Category Archives: Economics

Pittsburgh

I’m struck by how many locals are here. Like Boston, if you grew up in Pittsburgh, it seems like you never leave. Lots of natives.

The importance of the city seems so obvious, now that I know what I know.

For starters, it’s location is strategic. It’s literally sits at the point of land where two great rivers, the Allegheny and the Monongahela, come together to join the Ohio River. These are massive bodies of water.

Before rail and interstate highways, how does the growing economy move its steel, industrial products and consumer products?

The rivers!

And it now makes perfect sense to me… That, where the Three Rivers join, the leadership of this area decided that this point should be commemorated as a major park.

Point Park is just that. It’s a monument to this area, where everyone can come and see why the area exists in the first place. And as a monument inside of a monument, a massive fountain stands at the point of Point Park.

As I look to the Ohio River, to my left is the train tracks. I see a massive freight train passing, with hundreds of cars. I see an incline up to Mount Washington, which overlooks the city. The inclines are a vestige of a past when it was difficult to access the hill tops. They are everywhere.

Also to my left is the Fort Pitt Tunnel, the exit from the city to the east across the M river.

Heinz Park, the stadium, over looks Point Park to the right.

So this is where it all begins. Point Park.

The city seems to grow out of Point Park, in a gradual incline from there, with the Allegheny to the left and the M to the right.

The M River is made for walking and biking.

Three Rivers heritage Trail is the bike/walking path that goes from downtown all the way up west side of the M river

Great Appalachian Trail goes up the east side of M River.

Lots of hills. Lots of green (Schenley, Point, Highland and Frick Park are extra special).

They talk here about the “Pittsburgh Renaissance”.

They mean by that the transition of Pittsburgh from being at the center of the industrial economy, with all of its disgusting grit, to being at the center of the knowledge economy, with the University of Pittsburg, Carnegie Mellon, and Duquesne university leading the way.

Fifth Ave., Forbes Avenue, and Center Street, Penn, and Liberty all connect downtown to these outer neighborhoods.

The neighborhoods are Squirrel Hill, East Liberty, Lawrenceville, the Strip District, Bloomfield, Oakland, Shadyside, and Southside. Like Atlanta, they each have their own pride and style.

Oakland is the Univ. of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon and Schenley Park. Fifth Ave runs through it. The University of Pittsburgh is center stage. It’s a huge urban campus, with all of the hallmarks of classical architecture great libraries, chapels etc. But everyone knows that Carnegie-Mellon is the powerhouse – where you find the rocket fuel of the knowledge economy. It is every bit as much to Pittsburgh as MIT is to Boston.

Shadyside is a great little find. A real neighborhood, centered on Walnut Street (at Ivy). Only a mile walk to Oakland, East Liberty, and Squirrel Hill. Girasole is here – Italian upscale.

Bloomfield is “little Italy”. Not a very good little Italy, but maybe they will keep trying.

Squirrel Hill is awesome. Highly diverse. Walkable. On top of a hill. Close to everything. Great houses. A great find: Everyone Noodle, the home of soup dumplings in Pittsburgh. Place is always full. Big Jewish Community here too. Frick Park is here.

Strip District is warehouses, converted. 21st street and Penn is the center. My favorite: Wholey’s Seafood Market. It’s massive and very cool retail. Like Stew Leonard’s , only better.

Southside is bars, lots of them. The main drag is East Carson. It’s a wide, flat street that looks more like Texas than Pittsburgh. One place in particular, Hofbrahaus, is a raucous German beer hall, with steins, sausages, oom-pah-pah live music. In a section of Southside called Southside Works. At night, ask Uber to take you to the Bartram House Bakery at 2612 East Carson. Easy walk from Birmingham or Hot Metal Bridge.

Lawrenceville is restaurants, lots of them. It’s 48th – 40th. Past the Strip District near Penn. it’s a hike, but a good walk takes you from 48th to 21st.

Everyone here believes that Pittsburgh, a finalist, it’s going to land the second headquarters of Amazon.

Their attitude toward Amazon is a little bit like their attitude toward all sports, but particularly the Steelers: can do.

“On Demand”

Note: This post is a continuation of prior posts on complex, adaptive systems. This post focusses on the virtual workplace, the virtual retailer, the virtual employer, and their myriad manifestations in today’s world. These particular complex, adaptive systems will have the ability to rapidly expand or contract based on demand. And this is the point of this post: to explore the notion of “on demand”.

“On Demand”
Its so obvious …. but, then again, its not so obvious: “on demand” is the drumbeat of daily life. But the 21st century is putting the notion of “on demand” on steroids!

What is “on demand”?
I want a glass of wine, right now. I either pour myself one, buy one, or ask someone else to pour me one. “On demand”.

I need a hotel room, right now. Hotels inventory rooms. I rent one. “On demand”.

I need to haircut, right now. Barbers are open for business. I visit one. They are not busy so they take me. I buy the haircut. “On demand”.

Note that “on demand” wine needs an open bottle of wine to be available; the hotel room requires a hotel; the haircut requires a barber open for business;

In the 21st century, it seems clear to me that “on demand” will morph into smaller, more flexible slices. Consumers and companies will be able to purchase these slices when they want them, for as long as they want them.

It’s happening at lightning speed! There are so many examples. You can find them everywhere, in:

On Demand Transportation

The point: in the 20th century, you had to rent a car or bike or ride for a day from a business location, and now you can rent it for exactly as long as you want it from a street location.

Uber revolutionized the taxi business when they broke the paradigm and said “Effectively immediately, and car with driver can pick up a passenger and get paid to take them somewhere.” From a passenger’s POV, the result is revolutionary: I can get anywhere I want, anytime I want, by simply alerting a central intelligence on-line that I need ride from x to y at z time.

Every major city now rents bikes. Grab a bike at one stand and leave it at another stand. Take the bike from x to y at z time.

ZipCars are on-demand cars.

On Demand Work

The point: in the 20th century, you either had a job or you didn’t. Now you can have a job for a half hour of your choosing. “Temporary Help” agencies filled any gaps – when the job-holder was unable to work.

LiveOps revolutionized call center management by organizing workers to be available when the client wants the worker, for as long as the client wants the worker. They keep workers trained and on–the-ready, so they can deploy them virtually as needed.

On Demand Work Space

The point: In the 20th century, you worked someplace and employers employed workers in workplaces. Today workplaces are built for flexibility, so many employers can do their work with employees when they need the workplace and how they need the workplace for as long as they need the workplace.

Metro Studios and others are replacing the Hollywood “studio” with a flexible studio. Studios in the past built spaces for their filming needs. Metro Studios works with any client that will rent their massive spaces – for as long as the client needs the space, and not longer. Note that the “Studio” is a big box, easily repurposed to a warehouse or distribution center or big box store if demand shifts.

“Co-working” is exploding, and has revolutionized office work. A co-working space can be sized up or down as demand requires, for as long as demand requires. Co-working can suit the individual virtual worker, who can come in as they wish and stay as long as they wish. But, importantly, more and more companies are using co-working facilities in order to have flex space that suits them.

Self-storage is exploding, giving companies and consumers the ability to get storage space when they want it, for as long as they want it.

On Demand Housing

The point: Hotels, long term rentals and short term rentals will have their place in tomorrow’s economy but ordinary people with extra space in their houses will make places available when, where, and however long they are needed.

AirB&B and VRBO have revolutionized the way we access temporary housing. Go on line, check out who’s offering what, and when, and then make your selection.

On Demand Entertainment

The point: entertainment was made available at a certain time, at a certain place (a concert venue, a movie theater, a movie channel, or a TV channel). No longer. Increasingly, consumers will get what they want, when they want it, for as long as they want it.

Netflix revolutionized on demand movies by letting consumer get what they want when they want it. They started with on-line movie rentals that requires physical shipping of CD’s, but rapidly moved to on-line downloads and streaming. Amazon is chasing them, but with amazing speed.

Cable companies are perfecting “on demand” movies. Select the movie you want and when you want to view it (including immediately), and press “play”.

Amazon is perfecting “on demand” books. Select the book you want, and how you want to read it, and press “buy”. Download and start reading right now. No shipping. No library schlepping.

On Demand Tools

The point: In the 20th century, the norm was “if you want a tool, buy it and put it in a safe place until you need it. The norm is changing to “when you need a tool, order it up for as when you need it, for as long as you need it.”

Home Depot and Loews both have lucrative side businesses that allow businesses and consumers to rent the exact tool they need for as long as they need it.

On Demand Medicine

The point: in the 20th century, when you needed a doctor, you would call the office and make an appointment. If it was urgent, you would beg for the appointment to be sooner rather than later. We are not yet at an inflection point, but the trends seem clear enough: if you need a doctor, you can get a doctor – when you need it, and through the medium that makes the most sense to you.

CVS and Walgreen’s both are perfecting the mini-clinic. Modeled after the convenience store revolution of the 1960’s, mini-clinics are inside the store, and require a sign-up sheet, and that’s all. If the doctor is available, they will see you.

Telemedicine is taking full advantage of Skype and other two-way video conference platforms. In the best case, a patient’s blood work, vital signs, and medical history can be on-line while the patient is online, so the doctor can have as much context as possible. And when the doctor also has a genetic history, in the future a myriad of risks that cannot be currently understood will be known.

Other examples of “On Demand”

On Demand Meals Fast food showed the way to drive-throughs; Then Domino’s showed the way to pizza “on demand” – when you want it, how you want it. Yesterday, this was delivered to my house: a spaghetti made out of squash, in a coconut curry, with a fresh salad and lasagna for the kids. Costs a bit more, but so worth it!

On Demand Internet There are no good examples at the present time, but isn’t it plausible that the average consumer could summon ultra-high-speed internet “on-demand”? The consumer is just fine most of the day with low-speed internet, for emails and searches, etc. But if they want to watch a movie, an want to avoid slow downloads, or breaks in streaming quality, then they are happy to pay for “express lane service”.

On Demand Inventory This is old news, but further illustrates the mega trend: procurement can now demand that materials and components contracted and scheduled arrive when and as needed, minimizing inventory carrying costs.

On-demand Event Space
There has always been a demand for highly flexible event space. This is the world of clubs, hotels, etc, where it is usual to build a big box in your space that can be outfitted to a client’s needs. Today, though, that has been professionalized through companies like Convene, who specializes in this business.

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References:

Co-Working

Virtual Workplace and Virtual Retailer

Co-Working – Update

On-Demand Work Articles and Commentary
The New York Times article below refers to a mega-trend: on-demand work. The author refers to it as a “tectonic shift in how jobs are structured“.

The focus of the article is Liveops, but this is only illustrative of this larger trend. https://www.liveops.com. Their competitor is https://workingsolutions.com .

On their front page, LiveOps says: “It’s a highly skilled workforce of virtual agents who flex to meet customer needs.”

On-demand work is exploding in customer service call centers and sales.

Some points I found interesting:

Roughly 3,000,000 Americans find work this way – as independent contractors working on a virtual basis.

Since 2001, apparently the move to outsource call centers to India has reversed. Today, the focus is on quality, and so the new trend is toward employing American workers, on a contract basis, and on a virtual basis.

They are only paid while on the phone. This is roughly 75% of the time they “commit” (“commits” are made in half hour blocks)

Top performers get the first call. “Performance-Based Routing, so the top-performing agents on your programs get more calls. By aligning our agents’ incentives with your goals, each agent who answers the call will be invested in your business objectives. What’s more, you won’t be paying call centers for idle time.”

Clients hire LiveOp. In this article, TruStage Insurance is the client.

Liveops CEO is Greg Hanover. Their competitor, Working Solutions, was founded in 1996. LiveOps says they have 20,000 agents, which they refer to as “Liveops Nation”.

“We hand-pick our agents for their great phone voices and warm and friendly personalities.”

“Scalable and flexible contract center outsourcing – leveraging an on-demand distributed network.”

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CREDIT: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/11/business/economy/call-center-gig-workers.html?smid=nytcore-ipad-share&smprod=nytcore-ipad
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Plugging Into the Gig Economy, From Home With a Headset

A company called Liveops has become the
Uber of call centers by doting on its agents.
But is the work liberating, or dehumanizing?
By NOAM SCHEIBERNOV. 11, 2017

DURHAM, N.C. — The gathering in a private dining room at a Mexican restaurant had the fervent energy of a megachurch service, or maybe an above-average “Oprah” episode — a mix of revival-style confession and extravagant empathy. There were souls to be won.

“By the end of the day, Kelly’s going to be an agent,” the group’s square-jawed leader said. “Kelly went through the process a while ago, then life happens, now she’s back. Her commitment to me that she made earlier, she looked me right in the eyes and told me she’s going to be an agent.”
Paradise, for these pilgrims, lies at one end of a phone line.

The company behind this spectacle, Liveops, had invited several dozen freelance call-center agents to a so-called road show. Some of them may have answered your customer-service calls to Home Depot or AAA. All were among the more than 100,000 agents who work as independent contractors through on-demand platforms like the one Liveops operates, which uses big data, algorithms and gamelike techniques to match its agents to clients. What Uber is to cars, Liveops is to call centers.

The agents are part of a tectonic shift in how jobs are structured. More companies are pushing work onto freelancers, temps, contractors and franchisees in the quest for an ever more nimble profit-making machine. It is one reason a job category seemingly headed offshore forever — customer service representatives — has been thriving in call centers and home offices across the United States, supporting roughly three million workers.

While critics of the arrangement cite rising insecurity, some of Liveops’ star agents — like Emmett Jones in Chicago, who knows of his rivals primarily as numbers on a leader board — say the opportunity has been transformative.

The earnest gratitude of the agents assembled here, not far from the Raleigh-Durham Airport, affirmed that. To them, Liveops is a sustaining force, a way to earn a living while being present at home. A few had driven hours to attend. Many brought friends and family members who were considering joining “Liveops Nation,” too.

There were icebreakers (“Liveops Nation Bingo”). Gift-card raffles (“$150?” the chief executive quipped. “Who approved these things?”). Free enchiladas. Everyone was invited to schmooze.
“John, I heard your story about how you got to us is pretty great,” said the master of ceremonies, an impossibly sunny woman named Tara. “Would you mind telling all these people?”
When the mic came to John, a former insurance claims adjuster with a gray beard and several earrings, there was a sense of imminent revelation.

“I was working in another glass box over near here for six years,” he began. “I reached the point where it was either jump off the roof or walk out the front door.” The other agents laughed knowingly.

He continued: “My commute now is I walk down the hall, close the bedroom door behind me.” More laughter.
Then John’s voice softened: “This is good, this is good. I get paid for when I’m working, instead of souring when you get paid for 40 hours and work some more. So, I’m here.”
“Awesome,” Tara said, applause drowning her out. “I feel like John’s story mimics a lot of what we hear from people.”
According to Greg Hanover, a longtime Liveops official who became chief executive this summer, the company’s goal is to make agents feel as if they’re part of a movement, not just earning a wage.

“Where we want to be with this is what Mary Kay has done, multilevel marketing companies,” Mr. Hanover said, referring to the cosmetics distributor and its independent sales force. “The direction we need to head in for the community within Liveops Nation is that the agents are so happy, so satisfied with the purpose and meaning there, that they’re telling their story.”

It’s an ambition that feels almost radical compared with Uber, whose best-known exercise in worker outreach is a video of its former chief executive berating a driver. It was heartening to discover that on-demand work could be both financially viable and emotionally fulfilling.

That is, until I began to speak with Mr. Jones and some of his Liveops competitors. The more you talk with them, the more you detect a kind of Darwinian struggle behind the facade of community and self-actualization. You start to wonder: Is there really such a thing as a righteous gig-economy job, even if the company is as apparently well intentioned as Liveops? Or is there something about the nature of gig work that’s inescapably dehumanizing?

Just the Right Tone
Mr. Jones, who lives in Chicago, was the top rated Liveops agent for an insurer called TruStage for much of this year.
An AT&T technician for decades, he decided that he needed to be at home not long after his wife was diagnosed with vertigo in 2008. “I can’t work and be worried about how she’s doing,” he said.

A few years later, when his daughter told him of a friend who worked with Liveops, he was eager to sign up — but refused to send in his required voice test until it was close to perfect. “I must have did the voice test four or five times,” he said. “I wanted to make sure I gave the right tone that they were looking for.”

As a Liveops agent, Mr. Jones sells life policies to callers, often those who have just seen a television commercial for TruStage insurance. He estimates that he works roughly 40 hours each week, beginning around 8 most mornings, and that he makes about $20 an hour. He is such a valued worker that TruStage invited him to its headquarters earlier this year for a two-day visit by an elite group of agents, in which executives pumped them for insights about how to increase sales.

Roughly two decades ago, Liveops and its competitors typically connected callers to psychic hotlines, and in some cases less reputable services. Such businesses had frequent spikes in call volume, making it helpful to have an on-demand work force that could be abruptly ramped up.

“The only thing people were interested in was the abandonment rate” — that is, the number of people who would hang up in frustration from being kept on hold — said Kim Houlne, the chief executive of a Liveops rival called Working Solutions, which she founded in 1996.

The call center industry took a hit during the 2001 recession, when cost consciousness unleashed a wave of outsourcing to India. But within 10 years, many companies decided that the practice, known as offshoring, had been oversold. The savings on wages were often wiped out by lost business from enraged customers, who preferred to communicate with native English speakers.
“People don’t feel comfortable,” Ms. Houlne said, alluding to the overseas agents.

By the early part of this decade, quality was in fashion. The enormous amounts of data that companies like Liveops and Working Solutions collect allowed them to connect callers to the best possible agent with remarkable precision, while allowing big clients to avoid the overhead of a physical call center and full-time workers.

Today, in addition to sales calls, Liveops agents handle calls from people trying to file insurance claims, those in need of roadside assistance, even those with medical or financial issues relating to prescription drugs. The agents must obtain a certification before they can handle such calls, which sometimes takes weeks of online coursework.

Liveops goes to great lengths to attend to their needs, addressing technical-support issues, even answering agents’ emails to the chief executive within 24 hours.

Mr. Jones, like many of his fellow agents, thinks of himself as helping others in need. He said that many families will gather around a table after a loved one has died to discuss the burial. If the deceased relative had no insurance, he said, “A lot of times that table is going to clear.” If, on the other hand, he had even $2,000 in life insurance — the minimum that TruStage sells — “the family members are more inclined to say, ‘He did what he could, let me see what I could do to help out.’ You end up with $5,000 to $6,000. You can do a decent burial rather than none at all.”

Still, there is undeniably a brass-tacks quality to the work. Shortly after we hung up, I turned my attention to an assignment due that afternoon, only to receive more calls from Mr. Jones’s number. When I finally answered, he apologized for interrupting me, then came to the point. “I have a question for you,” he said. “Do you have life insurance?”

‘Where the Price Point Is’
Like Uber, Liveops expends considerable effort calculating demand for its agents. For example, if an auto insurance company is running a commercial on ESPN, Liveops will ask the company’s media buyer — that is, the intermediary that placed the ad — to predict how many calls such an ad is likely to generate. Liveops will adjust that prediction, using its own data showing how many calls similar ads have produced from similar audiences during a comparable time of year.

And like Uber, the Liveops focuses on “utilization” — in the Liveops case, the percentage of working agents actually on a call. Depending on the client, Liveops strives for rates of 65 percent to 75 percent. Lower than that and the agents, who make money only when they’re on a call, will complain that they’re not busy enough. Significantly higher and the system is vulnerable to a sudden increase in demand that could tie up the phone lines and keep callers waiting.

Liveops asks agents to schedule themselves in half-hour blocks, known as “commits,” for the upcoming week. If the company expects demand to be higher than the number of commits, it sends agents a message urging them to sign up. (Uber does something similar, except without formal scheduling.) Sometimes it will even offer financial incentives, like a bump in the rate earned for each minute they’re on a call, or a raffle-type scheme in which people accumulate tickets for the giveaway of an iPad or a cruise.

Again like Uber, Liveops relentlessly tests the effectiveness of these tools. Referring to financial incentives, Jon Brown, the Liveops senior director of client services, said, “We’ve zeroed in on exactly what we need for an agent to go from 10 to 15 commits, from 15 commits to 20 commits. We know where the price point is, what drives behavior.”

And then there are the performance metrics. Liveops agents are rated according to what are called key performance indicators, which, depending on the customer, can include the number of sales they make, their success at upselling customers, and whether a caller would recommend the service based on their interaction.

Liveops makes clear that its agents’ ability to earn more money is closely tied to performance. “You’ve heard the term meritocracy?” said a Liveops official named Aimee Matolka at the North Carolina event. “When a call comes in, it routes in to that best agent. Yes, our router is that smart. You guys want to be that agent, I know you do. Otherwise you wouldn’t be here.”

It allows the agents to track their rankings obsessively through internal leader boards. (Liveops officials say that while the pressures of the job can preoccupy agents, it is up to them how much time to invest.)

“I lost the No. 1 spot, now I’m No. 2,” Mr. Jones said in early August, acknowledging that he checks his ranking frequently. “I thought about researching to find out who it is — you always want to know who’s the competition — but I said leave it.”

He added: “I’m a competitive person. We just toggle back and forth. If they see me jump back in, they work harder. They want that spot back.”

‘This Is My Phone Call’
My flight to Bangor, Me., was due after 9 p.m., and apparently sensing my unease with the North Country, the firefighter seated next to me asked if I had to far to drive when we landed. “About three hours north,” I confessed. “Watch out for moose,” he said. I assured him I’d driven around deer before. He stopped me short: If you hit a deer, you’ll kill them, he said. If you hit a moose, they’ll kill you.

I found Troy Carter, the agent who had recently surpassed Emmett Jones, at his home in Fort Fairfield the next day, wearing jeans, a button-down short-sleeve shirt, and a New England Patriots hat. There were no shoes on his feet, only white socks.

Like Mr. Jones, Mr. Carter said Liveops had been a blessing, allowing him to earn a living in a part of Maine so remote that my cellphone carrier welcomed me to Canada shortly after I pulled into his driveway.

When I told Mr. Carter that I had been in touch with his top competitor, he quickly pulled up the latest monthly rankings of Liveops agents selling TruStage insurance. He pointed out that while Mr. Jones, whom he recognized only by his identification number, 141806, had more sales — 87 to his 82 — he had far fewer paid sales, charged at the time of purchase rather than by invoice.

“The real thing is the paid application rate — they want it around 95 percent,” Mr. Carter said. “He has 87 sales, but only 65 percent paid, compared to my 94 percent.” This, he explained, was why he enjoyed the right to call himself the top agent for the month.

Mr. Carter is what you might call a serial entrepreneur. He once started an art supply website that folded within a few months, and a penny auction site called Bid Tree that foundered for lack of a marketing budget.

He sees Liveops, on which he spends 40 to 50 hours per week, as of a piece with these entrepreneurial efforts. In fact, it is something of a family business. His wife, Lori, handles incoming calls while he’s busy with customers. “I’m a housewife/secretary/receptionist,” she said. Even Mr. Carter’s 9-year-old son, Logan, plays a role. “At nighttime, he says the last part of his prayer based on how many sales I did today,” Mr. Carter said. “If it was a lot of sales, he’ll pray, ‘Dear Lord, help my dad get the same amount of sales tomorrow.’”

Though Liveops agents work from a script, Mr. Carter, like Mr. Jones, adds his own flourishes. Before asking a caller’s gender, as he is required to do, he will say, “Now I already know the answer to this question, but please confirm if you’re male or female.” Upon receiving the answer, he will pause momentarily before saying, “I told you I already knew the answer,” and break into a laugh.

He might make this identical joke, with identical timing, dozens of times in a workday. “It’s like a comedian has a little pause before a joke,” he told me. “It relaxes them right off.”

Even with these touches, results can vary widely. Two days earlier, Mr. Carter had made seven sales, only a few shy of his record. The day I turned up, he managed only one. He said some callers had the impression they could receive $25,000 of insurance for $9.95 per month — the commercial mentions both figures — and begged off when Mr. Carter told them that
Mr. Carter has done research on how to comport himself, including watching an instructional YouTube video by the former stockbroker who was the subject of the movie “The Wolf of Wall Street.” He believes the key is to come off as the alpha presence. “The one that asks the most questions is the one in control,” he said. “If they ask me questions — ‘How are you doing?’ — I’ll come back, ‘The question is how are you doing?’ This is my phone call, as much as I can make it.”

But on this day he repeatedly ran up against the limits of his powers. Even those who remained interested after 10 or 15 minutes of painstaking back-and-forth often demurred when Mr. Carter asked them for payment information. “This one guy was outside in a wheelchair,” Mr. Carter said of a caller who couldn’t produce his credit card. “He didn’t want to go in and get it. I said, ‘I’m fine waiting,’ but I can’t push him.”

These setbacks only seem to make Mr. Carter focus more. At one point, he made a swiping motion between his face and his headset with his index finger and middle finger. “They recommend that you keep the microphone two fingers away,” he said. “I’m always doing that — checking that it’s two fingers. I’ll do that for the rest of my life.”

It seemed, all in all, like a grueling way to make the slightly more than $30,000 that Mr. Carter estimates he takes in before taxes. “The good thing is he can take hours off,” Lori told me. “But then he can lose his spot. It’s always a fight for the top.”

I was reminded of the Alec Baldwin monologue from the movie “Glengarry Glen Ross,” except that the prize for having the most sales wouldn’t be a Cadillac, it would be a set of steak knives, because the Liveops analytics team had calculated that agents would give nearly as much effort for a prize worth a small fraction of the cost.

Of course, unlike the salesmen in that movie, the Liveops agents can’t really be fired — the third prize — because they weren’t employees to begin with.

A while later, Mr. Carter described a recent initiative in which agents were promised a bonus if 95 percent of their collective sales were paid up front. “I knew it wasn’t going to work as soon as they said it,” he told me, because a handful of agents with low paid rates could ruin everyone else’s chances.

“They did do a pullover sweatshirt for the top two,” he added, brightening. “I was second, so that’s coming.”

A version of this article appears in print on November 12, 2017, on Page BU1 of the New York edition with the headline: Paradise at the End of a Phone Line. Order Reprints| Today’s Paper|Subscribe

Our miserable 21st century

Below is dense – but worth it. It is written by a conservative, but an honest one.

It is the best documentation I have found on the thesis that I wrote about last year: that the 21st century economy is a structural mess, and the mess is a non-partisan one!

My basic contention is really simple:

9/11 diverted us from this issue, and then …
we compounded the diversion with two idiotic wars, and then …
we compounded the diversion further with an idiotic, devastating recession. and then …
we started to stabilize, which is why President Obama goes to the head of the class, and then …
we built a three ring circus, and elected a clown as the ringmaster.

While we watch this three-ring circus in Washington, no one is paying attention to this structural problem in the economy….so we are wasting time, when we should be tackling this central issue of our time. Its a really complicated one, and there are no easy answers (sorry Trump and Bernie Sanders).

PUT YOUR POLITICAL ARTILLERY DOWN AND READ ON …..

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CREDIT: https://www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/our-miserable-21st-century/

Our Miserable 21st Century
From work to income to health to social mobility, the year 2000 marked the beginning of what has become a distressing era for the United States
NICHOLAS N. EBERSTADT / FEB. 15, 2017

In the morning of November 9, 2016, America’s elite—its talking and deciding classes—woke up to a country they did not know. To most privileged and well-educated Americans, especially those living in its bicoastal bastions, the election of Donald Trump had been a thing almost impossible even to imagine. What sort of country would go and elect someone like Trump as president? Certainly not one they were familiar with, or understood anything about.

Whatever else it may or may not have accomplished, the 2016 election was a sort of shock therapy for Americans living within what Charles Murray famously termed “the bubble” (the protective barrier of prosperity and self-selected associations that increasingly shield our best and brightest from contact with the rest of their society). The very fact of Trump’s election served as a truth broadcast about a reality that could no longer be denied: Things out there in America are a whole lot different from what you thought.

Yes, things are very different indeed these days in the “real America” outside the bubble. In fact, things have been going badly wrong in America since the beginning of the 21st century.

It turns out that the year 2000 marks a grim historical milestone of sorts for our nation. For whatever reasons, the Great American Escalator, which had lifted successive generations of Americans to ever higher standards of living and levels of social well-being, broke down around then—and broke down very badly.

The warning lights have been flashing, and the klaxons sounding, for more than a decade and a half. But our pundits and prognosticators and professors and policymakers, ensconced as they generally are deep within the bubble, were for the most part too distant from the distress of the general population to see or hear it. (So much for the vaunted “information era” and “big-data revolution.”) Now that those signals are no longer possible to ignore, it is high time for experts and intellectuals to reacquaint themselves with the country in which they live and to begin the task of describing what has befallen the country in which we have lived since the dawn of the new century.

II
Consider the condition of the American economy. In some circles people still widely believe, as one recent New York Times business-section article cluelessly insisted before the inauguration, that “Mr. Trump will inherit an economy that is fundamentally solid.” But this is patent nonsense. By now it should be painfully obvious that the U.S. economy has been in the grip of deep dysfunction since the dawn of the new century. And in retrospect, it should also be apparent that America’s strange new economic maladies were almost perfectly designed to set the stage for a populist storm.

Ever since 2000, basic indicators have offered oddly inconsistent readings on America’s economic performance and prospects. It is curious and highly uncharacteristic to find such measures so very far out of alignment with one another. We are witnessing an ominous and growing divergence between three trends that should ordinarily move in tandem: wealth, output, and employment. Depending upon which of these three indicators you choose, America looks to be heading up, down, or more or less nowhere.
From the standpoint of wealth creation, the 21st century is off to a roaring start. By this yardstick, it looks as if Americans have never had it so good and as if the future is full of promise. Between early 2000 and late 2016, the estimated net worth of American households and nonprofit institutions more than doubled, from $44 trillion to $90 trillion. (SEE FIGURE 1.)

Although that wealth is not evenly distributed, it is still a fantastic sum of money—an average of over a million dollars for every notional family of four. This upsurge of wealth took place despite the crash of 2008—indeed, private wealth holdings are over $20 trillion higher now than they were at their pre-crash apogee. The value of American real-estate assets is near or at all-time highs, and America’s businesses appear to be thriving. Even before the “Trump rally” of late 2016 and early 2017, U.S. equities markets were hitting new highs—and since stock prices are strongly shaped by expectations of future profits, investors evidently are counting on the continuation of the current happy days for U.S. asset holders for some time to come.

A rather less cheering picture, though, emerges if we look instead at real trends for the macro-economy. Here, performance since the start of the century might charitably be described as mediocre, and prospects today are no better than guarded.

The recovery from the crash of 2008—which unleashed the worst recession since the Great Depression—has been singularly slow and weak. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), it took nearly four years for America’s gross domestic product (GDP) to re-attain its late 2007 level. As of late 2016, total value added to the U.S. economy was just 12 percent higher than in 2007. (SEE FIGURE 2.) The situation is even more sobering if we consider per capita growth. It took America six and a half years—until mid-2014—to get back to its late 2007 per capita production levels. And in late 2016, per capita output was just 4 percent higher than in late 2007—nine years earlier. By this reckoning, the American economy looks to have suffered something close to a lost decade.

But there was clearly trouble brewing in America’s macro-economy well before the 2008 crash, too. Between late 2000 and late 2007, per capita GDP growth averaged less than 1.5 percent per annum. That compares with the nation’s long-term postwar 1948–2000 per capita growth rate of almost 2.3 percent, which in turn can be compared to the “snap back” tempo of 1.1 percent per annum since per capita GDP bottomed out in 2009. Between 2000 and 2016, per capita growth in America has averaged less than 1 percent a year. To state it plainly: With postwar, pre-21st-century rates for the years 2000–2016, per capita GDP in America would be more than 20 percent higher than it is today.

The reasons for America’s newly fitful and halting macroeconomic performance are still a puzzlement to economists and a subject of considerable contention and debate.1Economists are generally in consensus, however, in one area: They have begun redefining the growth potential of the U.S. economy downwards. The U.S. Congressional Budget Office (CBO), for example, suggests that the “potential growth” rate for the U.S. economy at full employment of factors of production has now dropped below 1.7 percent a year, implying a sustainable long-term annual per capita economic growth rate for America today of well under 1 percent.

Then there is the employment situation. If 21st-century America’s GDP trends have been disappointing, labor-force trends have been utterly dismal. Work rates have fallen off a cliff since the year 2000 and are at their lowest levels in decades. We can see this by looking at the estimates by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) for the civilian employment rate, the jobs-to-population ratio for adult civilian men and women. (SEE FIGURE 3.) Between early 2000 and late 2016, America’s overall work rate for Americans age 20 and older underwent a drastic decline. It plunged by almost 5 percentage points (from 64.6 to 59.7). Unless you are a labor economist, you may not appreciate just how severe a falloff in employment such numbers attest to. Postwar America never experienced anything comparable.

From peak to trough, the collapse in work rates for U.S. adults between 2008 and 2010 was roughly twice the amplitude of what had previously been the country’s worst postwar recession, back in the early 1980s. In that previous steep recession, it took America five years to re-attain the adult work rates recorded at the start of 1980. This time, the U.S. job market has as yet, in early 2017, scarcely begun to claw its way back up to the work rates of 2007—much less back to the work rates from early 2000.

As may be seen in Figure 3, U.S. adult work rates never recovered entirely from the recession of 2001—much less the crash of ’08. And the work rates being measured here include people who are engaged in any paid employment—any job, at any wage, for any number of hours of work at all.

On Wall Street and in some parts of Washington these days, one hears that America has gotten back to “near full employment.” For Americans outside the bubble, such talk must seem nonsensical. It is true that the oft-cited “civilian unemployment rate” looked pretty good by the end of the Obama era—in December 2016, it was down to 4.7 percent, about the same as it had been back in 1965, at a time of genuine full employment. The problem here is that the unemployment rate only tracks joblessness for those still in the labor force; it takes no account of workforce dropouts. Alas, the exodus out of the workforce has been the big labor-market story for America’s new century. (At this writing, for every unemployed American man between 25 and 55 years of age, there are another three who are neither working nor looking for work.) Thus the “unemployment rate” increasingly looks like an antique index devised for some earlier and increasingly distant war: the economic equivalent of a musket inventory or a cavalry count.

By the criterion of adult work rates, by contrast, employment conditions in America remain remarkably bleak. From late 2009 through early 2014, the country’s work rates more or less flatlined. So far as can be told, this is the only “recovery” in U.S. economic history in which that basic labor-market indicator almost completely failed to respond.

Since 2014, there has finally been a measure of improvement in the work rate—but it would be unwise to exaggerate the dimensions of that turnaround. As of late 2016, the adult work rate in America was still at its lowest level in more than 30 years. To put things another way: If our nation’s work rate today were back up to its start-of-the-century highs, well over 10 million more Americans would currently have paying jobs.

There is no way to sugarcoat these awful numbers. They are not a statistical artifact that can be explained away by population aging, or by increased educational enrollment for adult students, or by any other genuine change in contemporary American society. The plain fact is that 21st-century America has witnessed a dreadful collapse of work.
For an apples-to-apples look at America’s 21st-century jobs problem, we can focus on the 25–54 population—known to labor economists for self-evident reasons as the “prime working age” group. For this key labor-force cohort, work rates in late 2016 were down almost 4 percentage points from their year-2000 highs. That is a jobs gap approaching 5 million for this group alone.

It is not only that work rates for prime-age males have fallen since the year 2000—they have, but the collapse of work for American men is a tale that goes back at least half a century. (I wrote a short book last year about this sad saga.2) What is perhaps more startling is the unexpected and largely unnoticed fall-off in work rates for prime-age women. In the U.S. and all other Western societies, postwar labor markets underwent an epochal transformation. After World War II, work rates for prime women surged, and continued to rise—until the year 2000. Since then, they too have declined. Current work rates for prime-age women are back to where they were a generation ago, in the late 1980s. The 21st-century U.S. economy has been brutal for male and female laborers alike—and the wreckage in the labor market has been sufficiently powerful to cancel, and even reverse, one of our society’s most distinctive postwar trends: the rise of paid work for women outside the household.

In our era of no more than indifferent economic growth, 21st–century America has somehow managed to produce markedly more wealth for its wealthholders even as it provided markedly less work for its workers. And trends for paid hours of work look even worse than the work rates themselves. Between 2000 and 2015, according to the BEA, total paid hours of work in America increased by just 4 percent (as against a 35 percent increase for 1985–2000, the 15-year period immediately preceding this one). Over the 2000–2015 period, however, the adult civilian population rose by almost 18 percent—meaning that paid hours of work per adult civilian have plummeted by a shocking 12 percent thus far in our new American century.

This is the terrible contradiction of economic life in what we might call America’s Second Gilded Age (2000—). It is a paradox that may help us understand a number of overarching features of our new century. These include the consistent findings that public trust in almost all U.S. institutions has sharply declined since 2000, even as growing majorities hold that America is “heading in the wrong direction.” It provides an immediate answer to why overwhelming majorities of respondents in public-opinion surveys continue to tell pollsters, year after year, that our ever-richer America is still stuck in the middle of a recession. The mounting economic woes of the “little people” may not have been generally recognized by those inside the bubble, or even by many bubble inhabitants who claimed to be economic specialists—but they proved to be potent fuel for the populist fire that raged through American politics in 2016.

III
So general economic conditions for many ordinary Americans—not least of these, Americans who did not fit within the academy’s designated victim classes—have been rather more insecure than those within the comfort of the bubble understood. But the anxiety, dissatisfaction, anger, and despair that range within our borders today are not wholly a reaction to the way our economy is misfiring. On the nonmaterial front, it is likewise clear that many things in our society are going wrong and yet seem beyond our powers to correct.

Some of these gnawing problems are by no means new: A number of them (such as family breakdown) can be traced back at least to the 1960s, while others are arguably as old as modernity itself (anomie and isolation in big anonymous communities, secularization and the decline of faith). But a number have roared down upon us by surprise since the turn of the century—and others have redoubled with fearsome new intensity since roughly the year 2000.

American health conditions seem to have taken a seriously wrong turn in the new century. It is not just that overall health progress has been shockingly slow, despite the trillions we devote to medical services each year. (Which “Cold War babies” among us would have predicted we’d live to see the day when life expectancy in East Germany was higher than in the United States, as is the case today?)

Alas, the problem is not just slowdowns in health progress—there also appears to have been positive retrogression for broad and heretofore seemingly untroubled segments of the national population. A short but electrifying 2015 paper by Anne Case and Nobel Economics Laureate Angus Deaton talked about a mortality trend that had gone almost unnoticed until then: rising death rates for middle-aged U.S. whites. By Case and Deaton’s reckoning, death rates rose somewhat slightly over the 1999–2013 period for all non-Hispanic white men and women 45–54 years of age—but they rose sharply for those with high-school degrees or less, and for this less-educated grouping most of the rise in death rates was accounted for by suicides, chronic liver cirrhosis, and poisonings (including drug overdoses).

Though some researchers, for highly technical reasons, suggested that the mortality spike might not have been quite as sharp as Case and Deaton reckoned, there is little doubt that the spike itself has taken place. Health has been deteriorating for a significant swath of white America in our new century, thanks in large part to drug and alcohol abuse. All this sounds a little too close for comfort to the story of modern Russia, with its devastating vodka- and drug-binging health setbacks. Yes: It can happen here, and it has. Welcome to our new America.

In December 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that for the first time in decades, life expectancy at birth in the United States had dropped very slightly (to 78.8 years in 2015, from 78.9 years in 2014). Though the decline was small, it was statistically meaningful—rising death rates were characteristic of males and females alike; of blacks and whites and Latinos together. (Only black women avoided mortality increases—their death levels were stagnant.) A jump in “unintentional injuries” accounted for much of the overall uptick.
It would be unwarranted to place too much portent in a single year’s mortality changes; slight annual drops in U.S. life expectancy have occasionally been registered in the past, too, followed by continued improvements. But given other developments we are witnessing in our new America, we must wonder whether the 2015 decline in life expectancy is just a blip, or the start of a new trend. We will find out soon enough. It cannot be encouraging, though, that the Human Mortality Database, an international consortium of demographers who vet national data to improve comparability between countries, has suggested that health progress in America essentially ceased in 2012—that the U.S. gained on average only about a single day of life expectancy at birth between 2012 and 2014, before the 2015 turndown.

The opioid epidemic of pain pills and heroin that has been ravaging and shortening lives from coast to coast is a new plague for our new century. The terrifying novelty of this particular drug epidemic, of course, is that it has gone (so to speak) “mainstream” this time, effecting breakout from disadvantaged minority communities to Main Street White America. By 2013, according to a 2015 report by the Drug Enforcement Administration, more Americans died from drug overdoses (largely but not wholly opioid abuse) than from either traffic fatalities or guns. The dimensions of the opioid epidemic in the real America are still not fully appreciated within the bubble, where drug use tends to be more carefully limited and recreational. In Dreamland, his harrowing and magisterial account of modern America’s opioid explosion, the journalist Sam Quinones notes in passing that “in one three-month period” just a few years ago, according to the Ohio Department of Health, “fully 11 percent of all Ohioans were prescribed opiates.” And of course many Americans self-medicate with licit or illicit painkillers without doctors’ orders.

In the fall of 2016, Alan Krueger, former chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, released a study that further refined the picture of the real existing opioid epidemic in America: According to his work, nearly half of all prime working-age male labor-force dropouts—an army now totaling roughly 7 million men—currently take pain medication on a daily basis.

We already knew from other sources (such as BLS “time use” surveys) that the overwhelming majority of the prime-age men in this un-working army generally don’t “do civil society” (charitable work, religious activities, volunteering), or for that matter much in the way of child care or help for others in the home either, despite the abundance of time on their hands. Their routine, instead, typically centers on watching—watching TV, DVDs, Internet, hand-held devices, etc.—and indeed watching for an average of 2,000 hours a year, as if it were a full-time job. But Krueger’s study adds a poignant and immensely sad detail to this portrait of daily life in 21st-century America: In our mind’s eye we can now picture many millions of un-working men in the prime of life, out of work and not looking for jobs, sitting in front of screens—stoned.

But how did so many millions of un-working men, whose incomes are limited, manage en masse to afford a constant supply of pain medication? Oxycontin is not cheap. As Dreamland carefully explains, one main mechanism today has been the welfare state: more specifically, Medicaid, Uncle Sam’s means-tested health-benefits program. Here is how it works (we are with Quinones in Portsmouth, Ohio):

[The Medicaid card] pays for medicine—whatever pills a doctor deems that the insured patient needs. Among those who receive Medicaid cards are people on state welfare or on a federal disability program known as SSI. . . . If you could get a prescription from a willing doctor—and Portsmouth had plenty of them—Medicaid health-insurance cards paid for that prescription every month. For a three-dollar Medicaid co-pay, therefore, addicts got pills priced at thousands of dollars, with the difference paid for by U.S. and state taxpayers. A user could turn around and sell those pills, obtained for that three-dollar co-pay, for as much as ten thousand dollars on the street.

In 21st-century America, “dependence on government” has thus come to take on an entirely new meaning.

You may now wish to ask: What share of prime-working-age men these days are enrolled in Medicaid? According to the Census Bureau’s SIPP survey (Survey of Income and Program Participation), as of 2013, over one-fifth (21 percent) of all civilian men between 25 and 55 years of age were Medicaid beneficiaries. For prime-age people not in the labor force, the share was over half (53 percent). And for un-working Anglos (non-Hispanic white men not in the labor force) of prime working age, the share enrolled in Medicaid was 48 percent.

By the way: Of the entire un-working prime-age male Anglo population in 2013, nearly three-fifths (57 percent) were reportedly collecting disability benefits from one or more government disability program in 2013. Disability checks and means-tested benefits cannot support a lavish lifestyle. But they can offer a permanent alternative to paid employment, and for growing numbers of American men, they do. The rise of these programs has coincided with the death of work for larger and larger numbers of American men not yet of retirement age. We cannot say that these programs caused the death of work for millions upon millions of younger men: What is incontrovertible, however, is that they have financed it—just as Medicaid inadvertently helped finance America’s immense and increasing appetite for opioids in our new century.

It is intriguing to note that America’s nationwide opioid epidemic has not been accompanied by a nationwide crime wave (excepting of course the apparent explosion of illicit heroin use). Just the opposite: As best can be told, national victimization rates for violent crimes and property crimes have both reportedly dropped by about two-thirds over the past two decades.3 The drop in crime over the past generation has done great things for the general quality of life in much of America. There is one complication from this drama, however, that inhabitants of the bubble may not be aware of, even though it is all too well known to a great many residents of the real America. This is the extraordinary expansion of what some have termed America’s “criminal class”—the population sentenced to prison or convicted of felony offenses—in recent decades. This trend did not begin in our century, but it has taken on breathtaking enormity since the year 2000.

Most well-informed readers know that the U.S. currently has a higher share of its populace in jail or prison than almost any other country on earth, that Barack Obama and others talk of our criminal-justice process as “mass incarceration,” and know that well over 2 million men were in prison or jail in recent years.4 But only a tiny fraction of all living Americans ever convicted of a felony is actually incarcerated at this very moment. Quite the contrary: Maybe 90 percent of all sentenced felons today are out of confinement and living more or less among us. The reason: the basic arithmetic of sentencing and incarceration in America today. Correctional release and sentenced community supervision (probation and parole) guarantee a steady annual “flow” of convicted felons back into society to augment the very considerable “stock” of felons and ex-felons already there. And this “stock” is by now truly enormous.

One forthcoming demographic study by Sarah Shannon and five other researchers estimates that the cohort of current and former felons in America very nearly reached 20 million by the year 2010. If its estimates are roughly accurate, and if America’s felon population has continued to grow at more or less the same tempo traced out for the years leading up to 2010, we would expect it to surpass 23 million persons by the end of 2016 at the latest. Very rough calculations might therefore suggest that at this writing, America’s population of non-institutionalized adults with a felony conviction somewhere in their past has almost certainly broken the 20 million mark by the end of 2016. A little more rough arithmetic suggests that about 17 million men in our general population have a felony conviction somewhere in their CV. That works out to one of every eight adult males in America today.

We have to use rough estimates here, rather than precise official numbers, because the government does not collect any data at all on the size or socioeconomic circumstances of this population of 20 million, and never has. Amazing as this may sound and scandalous though it may be, America has, at least to date, effectively banished this huge group—a group roughly twice the total size of our illegal-immigrant population and an adult population larger than that in any state but California—to a near-total and seemingly unending statistical invisibility. Our ex-cons are, so to speak, statistical outcasts who live in a darkness our polity does not care enough to illuminate—beyond the scope or interest of public policy, unless and until they next run afoul of the law.

Thus we cannot describe with any precision or certainty what has become of those who make up our “criminal class” after their (latest) sentencing or release. In the most stylized terms, however, we might guess that their odds in the real America are not all that favorable. And when we consider some of the other trends we have already mentioned—employment, health, addiction, welfare dependence—we can see the emergence of a malign new nationwide undertow, pulling downward against social mobility.
Social mobility has always been the jewel in the crown of the American mythos and ethos. The idea (not without a measure of truth to back it up) was that people in America are free to achieve according to their merit and their grit—unlike in other places, where they are trapped by barriers of class or the misfortune of misrule. Nearly two decades into our new century, there are unmistakable signs that America’s fabled social mobility is in trouble—perhaps even in serious trouble.

Consider the following facts. First, according to the Census Bureau, geographical mobility in America has been on the decline for three decades, and in 2016 the annual movement of households from one location to the next was reportedly at an all-time (postwar) low. Second, as a study by three Federal Reserve economists and a Notre Dame colleague demonstrated last year, “labor market fluidity”—the churning between jobs that among other things allows people to get ahead—has been on the decline in the American labor market for decades, with no sign as yet of a turnaround. Finally, and not least important, a December 2016 report by the “Equal Opportunity Project,” a team led by the formidable Stanford economist Raj Chetty, calculated that the odds of a 30-year-old’s earning more than his parents at the same age was now just 51 percent: down from 86 percent 40 years ago. Other researchers who have examined the same data argue that the odds may not be quite as low as the Chetty team concludes, but agree that the chances of surpassing one’s parents’ real income have been on the downswing and are probably lower now than ever before in postwar America.

Thus the bittersweet reality of life for real Americans in the early 21st century: Even though the American economy still remains the world’s unrivaled engine of wealth generation, those outside the bubble may have less of a shot at the American Dream than has been the case for decades, maybe generations—possibly even since the Great Depression.

IV
The funny thing is, people inside the bubble are forever talking about “economic inequality,” that wonderful seminar construct, and forever virtue-signaling about how personally opposed they are to it. By contrast, “economic insecurity” is akin to a phrase from an unknown language. But if we were somehow to find a “Google Translate” function for communicating from real America into the bubble, an important message might be conveyed:

The abstraction of “inequality” doesn’t matter a lot to ordinary Americans. The reality of economic insecurity does. The Great American Escalator is broken—and it badly needs to be fixed.

With the election of 2016, Americans within the bubble finally learned that the 21st century has gotten off to a very bad start in America. Welcome to the reality. We have a lot of work to do together to turn this around.

1 Some economists suggest the reason has to do with the unusual nature of the Great Recession: that downturns born of major financial crises intrinsically require longer adjustment and correction periods than the more familiar, ordinary business-cycle downturn. Others have proposed theories to explain why the U.S. economy may instead have downshifted to a more tepid tempo in the Bush-Obama era. One such theory holds that the pace of productivity is dropping because the scale of recent technological innovation is unrepeatable. There is also a “secular stagnation” hypothesis, surmising we have entered into an age of very low “natural real interest rates” consonant with significantly reduced demand for investment. What is incontestable is that the 10-year moving average for per capita economic growth is lower for America today than at any time since the Korean War—and that the slowdown in growth commenced in the decade before the 2008 crash. (It is also possible that the anemic status of the U.S. macro-economy is being exaggerated by measurement issues—productivity improvements from information technology, for example, have been oddly elusive in our officially reported national output—but few today would suggest that such concealed gains would totally transform our view of the real economy’s true performance.)
2 Nicholas Eberstadt, Men Without Work: America’s Invisible Crisis (Templeton Press, 2016)
3 This is not to ignore the gruesome exceptions—places like Chicago and Baltimore—or to neglect the risk that crime may make a more general comeback: It is simply to acknowledge one of the bright trends for America in the new century.
4 In 2013, roughly 2.3 million men were behind bars according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

One could be forgiven for wondering what Kellyanne Conway, a close adviser to President Trump, was thinking recently when she turned the White House briefing room into the set of the Home Shopping Network. “Go buy Ivanka’s stuff!” she told Fox News viewers during an interview, referring to the clothing and accessories line of the president’s daughter. It’s not clear if her cheerleading led to any spike in sales, but it did lead to calls for an investigation into whether she violated federal ethics rules, and prompted the White House to later state that it had “counseled” Conway about her behavior.

To understand what provoked Conway’s on-air marketing campaign, look no further than the ongoing boycotts targeting all things Trump. This latest manifestation of the passion to impose financial harm to make a political point has taken things in a new and odd direction. Once, boycotts were serious things, requiring serious commitment and real sacrifice. There were boycotts by aggrieved workers, such as the United Farm Workers, against their employers; boycotts by civil-rights activists and religious groups; and boycotts of goods produced by nations like apartheid-era South Africa. Many of these efforts, sustained over years by committed cadres of activists, successfully pressured businesses and governments to change.

Since Trump’s election, the boycott has become less an expression of long-term moral and practical opposition and more an expression of the left’s collective id. As Harvard Business School professor Michael Norton told the Atlantic recently, “Increasingly, the way we express our political opinions is through buying or not buying instead of voting or not voting.” And evidently the way some people express political opinions when someone they don’t like is elected is to launch an endless stream of virtue-signaling boycotts. Democratic politicians ostentatiously boycotted Trump’s inauguration. New Balance sneaker owners vowed to boycott the company and filmed themselves torching their shoes after a company spokesman tweeted praise for Trump. Trump detractors called for a boycott of L.L. Bean after one of its board members was discovered to have (gasp!) given a personal contribution to a pro-Trump PAC.

By their nature, boycotts are a form of proxy warfare, tools wielded by consumers who want to send a message to a corporation or organization about their displeasure with specific practices.

Trump-era boycotts, however, merely seem to be a way to channel an overwhelming yet vague feeling of political frustration. Take the “Grab Your Wallet” campaign, whose mission, described in humblebragging detail on its website, is as follows: “Since its first humble incarnation as a screenshot on October 11, the #GrabYourWallet boycott list has grown as a central resource for understanding how our own consumer purchases have inadvertently supported the political rise of the Trump family.”

So this boycott isn’t against a specific business or industry; it’s a protest against one man and his children, with trickle-down effects for anyone who does business with them. Grab Your Wallet doesn’t just boycott Trump-branded hotels and golf courses; the group targets businesses such as Bed Bath & Beyond, for example, because it carries Ivanka Trump diaper bags. Even QVC and the Carnival Cruise corporation are targeted for boycott because they advertise on Celebrity Apprentice, which supposedly “further enriches Trump.”

Grab Your Wallet has received support from “notable figures” such as “Don Cheadle, Greg Louganis, Lucy Lawless, Roseanne Cash, Neko Case, Joyce Carol Oates, Robert Reich, Pam Grier, and Ben Cohen (of Ben & Jerry’s),” according to the group’s website. This rogues gallery of celebrity boycotters has been joined by enthusiastic hashtag activists on Twitter who post remarks such as, “Perhaps fed govt will buy all Ivanka merch & force prisoners & detainees in coming internment camps 2 wear it” and “Forced to #DressLikeaWoman by a sexist boss? #GrabYourWallet and buy a nice FU pantsuit at Trump-free shops.” There’s even a website, dontpaytrump.com, which offers a free plug-in extension for your Web browser. It promises a “simple Trump boycott extension that makes it easy to be a conscious consumer and keep your money out of Trump’s tiny hands.”

Many of the companies targeted for boycott—Bed, Bath & Beyond, QVC, TJ Maxx, Amazon—are the kind of retailers that carry moderately priced merchandise that working- and middle-class families can afford. But the list of Grab Your Wallet–approved alternatives for shopping are places like Bergdorf’s and Barney’s. These are hardly accessible choices for the TJ Maxx customer. Indeed, there is more than a whiff of quasi-racist elitism in the self-congratulatory tweets posted by Grab Your Wallet supporters, such as this response to news that Nordstrom is no longer planning to carry Ivanka’s shoe line: “Soon we’ll see Ivanka shoes at Dollar Store, next to Jalapeno Windex and off-brand batteries.”

If Grab Your Wallet is really about “flexing of consumer power in favor of a more respectful, inclusive society,” then it has some work to do.
And then there are the conveniently malleable ethics of the anti-Trump boycott brigade. A small number of affordable retailers like Old Navy made the Grab Your Wallet cut for “approved” alternatives for shopping. But just a few years ago, a progressive website described in detail the “living hell of a Bangladeshi sweatshop” that manufactures Old Navy clothing. Evidently progressives can now sleep peacefully at night knowing large corporations like Old Navy profit from young Bangladeshis making 20 cents an hour and working 17-hour days churning out cheap cargo pants—as long as they don’t bear a Trump label.

In truth, it matters little if Ivanka’s fashion business goes bust. It was always just a branding game anyway. The world will go on in the absence of Ivanka-named suede ankle booties. And in some sense the rash of anti-Trump boycotts is just what Trump, who frequently calls for boycotts of media outlets such as Rolling Stone and retailers like Macy’s, deserves.
But the left’s boycott braggadocio might prove short-lived. Nordstrom denied that it dropped Ivanka’s line of apparel and shoes because of pressure from the Grab Your Wallet campaign; it blamed lagging sales. And the boycotters’ tone of moral superiority—like the ridiculous posturing of the anti-Trump left’s self-flattering designation, “the resistance”—won’t endear them to the Trump voters they must convert if they hope to gain ground in the midterm elections.

As for inclusiveness, as one contributor to Psychology Today noted, the demographic breakdown of the typical boycotter, “especially consumer and ecological boycotts,” is a young, well-educated, politically left woman, undermining somewhat the idea of boycotts as a weapon of the weak and oppressed.

Self-indulgent protests and angry boycotts are no doubt cathartic for their participants (a 2016 study in the Journal of Consumer Affairs cited psychological research that found “by venting their frustrations, consumers can diminish their negative psychological states and, as a result, experience relief”). But such protests are not always ultimately catalytic. As researchers noted in a study published recently at Social Science Research Network, protesters face what they call “the activists’ dilemma,” which occurs when “tactics that raise awareness also tend to reduce popular support.” As the study found, “while extreme tactics may succeed in attracting attention, they typically reduce popular public support for the movement by eroding bystanders’ identification with the movement, ultimately deterring bystanders from supporting the cause or becoming activists themselves.”

The progressive left should be thoughtful about the reality of such protest fatigue. Writing in the Guardian, Jamie Peck recently enthused: “Of course, boycotts alone will not stop Trumpism. Effective resistance to authoritarianism requires more disruptive actions than not buying certain products . . . . But if there’s anything the past few weeks have taught us, it’s that resistance must take as many forms as possible, and it’s possible to call attention to the ravages of neoliberalism while simultaneously allying with any and all takers against the immediate dangers posed by our impetuous orange president.”

Boycotts are supposed to be about accountability. But accountability is a two-way street. The motives and tactics of the boycotters themselves are of the utmost importance. In his book about consumer boycotts, scholar Monroe Friedman advises that successful ones depend on a “rationale” that is “simple, straightforward, and appear[s] legitimate.” Whatever Trump’s flaws (and they are legion), by “going low” with scattershot boycotts, the left undermines its own legitimacy—and its claims to the moral high ground of “resistance” in the process.

========END===============

Smart Meters Globally

Energy companies are using the ‘Internet of Things’ to increase efficiency and save billions

JOHN GREENOUGH

Aug. 26, 2015, 10:20 AM
BI Intelligence

The lowly energy meter is becoming a leading device in the transition to the Internet of Things.

Government officials and utility executives are creating smart energy grids that will help make energy use more efficient, provide real-time billing information, and reduce the number of workers needed to check meters.

In a recent report from BI Intelligence, we size the smart meter market globally and in regions and countries through the world. We look at how smart meter installations will create smart energy grids that have a significant impact on energy usage and cost saving. Additionally, we conduct a cost-benefit analysis looking at how much it will cost to install smart meters and weigh it against the monetary and non monetary benefits the devices can provide.

Access The Full Report By Signing Up For A Full-Access Trial>>

Here are a few of the key findings from the BI Intelligence report:

Globally, we estimate the smart meter installed base will reach 454 million this year and more than double by 2020, making it a leading IoT device.
Asia will lead the transition to smart energy grids, followed by Europe, North America, South America, and Africa.
China has aggressive smart meter plans. Beijing is expected to have 100% of its residential homes equipped with smart meters by the end of this year.
The cost of installing these smart meters will be over $100 billion. But the financial benefits will reach nearly $160 billion.
There are three primary security risks associated with smart meters: physical risks, electrical risks, and software risks.
In full, the report:

Provides a regional breakdown of the smart meter market and includes forecasts from the major smart meter countries within that region.
Includes an analysis of the savings generated from smart grids
Provides an average cost of installing a smart meter over the next five years.
Assesses the other benefits to IoT-based meters and grids beyond revenue gains.
Discusses the security risks of smart meters and provides solutions from leading tech firms.
To access the full report from BI Intelligence, sign up for a 14-day full-access trial here. Full-access members also gain access to new in-depth reports, hundreds of charts, as well as daily newsletters on the digital industry.

NOW WATCH: This small landfill in New York turns trash into electricity for 400 homes

More: Internet of Things Energy Costs Energy Report Smart Grid

Read more: http://www.businessinsider.com/companies-utilities-save-with-iot-2015-5#ixzz3jxXhMpjJ

Greece made simple

So Greece owes $310 billion euros to a range of lenders – but note $107 billion were written off by private lenders in 2012, so this brings Greek total debt to almost a half trillion dollars:

Greek lenders and amounts lent

Note that the IMF is a relatively small lender and the “Greek Public Sector” and the EU are large.

The story is a really sad one. Maybe it traces back to 1981, when Greece joined the EU. But arguably the real beginning is 2001, when they joined the Eurozone. As the newest member of the Eurozone, they were fortunate (???) to join as the economy was picking up steam. The go-go years were 2001-2007, when lenders poured money into this promising new member – almost a half trillion dollars!

Thus is it that they were the hardest hit when the recession hit in late 2007. They have been paying a steep price for this massive credit splurge in 2001-2007.

So – – – in summary:

As with so many stories, this one has two sides:

1) a poor country fighting to get resources – to get out of poverty and build a better life for its citizens (don’t believe anyone who starts their story here with “those Greek corrupt politicians”)
2) rich countries who love being bankers – to extend their reach and influence and income while feeling good about trying to help their poor neighbors (don’t believe anyone who starts their story with “those greedy German bankers…”.

Ok, OK, so Greek pride got the best of them when they borrowed almost a half trillion dollars!!!!! 12 million people ….. borrow a half trillion dollars?????!!!!!!

OK, OK, so us rich people got a little carried away when those nice Greeks kept wanting to borrow more ….. so what’s another 100 million when everyone is feeling so fine??????

A few sources explain in ways I trust:

NYT explains
Financial Times Coverage

http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/business/international/greece-debt-crisis-euro.html?_r=0

Fortune Magazine Q&A

Everything to Know About Greece’s Economic Crisis
Geoffrey Smith / Fortune June 29, 2015

How Greece and the eurozone ended up in this mess, and where they go from here

Q. How did we get here?

A. Long story. Greece’s economy was never strong enough to share a currency with Germany’s, but both sides pretended it was, as it satisfied Greek pride and Germany’s ambitions (suffused with war guilt) of building an ‘Ever Closer Union’ in a new, democratic Europe. Reckless lending by French and German banks allowed the Greeks to finance widening budget and current account deficits for six years, but private capital flows dried up sharply after the 2008 crisis, forcing Greece to seek help from Eurozone governments and the International Monetary Fund in 2010.

Q. But all that was 5 years ago. How has Greece not managed to turn the corner since then, when every other Eurozone country that took a bailout has?

A. Greece was the first country to ask for help, and the Eurozone was totally unprepared for it on all levels–political, technological, emotional, whatever. The IMF, too, had no experience of dealing with a country in a monetary union. Consequently, the bailout was badly conceived (a point admitted at the weekend by Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who was head of the IMF at the time), focusing too much on the budget balance and not enough on fixing Greece’s uniquely dysfunctional state apparatus. In a normal recession, government spending can offset the negative effects of private demand contracting, but in this case, the budgetary austerity drove Greece into a vicious spiral. The economy contracted by 25% between 2010 and 2014, fatally weakening Greece’s ability ever to repay its debts.

Q. But didn’t Greece already get a load of debt relief?

A. Yes, €107 billion of it in a 2012 debt restructuring, the biggest in history. But it was only private creditors–i.e., bondholders–who took the hit. The Eurozone and IMF refused to write down their claims (although they did soften the repayment terms), and the new bailout agreement was based on more assumptions (since exposed as too rose-tinted) that Greece could grow itself out of its troubles. The economy continued to shrink in absolute terms and unemployment shot over 25%, forcing an ever bigger burden of taxation onto fewer and fewer shoulders. That created the political environment for this year’s crisis.

Q. You make it sound like this year is different from the previous four…

A. Victory for the radical left-wing Syriza party at elections in January completely changed the political dynamic. Previous governments had come from the political mainstream, and reluctantly played along with rules dictated in Brussels and, indirectly, Berlin. Syriza didn’t have any truck with that. It has campaigned for a 50% write-off of its debts and a relaxation of its budget targets. It has been openly confrontational and reversed key reforms made by the previous governments, despite promising the creditors in February that it wouldn’t. Syriza’s tactics–embodied by Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, an economics professor specializing in Game Theory–have been a gamble that the Eurozone would rather make concessions than risk the economic havoc caused by a Greek exit.

5. That gamble has failed, hasn’t it?

As of today, yes. It’s Greece, yet again, which is bearing the burden of everything: the economy had shown signs of bottoming out before Syriza came to power, with business sentiment at its highest in seven years after a very good tourist season in 2014. But the brinkmanship has destroyed confidence, and caused a sharp rise in government arrears and deposit flight, capped now by capital controls and a week-long closure of the banking system. Eurozone financial markets aren’t taking it well, but the prospect of a ‘shock and awe’ intervention by the ECB is keeping the sell-off within limits Monday morning. A real “Grexit” may yet wreak havoc on the Eurozone too, but it’s unlikely that Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras will be around that long to reap the political rewards.

Q. Aren’t the creditors to blame too?

A. For sure, there’s plenty of blame to go round. Most people now recognize that the banks that had lent to Greece pre-crisis should have been forced to take more losses in 2009/2010. Now the Eurozone has effectively swapped the private loans for public ones, any debt write-offs have enormous political costs at home. But governments in Germany and elsewhere have made a rod for their own back by being so stubborn. When Greece defaults, they’re going to lose billions anyway, and the cost of their posturing will become clear to taxpayers who have only been told half the story. They have squandered a host of opportunities to manage that loss in a more orderly way. By failing to accommodate more willing (if still inadequate) Greek governments with debt relief earlier, they prepared the ground for Syriza’s rise.

Q. What happens next?

A. Greece will miss a payment to the IMF Tuesday, and its bailout will expire the same day. The ECB seems likely to ignore the default at least until the planned referendum on Sunday, anxious to avoid responsibility for precipitating the total collapse of the financial system. The creditors are hoping the Greek government will capitulate under the pressure, and be replaced by a new ‘government of national unity’. There’s no sign of that happening yet.

Q. But how long can the current situation go on?

A. The banks are closed until July 7, after the referendum. As long as they still have the lifeline of the ECB’s emergency credit facility (over €85 billion), the banks and the government can continue to operate, albeit in a very restricted fashion. But the government is due to repay €3.5 billion in debts to the ECB on July 20, and if it can’t do that, then the ECB will have to accept that the Greek state is bankrupt, and cancel that credit line. At that point, the banks will be insolvent, and it will only be possible to restore their solvency by re-denominating the rest of their liabilities (i.e. deposits) in a new Greek currency.

Q. How, legally, does Greece leave the Eurozone?

A. Nobody knows. Like Cortes burning his boats after arriving in Mexico, the E.U. deliberately chose not to draft rules for that eventuality when it formed its currency union. There are rules for leaving the E.U., but even Syriza doesn’t want to do that. We will be, as Irish Finance Minister Michael Noonan said at the weekend, “in completely uncharted waters.”

They’ll be damned choppy waterss, too.

Q. How did we get here?

A. Long story. Greece’s economy was never strong enough to share a currency with Germany’s, but both sides pretended it was, as it satisfied Greek pride and Germany’s ambitions (suffused with war guilt) of building an ‘Ever Closer Union’ in a new, democratic Europe. Reckless lending by French and German banks allowed the Greeks to finance widening budget and current account deficits for six years, but private capital flows dried up sharply after the 2008 crisis, forcing Greece to seek help from Eurozone governments and the International Monetary Fund in 2010.

Q. But all that was 5 years ago. How has Greece not managed to turn the corner since then, when every other Eurozone country that took a bailout has?

A. Greece was the first country to ask for help, and the Eurozone was totally unprepared for it on all levels–political, technological, emotional, whatever. The IMF, too, had no experience of dealing with a country in a monetary union. Consequently, the bailout was badly conceived (a point admitted at the weekend by Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who was head of the IMF at the time), focusing too much on the budget balance and not enough on fixing Greece’s uniquely dysfunctional state apparatus. In a normal recession, government spending can offset the negative effects of private demand contracting, but in this case, the budgetary austerity drove Greece into a vicious spiral. The economy contracted by 25% between 2010 and 2014, fatally weakening Greece’s ability ever to repay its debts.

Q. But didn’t Greece already get a load of debt relief?

A. Yes, €107 billion of it in a 2012 debt restructuring, the biggest in history. But it was only private creditors–i.e., bondholders–who took the hit. The Eurozone and IMF refused to write down their claims (although they did soften the repayment terms), and the new bailout agreement was based on more assumptions (since exposed as too rose-tinted) that Greece could grow itself out of its troubles. The economy continued to shrink in absolute terms and unemployment shot over 25%, forcing an ever bigger burden of taxation onto fewer and fewer shoulders. That created the political environment for this year’s crisis.

Q. You make it sound like this year is different from the previous four…

A. Victory for the radical left-wing Syriza party at elections in January completely changed the political dynamic. Previous governments had come from the political mainstream, and reluctantly played along with rules dictated in Brussels and, indirectly, Berlin. Syriza didn’t have any truck with that. It has campaigned for a 50% write-off of its debts and a relaxation of its budget targets. It has been openly confrontational and reversed key reforms made by the previous governments, despite promising the creditors in February that it wouldn’t. Syriza’s tactics–embodied by Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, an economics professor specializing in Game Theory–have been a gamble that the Eurozone would rather make concessions than risk the economic havoc caused by a Greek exit.

5. That gamble has failed, hasn’t it?

As of today, yes. It’s Greece, yet again, which is bearing the burden of everything: the economy had shown signs of bottoming out before Syriza came to power, with business sentiment at its highest in seven years after a very good tourist season in 2014. But the brinkmanship has destroyed confidence, and caused a sharp rise in government arrears and deposit flight, capped now by capital controls and a week-long closure of the banking system. Eurozone financial markets aren’t taking it well, but the prospect of a ‘shock and awe’ intervention by the ECB is keeping the sell-off within limits Monday morning. A real “Grexit” may yet wreak havoc on the Eurozone too, but it’s unlikely that Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras will be around that long to reap the political rewards.

Q. Aren’t the creditors to blame too?

A. For sure, there’s plenty of blame to go round. Most people now recognize that the banks that had lent to Greece pre-crisis should have been forced to take more losses in 2009/2010. Now the Eurozone has effectively swapped the private loans for public ones, any debt write-offs have enormous political costs at home. But governments in Germany and elsewhere have made a rod for their own back by being so stubborn. When Greece defaults, they’re going to lose billions anyway, and the cost of their posturing will become clear to taxpayers who have only been told half the story. They have squandered a host of opportunities to manage that loss in a more orderly way. By failing to accommodate more willing (if still inadequate) Greek governments with debt relief earlier, they prepared the ground for Syriza’s rise.

Q. What happens next?

A. Greece will miss a payment to the IMF Tuesday, and its bailout will expire the same day. The ECB seems likely to ignore the default at least until the planned referendum on Sunday, anxious to avoid responsibility for precipitating the total collapse of the financial system. The creditors are hoping the Greek government will capitulate under the pressure, and be replaced by a new ‘government of national unity’. There’s no sign of that happening yet.

Q. But how long can the current situation go on?

A. The banks are closed until July 7, after the referendum. As long as they still have the lifeline of the ECB’s emergency credit facility (over €85 billion), the banks and the government can continue to operate, albeit in a very restricted fashion. But the government is due to repay €3.5 billion in debts to the ECB on July 20, and if it can’t do that, then the ECB will have to accept that the Greek state is bankrupt, and cancel that credit line. At that point, the banks will be insolvent, and it will only be possible to restore their solvency by re-denominating the rest of their liabilities (i.e. deposits) in a new Greek currency.

Q. How, legally, does Greece leave the Eurozone?

A. Nobody knows. Like Cortes burning his boats after arriving in Mexico, the E.U. deliberately chose not to draft rules for that eventuality when it formed its currency union. There are rules for leaving the E.U., but even Syriza doesn’t want to do that. We will be, as Irish Finance Minister Michael Noonan said at the weekend, “in completely uncharted waters.”

They’ll be damned choppy waters, too.

References:

Harvard analysis of Vacation Days