Thinking About Productivity Wrong

My reaction on reading Robert Atkinson’s op-ed at The Christian Science Monitor, arguing for increased productivity:

We cannot increase people’s living standards, or expect America to lead the world, unless we rapidly increase productivity.

But productivity growth over the last decade has been the slowest since the government started measuring it in 1947. This is why the economy has been mired in sluggish growth. Productivity is the measure of how much we produce in our work days; the economy expands as each worker produces more. Productivity thus equals growth.

was that we have probably reached the point at which the low-hanging fruit in improving productivity by automating the tasks that minimum wage workers perform but in automating the routine tasks performed by the most skilled workers. Robotic hamburger flipping only gets you so far. You’ll get much farther by automating the tasks presently performed by doctors of medicine that could be performed by an expert system. Less artisanal medicine; more mass market medicine.

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Footsteps

Speaking of footsteps, Jeff Greenfield’s piece at Politico on the inroads that Trump is making among Ohio Democrats highlights the point I’ve been making for months now.

Unless you think that Sec. Clinton will carry states that Mitt Romney carried in 2012, she has to carry the states that Obama did. She can’t lose Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Virginia, and so on.

I would also observe that the Clinton campaign’s strategy requires massive spending. If they’re forced to spend to defend states that should have been safe, that could become quite problematic.

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What I’ve Been Doing

For the last several days I’ve been in St. Petersburg, Florida, for the first time in more than 50 years. As should be needless to say, it’s changed quite a bit over the years. Hardly recognizable. There isn’t a lot of the old Florida left.

I may have more observations later but suffice it to say for right now that in many ways St. Petersburg is sort of the opposite of, say, Miami’s South Beach. I saw a lot more massively overweight rednecks than I did young and obsessively fit people concerned with presenting a good image.

The very large company I was visiting hasn’t changed business processes in any substantial way over the period of the last 25 years. That’s incredible to me but it’s possible in certain niche businesses, particularly when you’re the leader in your industry. That means that a lot of the people who work there have no experience with change.

I told them rather bluntly that if they weren’t hearing Chinese footsteps gaining on them they would soon. They might have a lock on their domestic business but overseas China’s going to be giving them enormous competition.

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Who You Gonna Believe?

Alex Nowrasteh, writing at The Federalist, tortures the facts and they inevitably submit: more immigration is always an unalloyed good and if you don’t believe it you’ve been cruelly mislead.

The perception that high-skilled immigrants have a positive impact on the economy is correct. But lower-skilled immigrants also have a positive effect, despite what the public thinks. Cutting off or removing lower-skilled immigrants would hurt the labor market and economy as a whole. It’s more important to have public policy consistent with the evidence rather than with the perceptions of a minority of voters.

Immigrants of all skill levels have both a supply and demand effect on the economy as a whole and on the labor market specifically. On the supply side, immigration increases the number of workers. In a very simple model this would decrease wages, but immigrants and natives tend to work in very different occupations, meaning there isn’t much competition between the two groups. In other words, an increase in the supply of farm workers will not lower the wages for accountants.

Well, he’s right on that. But an increase in the supply of people who can sort checks manually will decrease wages for designers and makers of automatic check-sorting machines. In other words if you cherry-pick the data ferociously enough, you can substantiate a case for anything.

Meanwhile, I return to a very simple fact. Real wages per worker are at best increasing phlegmatically. If there were strong demand for STEM workers or for manual laborers you would expect real wages to increase. That isn’t happening.

There’s just a bare possibility that when people are fearful for their jobs because their neighbors have lost their jobs because they’ve been been given to newly imported workers at lower wages that might not show up in the statistics he’s citing. Both Gallup and Pew have reported that three-quarters of Americans think that immigration is just about right or should be reduced. Isn’t it just barely possible that they’re right and that their views are based on observation rather than on prejudice or propaganda?

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Liars’ Poker

Among the explanations that Peter Pomerantsev proposes in his piece at Granta for why we’ve entered a post-fact world are technology, globalization, the end of philosophical history, immaturity, post-modernism, and the Russians:

The flight into techno-fantasies is intertwined with economic and social uncertainty. If all the facts say you have no economic future then why would you want to hear facts? If you live in a world where a small event in China leads to livelihoods lost in Lyon, where your government seems to have no control over what is going on, then trust in the old institutions of authority – politicians, academics, the media – buckles. Which has led to Brexit leader Michael Gove’s claim that British people ‘have had enough of experts’, Trump’s rants at the ‘lamestream’ media and the online flowering of ‘alternative news’ sites. Paradoxically, people who don’t trust ‘the mainstream’ media are, a study from Northeastern University showed, more likely to swallow disinformation. ‘Surprisingly, consumers of alternative news, which are the users trying to avoid the mainstream media “mass-manipulation”, are the most responsive to the injection of false claims.’[1] Healthy scepticism ends in a search for wild conspiracies. Putin’s Kremlin-controlled television finds US conspiracies behind everything, Trump speculates that 9/11 was an inside job, and parts of the Brexit campaign saw Britain under attack from a Germano-Franco-European plot.

I think a lot of us have cultivated the ability to hold two contradictory thoughts in our heads at the same time. Think about this sentence: “Donald Trump lies all of the time so I’m voting for Hillary Clinton”.

I have a very simple explanation: it works. You can muse over why it works but clearly its working. We are preparing to elect a pathological liar to the presidency. Contrary to Parson Weems’s fable, George Washington undoubtedly told a lie every now and again but there was at least a soupçon of truth in what he said. We’ve come a long way, baby.

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The Moral of the Story

Watch this short video without the sound. Then if you watch it again you can turn the sound on.

I think a lot of people are taking the wrong moral from that story.

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Make America Peaceful Again

At the National Interest Jacob Heilbrunn tersely characterizes the Republicans’ relentlessly interventionist foreign policy stance:

The Republican Party is heir to a failed foreign policy that it has never fully confronted. The man who forced a partial confrontation has just secured the party’s nomination. But the reaction of the party elite appears to be that the best approach is to return, as soon as possible, to the old doctrines and nostrums and that it best to focus, not on the current election, but on establishing the parameters for 2020.

We have been at war continually for the last 25 years. Calling it what you will but when you’re firing missiles at people and dropping bombs on them, it’s war.

And, even worse, it’s not reducing our danger but increasing it. The stated reasons for both attacks on the World Trade Center were U. S. policies in the Middle East. Check the motives being given by self-activated terrorists here. They think they’re defending Muslims.

When something isn’t working, the rational thing to do is change what you’re doing.

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Can You Hear Me Now?

Writing at RealClearPolitics Jeffrey Anderson identifies why Donald Trump has become the Republican presidential nominee:

In each of these four ways, center-right elites enabled Trump’s win. If they don’t like the result, they should look in the mirror. Republican representatives failed to listen to voters. Republican National Committee members adopted a direct-democracy-based nomination system inspired by the left wing of the Democratic Party and then failed to scrap it across decades of mostly mediocre nominees. Republican presidential candidates failed to focus on big-picture issues. And Republican pundits and influence-peddlers didn’t back the chief challenger when he was potentially poised to take the lead.

As all of this suggests, the problems in our politics lie more with the elites than with the citizenry. Among everyday Americans, there is a refreshingly strong sentiment—fueled by eight years of Obama and the statist disaster that is Obamacare—in favor of our founding principles. This sentiment was most evident in the rise of the Tea Party. But conservative-leaning elites have generally failed to channel these salutary sentiments toward productive ends.

and why he may be elected president. As me old mither used to say, stick with the one what brung you.

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Hillary’s Amendment

Every incoming president early in his (or this time around possibly her) first term invariably throws a sop to the base. In Bill Clinton’s first term it was “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell”. In George W. Bush’s it was tax cuts. In Barack Obama’s it was the “stimulus package”, actually handouts to favored individuals, organizations, and causes and healthcare reform, i.e. the Affordable Care Act, an embarrassment of riches.

Hillary Clinton has already telegraphed what her sop will be: overturning Citizens United v. FEC by constitutional amendment.

I’m fishing for opinions on what I should think about such a move. On the one hand the amendment process is long and cumbersome. Overturning Citizens United by constitutional amendment might just be a futile gesture. On the other I think I would actually be favorably disposed towards an amendment that granted the Congress the power to, say, limit political contributions to donors who are real living, breathing human beings and cap the size of those contributions at some reasonable level. I would oppose an amendment that allowed the Congress to pick and choose among the organizations with the right to make political contributions. Some of the animals should not be more equal than others.

In other words I’d need to see the amendment before I could render a judgment.

At any rate, what do you think?

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You Can’t Go Home Again

While I agree with much of Bill Murray (not that Bill Murray) has to say in his piece on the decline of federalism at RealClearPolitics:

Given America’s political distemper, there is an obvious desire for a proper diagnosis. It’s not an accident that Niccolo Machiavelli himself compared diseased political systems to “Aetolian fevers” – a malady easy to treat early when symptoms are difficult to notice, but almost untreatable when the sickness becomes easier to detect.

Jonathan Rauch, writing in the July/August edition of The Atlantic, gave as good an effort as anyone recently, using the same literary device as Machiavelli to put forward the theory that politics in the United States has a compromised immune system and is suffering from a type of “chaos syndrome.” This syndrome is essentially a breakdown in a political system’s capacity to properly self-organize.

and, to make a long story short, the underpinning cause for the breakdown is the decline of federalism.

The problem is that while I can see the problem I don’t see a ready solution. The greater the concentration of power the easier it grows to become a gazillionaire based on power, connections and rent-seeking, cf. Bill and Hillary Clinton. There will always be a clientele for harnessing the power of government to one’s own benefit. For the good of ordinary people, of course.

I don’t see a process by which that concentration of power is reversed, at least not a reasoned, moderate process and an unreasoned, immoderate process is more likely to result in greater tyranny than it is the diffusion of power.

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