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– http://www.ssc.wisc.edu/econ/archive/wp2011-1.pdf) 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 :-).