Robots That Can Grip Donuts Cannot Grip Asparagus

Distinguished MIT labor economist David Autor, who I reference in my book Openness to Creative Destruction: Sustaining Innovative Dynamism, was a co-chair of the MIT Work of the Future Task Force that wrote the report discussed in the article quoted below.

(p. B3) L. Rafael Reif, the president of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, delivered an intellectual call to arms to the university’s faculty in November 2017: Help generate insights into how advancing technology has changed and will change the work force, and what policies would create opportunity for more Americans in the digital economy.

That issue, he wrote, is the “defining challenge of our time.”

Three years later, the task force assembled to address it is publishing its wide-ranging conclusions. The 92-page report, “The Work of the Future: Building Better Jobs in an Age of Intelligent Machines,” was released on Tuesday [November 17, 2020].

. . .

Technology has always replaced some jobs, created new ones and changed others. The question is whether things will be different this time as robots and artificial intelligence quickly take over for humans on factory floors and in offices.

The M.I.T. researchers concluded that the change would be more evolutionary than revolutionary. In fact, they wrote, “we anticipate that in the next two decades, industrialized countries will have more job openings than workers to fill them.”

That judgment is informed by field research in several industries and sectors including insurance, health care, driverless vehicles, logistics and warehouses, advanced manufacturing, and small and medium-size manufacturers.

. . .

Despite advances, robots simply don’t have the flexibility and dexterity of human workers. Today’s robots learn from data and repetition. They can be remarkably adept at a certain task, but only that one. The report cited a fine-tuned gripping robot that could pluck a glazed doughnut and carefully place it in a box, with its shiny glaze undisturbed.

“But that gripper only works on doughnuts,” the report said. “It can’t pick up a clump of asparagus or a car tire.”

The cost and operational expertise required will also slow the widespread adoption of robots.

For the full story, see:

Steve Lohr. “Don’t Fear the Robots, Says Jobs Study Group.” The New York Times (Wednesday, November 18, 2020): B3.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Nov. 17, 2020, and has the title “Don’t Fear the Robots, and Other Lessons From a Study of the Digital Economy.”)

The MIT report discussed above is:

MIT Work of the Future Task Force. “The Work of the Future: Building Better Jobs in an Age of Intelligent Machines.” Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2020.

My book mentioned above is:

Diamond, Arthur M., Jr. Openness to Creative Destruction: Sustaining Innovative Dynamism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019.

Least-Well-Off Were Gaining Before Pandemic

(p. A3) U.S. families’ income and wealth rose in the years heading into the coronavirus pandemic, with those in lower-income and lower-wealth categories reaping relatively large gains, the Federal Reserve said in a report on household finances.

. . .

The distribution of wealth between low- and high-income households narrowed slightly in the latest survey period, Fed economists said, a shift from the 2010-to-2016 period when incomes largely stagnated for all but the most well-off after the 2007-2009 recession.

Families in the lowest two income groups recorded large percentage increases in median net worth, suggesting the decadelong expansion benefited a wide swath of society. Net worth rose 37% to $9,800 for the lowest earners, and increased 40% to $44,000 for the second-lowest group. The median net worth of the highest and second-highest groups declined 8% and 9%, respectively.

For the full story, see:

Harriet Torry. “Household Wealth Rose Before Crisis.” The Wall Street Journal (Tuesday, September 29, 2020): A3.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated Sep. 28, 2020, and has the title “Household Wealth Rose in Years Before Pandemic, Fed Says.”)

Art Diamond Interviewed on Robustly Redundant Labor Markets

I was interviewed early on Mon., October 26, 2020 on Jim Blasingame’s Small Business Advocate radio program on my concept paper “Ending Persistent Poverty by Enabling Robustly Redundant Labor Markets.” The concept paper earned the second place award in a Charles Koch Institute competition on how to end persistent poverty. The concept of a robustly redundant labor market was briefly discussed in my book Openness to Creative Destruction: Sustaining Innovative Dynamism.

Diamond’s book, mentioned above, is:

Diamond, Arthur M., Jr. Openness to Creative Destruction: Sustaining Innovative Dynamism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019.

“Before the White People Left”

(p. A1) CHICAGO — The old guard of this city’s Roseland neighborhood, a community on the South Side famous for molding a young Barack Obama and infamous for its current blight, has never forgotten the fruit trees.

Back in the 1970s, before the full exodus of white residents, the erosion of local businesses, the crack epidemic of the 1980s and the disinvestment that followed, it was the trees that signaled the societal elevation of Black families — separating those who moved here from the urban high rises they fled. An apple tree greeted Antoine Dobine’s family in 1973, he said. The tree meant a yard. A yard meant a home. And a home meant a slice of the American dream, long deferred for Black Americans.

“Pear trees, peaches, apples, it was beautiful,” Mr. Dobine recalled. “Before the white people left.”

. . .

The fruit trees have been replaced with overgrown lots. Residents say gangs use the abandoned areas to stockpile weapons, which children sometimes find.

For the full story, see:

Astead W. Herndon. “Black Area Embraces Protests But Still Has No Grocery Store.” The New York Times (Wednesday, August 12, 2020): A1 & A21.

(Note: ellipsis added. The online version say that the New York print version had the title “In a Black Chicago Community, Doubt Defies Hope for Change.” My National print version had the title “Black Area Embraces Protests But Still Has No Grocery Store.”)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated Aug. 28 [sic], 2020, and has the title “‘A Smoking Gun’: Infectious Coronavirus Retrieved From Hospital Air.”)

“An Active Regulatory State Is a Playground for the Privileged Class”

(p. A17) . . . the poor would suffer most under Mr. Biden’s platform. Dividing U.S. households into five income groups, I have estimated the regulatory costs of each quintile and expressed them as a percentage of each quintile’s average income. The costs to the bottom group amount to 15.3% of its total income—representing a burden equal to all the taxes they currently pay. This group would experience part of the cost as lower wages, but the biggest bite would come in diminished purchasing power due to higher prices for energy, cars and other consumer goods.

The top quintile, by contrast, would suffer the least from regulatory restoration, with labor, energy and other consumer rules amounting to only a 2.2% implicit tax on the highest earners.

This estimate includes not only regulations Mr. Biden has explicitly said he would revive, but also many of those that would be necessary to meet the goals outlined in his platform.

. . .

An active regulatory state is a playground for the privileged class to indulge its own preferences at the expense of ordinary Americans.

For the full commentary, see:

Casey B. Mulligan. “The Real Cost of Biden’s Plans.” The Wall Street Journal (Thursday, September 17, 2020): A17.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Sep. 16, 2020, and has the same title as the print version.)

Open Offices Reduce Productivity and Spread Diseases

(p. B4) When historians of the early 21st century look back on the pre-Covid era, one of the absurdities they might highlight is the vogue for gigantic, open-plan offices. The apotheosis of this trend of breaking down barriers between co-workers must surely be Facebook Inc.’s 433,555-square-foot Frank Gehry-designed open-plan office at its headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif. Opened in 2015, it’s now a ghost town, a monument to offices vacated by the pandemic.

Cramming cavernous spaces with as many desks as they could hold might have increased serendipitous interactions, but it almost certainly reduced productivity and helped spread communicable diseases, including coronavirus.

. . .

Cue the “dynamic workplace,” a pivot away from the open plan, built on the idea that with fewer employees coming to work on any given day, offices can offer them more flexibility of layout and management.

While open offices and dynamic workplaces share similar components—privacy booths and huddle rooms to escape the hubbub, cafe-like networking spaces, etc.—they’re philosophically distinct. One is intended to be a place where people come (at least) five days a week, and get most of their work done on site. The other is planned for people rotating in and out of the office, on flexible schedules they have more control over than ever.

. . .

Research on hot-desking in office spaces, for example—where employees give up a dedicated space in favor of first-come-first-serve seating—finds that it decreases socialization and trust. This happens because employees figure they might never again see the person they sit next to on a given day, says Dr. Sander. In other studies, employees complain they can’t find their colleagues, that it’s a hassle to find a new spot to work every day, and that such arrangements ignore humans’ innate territoriality and desire to make a space their own.

For the full commentary, see:

Christopher Mims. “Goodbye, Open Office. Hello, ‘Dynamic Workplace.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, September 12, 2020): B4.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the same date and title as the print version.)

Amazon Adds 100,000 Fulltime, Nonseasonal Jobs That Include Benefits and Bonuses

(p. A1) Amazon.com Inc. plans to hire 100,000 additional employees in the U.S. and Canada, continuing a rapid expansion that began as the coronavirus pandemic forced many people to stay home and shop online for work and other necessities.

. . .

New jobs will be added at dozens of Amazon locations (p. A6) paying at least $15 an hour and including benefits and signing bonuses of as much as $1,000 in some cities. Hiring for the jobs has already begun. The positions are all nonseasonal, Amazon said.

For the full story, see:

Ben Otto, and Sebastian Herrera. “Amazon Ramps Up Hiring Plans, Adds 100,000 New Jobs.” The Wall Street Journal (Tuesday, September 15, 2020): A1 & A6.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated Sep. 14, 2020, and has the title “Amazon to Hire 100,000 in U.S. and Canada.”)

Before Covid-19, Poverty and Unemployment Were Lowest in 50 Years

(p. B8) WASHINGTON — A record-low share of Americans were living in poverty, incomes were climbing, and health insurance coverage was little changed in 2019, a government report released on Tuesday showed — though the circumstances of many have deteriorated as pandemic lockdowns and industry disruptions have thrown millions out of work.

The share of Americans living in poverty fell to 10.5 percent in 2019, the Census Bureau reported, down 1.3 percentage points from 2018. That rate is the lowest since estimates were first published in 1959.

Household incomes increased to their highest level on record dating to 1967, at $68,700 in inflation-adjusted terms. That change came as individual workers saw their earnings climb and as the total number of people working increased.

. . .

Unemployment was hovering at around 3.5 percent before the crisis took hold, the lowest in 50 years, and wages were steadily rising.

For the full story, see:

Jeanna Smialek, Sarah Kliff and Alan Rappeport. “Census Shows Record-Low Poverty in U.S. Before Virus Struck.” The New York Times (Wednesday, September 16, 2020): B8.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Sept. 15, 2020, and has the title “U.S. Poverty Hit a Record Low Before the Pandemic Recession.”)

At Netflix “Adequate Performance Gets a Generous Severance Package”

Note that Netflix practices what Clayton Christensen called “emergent” strategic planning. Experimental responding to opportunities; no five year plans.

(p. B5) As a founder and co-chief executive of Netflix Inc., Reed Hastings has reshaped both the way people watch television and how the entertainment industry operates.

. . .

In his new book “No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention,” Mr. Hastings likens being employed at the streaming giant to being part of a sports team: Getting cut is disappointing but carries no shame. “Unlike many companies, we practice: Adequate performance gets a generous severance package,” reads one of Netflix’s mottos.

. . .

WSJ: In the book you say, “It’s impossible to know where a business like ours will be in five years.” What kind of prognosticating do you do?

Mr. Hastings: We keep trying experiments. The business model will be pretty similar in five years. Can we figure out animation? Can we catch Disney in family animation?

WSJ: You’ve said you want Netflix to be able to pounce on unanticipated opportunities. What’s an example of one you didn’t see coming?

Mr. Hastings: Nonfiction programming is a pretty good one. We started as superpremium TV, and the expansion into nonfiction has been a huge success. The whole sharing of content around the world has been a huge success. Prior to that, people thought Americans won’t watch content that’s produced outside the U.S.

For the full interview, see:

Joe Flint, interviewer. “BOSS TALK; Netflix’s Hastings Isn’t Fan of Remote Work.” The Wall Street Journal (Tuesday, September 8, 2020): B5.

(Note: ellipses added. “WSJ” and “MR. HASTINGS” were bolded in original.)

(Note: the online version of the interview has the date Sep. 7, 2020, and has the title “BOSS TALK; Netflix’s Reed Hastings Deems Remote Work ‘a Pure Negative’.”)

Hastings, Reed, and Erin Meyer. No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention. New York: Penguin Press, 2020.

“The Credentialist Prejudice” of the “College-Educated Elites”

Sandel in the passages quoted below is on to an important problem: that success depends too much on credentials. But in later passages than those quoted below, he misinterprets the deeper cause of the problem. He thinks the problem is that we value a person’s “merit.” I think valuing merit is fine, but we too much identify merit with credentials. Merit depends on character and skills. Credentials, at best, are one noisy signal of merit.

(p. 5) It is important to remember that most Americans — nearly two-thirds — do not have a four-year college degree. By telling workers that their inadequate education is the reason for their troubles, meritocrats moralize success and failure and unwittingly promote credentialism — an insidious prejudice against those who do not have college degrees.

The credentialist prejudice is a symptom of meritocratic hubris. By 2016, many working people chafed at the sense that looked down on them with condescension. This complaint was not without warrant. Survey research bears out what many working-class voters intuit: At a time when racism and sexism are out of favor (discredited though not eliminated), credentialism is the last acceptable prejudice.

In the United States and Europe, disdain for the less educated is more pronounced, or at least more readily acknowledged, than prejudice against other disfavored groups. In a series of surveys conducted in the United States, Britain, the Netherlands and Belgium, a team of social psychologists led by Toon Kuppens found that college-educated respondents had more bias against less-educated people than they did against other disfavored groups. The researchers surveyed attitudes toward a range of people who are typically victims of discrimination. In Europe, this list included Muslims and people who are poor, obese, blind and less educated; in the United States, the list also included African-Americans and the working class. Of all these groups, the poorly educated were disliked most of all.

Beyond revealing the disparaging views that college-educated elites have of less-educated people, the study also found that elites are unembarrassed by this prejudice. They may denounce racism and sexism, but they are unapologetic about their negative attitudes toward the less educated.

For the full commentary, see:

Michael J. Sandel. “The Consequences Of the Diploma Divide.” The New York Times, SundayReview Section (Sunday, September 6, 2020): 5.

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Sept. 2, 2020, and has the title “Disdain for the Less Educated Is the Last Acceptable Prejudice.”)

Sandel’s commentary is related to his book:

Sandel, Michael J. The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020.

The paper co-authored by Kuppens and mentioned above is:

Kuppens, Toon, Russell Spears, Antony S. R. Manstead, Bram Spruyt, and Matthew J. Easterbrook. “Educationism and the Irony of Meritocracy: Negative Attitudes of Higher Educated People Towards the Less Educated.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 76 (May 2018): 429-47.

More Work-Life Balance for Some Workers Means Less Work-Life Balance for Other Workers

(p. 3) I work for a successful, fast-growing technology company. There are times when some corporate “crisis” requires that a number of us lean in more in terms of office hours. My married, straight co-workers with children can easily bow out — while as a gay, single and child-free person, I get left with extra work because I am seen as not having responsibilities at home. I’m not unsympathetic to the difficulties my co-workers have in balancing work and life, but why does it have to be balanced on my back?

— Anonymous

. . .

You have every right to push back when you are imposed upon like this. Either everyone is responsible for extra work, or no one is. Your co-workers do not get to categorically decide that you have the time to handle the company’s crises because your life is arranged differently than theirs.

For the full story, see:

Roxane Gay. “A Great Work-Life Balance, Thanks to Me.” The New York Times, SundayBusiness Section (Sunday, August 23, 2020): 3.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Aug. 21, 2020, and has the title “My Colleagues Have Great Work-Life Balance (Thanks to Childless Me).”)