Natalie Foster: Reimagine the Safety Net for the New Economy

May 21, 2015Laurie Ignacio

In the final installment of our "Good Economy of 2040" video series, we hear from Natalie Foster, co-founder of Peers.org and Rebuild the Dream.

In the final installment of our "Good Economy of 2040" video series, we hear from Natalie Foster, co-founder of Peers.org and Rebuild the Dream.

In order to ensure a good economy in 25 years, Foster would reimagine the safety net for the 21st century. “It’s important that we stop thinking about jobs and start talking about livelihoods as people will derive their income from a variety of different sources,” says Foster. She adds that we need a safety net that is designed not for the “old industrial economy where everyone had 9-to-5 jobs," but "for people who live much more fluid and free lives but who also have a greater level of economic instability."

To learn more about the future of the safety net, check out the links below

“Two Leaders in Labor Rethink The Safety Net For A Freelance Economy” (NationSwell)

“Safety Nets for Freelancers” (NY Times)

“George Takei and Michael Buckley on the Sharing Economy” (YouTube/AARP)

Natalie Foster has spent the last 15 years at the crossroads of social movements and technology. She’s transformed and run some of the largest digital teams in the country, including President Obama’s successful effort to pass health reform, and built two organizations from scratch. Most recently, Foster co-founded Peers.org, the world’s largest independent sharing economy community. Prior to Peers, she was the CEO and co-founder of Rebuild the Dream, a platform for people–driven economic change, with Van Jones. 

 

Share This

L.A. Port Truck Drivers Put Their Jobs on the Line for Decent Pay and Cleaner Air

May 5, 2015Richard Kirsch

Following the most recent work stoppage by port truck drivers in southern California, Los Angeles Mayer Eric Garcetti announced the formation of a new trucking company, which will be a model for good pay and protecting the environment. The announcement takes the port drivers' ongoing protest of low-wages and exploitative working conditions to a new level.

Following the most recent work stoppage by port truck drivers in southern California, Los Angeles Mayer Eric Garcetti announced the formation of a new trucking company, which will be a model for good pay and protecting the environment. The announcement takes the port drivers' ongoing protest of low-wages and exploitative working conditions to a new level.

Eco Flow Transportation’s founding came out of a long-running dispute between port drivers and Total Transportation Services, which had fired some 35 drivers who had filed claims for their unlawful misclassification as independent contractors and for illegal deductions from their paychecks.

The new company, breaking with the widespread, illegal practice of treating drivers as independent contractors, already employs 80 drivers with a goal of expanding to 500 within a year. The firm promises to be neutral in efforts by its employees to join the Teamsters Union, which has been supporting the drivers’ protests and legal actions against misclassification as contractors.

Eco Flow also aims to address diesel pollution from port trucks that are not maintained at standards, established in 2008, which aimed at drastically lowering the environmental health threats from the trucks. A court ruling in 2010 effectively placed the cost of maintaining clean trucks on drivers. The port drivers, who are forced by the trucking companies to be “independent contractors,” work an average of 59 hours a week, with take-home pay of under $29,000. The drivers’ low-pay makes it difficult for them to keep trucks at a level to meet clean air standards. But because Eco Flow owns the trucks, it assumes full responsibility for maintaining the fleet’s clean air standards.

Eco Flow is also working to introduce a new model for the ports, called “free flow” cargo, which can help move cargo out of terminals more rapidly and increase the velocity of Port of Los Angeles terminals. The benefits will be less pollution from idling trucks and less port congestion. More efficient deliveries will also make it easier for the firm to pay the drivers a decent salary. This is a sharp contrast from most port-trucking companies who, by treating drivers as contractors, pay them by delivery and so pass on the cost of idling time to the drivers.  

What does it take for workers to risk their jobs in actions that often result in retaliation by employers? I talked with Nick Weiner, an organizer at Change to Win, about the transformation that port drivers went through over several years, which led them to go from accepting their status to protesting.

Q: What has been the barrier to port drivers taking actions?

Weiner: The Teamsters have tried over the last 30 years but failed because we’ve allowed the illusion that drivers are independent contractors to drive strategies in the past. The drivers had used the language of the boss—calling themselves independent owner-operators. Part of the helping them come together was to use different language, so they could engage one another.

In ’96 in L.A. there was a big strike. And there were smaller ones. All failed, because drivers didn’t have right language, and didn’t engage government officials to enforce law. We learned our history.

Sometimes they said, ‘we want to be reclassified as employees.’ But they weren’t saying – ‘we are your employees now.’ That’s what’s needed to go from defensive. It’s not just we want to be employees and everything is fine. It’s by being employees, we can join a union and negotiate a contract. The end is not being an employee; there are a lot of employees not doing well.

We have this term misclassification—a very wonky, inside-baseball but now it means something. ‘Yea, we know we’re misclassified. It means taking away our rights, employers stealing from us.’ New language has been liberating.

Q. How do drivers get an understanding of how they could do better through organizing?

Weiner: Drivers see that [unionized] longshoremen get treated well: they are paid well, get time off. While the drivers sit for hours on line [at the ports], without getting paid. They’ve come to see that the do critical work and are the largest set of workers in the port economy who are left out of the prosperity of the port economy.

We’ve worked to tie those things together, being employees and the union. They thought they needed to deal with misclassification and then organize. Instead, needed to get them to understand you’re an employee now, you can organize now.

It takes time for drivers to undo the brainwashing. To engage in collective struggle. 

The collective struggle has taken two forms. The first has been a series of unfair labor practice pickets, aimed at specific companies, which block access to the ports of those companies trucks. The second is legal action under California law. Drivers have filed more than 400 claims against companies under California’s wage and hour law. The first 19 rulings resulted in an average award of $66,240, largely for wage and hour violations and illegal paycheck deductions for items like truck leases.

The drivers are also filing complaints with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which governs union organizing.

Slowly, the organizing is paying off. One firm, Green Fleet, avoided being picketed last week by reaching a comprehensive labor peace agreement with the Teamsters. After a U.S. Department of Labor ruling, another firm, Shippers Transport Express, reclassified its "independent contractors" as employees and in February signed a contract with the Teamsters, which resulted in higher pay and fully paid health care benefits for the drivers.

The growing militancy of exploited workers, from Uber drivers to Wal-Mart “associates” to home care workers and many more is building a new movement of workers to challenge the 21st century economy, in the same way that workers built the labor movement 100 years ago. Their organizing and militancy helped drive the New Deal economic reforms which built the middle class in the 20th century. The fight of today’s workers is laying the foundation for the reforms we need to rebuild the middle class today in an economy based on good jobs and environmental sustainability. 

Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a Senior Adviser to USAction, and the author of Fighting for Our Health. He was National Campaign Manager of Health Care for America Now during the legislative battle to pass reform.

Correction: The original version of this post incorrectly stated that the new trucking company would be employee-owned.

Share This

Andrew McAfee: Immigration Reform Is Key to Our Economic Future

Apr 17, 2015Laurie Ignacio

Our series on The Good Economy of 2040 continues with MIT’s Andrew McAfee. To build a better economy over the next 25 years, McAfee says, we’ll need a more open immigration system that welcomes skilled workers. "When the world’s most talented, ambitious, tenacious, capable people want to come here and build their lives and their careers…it absolutely makes no sense to me that we put all these ridiculous Kafkaesque barriers in their way."

Our series on The Good Economy of 2040 continues with MIT’s Andrew McAfee. To build a better economy over the next 25 years, McAfee says, we’ll need a more open immigration system that welcomes skilled workers. "When the world’s most talented, ambitious, tenacious, capable people want to come here and build their lives and their careers…it absolutely makes no sense to me that we put all these ridiculous Kafkaesque barriers in their way."

To read more about skilled immigration, check out the following articles:

Getting a Visa Took Longer Than Building Instagram, Says Immigrant Co-Founder (Bloomberg)

The basics of the US immigration system (Vox)

Andrew McAfee is a principal research scientist at MIT and cofounder of its Initiative on the Digital Economy, where he studies how computer technologies are changing business, the economy, and society. His 2014 book on these topics, The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies (co-authored with Erik Brynjolfsson), has been both a New York Times and Wall Street Journal top ten bestseller. He writes two blogs, academic papers, and articles for publications including Harvard Business Review, The Economist, the Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times. He’s talked about his work on The Charlie Rose Show and 60 Minutes, and at TED and the Aspen Ideas Festival. McAfee was educated at Harvard and MIT.

Share This

Clinton's Executive Pay Comments Show We're Still Too Focused on Fairness

Apr 17, 2015Susan Holmberg

Hillary Clinton surprised many progressives earlier this week with her remarks on a model populist issue. "There’s something wrong when CEOs make 300 times more than the typical worker. There’s something wrong when American workers keep getting more productive…but that productivity is not matched in their paychecks.”

Hillary Clinton surprised many progressives earlier this week with her remarks on a model populist issue. "There’s something wrong when CEOs make 300 times more than the typical worker. There’s something wrong when American workers keep getting more productive…but that productivity is not matched in their paychecks.”

Indeed. From 1978 to 2013, executive compensation at American firms rose 937 percent, compared with a sluggish 10.2 percent growth in worker compensation over the same period. In 2013, the average CEO pay package at S&P 500 Index companies was worth $11.7 million. Numbers for 2014 are just starting to be released, but Microsoft’s Satya Nadella is thus far topping the list at $84 million in mostly stock awards.

Too often the CEO pay debate, which tends to come into focus during our annual rite of corporate proxy season, hinges on a question of ethics. Is paying CEOs excessive amounts fair to workers? No, of course not, as so many fast food workers, whose CEOs make approximately 1,200 times more than they do, rightfully voiced yesterday.

One of the problems, however, with expressing CEO pay as a fairness issue is that it is too often countered with accusations of envy. And this doesn’t get us very far. (Note that Clinton’s language—“there’s something wrong”—plays into the fairness framing.) Our efforts to reform CEO pay would be much stronger if we also talked about how bad the status quo is for our economy and thus our society.

There are two main reasons CEO pay should be a concern to anyone who cares about economic prosperity in the United States, including Hillary Clinton. One reason stems from the total amount CEOs are paid. The other relates to the structure of CEO pay, in particular that the bulk of their compensation comes in the form of stock options and stock grants.

Total Amount of CEO Pay

A handful of high-profile economists—Thomas Piketty, Joseph Stiglitz, and Robert Reich, to name a few—have begun to make the case that a high degree of economic inequality precipitates financial instability because it leads to a decline in consumer demand, which has tremendous spillover effects in terms of investment, job creation, and tax revenue, not to mention social instability.

Research clearly demonstrates that the growth of executive pay is a core driver of America’s rising economic inequality. According to the Economic Policy Institute, “[e]xecutives, and workers in finance, accounted for 58 percent of the expansion of income for the top 1 percent and 67 percent of the increase in income for the top 0.1 percent from 1979 to 2005.” Another calculation by economists Ian Dew-Becker and Robert Gordon finds that the large increase in share of the 99.99th percentile is mostly explained by the incomes of superstars and CEOs.

The Structure of CEO Pay

Several studies show that equity-heavy pay, because it makes executives very wealthy very quickly, distorts CEOs’ incentives, inducing them to take on too much risk. Instead of bearing this risk themselves, they shift it onto the rest of society, as we saw during the financial crisis. This model also encourages executives to behave fraudulently, as in the backdating scandals of a decade ago, and lessens their motivation to invest in their businesses. According to economist William Lazonick, in order to issue stock options to top executives while avoiding the dilution of their stock, corporations often divert funds to stock buybacks rather than spending on research and development, capital investment, increased wages, or new hiring. To top it all off, these pay packages cost taxpayers billions of dollars due to the performance pay tax loophole.

Hillary Clinton’s comments on CEO pay could be a signal that she is willing to adopt at least some of the progressive messaging championed by Senator Elizabeth Warren. We can enhance that message by making better economic arguments for why we need to reform skyrocketing CEO pay.

For more, see my primer on the executive pay debate.

Susan Holmberg is a Fellow and Director of Research at the Roosevelt Institute.

Share This

For U.S. Women, Inequality Takes Many Forms

Apr 14, 2015Ariel Smilowitz

The gender wage gap is a complex problem, and we'll need to address factors like race and region to solve it.

The gender wage gap is a complex problem, and we'll need to address factors like race and region to solve it.

Although we are only a few months into 2015, it has already proven to be a watershed year for women’s rights around the world. On the heels of the International Women’s Day March for Gender Equality, the He for She and Planet 50-50 by 2030 Campaigns, and the twentieth anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, international advocates and officials alike are coming together to evaluate the progress that has been made over the past several years. This raises the question: what is the current status of women in the United States?

The Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR)—in partnership with a multitude of organizations including the Ford Foundation, the Roosevelt Institute Campus Network, and the Center for American Progress—just released the 2015 edition of its project on the Status of Women in the States, with newly updated data and trend analyses on women’s economic, social, and political progress in the United States. The findings? Although we have indeed experienced progress toward gender equity, it’s likely that we won’t see equal pay for American women within our lifetime. (For more on this topic, see this post by Roosevelt Fellow Andrea Flynn.)

The road to achieving gender equality in the U.S. is quite clearly checkered with significant potholes.

Over the next several weeks, IWPR will be releasing a series of reports that include data on U.S. women’s employment and earnings, poverty and opportunity, work and family, violence and safety, reproductive rights, health and well-being, and political participation. The data and trend analyses found in these reports can be explored by topic and differing demographics (women of color, older women, immigrant women, and Millennials, to name a few), as well as on a national or state level. The first two chapters on employment and earnings and poverty and opportunity have already been released, revealing a number of insights on the state of women within this country. Some highlights:

  • In just about every state in the country, Millennial women are more likely than Millennial men to have a college degree, yet Millennial women also have higher poverty rates and lower earnings than Millennial men.
  • Although more women are receiving high school diplomas and completing college than ever before, a considerable proportion of women either do not graduate high school or finish their education with only a high school diploma.
  • By the time a college-educated woman turns 59, she will have lost almost $800,000 throughout her life due to the gender wage gap.

There are incredibly large disparities throughout different regions of the United States; southern women are the worst off with regard to employment and earnings. Furthermore, the status of women differs notably by race and ethnicity, with Hispanic women having the lowest median annual earnings compared to other women.

In general, women’s economic security is directly linked to their family income, which includes earnings from jobs, but women tend to be concentrated in fields that lead to jobs with relatively low wages. Even women who do go into higher-paying fields still earn less than their male peers. This helps explain why, in 2013, about 14.5 percent of women ages 18 and older had family incomes that placed them below the federal poverty line, compared with 11 percent of men. However, even this estimate does not fully capture the extent of the hardship that women continue to face in the U.S.

What can we conclude from this data? As a recent article in The Washington Post puts it: “When it comes to equal pay, the American woman is stuck in a proverbial waiting room. But the number on her ticket, the length of her stay, largely depends on where she lives and to whom she was born.” In other words, the status of women in this country is incredibly complex, and as a result, there is no simple, one-size-fits-all solution to achieving gender equality.

Gender equality is an intricate mosaic, a picture that cannot be complete without understanding and exploring the dynamic regional, national, and demographic factors at play. As a result, we cannot approach these issues without thoroughly peeling back and exploring each layer. It is necessary for all of us to reassess how we measure, monitor, and evaluate the status of women so that we can effectively determine both the progress that has already been made toward achieving full gender equality and the challenges and obstacles that lie ahead.  

Ariel Smilowitz is a senior at Cornell University and the Northeast Regional Policy Coordinator for the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network.

Share This

Four Reasons We Still Need Equal Pay Day

Apr 14, 2015Andrea Flynn

Happy Equal Pay Day!

It would certainly be happier if we didn’t need an Equal Pay Day, wouldn’t it?

But it’s 2015 and the wages of U.S. women continue to lag behind those of their male counterparts of equal age, education, and professional experience.

Happy Equal Pay Day!

It would certainly be happier if we didn’t need an Equal Pay Day, wouldn’t it?

But it’s 2015 and the wages of U.S. women continue to lag behind those of their male counterparts of equal age, education, and professional experience. More than 50 years ago President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act, which prohibited discrimination “on account of sex in the payment of wages by employers.” At that time, women were paid 59 cents for every dollar paid to their male counterparts. In the half-century that has passed, that gap has shrunk by less than 20 cents; women today make approximately 78 cents for every dollar paid to their male counterparts. For women of color, the injustices are even starker. Black and Latina women are paid only 64 and 56 cents, respectively, for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men, which represents an annual loss of nearly $19,000 for Black women and $23,279 for Latinas.

Conservatives like to scoff at this day. They argue away the gender pay gap by saying the data overstates the problem, and besides, women do things like have babies and step out of the workforce to take care of them, so it makes sense they would be paid less. This (il)logic ignores the fact that many women actually don’t ever step out of the workforce to take care of their children because they simply cannot afford to do so. Indeed, 95 percent of part-time workers and low-wage workers do not have access to paid family leave, and 2-in-5 U.S. workers (nearly 40 million people) are not guaranteed a single paid sick day. The conservative reasoning also suggests that it’s perfectly acceptable for women to be routinely penalized for having and raising their families, even though research shows that paid family leave makes it more likely that women will return to work and get paid at the same wage or higher.

Not only are women today still getting paid less than their male counterparts, but that pay inequity is compounding other circumstances that are driving U.S. families into a spiral of economic insecurity. Wages have been stagnant for roughly five decades. Out-of-pocket health care costs are on the rise. Conservatives are steadfast in their attempts (many of them successful) to dismantle the social safety net, weaken labor protections, and chip away at economic supports for working families. Minimum-wage jobs—two-thirds of which are held by women, including 22 percent by women of color—do not even begin to make middle-class life affordable in this country.

The rationale for equal pay seems obvious to many, but our continued inability to even make progress toward that end—let alone achieve it—is a clear indication that we still need to make the case. So here it goes.

1. It is the right thing to do. Period.

2. Guaranteeing pay equity would improve the lives of women and families.

According to a 2014 report released by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), implementing equal pay would mean an income increase for nearly 60 percent of women in the United States. Two-thirds of single mothers would get a 17 percent raise (equal to more than $6,000 a year), and the poverty rate among these families would drop from 28.7 to 15 percent. The increase in earnings would expand access to health care, food and housing security, and educational opportunities, and would have countless long-term benefits for children, who are especially vulnerable to the pernicious stresses of poverty.

3. Equal pay means a stronger economy.

The IWPR study found that if women were to receive equal pay, the U.S. economy would generate $447.6 billion in additional income—growth equal to 2.9 percent of the 2012 gross domestic product (GDP).

Pay equity would reduce poverty among working women by half and would therefore reduce the need for safety net programs that have become a lifeline for working families that cannot make ends meet. The total increase in women’s earnings as a result of pay equity would be 14 times greater than combined federal and state expenditures on Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF).

4. It’s 2015. If not now, when?

If the gender pay gap continues to shrink at the snail’s pace of the past few decades, it won’t actually close until 2058. 2058! At this rate hover boards and moon vacations will be in vogue before women are paid an equal wage.  

The increased focus on inequality and growing support for progressive economic policies like paid sick and family leave and minimum wage hikes—not to mention an election cycle in which conservatives will need to prove they aren’t actually waging a war on women—provide a window of opportunity to push for equity once and for all.

I, for one, would like this day to be obsolete before another half-century passes by. 

Andrea Flynn is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.

Share This

New Score: Liberal Nihilism over Wages

Mar 6, 2015Mike Konczal

I have a new Score column up: Why Are Liberals Resigned to Low Wages? It deals with the three key political institutions that are responsible for wages remaining low, both over the past generation and in the Great Recession. It also tries to understand "liberal nihilism", or the weird glee that results when wages aren't seen as also having an institutional component to them, and thus are no longer a political challenge.

I hope you check it out!

Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:
 
  

 

I have a new Score column up: Why Are Liberals Resigned to Low Wages? It deals with the three key political institutions that are responsible for wages remaining low, both over the past generation and in the Great Recession. It also tries to understand "liberal nihilism", or the weird glee that results when wages aren't seen as also having an institutional component to them, and thus are no longer a political challenge.

I hope you check it out!

Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:
 
  

 

Share This

What are the Robots Doing? Rebalancing our Inequality Intellectual Portfolio

Mar 4, 2015Mike Konczal

A blog post responding to a blog post responding to a blog post. Who says the blogosphere is dead?

Recently I wrote about Larry Summers demolishing an argument about robots and our weak recovery on a panel. Jim Tankersley called up Summers to further discuss the topic, and put his interview online as a response meant to correct and expand on my post. But I don’t think we disagree here, and if anything Summers’ interview shows how much the consensus has changed.

Before we continue, I should clarify what we are talking about. When people talk about “the robots,” they are really telling one of three stories:

1. Technology has played an important role in the economic malaise of the past 35 years, broadly defined as a mix of stagnating median wages, increased inequality, and weakening labor-force participation.

2. The Great Recession has led to such a weak and lackluster recovery in large part because of technology. In one version of this story, technology is simply taking all the jobs that would normally be found in a recovery. As the AP put it, “Five years after the start of the Great Recession, the toll is terrifyingly clear: Millions of middle-class jobs have been lost... They're being obliterated by technology.” (President Obama himself often mentioned this story throughout the dark period when unemployment was much higher.)

Another, more popular, version is that workers simply don’t have the skills required for a high-technology labor force. A representative quote from the Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart in 2010: “the skills people have don't match the jobs available. Coming out of this recession there may be a more or less permanent change in the composition of jobs.”

3. We are moving to a post-work economy, one where robots substitute for human labor in massive numbers and fundamentally change society. Here’s an example. We may or may not be seeing the first hints of such a change now, depending on the story.

The story I said Summers (as well as David Autor) demolished is the second. There’s no evidence that we are having a technology renaissance right now, or that technology has contributed in a major way to the weak recovery, or that a skills gap or other educational factor is holding back employment, or that highly skilled workers are having a great time in the labor market. The arguments against this story from the original post are pretty damning, and Summers either reiterates them or doesn’t walk them back in the Washington Post column. (Let’s leave the third story to science fiction speculation for now, noting that the second story getting demolished means it isn't happening now, and that it's hard to imagine robot innovation when labor is so cheap and abundant.)

However, Summers does argue for the first story as well, the one in which technology has played a role in the malaise of the past 30 years. As he tells the Post, “In the 1960s, about 1 in 20 men between the age of 25 and 54 was not working. Today, the number is more like 1 in 6 or 1 in 7. So we have seen some troubling long-term trends, and they appear to be continuing trends.” Summers also notes, “to say that technology is important is not to say that technology is the only important factor, or even that it is the dominant factor.” He mentioned this as the conference as well; Brad DeLong and Marshall Steinbaum noted it in their posts.

Intellectual Portfolio Rebalancing

When we think of the economic malaise of the past 30 years, we should probably think of it as a combination of technology, globalization, sociology, and public policy. Tankersley wants to emphasize technology as a piece of this story, and I agree it should be there.

But here’s what I find interesting. Whenever we have a portfolio of ideas, some ideas get more weight than others. And what strikes me about this conversation is how much technology and skills have been deemphasized relative to other stories since the Great Recession, especially those of public policy.

This is a pretty quick and important change. Almost ten years ago, Greg Mankiw could write, "Policy choices [...] have not been the main causes of increasing inequality. At least that is the consensus, as I understand it, of the professional labor economists who study the issue.” Brad Delong also said in 2006 that he “can't see the mechanism by which changes in government policies bring about such huge swings in pre-tax income distribution.” Skill-biased technical change (SBTC) and technology were assumed to cover the entire inequality story.

That consensus is weaker now than it was then. Certainly the argument for SBTC, while always shaky, has taken a hit. You can see it with Summers himself in the Washington Post, where he notes that “changing patterns of education is unlikely to have much to do with a rising share of the top 1 percent, which is probably the most important inequality phenomenon.”

Meanwhile, more and more inequality research is focused on institutional factors, ranging from marginal tax rates to the minimum wage to the inefficiency and growth of the financial sector to deunionization.  And as the Mankiw quote hints, 10 years ago you’d be less likely to hear, as Summers says at the Washington Post, that a “combination of softer labor markets and the growing importance of economic rents” are an essential part of inequality spoken with the same confidence as you see here. I read that as a major change of the consensus.

This is a major rebalancing of our intellectual portfolio of inequality stories, a change that I think is opening up a much more rich and accurate description of what has happened. I hope the research and conversation continues this way.

Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:
 
  

 

A blog post responding to a blog post responding to a blog post. Who says the blogosphere is dead?

Recently I wrote about Larry Summers demolishing an argument about robots and our weak recovery on a panel. Jim Tankersley called up Summers to further discuss the topic, and put his interview online as a response meant to correct and expand on my post. But I don’t think we disagree here, and if anything Summers’ interview shows how much the consensus has changed.

Before we continue, I should clarify what we are talking about. When people talk about “the robots,” they are really telling one of three stories:

1. Technology has played an important role in the economic malaise of the past 35 years, broadly defined as a mix of stagnating median wages, increased inequality, and weakening labor-force participation.

2. The Great Recession has led to such a weak and lackluster recovery in large part because of technology. In one version of this story, technology is simply taking all the jobs that would normally be found in a recovery. As the AP put it, “Five years after the start of the Great Recession, the toll is terrifyingly clear: Millions of middle-class jobs have been lost... They're being obliterated by technology.” (President Obama himself often mentioned this story throughout the dark period when unemployment was much higher.)

Another, more popular, version is that workers simply don’t have the skills required for a high-technology labor force. A representative quote from the Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart in 2010: “the skills people have don't match the jobs available. Coming out of this recession there may be a more or less permanent change in the composition of jobs.”

3. We are moving to a post-work economy, one where robots substitute for human labor in massive numbers and fundamentally change society. Here’s an example. We may or may not be seeing the first hints of such a change now, depending on the story.

The story I said Summers (as well as David Autor) demolished is the second. There’s no evidence that we are having a technology renaissance right now, or that technology has contributed in a major way to the weak recovery, or that a skills gap or other educational factor is holding back employment, or that highly skilled workers are having a great time in the labor market. The arguments against this story from the original post are pretty damning, and Summers either reiterates them or doesn’t walk them back in the Washington Post column. (Let’s leave the third story to science fiction speculation for now, noting that the second story getting demolished means it isn't happening now, and that it's hard to imagine robot innovation when labor is so cheap and abundant.)

However, Summers does argue for the first story as well, the one in which technology has played a role in the malaise of the past 30 years. As he tells the Post, “In the 1960s, about 1 in 20 men between the age of 25 and 54 was not working. Today, the number is more like 1 in 6 or 1 in 7. So we have seen some troubling long-term trends, and they appear to be continuing trends.” Summers also notes, “to say that technology is important is not to say that technology is the only important factor, or even that it is the dominant factor.” He mentioned this as the conference as well; Brad DeLong and Marshall Steinbaum noted it in their posts.

Intellectual Portfolio Rebalancing

When we think of the economic malaise of the past 30 years, we should probably think of it as a combination of technology, globalization, sociology, and public policy. Tankersley wants to emphasize technology as a piece of this story, and I agree it should be there.

But here’s what I find interesting. Whenever we have a portfolio of ideas, some ideas get more weight than others. And what strikes me about this conversation is how much technology and skills have been deemphasized relative to other stories since the Great Recession, especially those of public policy.

This is a pretty quick and important change. Almost ten years ago, Greg Mankiw could write, "Policy choices [...] have not been the main causes of increasing inequality. At least that is the consensus, as I understand it, of the professional labor economists who study the issue.” Brad Delong also said in 2006 that he “can't see the mechanism by which changes in government policies bring about such huge swings in pre-tax income distribution.” Skill-biased technical change (SBTC) and technology were assumed to cover the entire inequality story.

That consensus is weaker now than it was then. Certainly the argument for SBTC, while always shaky, has taken a hit. You can see it with Summers himself in the Washington Post, where he notes that “changing patterns of education is unlikely to have much to do with a rising share of the top 1 percent, which is probably the most important inequality phenomenon.”

Meanwhile, more and more inequality research is focused on institutional factors, ranging from marginal tax rates to the minimum wage to the inefficiency and growth of the financial sector to deunionization.  And as the Mankiw quote hints, 10 years ago you’d be less likely to hear, as Summers says at the Washington Post, that a “combination of softer labor markets and the growing importance of economic rents” are an essential part of inequality spoken with the same confidence as you see here. I read that as a major change of the consensus.

This is a major rebalancing of our intellectual portfolio of inequality stories, a change that I think is opening up a much more rich and accurate description of what has happened. I hope the research and conversation continues this way.

Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:
 
  

 

Share This

Daily Digest - February 23: The Republican Health Plan is Less Coverage, More Costs

Feb 23, 2015Rachel Goldfarb

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

GOP Health Plan Would Leave Many Low-Income Families Behind (The Hill)

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

GOP Health Plan Would Leave Many Low-Income Families Behind (The Hill)

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Andrea Flynn explains how the Republican substitute for the Affordable Care Act would leave people with higher costs, worse coverage, and fewer protections.

Walmart Sends Wage Signal to U.S. Business (Financial Times)

David Crow and Sam Fleming speak to Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Damon Silvers about Walmart's wage hike, which he says will create pressure on other low-wage businesses.

U.S. West Coast Port Employees Agree to Deal (Bloomberg Business)

James Nash and Alison Vekshin report on the deal brokered by Labor Secretary Tom Perez, which will end the slowdowns at West Coast ports but won't immediately fix the cargo backlog.

A Friendly Office Debate Over Wages (NYT)

David Leonhardt and Neil Irwin agree that whether wage growth will accelerate is the biggest economic question of the year, but disagree on the likelihood of a positive answer.

The Rise of the Non-Compete Agreement, from Tech Workers to Sandwich Makers (WaPo)

Lydia DePillis looks at new research on non-compete agreements, which are surprisingly widespread in industries where they don't really seem necessary.

New on Next New Deal

The One Where Larry Summers Demolished the Robots and Skills Arguments

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal praises Summers and others for a recent panel in which they argued that unemployment and lack of wage growth can't be blamed on technology.

Share This

The One Where Larry Summers Demolished the Robots and Skills Arguments

Feb 20, 2015Mike Konczal
Everyone should take it easy on the robot stuff for a while.
 
There's been a small, but influential, hysteria surrounding the idea is that a huge wave of automation, technology and skills have lead to a massive structural change in the economy since 2010. The implicit argument here is that robots and machines have both made traditional demand-side policies irrelevant or naïve, and been a major driver of wage stagnation and inequality. Though not the most pernicious story that gained prominence as the recovery remained sluggish in 2010 to 2011, it gained an important foothold among elite discussion.
 
That is over. They say Washington DC has had a huge crime decline, but I just saw one of the most vicious muggings I’m likely to see, one where David Autor and Larry Summers just tore this idea that a Machine Age is responsible for our economic plight apart on a panel yesterday at the Hamilton Project for the launch of a new Machine Age report. Summers, in particular, took an aggressive tone that is likely to be where liberal and Democratic Party mainstream economic thinking is in advance of 2016. It is a very, very good place.
 
As Larry Mishel noted in an American Prospect piece on the eve of the event, the robots and skills story has many problems. But I was genuinely surprised at how poorly those pushing the argument - Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, authors of the influential The Second Machine Age, were there - could address the pretty obvious counterarguments that were brought up. You can see the event at CSPAN here. This piece will mostly be blockquotes, because the quotes are too good to try and summarize. (Any transcribing errors are my own.)
 
First up, economist David Autor of MIT demolished the core claims in about a minute of speaking. For those with ears to hear it, this is him also moderating and walking back portions of his “job polarization” arguments from 2010. Autor:

I think there's reason for some skepticism about how fast things are actually moving. There’s a lot of aggregate data that don't support the idea the labor market is changing or the economy is changing as rapidly as this very dramatic story. The premium to higher education has plateaued over the last 10 years. We see evidence highly skilled workers have less rapid career trajectories and are moving into less skill occupation if anything. Productivity is not growing very rapidly, and a lot of the employment growth we’ve seen in the past 15 years has been in relatively low education, in-person service occupations.

The second point I want to make, when we think about how technology interacts with labor market we think of substitution of labor with machinery. [...] What is neglected is that it complements us as well. Many activities require a mixture of things. it requires a mixture of information process and creativity, motor power and dexterity. if those things need to be done together if you make one cheaper and more productive, you increase the value of the other.

It got worse for the robots. Here's Larry Summers:
On the one hand we have enormous anecdotal evidence and visual evidence that points to technology having huge and pervasive effects. Whether it is complementing workers and making them much more productive in a happy way, or whether it is substituting for them and leaving them unemployed can be debated. In either of those scenarios you would expect it to be producing a renaissance of higher productivity.
 
So, on the one hand are convinced of the far greater pervasiveness of technology in the last few years, and, on the other hand, the productivity statistics on the last dozen years are dismal. Any fully satisfactory view has to reconcile those two observations and I have not heard it satisfactorily reconciled.
Summers also pointed out something that's fairly obvious once you think about it: if this robot argument is true, doesn't it mean a short-term job boom? (JW Mason once pointed out this is how Schumpeter thought of these types of “recalculation” business cycles.) Summers:
If you believe technology happens with a big lag and it's only going to happen in the future, that's fine. But then you can't believe it's already caused a large amount of inequality and disruption of employment today. [...] Let's take retailing. You can imagine you can have all kinds of spiffy technology so you no longer have to have people behind cash registers. The problem is you wouldn't expect the people behind the cash registers would get fired before the people working the systems got the new systems working. […] I understand why it might take years for it all to have an effect. What I have a harder time understanding is how there can be substantial disemployment ahead of the effect of the productivity.
 
That is, if you thought that it just was impossible to put in these systems and so forth, then you might think that in the short run it would be a big employment boom. You have to keep your old legacy system going and you have to have a million guys running around figuring out how to put the new computer system in. 
The panel goes into a thing about how education will save us. Moar education! This is where Summers went harder than I had expected:
I think the [education] policies that Aneesh is talking about are largely whistling past the graveyard. The core problem is that there aren't enough jobs. If you help some people, you could help them get the jobs, but then someone else won't get the jobs. Unless you're doing things that have things that are effecting the demand for jobs, you're helping people win a race to get a finite number of jobs. […]
 
Folks, wage inflation in the united states is 2%. It has not gone up in five years. There are not 3% of the economy where there's any evidence of hyper wage inflation of a kind that would go with worker shortages. The idea that you can just have better training and then there are all these jobs, all these places where there are shortages and we just need the train people is fundamentally an evasion. [...]
 
I am concerned that if we allow the idea to take hold, that all we need to do is there are all these jobs with skills and if we can just train people a bit, then they'll be able to get into them and the whole problem will go away. I think that is fundamentally an evasion of a profound social challenge.
But, but, but, if we don’t just educate people more, what can we even do? Summers:
What we need is more demand and that goes to short run cyclical policy, more generally to how we operate macroeconomic policy, and the enormous importance of having tighter labor markets, so that firms have an incentive to reach for worker, rather than workers having to reach for firms. [...]
 
I think that the broad empowerment of labor in a world where an increasing part of the economy is generating income that has a kind of rent aspect to it, the question of who's going to share in it becomes very large. One of the puzzles of our economy today is that on the one hand, we have record low real interest rates, that are expected to be record low for 30 years if you look at the index bond market. And on the other hand, we have record high profits. And you tend to think record high profits would mean record high returns to capital, would also mean really high interest rates. And what we actually have is really low real interest rates. The way to think about that is there's a lot of rents in what we're calling profits that don't really represent a return to investment, but represent a rent.
 
The question then is who's going to get those rents? Which goes to the minimum wage, goes to the power of union, goes through the presence of profit sharing, goes to the length of patents and a variety of other government policies that confer rents and then when those are received, goes to the question of how progressive the tax and transfer system is. That has got to be a very, very large part of the picture.
Two bonus quotes. First, someone immediately followed up that instead of the minimum wage, why don’t we just expand the earned income tax credit? Summers:
If we had the income distribution in the United States that we did in 1979, the top 1% would have $1 trillion less today, and the bottom 80% would have $1 trillion more. That works out to about $700,000 a family for the top 1%, and about $11,000 a year for a family in the bottom 80%.
 
That's a trillion dollars. I don't know what the number is, but my guess is that the total cost of the Earned Income Tax Credit is $50 billion. Nobody's got on the policy agenda doubling the Earned Income Tax Credit. The big, aggressive agendas are probably to increase it by a third or a half. So, I'm all for it, but we are talking about 2.5% of the redistribution that has taken place. So, you have to be looking for things and there's no one thing that is going to do it. My reading of the evidence, it's a fairly general evidence, is that while there may be some elasticity, the elasticity around the current level of the minimum wage is very low.
Nice. And from his introductory remarks, Robert Rubin casually mentions collective bargaining might be a solution to inequality, but also probably redistribution and a cultural and policy shift towards more free time and more leisure. Ya know, no biggie. Rubin:
We may need an increase in the income tax credit, not only for those who receive it at the present time but perhaps much further up the income scale. Measures that facilitate collective bargaining can result in a broader participation in the benefits of productivity and growth [...] If we have ever rapid technological development and it is labor displacing, at some point in the future -- as I say, that may be some distant point in the future -- should that lead to some basic change in our lifestyles with less work, more lecture and a richer, more robust use of that leisure? [...] In addition to everything that needs to be done to enhance growth, tighten labor markets and to improve the position of middle and lower income workers, should there be increased redistribution to accomplish the broad objectives of our society?
(I looked at the left-liberals I knew active in policy circles in the 1990s who were in the room, wondering how they kept their heads from exploding at that moment.)
 
Perhaps this turn is just reflecting this very specific historical moment, and it could change again just as quickly. But the problems are real, and terrifying stories about robots taking all the jobs can no longer have the double function as a form of relief that we have no responsibility to try and address these problems. And it's great to see prominent liberal economists doing that, especially in advance of the 2016 election.
 
Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:
 
  

 

Everyone should take it easy on the robot stuff for a while.
 
There's been a small, but influential, hysteria surrounding the idea is that a huge wave of automation, technology and skills have lead to a massive structural change in the economy since 2010. The implicit argument here is that robots and machines have both made traditional demand-side policies irrelevant or naïve, and been a major driver of wage stagnation and inequality. Though not the most pernicious story that gained prominence as the recovery remained sluggish in 2010 to 2011, it gained an important foothold among elite discussion.
 
That is over. They say Washington DC has had a huge crime decline, but I just saw one of the most vicious muggings I’m likely to see, one where David Autor and Larry Summers just tore this idea that a Machine Age is responsible for our economic plight apart on a panel yesterday at the Hamilton Project for the launch of a new Machine Age report. Summers, in particular, took an aggressive tone that is likely to be where liberal and Democratic Party mainstream economic thinking is in advance of 2016. It is a very, very good place.
 
As Larry Mishel noted in an American Prospect piece on the eve of the event, the robots and skills story has many problems. But I was genuinely surprised at how poorly those pushing the argument - Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, authors of the influential The Second Machine Age, were there - could address the pretty obvious counterarguments that were brought up. You can see the event at CSPAN here. This piece will mostly be blockquotes, because the quotes are too good to try and summarize. (Any transcribing errors are my own.)
 
First up, economist David Autor of MIT demolished the core claims in about a minute of speaking. For those with ears to hear it, this is him also moderating and walking back portions of his “job polarization” arguments from 2010. Autor:

I think there's reason for some skepticism about how fast things are actually moving. There’s a lot of aggregate data that don't support the idea the labor market is changing or the economy is changing as rapidly as this very dramatic story. The premium to higher education has plateaued over the last 10 years. We see evidence highly skilled workers have less rapid career trajectories and are moving into less skill occupation if anything. Productivity is not growing very rapidly, and a lot of the employment growth we’ve seen in the past 15 years has been in relatively low education, in-person service occupations.

The second point I want to make, when we think about how technology interacts with labor market we think of substitution of labor with machinery. [...] What is neglected is that it complements us as well. Many activities require a mixture of things. it requires a mixture of information process and creativity, motor power and dexterity. if those things need to be done together if you make one cheaper and more productive, you increase the value of the other.

It got worse for the robots. Here's Larry Summers:
On the one hand we have enormous anecdotal evidence and visual evidence that points to technology having huge and pervasive effects. Whether it is complementing workers and making them much more productive in a happy way, or whether it is substituting for them and leaving them unemployed can be debated. In either of those scenarios you would expect it to be producing a renaissance of higher productivity.
 
So, on the one hand are convinced of the far greater pervasiveness of technology in the last few years, and, on the other hand, the productivity statistics on the last dozen years are dismal. Any fully satisfactory view has to reconcile those two observations and I have not heard it satisfactorily reconciled.
Summers also pointed out something that's fairly obvious once you think about it: if this robot argument is true, doesn't it mean a short-term job boom? (JW Mason once pointed out this is how Schumpeter thought of these types of “recalculation” business cycles.) Summers:
If you believe technology happens with a big lag and it's only going to happen in the future, that's fine. But then you can't believe it's already caused a large amount of inequality and disruption of employment today. [...] Let's take retailing. You can imagine you can have all kinds of spiffy technology so you no longer have to have people behind cash registers. The problem is you wouldn't expect the people behind the cash registers would get fired before the people working the systems got the new systems working. […] I understand why it might take years for it all to have an effect. What I have a harder time understanding is how there can be substantial disemployment ahead of the effect of the productivity.
 
That is, if you thought that it just was impossible to put in these systems and so forth, then you might think that in the short run it would be a big employment boom. You have to keep your old legacy system going and you have to have a million guys running around figuring out how to put the new computer system in. 
The panel goes into a thing about how education will save us. Moar education! This is where Summers went harder than I had expected:
I think the [education] policies that Aneesh is talking about are largely whistling past the graveyard. The core problem is that there aren't enough jobs. If you help some people, you could help them get the jobs, but then someone else won't get the jobs. Unless you're doing things that have things that are effecting the demand for jobs, you're helping people win a race to get a finite number of jobs. […]
 
Folks, wage inflation in the united states is 2%. It has not gone up in five years. There are not 3% of the economy where there's any evidence of hyper wage inflation of a kind that would go with worker shortages. The idea that you can just have better training and then there are all these jobs, all these places where there are shortages and we just need the train people is fundamentally an evasion. [...]
 
I am concerned that if we allow the idea to take hold, that all we need to do is there are all these jobs with skills and if we can just train people a bit, then they'll be able to get into them and the whole problem will go away. I think that is fundamentally an evasion of a profound social challenge.
But, but, but, if we don’t just educate people more, what can we even do? Summers:
What we need is more demand and that goes to short run cyclical policy, more generally to how we operate macroeconomic policy, and the enormous importance of having tighter labor markets, so that firms have an incentive to reach for worker, rather than workers having to reach for firms. [...]
 
I think that the broad empowerment of labor in a world where an increasing part of the economy is generating income that has a kind of rent aspect to it, the question of who's going to share in it becomes very large. One of the puzzles of our economy today is that on the one hand, we have record low real interest rates, that are expected to be record low for 30 years if you look at the index bond market. And on the other hand, we have record high profits. And you tend to think record high profits would mean record high returns to capital, would also mean really high interest rates. And what we actually have is really low real interest rates. The way to think about that is there's a lot of rents in what we're calling profits that don't really represent a return to investment, but represent a rent.
 
The question then is who's going to get those rents? Which goes to the minimum wage, goes to the power of union, goes through the presence of profit sharing, goes to the length of patents and a variety of other government policies that confer rents and then when those are received, goes to the question of how progressive the tax and transfer system is. That has got to be a very, very large part of the picture.
Two bonus quotes. First, someone immediately followed up that instead of the minimum wage, why don’t we just expand the earned income tax credit? Summers:
If we had the income distribution in the United States that we did in 1979, the top 1% would have $1 trillion less today, and the bottom 80% would have $1 trillion more. That works out to about $700,000 a family for the top 1%, and about $11,000 a year for a family in the bottom 80%.
 
That's a trillion dollars. I don't know what the number is, but my guess is that the total cost of the Earned Income Tax Credit is $50 billion. Nobody's got on the policy agenda doubling the Earned Income Tax Credit. The big, aggressive agendas are probably to increase it by a third or a half. So, I'm all for it, but we are talking about 2.5% of the redistribution that has taken place. So, you have to be looking for things and there's no one thing that is going to do it. My reading of the evidence, it's a fairly general evidence, is that while there may be some elasticity, the elasticity around the current level of the minimum wage is very low.
Nice. And from his introductory remarks, Robert Rubin casually mentions collective bargaining might be a solution to inequality, but also probably redistribution and a cultural and policy shift towards more free time and more leisure. Ya know, no biggie. Rubin:
We may need an increase in the income tax credit, not only for those who receive it at the present time but perhaps much further up the income scale. Measures that facilitate collective bargaining can result in a broader participation in the benefits of productivity and growth [...] If we have ever rapid technological development and it is labor displacing, at some point in the future -- as I say, that may be some distant point in the future -- should that lead to some basic change in our lifestyles with less work, more lecture and a richer, more robust use of that leisure? [...] In addition to everything that needs to be done to enhance growth, tighten labor markets and to improve the position of middle and lower income workers, should there be increased redistribution to accomplish the broad objectives of our society?
(I looked at the left-liberals I knew active in policy circles in the 1990s who were in the room, wondering how they kept their heads from exploding at that moment.)
 
Perhaps this turn is just reflecting this very specific historical moment, and it could change again just as quickly. But the problems are real, and terrifying stories about robots taking all the jobs can no longer have the double function as a form of relief that we have no responsibility to try and address these problems. And it's great to see prominent liberal economists doing that, especially in advance of the 2016 election.
 
Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:
 
  

 

Share This

Pages