Posts Tagged ‘automation’

unemployment-wages

Does anyone really need any additional evidence of the lopsided nature of the current recovery?

Employers certainly don’t. They’re managing to hire additional workers, thus lowering the unemployment rate. But they don’t have to pay the workers they hire much more than they were getting before, with wages barely staying ahead of the rate of inflation. As a result, corporate profits continue to grow.

Clearly, what we’re seeing remains a one-sided recovery: employers are getting ahead—and their workers are still being left behind.

According to the latest report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, total nonfarm payroll employment increased by 164,000 in April, thus reducing the headline unemployment rate to 3.9 percent and the expanded or U6 unemployment rate (which includes, in addition, marginally attached workers and those who are working part-time for economic reasons) to 7.4 percent.* Meanwhile, average hourly earnings of private-sector production and nonsupervisory employees increased by only 5 cents in April—an annual rate of just 2.7 percent (just a bit more than the current inflation rate of 2.5 percent).

Sure, employers complain that they can’t hire the workers they need—persistent gripes that are dutifully reported in the business press. They may even be paying one-time bonuses. But they’re certainly not increasing wages in order to attract the kinds of workers they say they want.

That’s because they don’t have to. Most of the new jobs are being created in sectors—like professional and technical services (an additional 25.8 thousand jobs in April), temporary help services (10.3 thousand), health care (24.4 thousand), machinery (8.4 thousand), and accommodation and food services (18.9 thousand)—where there are plenty of still-underemployed workers to go around. In addition, most of those workers are not represented by unions, and therefore aren’t in a position to negotiate for higher wages.** The decline in government jobs means there’s little competition for the nation’s workers. And employers continue to have the option of automation and offshoring, which also keeps workers’ wages in check.

So, employers in the United States are able to advertise jobs that pay $10, $12, or $20 an hour, which desperate workers are forced to have the freedom to take—because, within the existing set of economic institutions, the alternatives are even worse.

American employers, with their higher profits and new tax cuts, could be paying higher wages. But they’re choosing not to.***

For them, it’s certainly been a beautiful recovery.

 

*After revisions, job gains in the United States have averaged 208,000 over the last 3 months.

**However, one group of workers without union representation—teachers—have decided to initiate strikes and other work stoppages to respond to cuts in their wages and education budgets. As North Caroline kindergarten teacher Kristin Beller explained, “We are done being the frog that is being boiled.”

***Except, of course, the portion of the surplus they have been distributing to their CEOs.

employment-incomes

U.S. capitalism has a real problem: there don’t seem to be enough workers to keep the economy growing.

And it has another problem: capitalists themselves are to blame for the missing workers.

As is clear from the chart above, the employment-population ratio (the blue line) has collapsed from a high of 64.4 in 2000 to 59 in 2014 (and had risen to only 60.1 by the end of 2017).* During the same period, the average real incomes of the bottom 90 percent of Americans have stagnated—barely increasing from $37,541 to $37,886.

That should be indicator that the problem is on the demand side, that employers’ demand for workers’ labor power has decreased, and not the supply side, that workers are choosing to drop out of the labor force.

But, as I explained back in 2015, that hasn’t stopped mainstream economists from blaming workers themselves—especially women and young people, for being unwilling to work and turning instead to public assistance programs and raising children and being distracted by social media and digital technologies, as well as Baby-Boomers, who are choosing to retire instead of continuing to work.

So, which is it?

Katharine G. Abraham and Melissa S. Kearney have just completed a study in which they review the available evidence and their conclusion could not be clearer:

labor demand factors, in particular trade and the penetration of robots into the labor market, are the most important drivers of observed within-group declines in employment.

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Over the course of the past two decades, U.S. capitalists have decided both to increase trade with China (through outsourcing jobs and importing commodities) and to replace workers with robots and other forms of automation (it is estimated that each robot installed displaces something on the order of 5-6 workers).

That’s the main reason the employment-population ratio has declined so precipitously and that workers’ wages have stagnated in recent years.

Clearly, U.S. capitalists have been remarkably successful at increasing their profits. But they have just as spectacularly failed the vast majority of people who continue to be forced to have the freedom to work for them.

 

*The Bureau of Labor Statistics defines the employment-population ratio as the ratio of total civilian employment to the 16-and-over civilian noninstitutional population. Simply put, it is the portion of the population that is employed. Thus, for example, in 2000, the total number of civilian employees in the United States was 136.9 million and the figure for the civilian noninstitutional population was 212.6 million. By 2014, the civilian noninstitutional population had grown to 247.9 million but the total number of workers had risen to only 146.3 million. The employment-population ratio differs from both the unemployment rate (the number of unemployed divided by the civilian labor force) and the labor force participation rate (the share of the 16-and-over civilian noninstitutional population either working or looking for work).

Cumil

Students are much too busy to think these days. So, when a junior comes to talk with me about the possibility of my directing their senior thesis, I ask them about their topic—and then their schedule. I explain to them that, if they really want to do a good project, they’re going to have to quit half the things they’re involved in.

They look at me as if I’m crazy. “Really?! But I’ve signed up for all these interesting clubs and volunteer projects and intramural sports and. . .” I then patiently explain that, to have the real learning experience of a semester or year of independent study, they need time, a surplus of time. They need to have the extra time in their lives to get lost in the library or to take a break with a friend, to read and to daydream. In other words, they need to have the right to be lazy.

So does everyone else.

As it turns out, that’s exactly what Paul LaFargue argued, in a scathing attack on the capitalist work ethic, “The Right To Be Lazy,” back in 1883.

Capitalist ethics, a pitiful parody on Christian ethics, strikes with its anathema the flesh of the laborer; its ideal is to reduce the producer to the smallest number of needs, to suppress his joys and his passions and to condemn him to play the part of a machine turning out work without respite and without thanks.

And LaFargue criticized both economists (who “preach to us the Malthusian theory, the religion of abstinence and the dogma of work”) and workers themselves (who invited the “miseries of compulsory work and the tortures of hunger” and need instead to forge a brazen law forbidding any man to work more than three hours a day, the earth, the old earth, trembling with joy would feel a new universe leaping within her”).

LFPR

Today, nothing seems to have changed. Workers (or at least those who claim to champion the cause of workers) demand high-paying jobs and full employment, while mainstream economists (from Casey Mulligan, John Taylor, and Greg Mankiw to Dani Rodrick and Brad DeLong) promote what they consider to be the dignity of work and worry that, even as the official unemployment rate has declined in recent years, the labor-force participation rate in the United States has fallen dramatically and remains much too low.

Mainstream economists and their counterparts in the world of politics and policymaking—both liberals and conservatives—never cease to preach the virtues of work and in every domain, from minimum-wage legislation to economic growth, seek to promote more people getting more jobs to perform more work.

hours worked

This is particularly true in the United States and the United Kingdom, where the “work ethic” remains particularly strong. The number of hours worked per year has fallen in all advanced countries since the middle of the twentieth century but, as is clear from the chart above, in comparison with France and Germany, the average has declined by much less in America and Britain.

work

Today, according to the OECD, American and British workers spend much more time working per year (1765 and 1675 hours, respectively) than their French and German counterparts (1474 and 1371 hours, respectively).

But in all four countries—and, really, across the entire world—the capitalist work ethic prevails. Workers are exhorted to search for or keep their jobs, even as wage increases fall far short of productivity growth, inequality (already obscene) continues to rise, new forms of automation threaten to displace or destroy a wage range of occupations, unions and other types of worker representation have been undermined, and digital work increasingly permeates workers’ leisure hours.

The world of work, already satirized by LaFargue and others in the nineteenth century, clearly no longer works.

Not surprisingly, the idea of a world without work has returned. According to Andy Beckett, a new generation of utopian academics and activists are imagining a “post-work” future.

Post-work may be a rather grey and academic-sounding phrase, but it offers enormous, alluring promises: that life with much less work, or no work at all, would be calmer, more equal, more communal, more pleasurable, more thoughtful, more politically engaged, more fulfilled – in short, that much of human experience would be transformed.

To many people, this will probably sound outlandish, foolishly optimistic – and quite possibly immoral. But the post-workists insist they are the realists now. “Either automation or the environment, or both, will force the way society thinks about work to change,” says David Frayne, a radical young Welsh academic whose 2015 book The Refusal of Work is one of the most persuasive post-work volumes. “So are we the utopians? Or are the utopians the people who think work is going to carry on as it is?”

I’m willing to keep the utopian label for the post-work thinkers precisely because they criticize the world of work—as neither natural nor particularly old—and extend that critique to the dictatorial powers and assumptions of modern employers, thus opening a path to consider other ways of organizing the world of work. Most importantly, post-work thinking creates the possibility of criticizing the labor involved in exploitation and thus of creating the conditions whereby workers no longer need to succumb to or adhere to the distinction between necessary and surplus labor.

In this sense, the folks working toward a post-work future are the contemporary equivalent of the “communist physiologists, hygienists and economists” LaFargue hoped would be able to

convince the proletariat that the ethics inoculated into it is wicked, that the unbridled work to which it has given itself up for the last hundred years is the most terrible scourge that has ever struck humanity, that work will become a mere condiment to the pleasures of idleness, a beneficial exercise to the human organism, a passion useful to the social organism only when wisely regulated and limited to a maximum of three hours a day; this is an arduous task beyond my strength.

That’s the utopian impulse inherent in the right to be lazy.

Liberal mainstream economists all seem to be lip-synching Bobby McFerrin these days.

Worried about automation? Be happy, write Laura Tyson and Susan Lund, since “these marvelous new technologies promise higher productivity, greater efficiency, and more safety, flexibility, and convenience.”

Worried about the different positions in current debates about economic policy? Be happy, writes Justin Wolfers, and rely on the statistics produced by government agencies and financial firms and the opinions of mainstream economists.

Me, I remain worried and I have no reason to accept mainstream economists’ advice for being happy.

Sure, new forms of automation might lead to higher productivity and much else that Tyson and Lund find so alluring. But who’s going to benefit? If we go by the last few decades, large corporations and wealthy individuals are the ones who are going to capture most of the gains from the new technologies. Everyone else, as I have written, is going to be forced to have the freedom to either search for new jobs or deal with the fundamental transformation of the jobs they manage to keep.

When it comes to separating fact from fiction, aside from the embarrassing epistemological positions liberals rely on, where are the statistics that might help us make sense of what is going on out there—numbers like the Reserve Army of Unemployed, Underemployed, and Low-wage Workers or the rate of exploitation.

You want me not to worry? Analyze what’s going to happen to workers and the distribution of income as automation increases and calculate the kinds of economic numbers other theoretical traditions have produced.

Even better, let workers have a say in what and how new technologies are introduced and change economic institutions in order to eliminate the Reserve Army and class exploitation.

Then and only then will I be happy.

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199880 Clay Bennett editorial cartoon

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