Requirements for modern success

January 18, 2015 · Posted in Business, Culture · Comment 

 The much touted 'character hypothesis' (which has become a staple of a lot of modern intellectual discourse around success, often heard from writers like Malcolm Gladwell and Paul Tough) is very useful, and speaks to an understanding of the greatly changed nature of success in the post-Industrial era. However, I think the qualities associated with that hypothesis should only be considered necessary, but not sufficient. To review, here is a list of qualities generally associated with it:

  • persistence
  • determination
  • self-control / the ability to delay gratification
  • curiosity
  • conscientiousness
  • self-confidence
  • (occasionally) emotional intelligence
  • good communication skills and a willingness to listen 
  • grit

I'd personally add to the list 'the willingness to always learn' (i.e., be a dedicated autodidact for life.)

Based on what we've seen over the past ten years, especially with things like 'the gig economy' and our 'free agent nation', this hypothesis (perhaps model) holds up well. So what else is necessary? One or more of the following

  • a strong personal safety net (savings and/or relatives and friends to fall back on)
  • good credentials
  • a strong personal / professional network

These last three are exactly the ones that are generally not available to those who need them most, even if they have all the qualities of the first list (you could also substitute 'incredible luck' for these three.) These things may be understood, but still remain unspoken. We should remind ourselves that character alone may not be enough for success in today's world for the even the most determined, confident, and gritty of people. 

How would a guaranteed income change the job market?

January 9, 2015 · Posted in Business, Economics, Government, Policy · Comment 

 A few things seem likely:

  • remuneration would likely improve
  • only motivated people would be left, so "pretending" to enjoy a job and all other kinds of fakery diminishes
  • artificial competition for jobs would decrease drastically
  • the ability to change jobs becomes extremely fluid on both sides of the table (with liberalized hire/fire policies [employer-side] plus a lack of worry about winding up in the street [worker-side])

This is a very large net benefit to the motivated. The sooner those who don't want to be there get to stop working, the better for the rest.

So why would remuneration likely improve? It would improve because of the reduction in the number of people in the reserved labor pool, which means lower competition for each position (currently, there are 3 people for each available job opening, as an example), which raises wages. Additionally, the existence of an alternative income stream means that you cannot use the threat of "no income" to hold wages down. Finally, these same forces will mean that "dirty" jobs will no longer be able to bank on the marginal status of potential employees to keep their wages lower - the example of the toilet scrubber (before we get toilet cleaning Roombas, of course) is a useful one. If a potential toilet scrubber can think "do I do this dirty job for only slightly more than the BI, or do I find another one?", then the wage is forced to rise if you want someone scrubbing your toilet.

Artificial competition going away is important, because it reduces the "fake" demand for positions; those that would rather not be there won't, which takes the pressure off that position (reducing its perceived scarcity/value.) This has both the above-described wage effects, and a cultural effect: you no longer have people pretending that they want a job, lying to get jobs, inflating their resumes, gladhanding, etc.People who are very competitive and people who care a great deal about quality should be completely behind these policies; it's only upside for them.

We would get to experience a truly voluntary job market; you're only there if you want to be. 

The sharing economy, and policy non-response

January 5, 2015 · Posted in Business, Economics, Government, Policy · Comment 

The Economist recently published two articles on the rise of (related, and often overlapping) trends in the world of work in the modern world. "Freelance economy", "free agent nation", the "sharing economy", and the "temp work economy" (along with a few others) are part of this basket. The advantages and disadvantages have been written about at length, so I won't go into them in depth. I think, however, that we should address what policymakers could do to accommodate these new trends.

Think of how radically different this new model would be if countries (particularly the US, obviously) had the following:

  • a guaranteed basic income
  • universal health care
  • no minimum wage (with a GBI, you do not need one)
  • hire/fire policies made completely at-will, with pretty much no exceptions, including so for workers who attempt to strike for higher wages (you do not get to demand higher wages with a GBI present.)
  • no corporate income tax; higher individual taxes / "unproductive wealth" taxes in their stead. Loopholes closed for real, instead of just with lip service.
  • untaxed, offshore accounts made illegal. Perhaps jail time for their use.
  • increased funding for tax enforcement
  • excellent worker safety and environmental protections backed by muscular enforcement.
  • low cost (and preferably remote) higher education (read more about my ideas for improving higher education)

With these policies in place, the often unstable, benefit-free jobs go from looking exploitative to perfectly acceptable. The dreams that many economists have about "perfect labor fluidity" and mobility would be possible. Job sucks? Quit. Go elsewhere. Uber not working out? Go to Lyft. Spoonrocket not doing it for you? Off to Blue Apron. Can't find another? Sit around and study new things, then go get a new job. Or don't. No more worrying about losing health care (Obamacare still does not help everyone - there's still a hole which some in the middle are slipping through, and Supreme Court decisions may significantly weaken the whole thing anyway - it's not a real UHC), winding up on the street, or any of the other traditional repercussions of job loss. "Job lock" becomes a thing of the past. In the US, we make a big deal out of being flexible and about professional reinvention. These policies make that truly possible. On the employer side, far fewer worries: no corporate taxes to think about, health care already provided, hiring/firing get even easier. 

The reality of this new world (and the policies that allow us to adapt to it) could, and perhaps should, be explicitly stated by politicians on the left, but they don't even appear to be on the radar. Something like "we realize that because of automation / better technology and new modes of business, that more and more people are going to be freelancers and sharing economy workers. With that realization, it's time to fully embrace it and give everyone a real, stable baseline via a truly universal health care system and guaranteed basic income. We have come to understand that outdated notions like 'bring back unions' or 'outlaw Uber' are not going to get us anywhere. 'Jobs for life' are dead and gone and aren't coming back, and we now accept that. Society and work will be different: looser, faster, more fluid. Rather than denying it, we're going to adapt policy to it, and America will be better for it."

Instead we're still fighting old, long dead battles and ignoring the enormous elephant in the room; the golden age is long past. Society and policy need to adapt.

Workers on tap

The future of work: there's an app for that

Reflecting on ‘Solving America’s Innovation Crisis’

January 4, 2015 · Posted in Business, Economics, Government, Policy, Politics · Comment 

This article by Alexis Ohanian supplied a prescription for some of the ills that have beset our economy, particularly with regards to 'innovation.' It also put forth some suggestions as to what workers should do with themselves in this new world in order to compete. The suggestions, in my opinion, flew far from the mark. Reflecting on it over a year later, it does not look any better. My response:

First, it's a bit confused, so let's unpack the issues within. There are really two crises, and they have some overlapping solutions, but are definitely not the same thing.

First, there are innovation issues. As Tyler Cowen goes over in his books, we've already picked much or all of the low-hanging innovation fruit, and will have to work much harder (collectively and individually) to innovate. Ohanian's statements and implications about education (which I would argue is more about knowledge, practice, and spending time actually thinking about problems and solutions, rather than formal credentials) are correct. Autodidacts are likely to be at the forefront of innovation for the foreseeable future. Those willing to focus on learning and building things for themselves will reap the gains compared to those who want to just live their lives (spend time with others for fun, party, have hobbies, and all those other things people in earlier generations were promised once they "put in their dues") will struggle. While this was probably always true, we're entering a new era of hypercompetition where (in the US at least) it'll be what divides those in poverty from those with plenty (see Autor's work for more on this.) Which brings us to the second crisis:

Jobs. In the coming decades, as we continue to automate people out of jobs permanently (turning them into Zero Marginal Product workers) those left /solidly in/ the job market will be eventually able to command much higher salaries and benefits, while the ZMPs scrape by with either a) welfare if we leave things as they are, b) live a decent life off a guaranteed basic income if we're wise enough to do that, or c) starve, if we continue to do what we've been doing for 30 years. Those on the margins will be the ones dealing with the hypercompetition and will have to work harder and harder to stay above the line. So he's right again about "they instantly show who is resourceful and who isn't—who will go the extra mile and who will coast to the finish", but not for the reasons he thinks. The way we got here wasn't some grand choice by the people, it's the result of political choices: radical deregulation (mostly a bad story), the destruction of labor unions (had to happen), automation (technological unemployment as the result, unstoppable), and as a result, a changed culture of doing more with less. He uses the term "welcomes", but aside from those who enjoy meritocracy and all its upsides AND downsides, I would guess that most do NOT welcome it. If given the choice, most would choose to bring back some semblance the Golden Age (which I believe is impossible and should not even be considered, as the landscape has changed far too much to make that a possibility.)

So there is overlap in the two stories: hypercompetition leading to people having to work harder and harder to stay alive at the margins, and low-hanging fruit being picked requiring us to work harder to innovate. The unspoken idea that if everyone works harder we will all be able to succeed and innovate is naive; working harder to _innovate_ will be necessary but not sufficient. Working harder to _succeed financially_ will only work for /some/, and as time goes by, a smaller and smaller slice of the population.

Mr. Ohanian has romanticized a (for most) tough new reality. I believe this is unwise. We should look at it clearly and with eyes wide open so we can improve the future by putting in policies that support the innovators while keeping all the jobless and medium-term future jobless people from starving; telling people that they can succeed if they only work harder and obtain more education should be considered dangerously misguided.

I received some questions about this post, which I will answer below. They are paraphrased, since I don't know if the inquirers want their words used (if you're reading this and would like attribution, please let me know.)

Are "marginal" innovators really the only safe ones? Many jobs which rely on interpersonal interaction / soft skills will probably survive, right?

Well, there are couple things here. In the medium-term, which I'm most concerned with now, I think the percentage of people with "soft skills that are still useful / necessary to employ" will shrink. It will not go to zero like cashiers or fast food cooks, but as a percentage will go down. We are seeing the very beginnings of this in certain automated fast-food experiments (the equivalent of fast-food Matire'D people) and big-box store greeters (perhaps at some time in the past they would have been stocking shelves.) So rather than having ten human shelf stockers or cooks for each greeter, it might be ten automated shelf stockers/cooks for each greeter. Here in NYC, there are supermarkets with self-checkout aisles, and only 1 human left at a register, along with 1 human left to watch all the machines. Previously it was six or seven (up until a few years ago.) I think that will be the story for more types of jobs which require those soft skills in the future. Certain types, however, will do even better than now. I outlined a few in another comment:

Marketers will become especially important, especially as the prices of many things are driven ever lower due to automation. Perhaps we'll have 2x-4x more than we do now, and even more importantly, we will start to integrate the idea of marketing into more jobs. We already see this with musicians, visual artists, etc. Everyone needing to sell themselves even today gives a glimpse into this, I think. Other soft skill jobs that will be around in the medium term: nannies, a new breed of personal assistants, personal shoppers/designers/makeup artists, and politicians (who have long ago learned the importance of forever being in "marketing mode.")

So there is absolutely room for some soft skill jobs, but not nearly the number we're used to - and these fields will also get highly competitive, which is where the marginal innovation comes in. If I'm a marketer, even a very good one, I will potentially be competing with a large number of others who have the same training as I do, are unemployed, hungry, spending their time all day working on their pitches, etc. So in this way, I am still having to innovate at the margins. I don't think that part goes away for jobs that have lowish-barriers to entry, but are still in demand.

Telling people to get an education is good, as long as we understand that it really means 'get useful skills.' A problem is that many students go to college to learn things that don't add value and are funded by student debt that may well never be paid back. Past returns from education will likely not be repeated in the future - we're already seeing this in the west, but people should at least get educated/trained in 'good' areas.

I agree with that in the abstract, but I don't think it has a long shelf life. Here's another comment where I deal with that issue:

The short answer there is that supply and demand work against that being a viable strategy. Imagine the scenarios:

  1. Everyone (for example) becomes a software developer. Number of jobs as a percentage doesn't move that much. We fill all the existing positions, and are left with a glut. Software developer salaries plummet due to the "reserve army of labor" effect. We actually already have natural experiments for this one in certain fields (all the 'janitors with PHDs', STEM grads in India (, various others, etc.) Highly unlikely in any case.
  2. Everyone TRIES to become a software developer, and many or most fail. Software developer salaries stay where they are or increase. Those people are still jobless, but now have a pile of debt from 2-3 years of schooling. Not /incredibly/ far from where we are now, but still different.
  3. The status quo continues exactly as it is, and more people wind up with useless degrees. They remain jobless and in debt.

The highly implausible way this works out positively, is that everyone somehow succeeds against all odds and actually does 1), and the number of jobs also somehow keeps pace with the graduation numbers. I think you can probably see how unlikely this scenario is.

What path would you recommend for someone who isn't technical?

For jobs of the short-to-medium term for people who want to stay away from software/hard science/robotics, I would put:

  • Nurses, Physician assistants, and medical professionals in general in remote-ish areas (rural and ex-urban US areas still have a high demand for obvious reasons, smaller cities too. Big-city medicine is tough unless you are at the top)
  • Excellent marketers / creative professionals (art directors, for example, and anyone else who is "consistently creative" / constantly reinventing - if you're the cream of the crop here, you can do well)
  • Nannies (top ones can make 150K US)
  • Physical therapists (will eventually get automated, but likely 20-30 years out)
  • Pilots and air traffic controllers (hard to get into, start with decent pay, get very good later. Will likely be automated sooner or later, though.)

Response to: We Need a Second Party

This article by Thomas Friedman makes a relatively new, but familiar-feeling argument. The Republican party needs to change. It's outmoded. It's conflicted. It's woefully inequiped to deal with today's realities. His criticisms couldn't be more correct. In our song A Graveyard of Elephants we offer some of the exact same arguments. He's correct as far as it goes.

Where his analysis begins to fall down is where he begins to argue that today's incarnations of Conservatisms can be salvaged. By and large, this is completely wrong. In today's America, which version of Conservatism is worth saving? Which one resonates? Which one are Americans moving toward? As Alan Wolfe so eloquently states "In this entrepreneurial, mobile, innovative, and individualistic country, conservatism was constantly on the defensive, aiming to preserve things--deference, reverence, and diffidence, to name three--that most Americans were anxious to shed." This is more true than ever.

Religious or "traditional family structure" conservatism? Religion is on the wane (recent controversies notwithstanding - study after study backs this one up.) America is becoming more secular and more accepting of LGBT rights. Birth control is used regularly. Abortion, though a perennial topic, still has broad support, and will eventually be made obsolete by better methods of birth control (permanent and side-effect free.) More people are living alone or co-habiting than ever before. Single parenthood is hardly the shocking subject it once was. Staying single for life, open marriage, non-hetero marriage, polyamory, being childfree, and various other non-traditional family/non-family structures have entered the mainstream lexicon and, while not necessarily popular, are gaining acceptance.

Market Fundamentalism, a kind of "Conservatism" *(with built in contradictions), but in its current incarnation allows massive wealth concentration and poverty? Being rejected across the board - even large percentages of Republicans have rejected our current levels of wealth inequality. From the Tea Party to Occupy Wall Street, there's a rejection of this doctrine, even if some of the members of those movements don't always know it.

Other, lesser known Conservatisms will likely never be popular. Take Bioconservatism, for example. Cosmetic surgery is commonplace. We're replacing (and now growing!) limbs and organs and putting them on and inside people. How far are we from enhanced contact lenses (permanent, with AR overlays)? Implants which help us learn faster and remember more are likely to be as eagerly embraced as "smart drugs" are becoming in many circles.

So what's left for Conservatism? Only one thing really looks promising to defend: "Economic nationalism", which will mean putting America's economic growth and innovation first. This will of course mean shedding other kinds of Conservatism. Free Markets has money go wherever it's most likely to make a profit in the short term. If we're going to try to move to the next level, we'll need to take some of that "State Capitalist" medicine that China has been popping for a while. Technology investment, items with longer-term payoffs (or that may not turn a profit), 21st-century infrastructure/transportation development, initiatives for further city densification and all its attendant benefits (idea mixing, serendipity creation, etc.)

Friedman argues these things, but implies that we can do it by reinventing the Republican party - which may be true. Doing so, however, will mean jettisoning all of those Conservatisms in the process. It's Conservatism(s) against the world, and Conservatism which will need to be sacrificed.

We need big moves, big ideas, and an international, rather than domestic-focused competitive spirit. An ideology that puts American innovation at the forefront, and all the policies necessary to make that happen. That's the only kind of Conservatism left worth defending.

Job automation roundup

October 29, 2011 · Posted in Business, Economics, Government, Policy, Politics · Comment 

 Many articles about technology replacing labor, the future of the human workforce, and the potential for mass unemployment (and what that means for the welfare state) have been making the rounds lately. I'm listing some of the best here (some are older, but still very important) so there's a single place for them - and because it is one of the most important issues in the world, and will only continue to get more important:

Why workers are losing the war against the machines

Will robots steal your job?

The jobless future

Krugman and Delong on automation

Structural problems in the US labor market

American workers race against the machine

A post of  my own on the subject:

The future of work, part 2

October 5, 2011 · Posted in Business, Culture, Government, Politics, Sociology · Comment 

Very interesting and important video. It starts getting especially interesting around 1:00:00 when Cowen and Ford start talking. A few things:

- The idea of "personal shoppers" being a growth area seems dubious. With recommendation and predictive desire systems getting better all the time, I think this is probably a no-go.

- Nannies might be a growth area for a few decades, but decent AI will likely obviate the need for these as well. I'd give this one 50-50 odds over the next 4-6 decades.

- Basically everyone on that panel endorsed the guaranteed income. The fact that people from so many different perspectives had their policy prescription converge to that is really striking.

- This also brings us back to the "how do we occupy the unemployed masses?" question yet again. Arts and leisure activities will likely not need much support from society, as they will just happen. Sports might (stadiums, etc.) Other things we'll probably be looking at will be extremely powerful, long-lasting, side-effect-free (or tolerable side effect having) drugs. That road of course leads to wireheading, but I think that denying that as a possibility now is extremely naive.

A cultural shift will be required, as several people in the video make clear. Having one's self worth (and respect of one's peers/society) be defined by a traditional support-one's-livelihood "job" is going to have to disappear. Demonization of those "lazy, ne'er do wells" is just not going to work in a future where much human labor is not needed.

Another thing this brings to mind is the effect on the labor market that does continue to function: a great deal less unemployment, at least for a long while. For those skills that are essentially not able to be automated any time soon (let's stay over, the next 50-100 years) those that stay in the labor market will not be doing much competing for open positions. It may in fact be an employee's market in those cases where someone is not simply their own business.

Are we moving towards sideband/loss leader economies?

February 15, 2011 · Posted in Business · Comment 

With the upheavals in the music and news industries over the past few years has come a litany of complaints from many quarters about the inability to make a living off art or journalism. Then there are the counter-claims that things are being reshaped and that people need to find a new moneymaking model in these industries. Both of those arguments are true, IMO. It is harder to make money because the playing fields are flatter (the "music industry", outside of the very top where firms have a great deal of money to throw at lobbyists and DRM is as close to a Free Market that actually works the way its supposed to as could currently be envisioned - barriers to entry and exit are low, prices are near-zero, choice is mind-boggling, and there are no negative externalities to speak of) so there's huge amounts of competition and price drops. At the same time, those that do figure out working models stand to make a decent living. 

Now, I'd like to add a third argument into the mix: music, art, writing, (including journalism) and many other endeavors, etc. have become loss leaders of sort. You release music, write articles, take photos, report news and such to market yourself, and actually make money off something else. Bands sell T-shirts. Photographers teach classes. Writers act as cable TV pundits or do seminars. The idea of loss leaders is old, but the fact that it's becoming more common at the individual, rather than company level is new. It's understandable why this would bother some people; if you study, train, practice for something particular thing but it doesn't directly make you money, you may feel like you've wasted your time, been cheated, or just confused and angry that economies no longer work the way you thought they did (this may be particularly acute if you spend years listening to people who lived through the post WWII boom-times and actually believe that career advancement, seniority, etc. still works/exists the way it did back then.)

So we enter a world where many more people are "sideband" career people, and it's an understandably frustrating - it requires you to spend more time thinking about your career itself, about networking, about marketing oneself - skills that have very little to do with the skills you learned for your main endeavor. Regardless, it does seem to be the kind of world many people are in now.

Copyright in a networked world: where to from here?

November 26, 2010 · Posted in Business, Policy · Comment 

From "Copyright in a networked world":

First, we should look at what the Networked World demands, not just for copyright but for all forms of commerce and communication. And one thing that is clear is that the Networked World demands speed and it demands scale. People now expect transactions to take place immediately, if not sooner, and likewise they expect access to information to help those transactions just as quickly.

And they expect the same speed and scale for copyright transactions, especially since the content itself can be digitized and transmitted immediately too. We see some of that in action today in the ease with which one can (legitimately) download a song, stream a movie or buy a digital book. But the needs of the system don’t end there. A blogger who wants to use a photograph expects that she should be able to find it and pay for its use in a matter of minutes. A web site creator who wants to register the copyright in her site expects the process to be completed online and very quickly.

This is from Tim Rubin, Chief Counsel for Intellectual Property Strategy, Microsoft. A surprisingly forward-thinking speech from an organization not traditionally known for its openness, particularly on Intellectual Property matters. This seems to imply that tide has really shifted. 

What might the system look like, and what would it do? A central repository where anyone could register or obtain the rights to use copyrighted material pretty much instantly, and could search for material (like you can on Getty Images/ image search) by music or art style, sound or visual similarity, textual content, etc. The terms of use are spelled out, you pay, done. You now have permission to use the material. It should also have completely unencumbered works, which would help move us towards a world where we have a notion of "international public domain", which anyone could use without obtaining permission or paying.

This system would help solve the "orphan" problem mentioned in the speech, and would also help solve things like cross-country Intellectual Property law conflicts, and also allow people to use work that they otherwise wouldn't have because they were unable to find its owner. Of course, a system like this wouldn't be perfect (particularly regarding the question of "Who Administers?"), but seems like it could be a step in the right direction, and a net positive for culture.

A history of NYC entrepreneurship

November 15, 2010 · Posted in Business, History, Policy · Comment 

Though I don’t agree with each of his particular policy proposals for improving the business climate for small businesses in NYC (though I do strongly agree that improving the business climate for startups, particularly in NYC, is a very good idea and should be done), it’s a very good article overall: A history of NYC entrepreneurship – full article