has, as a result, been increased demand for old products and demand for new products, creating more and different jobs.

Historically, it seems, each time prophecies foretold massive unemployment resulting from major technological innovations, they turned out to be wrong. Indeed, often the same forces that threatened existing jobs created new jobs. The transitions were traumatic and harmful for the people losing their jobs, but massive unemployment was not the consequence.

Is This Time Different?

Today, as we move further into the 21st century, many people are arguing that artificial intelligence—sophisticated robotics—is different from past technological shifts, will replace human labor of virtually all types, and could generate massive unemployment. Are things really different this time? Just because someone, once again, walks around with a sign saying, “The world is about end,” doesn’t mean the world really isn’t about to end!

In much of modern history, the substitution of machines for people has involved physical labor. That was the case with handloom weavers in the early 19th century and is a phenomenon we all take for granted when we observe heavy machinery, instead of hand labor, on construction sites. Even as robotics entered industry, as on automobile assembly lines, the robots were doing tasks that had previously been done with human physical labor.

“Robotics” today, however, involves much more than the operation of traditional robots, the machines that simulate human physical labor. Robots now are rapidly approaching the ability, if they do not already have it, to learn from experience, respond to changes in situations, compare, compute, read, hear, smell, and make extremely rapid adjustments (“decisions”) in their actions—which can include everything from moving boxes to parsing data. In part, these capabilities are results of the extreme progress in the speed and memory capacity of computers.

They are also the result of the emergence of “Cloud Robotics” and “Deep Learning.” In Cloud Robotics, each robot gathers information and experiences from other robots via “the cloud” and thus learns more and does so more quickly. Deep Learning involves a set of software that is designed to simulate the human neocortex, the part of the brain where thinking takes place. The software (also often cloud-based) recognizes patterns—sounds, images, and other data—and, in effect, learns.

While individual robots—like traditional machines—are often designed for special tasks, the basic robot capabilities are applicable to a broad variety of activities. Thus, as they are developed to the point of practical application, they can be brought into a wide variety of activities during the same period. Moreover, according to those who believe “this time is different,” that period of transition is close at hand and could be very short. The disruption of human labor across the economy would happen virtually all at once, so adjustments would be difficult—thus, the specter of massive unemployment.

Skepticism

People under thirty may take much of what is happening with information technology (including artificial intelligence) for granted, but those of us who are older find the changes awe-inspiring. Nonetheless, I am persuaded by historical experience and remain skeptical about the likelihood of massive unemployment. Moreover, although big changes are coming rapidly in the laboratories, their practical applications across multiple industries will take time.

While the adoption of artificial technology may not take place as rapidly and widely as the doomsday forecasters tell us, I expect that over the next few decades many, many jobs will be replaced. But as with historical experience, the expansion of productivity and the increase of average income will tend to generate rising demand, which will be met with both new products and more of the old ones; new jobs will open up and absorb the labor force. (But hang on to that phrase “average income.”)

Real Problems

Even if my skepticism is warranted, the advent of the era of artificial intelligence will create real problems, perhaps worse than in earlier eras. Most obvious, even when society in general (on average) gains, there are always losers from economic change. Workers who get replaced by robots may not be the ones who find jobs in new or expanding activity elsewhere. And, as has been the case for workers who lost their jobs in the Great Recession, those who succeed in finding new jobs often do so only with lower wages.

Beyond the wage issue, the introduction of new machinery—traditional machines or robots—often affects the nature and, importantly, the speed of work. The mechanized assembly line is the classic example, but computers—and, we can assume, robotics more generally—allow for more thorough monitoring and control of the activity of human workers. The handloom weavers who opposed the introduction of machines in the early 19th century were resisting the speed-up brought by the machines as well as the elimination of jobs. (The Luddite movement of Northwest England, while derided for incidents of smashing machines, was a reaction to real threats to their lives.)

More broadly, there is the question of how artificial intelligence will affect the distribution of income. However intelligent robots may be, they are still machines which, like slaves, have owners (whether owners of physical hardware, patents on the machines, or copyrights on the software). Will the owners be able to reap the lion’s share of the gains that come with the rising productivity of this major innovation? In the context of the extremely high degree of inequality that now exists as artificial intelligence is coming online, there is good reason for concern.

As has been the case with the information technology innovations that have already taken place—Microsoft, Apple, Google, and Facebook leap to mind—highly educated or specially skilled (or just lucky) workers are likely to share some of the gains from artificial intelligence. But with the great inequalities that exist in the U.S. educational system, the gains of a small group of elite workers would be unlikely to dampen the trend toward greater income inequality.

Income inequality in the United States has been increasing for the past 40 years, and labor’s share of total income has fallen since the middle of the last century—from 72% in 1947 to 63% in 2014. The rise of artificial intelligence, as it is now taking place, is likely to contribute to the continuation of these trends. This has broad implications for people’s well-being, but also for the continuation of economic growth. Even as average income is rising, if it is increasingly concentrated among a small group at the top, aggregate demand may be insufficient to absorb the rising output. The result would be slow growth at best and possibly severe crisis. (See “Are We Stuck in an Extended Period of Economic Stagnation?” D&S, July/August 2016.)

Over the long run, technological improvements that generate greater productivity have yielded some widely shared benefits. In the United States and other high-income countries, workers’ real incomes have risen substantially since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Moreover, a significant part of the gains for workers has come in the form of an increase in leisure time. Rising productivity from artificial intelligence holds out the possibility, in spite of the trends of recent decades, for a shift away from consumerism towards a resumption of the long-term trend toward more leisure—and, I would venture, more pleasant lives.

Yet, even as economic growth over the past 200 years has meant absolute gains for working people, some groups have fared much better than others. Moreover, even with absolute gains, relative gains have been limited. With some periods of exception, great inequalities have persisted, and those inequalities weigh heavily against the absolute rises in real wages and leisure. (And in some parts of the last two centuries—the last few decades in particular—gains for working people have not followed from rising productivity and economic growth.)

So even though I’m skeptical that artificial intelligence will generate massive unemployment, I fear that it may reinforce, and perhaps increase, economic inequality.

This article originally appeared at dollarsandsense.org on September 29, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

 is professor emeritus of economics at UMass-Boston and a Dollars & Sense Associate.

Trying to Teach Old Dogs New Tricks

Monday, September 26th, 2016

Last December, after a long period of keeping the Fed funds rate near zero, the FOMC voted unanimouslyto raise the Fed funds rate by one-quarter to one-half points. It was anticipated that would be the first in a series of increases of similar small amounts. But, over the course of this year, the economy has run rather flat. Employment in the areas sensitive to interest rates like construction and manufacturing, after employment gains during 2015, ran flat. Durable goods manufacturing, which had been declining during 2015, continued to fall. In 2015, the unemployment rate fell from 5.7% in January to 5.0% in October. It has since remained stuck at about that level.

Ideally, when the Federal Reserve gets things right, the economy runs neither too hot or too cold. Eight months of flat unemployment rates and tepid GDP growth would suggest the Fed has clearly succeeded in finding a landing that, so far hasn’t meant crashing the economy. At least, on Wednesday, the evidence from modest GDP growth, flat unemployment and very low inflation convinced the six Board of Governors and the president of the New York Federal Reserve Regional Bank to hold steady; a tribute to Janet Yellen’s leadership to stay focused on the data and the real economy.

But, the other three regional bank presidents, Esther George of Kansas City, Loretta Mester of Cleveland and Eric Rosengren of Boston, all voted to raise the rate now. Another point of context is understanding the global economy is growing slower. The other major world economies, Europe, Japan and China, are struggling with slow growth. Their central banks are operating with either zero or negative interest rates. America’s modest growth looks very good next to their anemic performance. So this is making the dollar very strong. And that helps to explain the weakness of U.S. manufacturing because a strong dollar hurts U.S. exports. So even modest increases in U.S. interest rates are big by global standards and could further disadvantage U.S. manufacturing.

A second context is that the excess level of savings, globally, is chasing down projections of interest rate levels. Currently, the consensus at the Fed is that in the midterm, the Fed funds rate is likely to be around 1.9% at the end of 2018, and in the long run the normal rate is expected to be about 2.9%. On the eve of the Great Recession, the Fed funds rate was 5.25%. Compared to 2.9%, a raise to between one-half and three-quarters is not small. It isn’t like when the “normal” rate was above 5%.

The current tension in the FOMC between the Board of Governors and the regional bank presidents continues the controversy whether banks have too much say. Independence of the Fed from the political process is important. But, so too is Fed independence from the banks they need to regulate and oversee to make sure we have economic stability. The vote from Wall Street was positive. The stock market gains show a consensus the Fed is doing it right.

This blog originally appeared in aflcio.org on September 23, 2016.  Reprinted with permission.

William E. Spriggs serves as Chief Economist to the AFL-CIO, and is a professor in, and former Chair of, the Department of Economics at Howard University. Follow Spriggs on Twitter: @WSpriggs.

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