Saturday, January 25, 2014

Book Review: The Second Machine Age

The Second Machine Age, by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee (Erik & Andy, as they call themselves) is a sequel to the equally entertaining, self-published e-book, Race Against the Machine. The more recent book is a longer, more detailed account of the same thesis.

The argument begins with Moore's Law, which posits a doubling of computing power every 18 months. If one chooses the date that the US Government defined the economic category information technology as Year 1, then the year 2006 brings us to 32 doublings. That means computers (along with software, data communication, etc.) were 4.3 billion times more powerful than they were in 1958.

Pocket change, claim Erik & Andy. Despite the dramatic increase in computation over 48 years, computers were still something of a sideshow. Well into the aughts one could claim that the only source of economic growth was in information technology--the rest of the world still plugged along as it always had.

But now things are different. Now we have arrived at the second half of the chess board (from the story where a king promises his faithful servant grains of wheat, the amount to double on every square). For most of the first half of the chessboard, computational gains are modest if not nugatory. But as one goes from the 32nd doubling to the 64th doubling, computer power begins to take over the entire economy. Erik & Andy predict massive changes in how we will live.

So I agree with Erik & Andy. Indeed, I wrote a post last Summer (Getting Richer While Feeling Poorer) which actually serves as a pretty good description of the first half of their book. The claim (in both my post and their book) is that computation will lead to rapid automation, which will dramatically change the nature of the labor force. We both argue that traditional economic statistics, such as GDP, are no longer very useful for describing the new normal. Erik & Andy, however, include a lot more data and information in their much longer text.

Erik & Andy's thesis can be distinguished from Tyler Cowen's The Great Stagnation. Mr. Cowen argues that the world has run out of innovation--that we've consumed all the benefits of electrification, mass education, modern manufacturing, etc. Thus growth rates will inevitably decline, at least until the next big thing comes along. Erik & Andy (& me) argue that the next big thing is already here in the form of mass automation. For us, boom times are just ahead, if not here already.

Mr. Cowen recently published another book, Average is Over, in which he implicitly repudiates the stagnation thesis. He argues that indeed, computers will automate lots of jobs, but only the cognitive elite will benefit. The rest of us shlubs (80%) will be under- or unemployed and have a net lower standard of living. (His claim reduces to the argument that massive economic growth will lead to widespread poverty--a ridiculous conclusion.)

Eric & Andy specifically address the Average is Over thesis comparing Bounty and Spread. Bounty refers to the huge amount of wealth created by computer power. Spread refers to the distance between rich and poor--the greater the spread, the more the inequality. Will the bounty be distributed broadly enough to minimize the spread? They offer no definite answer, but my reading leads me to be optimistic.

It is not just the so-called cognitive elite that will benefit from computers. Indeed, a lot of doctors and college professors are going to be put out of a job, while home health care aides will have thriving careers. Erik & Andy borrow a 2 x 2 matrix to describe the result, with routine and non-routine jobs in the columns, and manual and cognitive jobs along the rows. They conclude that routine jobs, whether manual or cognitive, will tend to disappear. Assembly line work in factories (very routine) is already mostly eliminated. Increasingly, routine cognitive work (including entry-level lawyer jobs) is going the same way.

I agree with that, but I'd add some other ideas. For example, any job that requires a prodigious memory is likely to be (partially) computerized. Thus medical jobs (especially diagnosis) will rely heavily on computers and will displace a lot of humans. What is happening to lawyers today will be happening with doctors in the near future, and for much the same reason. I've posted a longer piece about the impact of automation on STEM careers here. The STEM careers that show the most promise are the skilled trades, i.e., the equipment and instrument repairmen. To use an example from Erik & Andy, the guy who can fix Baxter will make a good living.

I disagree most with Erik & Andy on their policy prescriptions. A college education, while excellent preparation for work in the 20th Century, is less well suited for the 21st Century. In particular, I think graduate work is a waste of time for all but the very top students--graduate enrollments in all disciplines should shrink by 90%. I think the baccalaureate program is too long in most cases--a two or three year college career is long enough. I think general education--such as a Great Books program--no longer makes much sense. That is something that can be pursued by the adult learner on-line as part of life-long learning.

Finally, I think math is useless for almost everybody. I took a poll in my gen ed science class (mostly art and business majors) asking how many knew how to do long division. Every hand went up. Now this is the most useless skill imaginable, yet we're still teaching it in school. Likewise, factoring quadratic equations, graphing non-linear inequalities, studying trigonometry--none of this is useful for more than 1% of the working population. Computers can do math better than you can--why are we still putting everybody through this?

Conversely, art, music, writing, performance, public speaking, cooking, dance, counseling--computers can't do any of that. Those are the subjects that should be taught in school. Save the math and science for those students who are interested in it for its own sake. There will be very few jobs in those fields.

Otherwise I really like Erik & Andy's book. Highly recommended.

Further Reading:

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Thomas Piketty & The Marxist Meme

The Marxist meme, for those of you new to this blog, claims that we're poor because the rich people stole all the money. It is an idea that slides easily into the mind, quickly learned but very hard to unlearn, despite making no economic sense. Economically uneducated people (such as my Trotskyist friends) are enchanted by it.

But even brilliant geniuses can fall victim to the meme, a case in point being the young, French economist, Thomas Piketty. His new book, Capitalism in the 21st Century, (h/t Tyler Cowen) will be released in English in March. Needless to say, I haven't read it yet. I may never read it--it's 900 pages long, albeit apparently very well written. I have read Milanovic's excellent review, here (pdf).

Piketty's model starts out with accounting identities. These are facts that are true by definition, such as in a balance sheet liabilities must always equal assets. It doesn't matter if the firm is a stock market star or nearing bankruptcy, if the balance sheet isn't balanced it's time to fire the accountant. There are macroeconomic identities as well. For example (oversimplifying), global expenditures must equal global incomes, since whatever I spend is necessarily somebody else's income.

So accounting identities can be manipulated mathematically while still remaining necessarily true, and this is what Mr. Piketty does. His first law is simply rewriting some known identities.

First among these is that income is allocated between capital and labor. Income from capital is known as return on capital, while income from labor is called wages. The total income is the sum of the return on capital and wages. So it could be, for example, that 30% of total income is awarded to capital, while 70% is awarded to wages. The fraction of total income that's awarded to capital is called alpha.

The second identity is a relationship between the average global return on capital (let's designate that by r), and the rate of growth of the global economy (let's call that g). Piketty shows that if r > g, then alpha must get bigger over time. That is, a larger and larger fraction of the global wealth will accrue to capital, with an ever smaller fraction going to wages.

Conversely, if r < g, then the reverse is true--wages will grow relative to capital.

In the former case, r > g, reasonably assuming that rich people own most of the capital, then more and more wealth will accrue to the 1%. The rich will get richer, and the poor, while perhaps not getting poorer, will certainly be getting richer a lot slower. In the latter case, r < g, the premium goes to wages, and so wealth is more evenly distributed across society.

So which is it? The relative values of r and g depend on empirical fact rather than accounting identities. And here Mr. Piketty apparently excels--he has collected extensive data from most of the capitalist world from before the French Revolution to the present. He has found that for most of the last 200-300 years that r > g. The exception has been the period from 1913 to 1970--during that time r < g. His conclusion is that r > g is the normal state of capitalism, while r < g was an aberration that will likely never be repeated.

Today global growth is in the 2-3% range, while the average return on capital is roughly 4-5%. Thus r > g, and accordingly an ever increasing fraction of wealth is accruing to the top 1%. This is certainly true in the US, evidenced by high unemployment, declining labor force participation, and stagnant wages. Piketty argues that global growth can't get much higher. It depends predominantly on two things: population growth (stagnant), and improvements in technology (yielding approximately 1.5%). Growth is as high as it is because of China, but as it becomes fully integrated into the capitalist system its growth rate will slow, taking global growth down with it.

The return on capital has averaged 4-5% over the past two centuries, and barring exceptional circumstances is unlikely to change significantly. So Mr. Piketty forecasts r > g for as far as the eye can see.

The exceptional period from 1913 to 1970 was due to the World Wars (echoing my Trotskyist friends). By destroying so much capital, the return on capital was greatly reduced (perhaps even negative in some years). Further, rebuilding Europe and Asia enabled very strong growth. So, with r < g, this was the heyday of labor, when workers could claim an ever larger share of the pie. Unfortunately, economists coming of age during that time thought that was normal, and that capitalism would inevitably lead to a richer and more equitable society. Mr. Piketty says that's wrong.

Piketty's view is very pessimistic, essentially condemning a large fraction of the population to relative poverty. He suggests that 50% of the population will generally benefit from the trend toward capital, but that the bottom 50% will be losers. This, at least, is better than the robber baron age when it really was only the top 1% who were able to capture the largest share of income.

Among Piketty's solutions is to reduce the rate of return on capital through higher taxes. He supports (in some cases) a return to the 90% tax bracket--not to raise revenue (it won't) but rather to lower r. Instead of a war, let's just destroy capital through taxes. This is where the Marxist meme comes through most obviously.

So I am reminded of three things. First, many years ago I saw a TV interview with some futurologist. In a thought experiment he imagined a world where robots did all the work, and people simply lived off interest on the capital. Everybody would be a member of the leisure class, and labor would collect no wage whatsoever. We'd all own our bit of a robot.

Second, I frequently buy my morning coffee at a convenience store that is part of a state-wide chain. They pay minimum wage and are always trying to recruit employees. One of the perks they offer is stock in the company. In light of Mr. Piketty's argument, the company's stock may, in fact, turn out to be much more valuable than the wage. It's always been important to save for retirement, but if Mr. Piketty is correct, then accumulating capital at an early age becomes even more crucial.

Finally, Mr. Piketty criticizes Gary Becker's theory of human capital, i.e., that the investment made in education, etc., is a form of capital. In Piketty's opinion this just muddies waters that don't need to be muddied, namely the distinction between labor and capital. (Or as my Trotskyist friends would put it, don't cross the class line.) Mr. Piketty likely disagrees with the thesis I've put forward elsewhere that we're all petty bourgeois now. But whether or not human capital is really capital, there is no doubt that people who conserve human capital will also be able to accumulate real capital.

Human nature being what it is, some government redistribution of wealth will always be necessary. But perhaps we should redistribute capital rather than income.

Note (April 25th, 2014): I have written a follow-up post on Piketty's book here.

Further Reading:

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Grenada & The Art Of Being A Comrade

Jeff Mackler authors a heartfelt and informative article in last month's Socialist Action. October 25th marked the 30th anniversary of the US invasion of Grenada, and also the 30th anniversary of Mr. Mackler's resignation from the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). The two events are loosely connected.

Grenada, a small Caribbean island with a population of about 100,000, became an independent country in 1974. The first prime minister was Eric Mathew Gairy, whom I suppose one could describe as a psychopathic lunatic. At his disposal there served a murderous gang of thugs known as the Mongoose Gang. According to Mackler, Mr. Gairy was passionately interested in the occult--ESP, mind reading, flying saucers, etc. The prime minister's "demons extended to literally banning the construction of left turn lanes on the few roads that surrounded this volcanic mountain nation."

Indeed, he chose a superstitious date, March 13, 1979, to leave the island for New York to attend a conference on the occult. He left instructions for the Mongoose Gang to murder the rabble-rouser, Maurice Bishop. Bishop got word of the plot in advance, and staged a preemptive, nearly bloodless coup overthrowing Gairy. Good riddance.

The problem was that Mr. Bishop fancied his coup to be a socialist revolution, and allied himself with Cuba. He gussied up the rhetoric using words like liberation, Black Power, and participatory democracy. Much of this was a fraud, as Mr. Mackler's article demonstrates in his discussion of participatory democracy.

But Mr. Mackler buys Bishop's revolutionary gobbledygook hook, line and sinker. 
Bishop’s followers, perhaps 200 activists at most, but accompanied by massive community support across the island, successfully seized control of all local police stations. ... 
Bishop’s statement made clear the revolution’s objectives: “People of Grenada, this revolution is for work, for food, for decent housing and health services, and for a bright future for our children and great grand-children. The benefits of the revolution will be given to everyone regardless of political opinion or which political party they support.
Then follows a litany of how Bishop's New Jewel Movement improved the living standard of average Grenadians, most of which were funded by Cuba. New fishing boats were purchased, refrigeration facilities were added, the Cubans sent their legendary medical teams to serve the poor, and new roads were built (presumably with left-turn lanes). Indeed, "[i]n four short years, unemployment was reduced from 49 percent to 14.2 percent."

A socialist paradise was aborning, and my Trotskyist friends' hearts all warmed to the challenge. The SWP published a book entitled Maurice Bishop Speaks. No doubt Mr. Bishop was a charismatic guy. It may even be that he was as well-intentioned as Mr. Mackler claims. Mr. Mackler, after all, met the man, and describes how Bishop had more than a passing acquaintance with the SWP.

But even Mr. Mackler admits that all was not well in socialist La-La land. It's one thing to import Cuban charity, but another to build a sustainable economy.
All of these critical gains notwithstanding, almost everyone understood that Grenada, essentially a huge mountain with poor soil conditions and surrounded by a single road, was currently incapable of putting into effect more dramatic and long lasting improvements. The PRG [Provisional Revolutionary Government] leadership moved to resolve this dilemma by embarking on the construction of a major international airport, able to provide access to the world’s modern airplanes. With significant loans from Canada and the allocation of vast human resources, again from revolutionary Cuba, Grenadian and Cuban workers began construction on this project aimed at promoting tourism as the major source of income in the years to come. Grenada’s antiquated Pearl Airport was capable of landing only small turboprop planes with a capacity of some 30-50 people.
Mr. Mackler's larger point is correct--tourism had to be the leading source of foreign exchange (even though Grenada is among the world's leading nutmeg producers). It's ironic, then, that Mr. Mackler reports that the PRG significantly raised taxes on the big hotels--certainly counterproductive. That alone would have led to its downfall had not other events intervened.

The airport became the bone of contention. The Reagan administration argued it was for military use, built at the behest of the Cubans and their Soviet masters. The Grenadians said it was to bring in tourists more efficiently. Of course both were true--the Grenadians were undoubtedly sincere in their desire for an improved airport. Even today it is named the Maurice Bishop International Airport--probably the single, lasting legacy of the so-called revolution.

Socialists can't do tourism very well. Tourism is (usually) a luxury good, i.e., the tourists have more money and leisure than local residents. Thus it depends on inequality. In the 1990s the Cubans tried to isolate tourism into enclaves so that the locals wouldn't have to interact with them, but that rather destroys the experience. The charm of tourism is local food, shopping, entertainment, and (in the case of Cuba) access to sex. Even now, Cuba does a poor job for tourists, ranking behind the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. In 2011 the island hosted 2.7 million visitors. By comparison, in the same year New York City (worse weather; far more expensive) had 10.6 million international arrivals.

So of course it was all going to fall apart. A tourism-dependent, socialist island, putting itself outside the world economy had no place to go except poverty. Mr. Gairy may have been bad, but Mr. Bishop, for all his good intentions and fine rhetoric, was surely a whole lot worse. The end came in two steps. First, there was the falling out amongst thieves--Bernard Coard, another member of the Central Committee, launched his own coup and assassinated Mr. Bishop. And shortly thereafter, on October 25th, 1983, nominally in response to the airport, the US invaded Grenada and put paid to the whole experiment.

Mr. Mackler describes it this way.
The Grenadian Revolution ended that day [of Coard's coup]. The U.S. invasion that followed a few days later was met with virtually no resistance except for the several hundred Cuban airport workers. Breaking a formal agreement that had been hurriedly negotiated between the Cuban government and the Reagan administration, affirming that the Cubans would not resist the invasion and would act only in self defense, the Rangers nevertheless opened fire on the Cubans, who alone courageously resisted as well as they could the massive power of the imperialist forces. ... 
...The island was “conquered” by the invaders in a matter of hours as Grenada’s humiliated and demoralized masses were rendered helpless and disarmed.
Just as Mr. Mackler assumed that Grenadians originally supported the "revolution," he now assumes they assented to its demise only because of "demoralization." Both of these are inferences unjustified by facts. Almost certainly, Grenadians wanted to lead normal lives as part of the global economy. The Gairy regime was awful, the Bishop government was worse, and the Coard coup was intolerable. So no wonder they watched/welcomed the Americans.

And it looks like their good judgement has paid off. I am not an expert on Grenadian politics, but from the Wikipedia page it seems they've had a succession of prime ministers, all the result of peaceful elections. People are voted in, and then the bums are voted out. That's the way it should be. Further, Grenada is economically fairly well off. By most measures it's doing better than Cuba. For a tiny country at the mercy of the global economy, this is not a bad result.

Mr. Mackler's personal story of leaving the SWP is also interesting, but I'm out of space. So read the whole thing. It's worth your time.

Further Reading:

Monday, January 6, 2014


Initially this post was entitled Nutty Professors, and maybe I'll still write a post under that heading some day. But Chris Vials, Assistant Professor of English at the University of Connecticut, is sufficiently erudite and honest to render my original title a slander. He's not nutty. He is wrong.

His article appears in Against the Current, the publication of Solidarity. The goal is ambitious: he wants to rescue the word fascism from the grave of meaninglessness. This blog, for example, has consigned the word to oblivion as a mere epithet.

Professor Vials acknowledges that militaristic fascism such as under Hitler is not a threat in the US or Europe. Still, "...amongst the many political challenges we face, we would do well to remember that the fascist form of repression is still very much alive on both sides of the Atlantic, existing, as always, as a fool’s response to the never-ending contradictions of capitalism. Unfortunately, we still need 'the F word.'"

So what purpose is there in resurrecting fascism? Professor Vials offers two reasons. First, while fascist gangs are unlikely to take state power, they can serve as storm troopers for the capitalist class. Professor Vials cites the (tendentious) research of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which purports to show that fascists "continue to terrorize and even murder people with frightening regularity."

Second, he wants to reclaim the term from the Right, and specifically to rebut Jonah Goldberg's book, Liberal Fascism, a book I read some years ago. Mr. Goldberg argues that fascism was a Left wing phenomenon, citing the cozy relationship between Leftists and Mussolini in the years leading up to WWII. He claims that Woodrow Wilson was America's proto-fascist, and had Warren Harding (succeeded by the vastly more competent Calvin Coolidge) not become president in 1921, the US may very well have gone down the fascist path.

Professor Vials argues that Goldberg (dishonestly) overstates the Leftist-Mussolini connection. I think Professor Vials is on weak ground here. There is no question that Mussolini considered himself a socialist and advocated for strong state control of the economy. The only difference between Il Duce and the Left is adherence to Marxist ideology. Mussolini disowned the Marxist meme we're poor because the rich people stole all the money, and replaced it with the equally absurd the fascist meme: we're poor because the foreigners stole all the money. To my mind, the only difference between brown shirts and red shirts is the color of the shirt.

To restore fascism as a useful term for the Left, Professor Vials offers this definition:
Fascism is a particular form of right-wing politics, finding fullest expression in Italy and Germany from the 1920s to the 1940s, based around militarism, anti-Marxism, a masculine cult of “action,” and a violent, racist, anti-democratic drive for national rebirth.
Obviously, if you define fascism as being a right-wing phenomenon, then you automatically win the argument. But this is preaching to the choir. Further, the definition has an ad hoc nature, i.e., is a list of symptoms. This gets us nowhere--we have no clue why fascism is still important, or why these particular symptoms cohere into an ideology. And third, by insisting on militarism it defines fascism as a tactic rather than as an ideology. It evades Mr. Goldberg's core argument embodied in his title, Liberal Fascism, where he argues fascism is not essentially militaristic.

Here is the definition of fascism I offer instead:
Fascism is an ideology that blames foreigners (however defined) for the economic and political problems of the favored race or nationality, and it proposes as a solution the forceful nationalization of politics and the economy to ensure that the favored race is restored to its prideful place.
This is a two-part definition. So, for example, France's National Front is fascist because (1) it blames Muslims, Jews, and Les Anglo-Saxons for France's decline, and (2) it advocates dirigisme as the solution. Dirigisme is just a fancy word for crony capitalism, i.e., capitalists serving at the whim of the state.

The Obama administration is not fascist, despite Obamacare. Obamacare enacts crony capitalism by completely politicizing the insurance market, so it meets condition (2). But it is not done in response to some imagined foreign or racial conspiracy, and thus fails condition (1).

Professor Vials exonerates the Tea Party for reasons I mostly agree with. The Tea Party fails both conditions of my definition: it doesn't blame foreigners (e.g., Blacks or homosexuals) for economic decline, but instead accuses the very crony capitalism which fascists advocate. Even Professor Vials acknowledges we're Libertarian.

Professor Vials says Goldwater was a fascist! For the life of me, I can't see that at all--Goldwater was Libertarian before it became popular. He's no more a fascist than Ron Paul. The Professor is hits closer with George Wallace (a Democrat), but even he didn't advocate greater state control. And I'm not sure he blamed Blacks for the economic problems of Whites.

I disagree with the Professor's characterization of the Christian Right as fascist (apart from some extremist outliers). I see no evidence that they blame foreigners for anything, and I don't believe they're motivated by hate. (See my comments on Duck Dynasty here and here). Their appeals for stronger government (stricter regulation of moral issues) have little or nothing to do with crony capitalism.

So who are some fascists in today's world? Arguably, Pat Buchanan might fit the bill. He blames foreigners (Chinese, Japanese, Jews) for America's problems, and thinks we should go back to the tightly regulated economy of the 1950s. He's against free trade and open borders. Though if you have to have a fascist, it's hard to imagine a more intelligent and entertaining one.

Paul Berman, in his excellent book Terror and Liberalism, makes a very strong case that the Muslim Brotherhood is fascist. He argues it is a direct descendant of European fascism of the 1930s. All they've done is taken Mussolini's Catholicism and replaced it with Islamism. I agree with his argument, which also encompasses the more radical forms of the phenomenon, such as al Qaeda, and sundry Saudi sects, etc.

In particular, Hamas is absolutely a fascist organization. The foreigners are the Jews, vilified as a people. Hamas explicitly advocates the mass murder of Jews for reasons that have nothing to do with Zionism. It is pure anti-Semitism. In this I think one can distinguish Hamas from the Palestinian Authority, which while it has fascist elements, is mostly a nationalist movement with some just grievances.

So American followers of Hamas are at very least sympathetic to a fascist movement, and I think they verge on being fascists. If there is any daylight between anti-Semitism and their supposedly political anti-Zionism, I certainly can't see it. And consistent with Mr. Goldberg's argument, anti-Semitism is mostly a disease of the political Left, which--Pat Buchanan notwithstanding--does seem to be the modern home of fascism. I am NOT saying that all Leftists are fascists, but some of them certainly are.

But the word is too inflammatory. I will resume my policy of not using it in this blog.

Further Reading:

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Brian's Bubbles

This post is in response to Brian Williams' piece in The Militant. (I knew Brian well in our Chicago days. Mr. Williams sounds too formal, so I'll address him by his first name. No disrespect intended.) Brian has become The Militant's economics reporter, and as such he does a creditable job. At least he knows enough to follow the business pages, and there are no bonehead howlers in his article. He successfully maintains The Militant's professional standard.

For all that, he's got it completely wrong, as the lede paragraph illustrates.
As Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve, prepares to hand over the appointed post to Obama administration pick Janet Yellen, he announced Dec. 13 plans to taper the Fed’s “quantitative easing” monetary scheme, whose stated purpose was to “stimulate” economic activity following the world financial crisis of 2008-2009. Meanwhile, working people continue to bear the brunt of a capitalist crisis for which the propertied rulers have no solution.
Of course a Trotskyist economist will be pessimistic about the economy. Much of what Brian writes is borrowed from the permanent bears over at ZeroHedge. Here's the rap sheet in bullet points:
  • He says recovery is nowhere near as strong as the talking heads on CNBC would have us believe. Despite temporary ups & downs, we're still stuck in the mud of the recession. He describes it using Larry Summers' phrase secular stagnation.
  • While Mr. Summers was arguing against the existence of bubbles (Paul Krugman has an excellent summary, here), Brian maintains the Fed is inflating bubbles. He suggests the stock market is in a bubble. But it's not much of a bubble--today's PE ratio is about 20, slightly above the long term average of 15. By comparison, in 2008 the ratio was 67--that's a bubble! There is no evidence of bubbles anywhere in the economy: commodities, real estate, bonds--all seem typically priced.
  • Brian accurately notes the decline in labor force participation. But he attributes it entirely to demand side problems, i.e., businesses not hiring enough people. This is consistent with the Summers/Krugman theory, but inconsistent with the bubble model Brian wants to believe.
  • Brian claims that retail sales are down in the fourth quarter--likely true in the brick & mortar world.  Holiday on-line sales were up 10% year over year in 2013. 
  • Brian repeats the standard error of Trotskyism--that this is the final economic crisis of capitalism from which no recovery is possible. The SWP was wrong with that prediction in 1932, in 1975, in 2001, and it's wrong today. Our problems are modest compared with any alternatives, such as represented by North Korea or Cuba.
I think he errs most on that last bullet. Not only is the US economy recovering, it is booming. Working people are not experiencing a declining standard of living, but just the opposite. Among other reasons, that's because of new and cheaper fossil fuel resources, a resurgence of domestic manufacturing, pent-up demand for things like houses and cars, and lower prices for almost every manufactured item or service. More and more services are available for free.

Brian hits closest to the mark with this paragraph: 
But more than five years since the so-called recovery from the 2008-2009 recession began, there’s been no recovery for working people. The proportion of the population with a job remains at record-low numbers, production has only recently reached pre-recession levels and living standards for working people continue to decline. To the degree the bosses are reaping profits despite the world economic crisis, it’s off our backs.
There is a lot of debate about the cause of the declining labor force, especially among men. Brian just assumes it is a demand side problem--that is, if businesses would just let go of their cash hoard then all would be well. Krugman--another demand-sider--thinks the government should run a bigger deficit and just hire more people, regardless of how inefficiently they're employed. The increased payroll would induce spending, from which the economy could naturally recover.

But others (including me) believe there are larger, structural changes in the economy which have fundamentally altered the nature of the employment market. Here are some ideas--they could all be partly true.

The Great Stagnation theory says that we've consumed the great technical and social advances of the 20th Century. There are no further, large, economic gains to be made from electrification, mass education, putting women into the workforce, etc. Thus economic growth will stagnate until something new comes along. (I don't subscribe to this theory.)

Productivity increases have rendered labor less valuable. If capital and labor are both factors of production, capital is getting a bigger share than labor. (This is an empirical fact, but whether it is a cause or an effect of low employment is not clear.)

More people are voluntarily leaving the workforce. Some polls indicate that only a small percentage of people classed as not in the labor force are actually there involuntarily. Instead, they'd rather be unemployed than working at some minimum wage job. The rise in disability rolls is taken as evidence, as is the large number of young men who prefer to live in their parents' basement, or be house-husbands. (This is certainly partly true. Some of the permanently unemployed are members of a new leisure class.)

A skills mismatch theory argues that technology has changed so dramatically in the past decade that people no longer have the skill sets necessary to be gainfully employed. The evidence for this is strong: there is a severe shortage of qualified employees in many industries. And recent college graduates have not learned skills necessary for today's workplace, since higher education has not kept up with the economy. Hence there is high youth unemployment.

Personal lifestyle choices make investment in human capital difficult. For example, the rise of single motherhood means that neither the mother nor her children will be as economically adept as one would like. So young women are making a personal choice not to put up with men, but at an economic cost. That is, we're investing part of our GDP in more privacy and freedom. (This one seems to be a stretch.)

"End of average" organizational changes mean that employment in the traditional sense is no longer how work is structured. More and more people will work as independent contractors, and entrepreneurs will contract out work as needed rather than hiring permanent employees. Workers will more and more have to demonstrate how their specific task adds value to the business. Each person will be a profit center. (I think this is undeniably true long-term. The Internet makes narrowly contracted piecework a much more efficient form of organization.)

I'm willing to grant a small role for demand-side causes for low employment. But I just don't think the demand side plays a very large role. My own views are given in this post from last summer, and fit mostly into the skills mismatch and end of average categories.

I think Brian's prediction of doom and gloom is wrong.

Further Reading: