An Alternate “Truth” About Jobs–Not Steve, but the rest of us working stiffs

A good friend recently sent me an email asking if I agreed with some conclusions reached by Scott Winship in a well-written piece in the Wilson Quarterly titled “The Truth about Jobs.”  Winship basically concludes that that the decline in labor force participation among men has been voluntary, aided by some changes in payments for disability and other factors, and that pay reduction relative to productivity improvements is merely a catch-up with overpayments from earlier decades prior to the ’80’s, and that, ultimately, this will come back into balance. Thus, not to worry. He makes some references to outsourcing, but concludes it has been a net benefit in terms of lower prices of goods. He ends with an important view, with which I fully agree, that skill levels are a problem for a growing segment of the population,  and we need to address that issue, specifically. This is a very brief and incomplete summary of Winship’s article, and I would suggest it is worth reading in its entirety.  I disagree with some of the conclusions which are drawn from a different view, or at least emphasis, on what has happened in the last 40+ years. I hope Winship is correct in his thoughtful and well-researched observations and his conclusions, but I am skeptical.

I think we do have a systemic jobs problem tied to demographics and the relative rise of other economies that are more easily participating in the global economy in terms of markets, intellectual contribution and the use of existing and rapidly changing technology.

Over the decades of change referred to in Winship’s analysis we have shifted into a much more global interconnected world where the movement of goods and services has been significantly enhanced via technological developments. Thus, the benefit of labor arbitrage between countries is real and possible as is labor/capital(technology) arbitrage everywhere.

For many years in the US, “outsourcing” has occurred within our borders, moving more production to suppliers which creates economies of scale and lower labor costs because the skill levels required are different.  And labor cost arbitrage still exists between geographies within the US.

As an example, while I don’t have the precise numbers, I would posit that global employment in the auto industry is up. However, required skill levels are down and, for some time, global geographical arbitrage on labor costs has existed with there being little, if any,  technological arbitrage among countries today–similar technologies are available to almost all. The last time I was in China visiting auto plants the difference in labor content between a Toyota plant in Japan and China reflected the labor cost differential with more workers and less automation on the lines in China.  As relative wages rise, the lines in China have become more automated substituting capital(technology) for labor within a framework of a newer, more efficient production system than might be found in the developed world. This is real and cannot be glossed over as having an effect on the US and other developed economies.

Winship’s dataset of men only and their wage and labor force participation numbers is also a problem. The impact on wages (for men and the total work force) has been, in part, the gender wage arbitrage that has existed, and in some cases continues to exist, between men and women, even though the skill levels are not different–some would say higher among the women. Winship mentions the wage differentials but he doesn’t explicitly incorporate it as a cause for the slower rise in men’s wages.

He points out that more men over 55 are staying in the work force. I agree with much of his analysis here which emphasizes the education levels and the desire to work, not the need. Although, I do believe there is an element of need that comes into play–the need to think about sustaining oneself and a lifestyle for a much longer period than historically has been the case. My personal anecdote is noting that my father lived to 100 and was quite active for almost all of that period. I always said to him that I would take his bad genes as long as I got the good ones. It appears that I did get both…  I have to think about what kind of life I want to lead over the next few decades both financially and actively with my mind and body. It is hard to move away from the stimulus of work (and the reward) as long as I have that opportunity.  And the opportunities appear to be there for me and others.

I think this does have a lot to do with availability of skills in that age bracket, the adaptation of that group, in general, to the new world of communication and technology,  and the recognition that productivity levels remain high, particularly among the better educated, more of whom are maintaining their health. It isn’t as automatic that as an employee ages he or she becomes less productive or less adaptable to the demands of the workplace. It helps that labor laws make it more difficult to end employment for age reasons alone.

On a separate point, as one works one’s way down the age brackets I think we are finding fewer individuals wanting to work within a formal structured work place–they are less available–, thus only the over 55 are available for those jobs. This is a big overstatement, but on the margin it is certainly the case. The use of the internet, the infrastructure in city-states and even within smaller communities leads to the availability of a more entrepreneurial approach to work and provision of services than has been the case historically—and more of this is in the cash (or grey) economy.

There has been much research trying to estimate the dollars floating around the rest of the world in an undocumented economy. There has been some recent work (U of Wisconsin– which may indicate a growing amount of that cash, more than previously estimated, resides within the US.  And, by the way, taxing that income could add $500 Billion to US governments’ revenues. More people are working than the BLS statistics pick up. Do we really believe that all the number of  long term unemployed are actually not working? But, instead,  aren’t they producing some income–maybe sufficient to sustain or even thrive?  Here’s an anecdote for you: We have all heard about companies pushing more people to part-time employment to avoid ACA rules and, ultimately reduce their costs. One of my fellow directors at a company told me that one of her clients–a national retailer–is having employees in certain states with insurance exchanges ask to be moved to part-time because the cost of insurance on the exchange will be lower than or no worse than their current costs. It makes them untethered to a company for the benefits, more mobile and flexible, and with the possibility of making up for the income at another job either on or off the books. One could make the case that the younger generations don’t view the government as doing much for them so why should they pay taxes. That is happening at a time when the ability to work off the books has risen and continues to. Just think what 3-D printing could do to that ability once it is truly operable. I attended a meeting with one of the founders of MakerBot where this was made apparent. The real discussion with him was about the grey economy.

Winship’s final paragraph re the importance of education is particularly valid and critical: People, for the most part, figure out how to survive and thrive under any reasonably open system. Their ability to maximize the thriving part does depend on skill levels, educational attainment and overcoming the systemic inequalities that exist. That does need to be a focus. The developed world has a more severe problem than the developing world as it is more difficult for good things to happen in a replacement economy vs. a growth economy. But we must do significantly better.

There is much more to be written on this topic but I do have other tasks to perform–mostly on the books :-).

Reduce Oil Imports by 1/3? Can we do it all with fuel efficiency?

The short answer is maybe. It would require that vehicles being sold ten years from now would have to average 75 miles per gallon—not impossible, but  improbable–unless. It requires political will, higher and real CAFE (fuel efficiency) standards and continued technological improvements or a gasoline price that rises substantially. The latter two are the factors about which I have the most confidence.

I hate to do this, but we need to understand the numbers. Try and stick with me on this. These numbers are rough but get us into the ballpark.

We import 9 million barrels of oil a day, about half from OPEC by the way. So we need to get rid of 3 million barrels a day or 1.095 Billion barrels a year. Now, those barrels don’t just go into making gasoline, but let’s make the leap of having all that reduction come from gasoline.  Based on refining experience, each barrel of oil typically produces about 19  gallons of gasoline (there are 42 gallons in a barrel). If we are to get rid of 3 million barrels of oil per day that means we need to reduce gasoline consumption by about 46 Billion gallons (42 gallons per barrel x 1.095 Billion barrels);  that’s out of the 160 Billion gallons consumed each year by the 240 million vehicles on the road today. (Notice that I capitalize Billion. We are talking BIG numbers.)  Those vehicles, each traveling about 12,000 miles a year, are actually averaging about 18 miles per gallon. To think about it another way (inverted), each vehicle is consuming about 0.0556 gallon per mile or 0.00132 barrel per mile. Pretty exciting so far…

Over the next ten years at a scrappage rate of 5% a year we will replace half of those 240 million vehicles. That’s where the reduction in consumption has to come from.  Let’s calculate what the mileage improvement has to be to eliminate those 1.095 Billion barrels a year.   Currently the half of the fleet that will be scrapped, which is less efficient than the whole fleet, is likely consuming about 1.8 Billion barrels a year or 4.93 million barrels a day. We would need it to be consuming only 1.93 million barrels per day or 0.705 Billion barrels a year or 29.61 Billion gallons per year. If each vehicle in that half of the fleet is traveling 12,000 miles a year it would have to be averaging about 49 miles per gallon. You can do this calculation yourself by dividing the total mileage for the fleet (1.44 Trillion miles) by the gallons expected to be consumed (29.61 Billion).  To get that average for the 120 million vehicles assuming a linear increase in miles per gallon over that ten-year period, the vehicles bought in 2022 would have to be averaging 75 miles per gallon.  While the all-electrics are already getting over 100 miles per gallon equivalent and many of the hybrids over 50 mpg it is still a stretch to think that we will get the average on all vehicles sold in a year up to 75 miles per gallon in 10 years or about 50 miles per gallon in 5 years.  It is not impossible, but would require one hell of a change in the growth path for highly fuel-efficient vehicles, supported by significantly higher CAFE standards.  The problem is we are starting with only 40% of all vehicles being subject to the higher CAFÉ standards. We have a lot of light trucks and real trucks on the road.

We should strive for all 3 million barrels a day coming from fuel efficiency. As I said, political will, CAFE standards, and technology are required, and higher oil prices are a given unless we do this. And, by the way, every million barrels a day of gasoline we don’t use, reduces CO2 emissions by 148 megatons per year.

One Million Electric Vehicles by 2015? Well, It’s a Start.

In the State of the Union address President Obama announced a goal of 1 million electric vehicles on the road in the United States by 2015.  Part of that plan involves continuation of some existing incentives such as the $7500 credit on a purchase, but some new incentives and actions as well—incentives to communities for vehicle fleet conversions, HOV access and other steps. In addition the GSA will purchase 40,000 alternative fueled and fuel-efficient vehicles as replacements for aging vehicles in its fleets. 1 million sounds like a nice number, and we have to start somewhere, but let’s hope the number is significantly larger.

There are over 240 million vehicles on the road in the US now, and a replacement of 5-7% of those vehicles a year. Those vehicles average about 20+ miles per gallon.  Replacing 0.4% of the fleet with vehicles averaging, let’s say, 100 miles per gallon equivalent, under the most optimistic assumptions reduces our oil-equivalent consumption by about 12 million barrels a year and CO2 consumption by about 4 million tons.  Unfortunately, we import 9 million barrels of oil a day.  However, it’s a start! It also has the effect of stimulating activity in electric vehicles and associated and competitive technologies.  Importantly, it will stimulate activity on increased fuel efficiency of all types.  In my view, this is where we need to focus—set very aggressive targets on average fuel efficiency for each manufacturer selling in the US with a goal to getting the whole fleet—all 240 million vehicles–up to 60 miles per gallon or better in 25 years. That does start making a big dent in CO2 emissions and our dependence on foreign oil. I have written about this in earlier posts, (see TRADE DEFICITS, ENERGY INDEPENDENCE AND, OH YES, CO2 EMISSIONS—November, 2009).  In other words, provide incentives for fuel efficiency in general.  With electric having the potential for the highest efficiency, the credits and other specific incentives there will drive the rest of the industry, but lets get more explicit on very aggressive fuel efficiency targets.  The competitive juices and the resulting innovation will get us there.  President Obama talked about out-competing and out-innovating the rest of the world. That has to start with competition and innovation at home.  More to come.


Fuel Cells: Maybe they aren’t 10 years away…….

Up until a couple of years ago I have been in the camp that “fuel cells are 10 years away,” which is where they have been for the last 30 years. However, as I commented in a recent tweet that is no longer the case. After that tweet commenting on Katie Fehrenbacher’s post on  re test driving the Mercedes Fuel Cell vehicle I got a reply from Ron Glantz. Ron, who for many years was the number one ranked auto analyst on Wall Street and a successful money manager, has forgotten more about the auto industry than most people actually know.  While he claims he truly has forgotten almost everything and has not kept up on the industry, his email to me belies that point and raises some interesting questions. I have copied it below:

“While automakers are still working on fuel cells, apparently they have given up on generating hydrogen in cars by processing gasoline. (I had previously sent you a note saying that the problem was the cost of the platinum used in the catalyst.) Instead, they are counting on hydrogen refueling stations:

  • The Nikkei says that the Japanese government is supporting an initiative to draw hydrogen from oil refining. Oil refining uses hydrogen to remove sulfur from oil. The hydrogen used in this process doesn’t have to be high quality, 90 percent pure suffices. Fuel cells expect 99.9 percent pure hydrogen. The sponsored project aims to produce high purity hydrogen, based on “industrial” hydrogen technology”. The Japanese government will bear half the cost of a cheap project. It is estimated to cost 500 million yen ($ 6.15 million) over a three-year period.  It wants to be ready before 2015. Why 2015? Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) expects a “wide adoption of fuel cell vehicles by fiscal 2015” and “seeks to secure a steady supply of high-purity hydrogen.” Again: Why 2015? It just so happens that Toyota is dead set on selling its first mass-produced fuel cell car by 2015.
  • In Korea, Byung Ki Ahn, general manager of Hyundai-Kia’s Fuel Cell Group, said recently: “There are already agreements between car makers such as ourselves and legislators in Europe, North America and Japan to build up to the mass production of fuel cell cars by 2015.” Indeed, if you go through the many files produced in Brussels, you find that in Europe “car manufacturers are getting ready for the commercial production of hydrogen vehicles by 2015.”

So, now you have a “chicken and egg” problem — how can you sell cars before there are refueling stations; how can you justify building stations before there are cars?”  -Ron Glantz, 01/01/11.

Of course this is not a problem for a country that is building into a growth market, e.g., China, India. If one has to build service stations for a growing population of vehicles, anyway, they can just as easily be hydrogen, or natural gas, and, maybe as an interim step, battery recharging or replacement stations.  This is an oversimplification, but it highlights the problem facing the developed world when it comes to a new paradigm. Most innovations applied in the developed world are as replacements, not necessarily meeting new demand. A different economic equation which the developed world has to accept or be left behind.

“Cool It” Redux

It is worth seeing the commercial version of “Cool It.”  Hurry, though, since I don’t think 4 people in an audience at each showing will be commercially viable.  Ondi Timoner must have gotten more control over the final product than I thought she would.  The commercial version is quite balanced.  There are some fairly sharp digs at Al Gore and “An Inconvenient Truth,” but a recognition that Gore brought the topic of Global Warming to the forefront. Let me get some of the critiques out of the way:  There’s a little too much of “We’ve only seen a one foot rise in sea levels in the last century,” “… life is good with standards of living having risen substantially,” etc. In other words,  “We’ve jumped off the 50-story building and as we pass the 25th floor things actually look okay.”  Bjorn Lomborg points out that there is a bell curve of potential global warming outcomes and the alarmists only use the low odds extreme possibilities to make their case for immediate action and large expenditures.  However, he turns around and uses the least possible impact of the current actions on temperature change and sea level rise to make his case for diverting resources away from climate change toward other pressing needs.  He is right regarding the need to address other issues, poverty, health, housing, etc., but, as Ned Babbitt points out in a comment below, Lomborg doesn’t provide a lot of documentation for the expenditure levels he calls for.  Those may exist in his book of the same name.  I could go on, but these are all just nits. Go see the movie!

Lomborg goes out of his way to affirm that he is a true believer in global warming, that man is the big contributor to the path we are on, and that we need to do something about it. However, he believes that the solutions being implemented, cap and trade, electric vehicles, windmills, solar PV are just not adequate today to deal with the problem and much of the dollars being invested could be put to better use. I have to agree except in the case of the transportation industry, where I believe the solutions are there—they just haven’t been implemented. Elsewhere, the technologies we are using today are just not adequate to solve the problems in an economic fashion without an explicit price on carbon. The documentary spends a fair amount of time on geo-engineering, which Lomborg thinks may be necessary as stop gaps because we won’t have developed the economic solutions that can move us away from a carbon-based energy system in the right time frame.  His call is for spending more of the money on new technologies and innovation and less on today’s implementation, and in the process freeing up capital to deal with the other needs of the global society. The documentary supports the case by taking us on a whirlwind tour of some of the new technologies in the developed world that could get us to the right solutions. Whether it is Nathan Myhrvold’s work on 4th generation nuclear technologies, Stephen Salter’s work on wave energy or cloud whitening, or Hashem Akbari’s work on mitigating the urban heat effect, the journey through the new technologies is exciting and encouraging.  The solutions are there, in the lab, in prototypes or in a scientist’s head.

Unfortunately, most of the solutions don’t fit today’s venture capital model of low investment and quick return, which is still available in various aspects of the internet space.  The work that is being done is occurring in university labs based on government grants and other non-profit funding with the exception of the Myhrvolds of the world who are recycling the capital from earlier software/internet ventures into this new and exciting field. The other small exception is in those few cases where adaptation, primarily to rising water levels is already a requirement. The Dutch cannot really afford to take the chance that the low end of the distribution curve of climate change will be the end result. I don’t think the rest of the world can either.

We have to create the financing models that allow these innovations to progress to the next levels. Whoever does will own these technologies and the fruits of their implementation for their own geographies and certainly for the benefit of their own economies.  Lomborg’s whirlwind tour doesn’t get outside the developed world, but the innovation and implementation are occurring in the developing world at a startling pace as well. Go get excited by the view of what can happen as presented in “Cool It,”  and put some thought as to what needs to be done to move these innovations and others toward practical reality.

A123 Succeeds and the Real Financiers March On

Well, the A123 IPO has to be considered a success, certainly for the company and for those who participated in the offering.  The company expected to raise about $200 million—somewhat short of the matching funds required to access the ARRA and DOE loans.  Because of the demand from public equity investors, the size and price of the offering were raised and the company ended up more than doubling its initial expectations, exceeding the matching funds required for the ARRA and DOE money.

The stock rose almost 50% from its offering price on the first day of trading. If one participated on the IPO one is up about 50%. If you bought it on the close at the first day you are about flat, almost the same as the S&P 500 for that period. That the deal got done with a bit of a splash is good news for the IPO market, good news for the M&A market and good news for venture capitalists. Maybe it will encourage the VCs to put some of the reserves they set aside for the potential economic hurricane that was going to rain down on their portfolio companies into new ventures. I certainly hope so.

In the meantime the other real financier, the federal government, continues to put capital at risk.   The DOE agency, ARPA-e, the Advanced Research Projects-Energy, modeled after the DOD agency, DARPA, announced grants totaling $151 million to a variety of entities to fund very early stage technologies in the clean energy space. If you want to get excited about what can happen on the carbon reduction front, go visit and read about the 37 high risk, but big ideas the government is backing. Arpa-e has another $250 million to put to work over the next year or so, and has 263 already fully-formed ideas to choose from.  It would be interesting to expose those ideas and the other 3300 less-well-formed ideas it has received to the venture capital community. Few will pass the rigorous screens of the seasoned venture funds, but the process itself could trigger an excitement and reinvigoration of the creative and competitive juices that the venture community can bring to bear when it looks beyond the valley (if you’ll pardon the expression).

Let’s recall the role Darpa played in seeding the last two venture cycles, microchips and the Internet.  Darpa is also playing a role in nanotechnology as well.  Even A123 in its early days was a beneficiary of military money.  On Point Technologies, an Army-backed venture fund managed by Arsenal Venture Partners (look it up!), was an investor in A123 in 2004, in its second round. For those military conspiracy fanatics, isn’t it a strange coincidence that A123’s headquarters are located in the old Arsenal building on Arsenal Street in Waltham? I like the conspiracy I see developing:  Our current Secretary of Energy, Dr. Chu, was part of a National Academy of Sciences committee calling for the creation of Arpa-e.  Three Senators, Clinton, Reid and Bingaman, proposed establishing it in early 2007. It was created but not funded during the Bush Administration. Steven Chu became Secretary of Energy and the financial crisis led to funding through ARRA of Arpa-e. Whatever works.  Let’s just get on with it before these big ideas find a home away from home.