Posts Tagged ‘unemployment’

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Special mention

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Here’s an episode concerning U.S. unemployment statistics I was not aware of: in September 1961, James Daniel, writing in the Readers’ Digest, accused the U.S. government of providing “excellent fodder for the communist line.”

Daniel’s article, “Let’s Look at Those ‘Alarming’ Unemployment Figures,” began as follows:

For months the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has been pouring out a stream of doleful figures depicting the worst ‘unemployment crisis’ in the United States since the Great Depression of the 1930′s. Almost daily some administration official tells us that nearly seven percent of our labor force is out of work. Meanwhile, Congress has passed one emergency spending bill after another on the ground, in part or in whole, that it will help employment…. All this unemployment news out of Washington provides excellent fodder for the communist line, of course.

At least in part in response to the Daniels article, in November 1961, the President’s Committee to Appraise Employment and Unemployment Statistics was appointed. Then, in 1963, the Subcommittee on Economic Statistics of the Joint Economic Committee held hearings on “Measuring Employment and Unemployment” (pdf).

Here’s Robert A. Gordon, the chair of the president’s committee:

You will forgive me if I say that this article represented an egregious example of irresponsible journalism. In effect, it charged that the official data on unemployment were being deliberately manipulated in order to justify larger Government spending and more extensive Government controls.

The entire transcript of the hearings is worth reading, if only to get a sense that there is no level of unemployment “out there” to be measured. The measuring of unemployment (like all such statistics, from national income to profits) is a social construction.

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Today, of course, the rate of unemployment is once again contested, as conspiracy theorists (like Donald Trump) argue the official unemployment numbers out of Washington are exaggerated. However, in their case, it’s not that they’re too high, but too low.

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Bob Trotman, “Business as Usual” (2009)

Is anyone else struck by the contradiction between what is actually going on in the world and the fact that, for those in charge, it’s just business as usual?

Consider, for example, the decision to drop the charges against the three remaining officers facing trial in connection with the April 2015 death in policy custody of Freddie Gray. In fact, according to Mapping Police Violence, “only 10 of the 102 cases in 2015 where an unarmed black person was killed by police resulted in officer(s) being charged with a crime, and only 2 of these deaths (Matthew Ajibade and Eric Harris) resulted in convictions of officers involved.” Charles Blow, for one, is appropriately “incandescent with rage”:

Bill Clinton, who I found more beguiling than many, apparently, took the stage and shifted the burden of dismantling oppression from the shoulders of the oppressors to the shoulders of the oppressed, saying: “If you’re a young African-American disillusioned and afraid, we saw in Dallas how great our police officers can be. Help us build a future where nobody is afraid to walk outside, including the people that wear blue to protect our future.”

How are the people without the power, the people against whom the power is being exercised, supposed to alter the perversion of that power if the abusers are not held accountable?

I am exhausted. I am repulsed. I am over all the circular dialogue. But I don’t know precisely where that leaves me other than in a hurt and festering place. America is edging ever closer to telling people like me that the eye of justice isn’t blind but jaundiced, and I say back to America, that is incredibly dangerous.

And during that same convention, as broad swathes of Americans continue to suffer from the Wall Street-engineered crash of 2007-08 (not just, as Barack Obama put it, “pockets of America that never recovered from factory closures”), hordes of financial industry executives (as well as drug companies, health insurers, and others) descended on Philadelphia.

While protesters marched in the streets and blocked traffic, Democratic donors congregated in a few reserved hotels and shuttled between private receptions with A-list elected officials. If the talk onstage at the Wells Fargo Center was about reducing inequality and breaking down barriers, downtown Philadelphia evoked the world as it still often is: a stratified society with privilege and access determined by wealth.

In fact, as Thomas Frank warns, Donald Trump might end up stealing the voters Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party are taking for granted.

Let’s see: trade agreements, outreach to hawks, “bipartisanship”, Wall Street. All that’s missing is a “Grand Bargain” otherwise it’s the exact same game plan as last time, and the time before that, and the time before that. Democrats seem to be endlessly beguiled by the prospect of campaign of national unity, a coming-together of all the quality people and all the affluent people and all the right-thinking, credentialed, high-achieving people. The middle class is crumbling, the country is seething with anger, and Hillary Clinton wants to chair a meeting of the executive committee of the righteous.

When Democrats sold out their own rank and file in the past it constituted betrayal, but at least it sometimes got them elected. Specifically, the strategy succeeded back in the 1990s when Republicans were market purists and working people truly had “nowhere else to go”. As our modern Clintonists of 2016 move instinctively to dismiss the concerns of working people, however, they should keep this in mind: those people may have finally found somewhere else to go.

Meanwhile, the European Union is disintegrating and the euro zone continues to impose Draconian austerity measures. As Joseph Stiglitz explains in a recent interview, banks and corporate interests generally have been the only beneficiaries.

Q. In your telling, Germany has imposed austerity across Europe out of faith in a discredited economic idea, the notion that if policy makers concentrate solely on preventing budget deficits and inflation, the markets can be counted on to deliver prosperity. A lot of your book is devoted to demolishing this idea. Does the German elite still really believe in this philosophy, or is something else at play?

A. I’ve visited Germany often, and I’m shocked about how strong the belief is in this view that has been totally discredited elsewhere.

But the policies are mixed together with interests. When the Greek crisis broke out in 2010, what was really at risk were German and to some extent French banks. And there was an enormous bailout that was called a bailout of Greece but was really a bailout of German and French banks. Most of the money went to Greece and then right away went back to Germany and France. . .

Q. You argue that some European leaders secretly welcomed mass unemployment as a means of adjusting to the crisis because this was the only way they could see to spur investment — lowering wages. The strictures of the euro took other options off the table: Crisis countries could not let their currency fall or lower interest rates or expand government spending. Was unemployment really embraced as a fix?

A. They wanted to break the back of workers. Their view was that workers needed to accept a wage cut and we are going to change the bargaining rules to make it more difficult for them to resist. And if we need to add on a little dose of unemployment, well, that’s unfortunate.

Q. Doesn’t that goal predate the crisis?

A. It’s very clear that the euro was a neo-liberal project in its construction. Employers like low wages. They have broken the back of the unions in many of the countries of Europe. They would view that as a great achievement.

However ironically, it has fallen to the Boston Consulting Group [ht: sm] to sound the alarm about attempting to conduct business as usual:

Societies in the United States and Europe are being fundamentally challenged in ways we have not seen for decades—with nationalistic rhetoric and agendas from the far right and a deep distrust of business, globalization, and technology from the far left. Many worry that such a polarization of public opinion and policy making could introduce new risks and uncertainties that would deter investment (which is already far too low, judging by current interest rates) and undermine the basis for future prosperity.

Why this polarization? While there are many causes, and they vary from country to country, it reflects in large part widespread and growing dissatisfaction with entrenched economic and social inequality and greater personal uncertainty in a fast-changing global economy. It also reflects people’s mistrust of political and corporate elites, who are seen as the architects of this state of affairs. Economic inequality within our societies is a byproduct of the way we have managed the past three and a half decades of global economic integration. At the same time, technology—in particular, recent advances in robotics, machine intelligence, and distributed ledgers (blockchain)—could replace human labor in many areas, further compounding dislocation, inequality, and discontent.

Brexit was a watershed. The British vote to leave the European Union was motivated in large part by frustration with economic stagnation and inequality, and it has created fertile ground for nationalistic, anti-immigrant sentiment. The English West Midlands, the region with highest “leave” vote, has experienced stagnating median household incomes for nearly two decades.

The division between those who have captured the vast majority of the benefits from global integration and technological progress and those who haven’t runs between major cities and smaller communities, between young and old, and between people with different levels of education. And it’s not just Great Britain—70% of the US workforce has experienced no real wage increase in the past four decades. Similar patterns can be observed in Canada, Germany, and other European countries. Wealth concentration has also increased globally, with around 1% of people controlling 50% of the world’s assets.

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Jason Furman (pdf), Chairman of the U.S. Council of Economic Advisors, gave a speech a couple of weeks highlighting the potential for automation to displace many of today’s workers, even as he insists we need more investment in artificial intelligence.

What they did on the Council is take the numbers produced by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne, who argue that 47 percent of U.S. jobs are at risk of being replaced by automation (a study I discussed here) and then rank them by wages. What they found is that

83 percent of jobs making less than $20 per hour would come under pressure from automation, as compared to 31 percent of jobs making between $20 and $40 per hour and 4 percent of jobs making above $40 per hour

In other words, automation—which, of course, is deployed by private employers to increase profits—threatens to destroy a massive number of jobs currently done by the American working-class. Displaced workers will be jettisoned from the labor force and join the Reserve Army of the Unemployed and Underemployed.

It is true, over the long run (as long as capitalism continues to grow), new jobs will be created, and some of the displaced workers (and their children) will be forced to have the freedom to take them. But only some of them. In the short run (and, remember, the long run is merely made up of a series of short-runs), as Furman argues, “the process of turnover. . .could lead to sustained periods of time with a large fraction of people not working.”

Within the existing economic institutions, automated technologies are therefore likely to decrease the labor force participation rate, expand the ranks of the unemployed and underemployed, and increase already-high levels of inequality (as workers’ wages continue to stagnate and technology-induced profits soar).

To be clear, that’s not an argument against artificial intelligence and automation. Under other circumstances we might welcome them. It is a caution about the effects of deploying new technologies within the current economy—in which workers and their wages are mostly dependent on private employers, who hire them if and only if it is profitable.

“Is this time different?” Not really, outside of the mythical long-run, full-employment equilibrium offered by mainstream economists. Now as in the past, existing workers—on farms and in factories and offices, especially those who make the average wage or less—are forced to endure the consequences of the decisions their employers take to adopt new technologies.

As even Furman admits,

I see little reason to believe that the economic impact of AI will be very different from previous technological advances. But unlike many of the optimists, I do not find that similarity fully comforting, as technological advances in recent decades have brought tremendous benefits but have also contributed to increasing inequality and falling labor force participation.

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It’s all going according to plan, at least as mainstream economists and politicians see things. Private enterprises, both large and small, on Main Street and Wall Street, were given every condition to lead the economic recovery from the spectacular crash of 2007-08.*

And, according to today’s job report, it worked: the official unemployment fell in May to 4.7 percent, the lowest it’s been since November 2007. That’s basically the full-employment target they’ve been aiming at since the recovery began.

But from the perspective of people who actually work for a living, the situation doesn’t appear as rosy. They’ve been the victims of the plan. They know the only reason the official unemployment rate has dropped is because many workers have dropped out of the labor force (technically, the civilian labor force participation rate decreased by 0.2 percentage point to 62.6 percent). That still left 7.4 million workers who wanted a job but couldn’t find one. In addition, the number of persons employed part time for economic reasons (often referred to as involuntary part-time workers) increased by 468,000 to 6.4 million, and another 1.7 million people remained marginally attached to the labor force (meaning they were not in the labor force, wanted and were available for work, and had looked for a job sometime in the prior 12 months).

The result was that workers (production and nonsupervisory employees) have seen their incomes barely budge: their hourly wages only increased by 3 cents (to $21.49), while their weekly earnings only rose by 1 dollar (to $722.06). In comparison to a year ago, both hourly wages and weekly earnings have increased by a meager 2.4 percent.

As I explained a month ago, that’s exactly how the reserve army works: even as the official unemployment rate falls, workers’ wages continue to stagnate and their employers’ profits continue to grow.

Exactly, it would seem, according to plan.

 

*A recovery from the crash that the same private sector created, lest we forget.

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Sure, there are lots of gangs. And, it’s true, most homicides in Chicago, where a person is shot every 2 and a half minutes and murdered every 14 hours, are from gunshots.

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But, in the City of Neighborhoods, not everyone is affected equally by gangs and guns. In fact, as the New York Times explains,

Whether exacerbated by gangs or guns. . .Chicago’s killings are happening on familiar turf: Its poor, extremely segregated neighborhoods on the South and West Sides.

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Those segregated neighborhoods also happen to be where rates of unemployment and poverty are highest.

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The more or less inevitable result of creating and perpetuating an urban economy characterized by high rates of unemployment and poverty, in which racial and ethnic minorities are forced to endure much higher rates of unemployment and poverty and are then segregated into a few neighborhoods, is the fact that “the South and West Sides are on par with the world’s most dangerous countries, like Brazil and Venezuela, and have been for many years.”

Thus far in 2016, 1530 Chicagoans have been shot, of whom 1299 have been wounded and 231 have been killed.

And, while on the surface they’ve been assaulted by gangs and guns, too many Chicagoans have actually been wounded or killed by a City of Unequally Unemployed and Impoverished Segregated Neighborhoods.

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Over the course of the next month, millions of high-school and college students will be graduating. And, to judge by the circumstances of other young workers these days, the world that awaits them is pretty dismal.

It’s not their fault. They may be gifted and full of energy but the economic stars are aligned against them. Capitalism is failing them.

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Consider high-school graduates. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the official unemployment rate is 17.9 percent (compared to an overall rate of 5 percent)—and the underemployment rate (which combines official unemployment with workers who would like a full-time job but can only find part-time work and those who are so discouraged they’ve given up even looking for work) is an extraordinary 33.7 percent.

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Even college graduates, whose official unemployment rate is much lower (at 5.6 percent), face a very high underemployment rate (of 12.6 percent). That’s 1 in 8. And that doesn’t even take into consideration college graduates who are forced to have the freedom to take  jobs that don’t even require a college degree (e.g., the young college graduate working as a data-entry clerk).

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And there’s the issue of wages if and when they find a job. The real hourly wages for high-school graduates—both young and overall—are no higher today (at $10.66 and $17.11, respectively) than they were at the beginning of 2000 (when they earned $10.86 and $17.01).

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Again, college graduates are better off than workers with a high-school degree. But their wages, too, have been stagnant for the past decade and a half. Young college graduates today can expect to earn, on average, about $18.53 an hour today compared to $18.39 in early 2000; while all workers with a bachelor’s degree receive $31.40 an hour today, which is only slightly higher than in 2000 (when it was $29.39).

The usual argument one hears is that young people should be encouraged to go to college, after which they’ll face lower unemployment and receive higher wages.

That’s fine. I’m all in favor of increasing the chances and lowering the barriers for young people to study in the nation’s colleges and universities. But for young people, no matter how much education they’ve managed to obtain, current economic arrangements are failing them.

The members of the Class of 2016, no matter how gifted, have every right to be worried about what’s next.