Fed Reports on U.S. Economic Well-Being

Federal Reserve Building
The Federal Reserve released the results of its annual Survey of Household Economics and Decisionmaking for calendar year 2018 last week. Image by Thomas Barrat / Shutterstock

29 May 2019 – Last week (specifically 23 May 2019) the Federal Reserve Board released the results of its annual Survey of Household Economics and Decisionmaking for CY2018. I’ve done two things for readers of this blog. First, I downloaded a PDF copy of the report to make available free of charge on my website at cgmasi.com alongside last year’s report for comparison. Second, I’m publishing an edited extract of the report’s executive summary below.

The report describes the results of the sixth annual Survey of Household Economics and Decisionmaking (SHED). In October and November 2018, the latest SHED polled a self-selected sample of over 11,000 individuals via an online survey.

Along with the survey-results report, the Board published the complete anonymized data in CSV, SAS, STATA formats; as well as a supplement containing the complete SHED questionnaire and responses to all questions in the order asked. The survey continues to use subjective measures and self-assessments to supplement and enhance objective measures.

Overall Results

Survey respondents reported that most measures of economic well-being and financial resilience in 2018 are similar to or slightly better than in 2017. Many families have experienced substantial gains since the survey began in 2013, in line with the nation’s ongoing economic expansion during that period.

Even so, another year of economic expansion and the low national unemployment rates did little to narrow the persistent economic disparities by race, education, and geography. Many adults are financially vulnerable and would have difficulty handling an emergency expense as small as $400.

In addition to asking adults whether they are working, the survey asks if they want to work more and what impediments they see to them working.

Overall Economic Well-Being

A large majority of individuals report that, financially, they are doing okay or living comfortably, and overall economic well-being has improved substantially since the survey began in 2013

  • When asked about their finances, 75% of adults say they are either doing okay or living comfortably. This result in 2018 is similar to 2017 and is 12%age points higher than 2013.

  • Adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher are significantly more likely to be doing at least okay financially (87%) than those with a high school degree or less (64%).

  • Nearly 8 in 10 whites are at least doing okay financially in 2018 versus two-thirds of blacks and Hispanics. The gaps in economic well-being by race and ethnicity have persisted even as overall wellbeing has improved since 2013.

  • Fifty-six percent of adults say they are better off than their parents were at the same age and one fifth say they are worse off.

  • Nearly two-thirds of respondents rate their local economic conditions as “good” or “excellent,” with the rest rating conditions as “poor” or “only fair.” More than half of adults living in rural areas describe their local economy as good or excellent, compared to two-thirds of those living in urban areas.

Income

Changes in family income from month to month remain a source of financial strain for some individuals.

  • Three in 10 adults have family income that varies from month to month. One in 10 adults have struggled to pay their bills because of monthly changes in income. Those with less access to credit are much more likely to report financial hardship due to income volatility.

  • One in 10 adults, and over one-quarter of young adults under age 30, receive some form of financial support from someone living outside their home. This financial support is mainly between parents and adult children and is often to help with general expenses.

Employment

Most adults are working as much as they want to, an indicator of full employment; however, some remain unemployed or underemployed. Economic well-being is lower for those wanting to work more, those with unpredictable work schedules, and those who rely on gig activities as a main source of income.

  • One in 10 adults are not working and want to work, though many are not actively looking for work. Four percent of adults in the SHED are not working, want to work, and applied for a job in the prior 12 months. This is similar to the official unemployment rate of 3.8% in the fourth quarter of 2018.

  • Two in 10 adults are working but say they want to work more. Blacks, Hispanics, and those with less education are less likely to be satisfied with how much they are working.

  • Half of all employees received a raise or promotion in the prior year.

  • Unpredictable work schedules are associated with financial stress for some. One-quarter of employees have a varying work schedule, including 17% whose schedule varies based on their employer’s needs. One-third of workers who do not control their schedule are not doing okay financially, versus one-fifth of workers who set their schedule or have stable hours.

  • Three in 10 adults engaged in at least one gig activity in the prior month, with a median time spent on gig work of five hours. Perhaps surprisingly, little of this activity relies on technology: 3% of all adults say that they use a website or an app to arrange gig work.

  • Signs of financial fragility – such as difficulty handling an emergency expense – are slightly more common for those engaged in gig work, but markedly higher for those who do so as a main source of income.

Dealing with Unexpected Expenses

While self-reported ability to handle unexpected expenses has improved substantially since the survey began in 2013, a sizeable share of adults nonetheless say that they would have some difficulty with a modest unexpected expense.

  • If faced with an unexpected expense of $400, 61% of adults say they would cover it with cash, savings, or a credit card paid off at the next statement – a modest improvement from the prior year. Similar to the prior year, 27% would borrow or sell something to pay for the expense, and 12% would not be able to cover the expense at all.

  • Seventeen percent of adults are not able to pay all of their current month’s bills in full. Another 12% of adults would be unable to pay their current month’s bills if they also had an unexpected $400 expense that they had to pay.

  • One-fifth of adults had major, unexpected medical bills to pay in the prior year. One-fourth of adults skipped necessary medical care in 2018 because they were unable to afford the cost.

Banking and Credit

Most adults have a bank account and are able to obtain credit from mainstream sources. However, sub- stantial gaps in banking and credit services exist among minorities and those with low incomes.

  • Six percent of adults do not have a bank account. Fourteen percent of blacks and 11% of Hispanics are unbanked versus 4% of whites. Thirty-five percent of blacks and 23% of Hispanics have an account but also use alternative financial services, such as money orders and check cashing services, compared to 11% of whites.

  • More than one-fourth of blacks are not confident that a new credit card application would be approved if they applied—over twice the rate among whites.

  • Those who never carry a credit card balance are much more likely to say that they would pay an unexpected $400 expense with cash or its equivalent (88%) than those who carry a balance most or all of the time (40%) or who do not have a credit card (27%).

  • Thirteen percent of adults with a bank account had at least one problem accessing funds in their account in the prior year. Problems with a bank website or mobile app (7%) and delays in when funds were available to use (6%) are the most common problems. Those with volatile income and low savings are more likely to experience such problems.

Housing and Neighborhoods

Satisfaction with one’s housing and neighborhood is generally high, although notably less so in low-income communities. While 8 in 10 adults living in middle- and upper-income neighborhoods are satisfied with the overall quality of their community, 6 in 10 living in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods are satisfied.

  • People’s satisfaction with their housing does not vary much between more expensive and less expensive cities or between urban and rural areas.

  • Over half of renters needed a repair at some point in the prior year, and 15% of renters had moderate or substantial difficulty getting their landlord to complete the repair. Black and Hispanic renters are more likely than whites to have difficulties getting repairs done.

  • Three percent of non-homeowners were evicted, or moved because of the threat of eviction, in the prior two years. Evictions are slightly more common in urban areas than in rural areas.

Higher Education

Economic well-being rises with education, and most of those holding a post-secondary degree think that attending college paid off.

  • Two-thirds of graduates with a bachelor’s degree or more feel that their educational investment paid off financially, but 3 in 10 of those who started but did not complete a degree share this view.

  • Among young adults who attended college, more than twice as many Hispanics went to a for-profit institution as did whites. For young black attendees, this rate was five times the rate of whites.

  • Given what they know now, half of those who attended a private for-profit institution say that they would attend a different school if they had a chance to go back and make their college choices again. By comparison, about one-quarter of those who attended public or private not-for-profit institutions would want to attend a different school.

Student Loans and Other Education Debt

Over half of young adults who attended college took on some debt to pay for their education. Most borrowers are current on their payments or have successfully paid off their loans.

  • Among those making payments on their student loans, the typical monthly payment is between $200 and $299 per month.

  • Over one-fifth of borrowers who attended private for-profit institutions are behind on student loan payments, versus 8% who attended public institutions and 5% who attended private not-for-profit institutions.

Retirement

Many adults are struggling to save for retirement. Even among those who have some savings, people commonly lack financial knowledge and are uncomfortable making investment decisions.

  • Thirty-six percent of non-retired adults think that their retirement saving is on track, but one-quarter have no retirement savings or pension whatsoever. Among non-retired adults over the age of sixty, 45% believe that their retirement saving is on track.

  • Six in 10 non-retirees who hold self-directed retirement savings accounts, such as a 401(k) or IRA, have little or no comfort in managing their investments.

  • On average, people answer fewer than three out of five financial literacy questions correctly, with lower scores among those who are less comfortable managing their retirement savings.

The forgoing is an edited extract from the Report’s Executive Summary. A PDF version of the entire report is available on my website at cgmasi.com [ http://cgmasi.com ] along with a PDF version of the 2017 report, which was published in May of 2018 and based on a similar survey conducted in late 2017. Reports dating back to the first survey done in late 2013 are available from the Federal Reserve Board’s website linked to above.

Authoritarian’s Lament

Davy Crockett stamp
Davy Crockett was an individualistic hero for children growing up in the 1950s and 1960s. Circa 1967 post stamp printed in USA shows Davy Crockett with rifle and scrub pines. Oldrich / Shutterstock.com

22 May 2019 – I grew up believing in the myth of the rugged individualist.

As did most boys in the 1950s, I looked up to Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone and their ilk. Being fond of developing grand theories, I even worked out an hypothesis that the wisdom of any group’s decisions was inversely proportional to the group’s size (number of members) because in order to develop consensus, the decision had to be acceptable to even the stupidest member of the group.

With this background, I used to think that democracy’s main value was that it protected the rights of individuals – especially those rugged individuals I so respected – so they could scout the path to the future for everyone else to follow.

I’ve since learned better.

There were, of course, a lot of holes in this philosophy, not the least of which was that it matched up so well with the fevered imaginings I saw going on in the minds of authoritarian figures and those who wanted to cozy up to authoritarian figures. Happily, I recognized those philosophical holes and wisely kept on the lookout for better ideas.

First, I realized that no single individual, no matter how accomplished, could do much of anything on their own. Even Albert Einstein, that heroic misfit scientist, was only able to develop his special theory of relativity by abandoning some outdated assumptions that made interpreting results of experiments by other scientists problematic. Without a thorough immersion in the work of his peers, he wouldn’t have even known there was a problem to be solved!

Similarly, that arrogant genius, Sir Isaac Newton  recognized his debt to his peers in a letter to Robert Hooke on 5 February 1676 by saying: “If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

For all of his hubris, Newton was well known to immerse himself in the society of his fellows.

Of course, my childhood heros, Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, and Captain Blood, only started out as rugged individuals. They then went on to gather followers and ended up as community leaders of one sort or another. As children, we used to forget that!

My original admiration of rugged individualists was surely an elitist view, but it was tempered with the understanding that predicting in advance who was going to be part of that elite was an exercise in futility. I’d already seen too many counterexamples of people who imagined that they, or somebody they felt inferior to, would eventually turn out to be one of the elite. In, for example, high school, I’d run into lots of idiots (in my estimation) who strutted around thinking they were superior to others because of (usually) family background or social position.

We called that “being a legend in their own mind.”

Diversity Rules!

Eventually, I realized what ancient Athenians had at least a glimmer of, and the framers of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution certainly had a clear idea of, and what modern management theorists harp on today: the more diverse a group is, the better its decisions tend to be.

This is, of course, the exact reverse of my earlier rugged-individualist hypothesis.

As one might suspect, diversity is measurable, and there are numerous diversity indices one might choose from to quantify the diversity within a group. Here I’m using the word “group” in the mathematical sense that such a group is a set whose members (elements) are identifiable by sharing specific characteristics.

For example, “boys” forms a group of juvenile male human beings. “Girls” forms another similar, but mutually exclusive group. “Boys” and “girls” are both subsets of multiple larger groups, one of which is “young people.”

“Diversity” seeks to measure the number of separate subgroups one can find within a given group. So, you can (at least) divide “young people” into two subgroups “boys” and “girls.”

The importance of this analysis is that the different characteristics common within subgroups lead to different life experiences, which, the diversity theory posits, provide different points of view and (likely) different suggestions to be considered for solutions to any given problem.

So, the theory goes, the more diverse the group, the more different solutions to the problem can be generated, and the more likely a superior choice will be presented. With more superior choices available and a more diverse set (There’s that word again!) of backgrounds that can be used to compare the choices, the odds are that the more diversity in a group, the better will be the solution it finally chooses.

Yeah, this is a pretty sketchy description of the theory, but Steven Johnson spends 216 pages laying it out in his book Farsighted, and I don’t have 216 pages here. The sketch presented here is the best I can do with the space available. If you want more explanation, buy the book and read it.

Here I’m going to seize on the Gini–Simpson diversity index, which uses the probability that two randomly selected members of a group are members of the same subgroup (λ), then subtracts it from unity. In other words in a group of, say, young people containing equal numbers of boys and girls, the probability that any pair of members selected at random will be either both boys or both girls is 0.5 (50%). The Gini-Simpson index is 1-λ = 1 – 0.5 = 0.5.

A more diverse group (one with three subgroups, for example) would have a lower probability of any pair being exactly matched, and a higher Gini-Simpson diversity index (closer to 1.0). Thus, the diversity theory would have it that such a group would have a better chance of making a superior decision.

Authoritarians Don’t Rule!

Assuming I’ve convinced you that diversity makes groups smarter, where does that leave our authoritarian?

Let’s look at the rugged-individualist/authoritarian situation from a diversity-index viewpoint. There, the number of subgroups in the decision-making group is one, ‘cause there’s only one member to begin with. Randomly selecting twice always comes up with identically the same member, so the probability of getting the same one twice is exactly one. That is, it’s guaranteed.

That makes the diversity score of an individualist/authoritarian exactly zero. In other words, according to the diversity decision-making theory, authoritarians are the worst possible decision makers!

And, don’t try to tell me individualist/authoritarians can cheat the system by having wide-ranging experiences and understanding different cultures. I’ve consciously done exactly that for seven decades. What it’s done is to give me an appreciation of different cultures, lifestyles, philosophies, etc.

It did not, however, make me more diverse. I’m still one person with one brain and one viewpoint. It only gave me the wisdom(?) to ask others for their opinions, and listen to what they say. It didn’t give me the wisdom to answer for them because I’m only the one person with the one viewpoint.

So, why do authoritarian regimes even exist?

What folks often imagine as “human nature” provides the answer. I’m qualifying “human nature” because, while this particular phenomenon is natural for humans, it’s also natural for all living things. It’s a corollary that follows from Darwin’s natural-selection hypothesis.

Imagine you’re a scrap of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). Your job is to produce copies of yourself. If you’re going to be successful, you’ll have to code for ways to make lots of copies of yourself. The more copies you can make, the more successful you’ll be.

Over the past four billion years that life is estimated to have been infesting the surface of Earth, a gazillion tricks and strategies have been hit upon by various scraps of DNA to promote reproductions of themselves.

While some DNA has found that promoting reproduction of other scraps of DNA is helpful under some circumstances, your success comes down to promoting reproduction of scraps of DNA like you.

For example, human DNA has found that coding for creatures that help each other survive helps them survive. Thus, human beings tend to cluster in groups, or tribes of related individuals – with similar DNA. We’re all tribal, and (necessarily) proud of it!

Anyway, another strategy that DNA uses for better survival is to prefer creatures similar to us. That helps DNA evolve into more successful forms.

In the end, the priority system that necessarily evolves is:

  • Identical copies first (thus, the bond between identical twins is especially strong);

  • Closely related copies next;

  • More distantly related copies have lower priority.

We also pretty much all like pets because pets are unrelated creatures that somehow help us survive to make scads of copies of our own DNA. But, we prefer mammals as pets because mammals’ DNA is very much like our own. More people keep cats and dogs as pets, than snakes or bugs. See the pattern?

We prefer our children to our brothers (and sisters).

We prefer our brothers and sisters to our neighbors.

We prefer our neighbors to our pets. (Here the priority systems is getting pretty weak!)

And, so forth.

In other words, all living things prefer other living things that are like them.

Birds of a feather flock together.

That is the basis of all discrimination phenomena, from racial bias to how we choose our friends.

How Authoritarians Rule, Anyway.

What has that to do with authoritarianism?

Well, it has a lot to do with authoritarianism! Authoritarians only survive if they’re supported by populations who prefer them enough to cede decision-making power to them. Otherwise, they’d just turn and walk away.

So authoritarian societies require populations with low diversity who generally are very much like the leaders they select. If you want to be an authoritarian leader, go find a low-diversity population and convince them you’re just like them. Tell ‘em they’re the greatest thing since sliced bread because they’re so much like you, and that everyone else – those who are not part of your selected population – are inferior scum simply because they’re not like your selected population. The your followers will love you for it, and hate everyone else.

That’s why authoritarian regimes mainly thrive in low-diversity, xenophobic populations.

That despite (or maybe because of) the fact that such populations are likely to make the poorest decisions.

Look to Libertarians for a strong alternative to the Democratic establishment.

Mimi Robson image
Honor (Mimi) Robson, chair of the Libertarian Party of California Photo by Sander Roscoe Wolf

24 April 2019 – Pundits supporting the Democratic Party would have you believe that a vote for anyone other than whomever their party nominates for President in 2020 will be a vote for a second term for Donald Trump. I have been arguing that this is an extremely short sighted view that only serves the Democratic National Committee’s long-term purpose of maintaining the status quo.

Americans need a third party to break the political polarization gripping our national government under the two-party system and, at minimum, keep the existing parties focused on what matters to the American People right now instead of on partisan bickering.

The following is an invited guest post by Honor (Mimi) Robson, chair of the Libertarian Party of California that makes the case that the Libertarian Party is poised to provide that third alternative. Nearly all she says with reference to her home state of California can be said verbatim about politics in the rest of our country.

In April 2019 Robson was re-elected as chair of the Libertarian Party of California, and in the November 2018 election, she was the Libertarian candidate in the top-two run-off for California state assembly, District 70. This is reprinted with permission from a version published on March 24, 2019 in the Sunday edition of Inland Valley Daily Bulletin under the title “California needs a strong alternative to the Democratic establishment. Look to the Libertarians. It appeared also in the 10 other newspapers of the Southern California News Group.


The Republican Party is finally realizing what the Libertarian Party has known for decades: California is best when the voters have options. Jessica Millan Patterson, Chair of the California Republican Party, recently wrote, “Republicans have both an opportunity and a responsibility to stand up and offer a viable alternative to the Democrats and give voters a real choice.”

However, other Republican leaders feel that the GOP isn’t the option Californians are looking for.

Soon after last year’s general election, Kristin Olsen, former Assembly Republican leader and current Stanislaus County Supervisor, wrote “the California Republican Party isn’t salvageable at this time. The Grand Old Party is dead.” So which is it?

What has been the cause of the Republican Party’s apparent demise in the state?

Perhaps it is because they concentrate on issues that are either irrelevant for or antithetical to Californians.

Perhaps it is because the party seems to have abandoned its former regard for limited government in order to appease a president that is wildly unpopular in this state.

Perhaps it is because they also seem to be doing a good job of identifying problems in the state but aren’t coming up with solutions.

The middle class is struggling in the state as they are burdened with the highest taxes and most stringent regulations in the country.

As a result businesses are fleeing the state and taking with them high paying jobs that could benefit many Californians.

In addition to jobs leaving the state, living here has become more expensive; we have a huge shortage of affordable housing.

And last, but certainly not least, we have an out of control public employee pension system; these pension liabilities are unsustainable and will ultimately bankrupt local municipalities and the state itself.

To solve the problems of California, we need to stop the unsustainable spending.

California legislators need to learn to spend within the state’s means rather than raising taxes on the top income earners who will continue to leave the state and take with them their tax dollars.

The Libertarian Party believes the first step is to reduce the many regulations that have forced so many businesses to find a more business-friendly environment.

The housing crisis could be alleviated by reducing the hurdles in place to build affordable housing.

A few simple steps we can take could help millions of people in the state.

And finally, the first step to handling the state’s pension debt is to renegotiate the contracts with the public employee unions.

As an example, when Jeff Hewitt was mayor of Calimesa, his city withdrew from their contract with CalFire and instead created their own fire department whose employees are enrolled in a traditional 401(k) retirement system; this simple step will keep the city from ultimate bankruptcy. This approach needs to be taken throughout the state.

In the last election season California Republicans lost seats in both state houses as well as representation in Washington. Between January 2018 and February 2019 the number of registered Republicans decreased by 2.5 percent while registered Libertarians increased 9.5 percent. Libertarians had a huge win in Riverside County when Jeff Hewitt was elected 5th District Supervisor over the Republican candidate, Russ Bogh, a former state assembly person with the deep pockets of the public employee unions behind him.

The Libertarian Party also ran candidates for state assembly seats in districts where Republicans didn’t even field a candidate. I was one of those candidates; in the 70th Assembly District I was the first Libertarian candidate to progress to the general election in a contested primary coming in ahead of Democratic and Green Party candidates to face off against the Democratic incumbent.

All of the Libertarian candidates running against incumbents in those seats were able to garner a significant percentage of the vote, with one of our candidates receiving approximately 40 percent of the vote in some of the counties in his district.

What does this mean? It means that Californians are looking for real change in the state. I think that the Libertarian Party offers much of this change, but I also believe in working with others when there’s common ground.

When I ran for office I said the beauty of electing a Libertarian is there are often times we can work with people on both sides of the traditional “aisle,” and I believe this more now than ever.

Honor (Mimi) Robson Bio

Honor (Mimi) Robson has been a registered Libertarian for over 3 decades and ran as the Libertarian Candidate for the 33rd District California State Senate in the 2016 General Election. In that election, with very little time or campaign funds she was able to attract support from her community, ultimately garnering almost 50,000 votes (22%). During the election cycle she became more involved in the California Libertarian Party, becoming Secretary for the party in February 2017 when the previous Secretary Resigned. She was unanimously elected secretary at the 2017 state convention; was elected chair at the 2018 state convention; and re-elected chair in April 2019. Honor ran as the Libertarian State Assembly candidate (70th District) in the top-two run-off election in November 2018.

Honor grew up in Southern California and has been a resident of Long Beach for the past 28 years. She is a Licensed Professional Civil Engineer and has worked at a small Structural Engineering Consulting firm since 1994 until recently resigning that position to become an independent engineering consultant, which will afford her more time to devote to the Libertarian Party of California. She has been involved with many charitable organizations such as AIDS Walk LA, The Alzheimer’s Association and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation however Honor’s main passion is animal rescue and has been involved at every level for many years.

Luddites’ Lament

Luddites attack
An owner of a factory defending his workshop against Luddites intent on destroying his mechanized looms between 1811-1816. Everett Historical/Shutterstock

27 March 2019 – A reader of last week’s column, in which I reported recent opinions voiced by a few automation experts at February’s Conference on the Future of Work held at at Stanford University, informed me of a chapter from Henry Hazlitt’s 1988 book Economics in One Lesson that Australian computer scientist Steven Shaw uploaded to his blog.

I’m not going to get into the tangled web of potential copyright infringement that Shaw’s posting of Hazlitt’s entire text opens up, I’ve just linked to the most convenient-to-read posting of that particular chapter. If you follow the link and want to buy the book, I’ve given you the appropriate link as well.

The chapter is of immense value apropos the question of whether automation generally reduces the need for human labor, or creates more opportunities for humans to gain useful employment. Specifically, it looks at the results of a number of historic events where Luddites excoriated technology developers for taking away jobs from humans only to have subsequent developments prove them spectacularly wrong.

Hazlitt’s classic book is, not surprisingly for a classic, well documented, authoritative, and extremely readable. I’m not going to pretend to provide an alternative here, but to summarize some of the chapter’s examples in the hope that you’ll be intrigued enough to seek out the original.

Luddism

Before getting on to the examples, let’s start by looking at the history of Luddism. It’s not a new story, really. It probably dates back to just after cave guys first thought of specialization of labor.

That is, sometime in the prehistoric past, some blokes were found to be especially good at doing some things, and the rest of the tribe came up with the idea of letting, say, the best potters make pots for the whole tribe, and everyone else rewarding them for a job well done by, say, giving them choice caribou parts for dinner.

Eventually, they had the best flint knappers make the arrowheads, the best fletchers put the arrowheads on the arrows, the best bowmakers make the bows, and so on. Division of labor into different jobs turned out to be so spectacularly successful that very few of us rugged individualists, who pretend to do everything for ourselves, are few and far between (and are largely kidding ourselves, anyway).

Since then, anyone who comes up with a great way to do anything more efficiently runs the risk of having the folks who spent years learning to do it the old way land on him (or her) like a ton of bricks.

It’s generally a lot easier to throw rocks to drive the innovator away than to adapt to the innovation.

Luddites in the early nineteenth century were organized bands of workers who violently resisted mechanization of factories during the late Industrial Revolution. Named for an imaginary character, Ned Ludd, who was supposedly an apprentice who smashed two stocking frames in 1779 and whose name had become emblematic of machine destroyers. The term “Luddite” has come to mean anyone fanatically opposed to deploying advanced technology.

Of course, like religious fundamentalists, they have to pick a point in time to separate “good” technology from the “bad.” Unlike religious fanatics, who generally pick publication of a certain text to be the dividing line, Luddites divide between the technology of their immediate past (with which they are familiar) and anything new or unfamiliar. Thus, it’s a continually moving target.

In either case, the dividing line is fundamentally arbitrary, so the emotion of their response is irrational. Irrationality typically carries a warranty of being entirely contrary to facts.

What Happens Next

Hazlitt points out, “The belief that machines cause unemployment, when held with any logical consistency, leads to preposterous conclusions.” He points out that on the second page of the first chapter of Adam Smith’s seminal book Wealth of Nations, Smith tells us that a workman unacquainted with the use of machinery employed in sewing-pin-making “could scarce make one pin a day, and certainly could not make twenty,” but with the use of the machinery he can make 4,800 pins a day. So, zero-sum game theory would indicate an immediate 99.98 percent unemployment rate in the pin-making industry of 1776.

Did that happen? No, because economics is not a zero-sum game. Sewing pins went from dear to cheap. Since they were now cheap, folks prized them less and discarded them more (when was the last time you bothered to straighten a bent pin?), and more folks could afford to buy them in the first place. That led to an increase in sewing-pin sales as well as sales of things like sewing-patterns and bulk fine fabric sold to amateur sewers, and more employment, not less.

Similar results obtained in the stocking industry when new stocking frames (the original having been invented William Lee in 1589, but denied a patent by Elizabeth I who feared its effects on employment in hand-knitting industries) were protested by Luddites as fast as they could be introduced. Before the end of the nineteenth century the stocking industry was employing at least a hundred men for every man it employed at the beginning of the century.

Another example Hazlitt presents from the Industrial Revolution happened in the cotton-spinning industry. He says: “Arkwright invented his cotton-spinning machinery in 1760. At that time it was estimated that there were in England 5,200 spinners using spinning wheels, and 2,700 weavers—in all, 7,900 persons engaged in the production of cotton textiles. The introduction of Arkwright’s invention was opposed on the ground that it threatened the livelihood of the workers, and the opposition had to be put down by force. Yet in 1787—twenty-seven years after the invention appeared—a parliamentary inquiry showed that the number of persons actually engaged in the spinning and weaving of cotton had risen from 7,900 to 320,000, an increase of 4,400 percent.”

As these examples indicate, improvements in manufacturing efficiency generally lead to reductions in manufacturing cost, which, when passed along to customers, reduces prices with concommitent increases in unit sales. This is the price elasticity of demand curve from Microeconomics 101. It is the reason economics is decidedly not a zero-sum game.

If we accept economics as not a zero-sum game, predicting what happens when automation makes it possible to produce more stuff with fewer workers becomes a chancy proposition. For example, many economists today blame flat productivity (the amount of stuff produced divided by the number of workers needed to produce it) for lack of wage gains in the face of low unemployment. If that is true, then anything that would help raise productivity (such as automation) should be welcome.

Long experience has taught us that economics is a positive-sum game. In the face of technological advancement, it behooves us to expect positive outcomes while taking measures to ensure that the concomitant economic gains get distributed fairly (whatever that means) throughout society. That is the take-home lesson from the social dislocations that accompanied the technological advancements of the Early Industrial Revolution.

How to Train Your Corporate Rebel

Tebel Talent Cover
Rebel Talent by Francesca Gino makes the case for encouraging individualism in the workplace

13 March 2019 – Francesca Gino, author of Rebel Talent: Why It Pays to Break the Rules at Work and In Life, is my kind of girl. She’s smart, thinks for herself, isn’t afraid to go out on a limb, and encourages others to do the same.

That said, I want to inject a note of caution for anyone considering her advice about being a rebel. There’s an old saying: “The nail that sticks up the most is the first to get hammered down.” It’s true in carpentry and in life. Being a rebel is lonely, dangerous, and is no guarantee of success, financial or otherwise.

I speak from experience, having broken every rule available for as long as I can remember. When I was a child in the 1950s, I wanted to grow up to be a beatnik. I’ve always felt most comfortable amongst bohemians. My wife once complained (while we were sitting in a muscle car stopped by the highway waiting for the cop to give me a speeding ticket) about my “always living on the edge.” And, yes, I’ve been thrown out of more than one bar.

On the other hand, I’ve lived a long and eventful life. Most of the items on my bucket list were checked off long ago.

So, when I ran across an ad in The Wall Street Journal for Gino’s book, I had to snag a copy and read it.

As I expected, the book’s theme is best summed up by a line from the blurb on its dust jacket: “ … the most successful among us break the rules.”

The book description goes on to say, “Rebels have a bad reputation. We think of them as trouble-makers. outcasts, contrarians: those colleagues, friends, and family members who complicate seemingly straight-forward decisions, create chaos, and disagree when everyone else is in agreement. But in truth, rebels are also those among us who change the world for the better with their unconventional outlooks. Instead of clinging to what is safe and familiar, and falling back on routines and tradition, rebels defy the status quo. They are masters of innovation and reinvention, and they have a lot to teach us.”

Considering the third paragraph above, I hope she’s right!

The 283-page (including notes and index) volume summarizes Gino’s decade-long study of rebels at organizations around the world, from high-end boutiques in Italy’s fashion capital (Milan), to the world’s best restaurant (Three-Michelin-star-rated Osteria Francescana), to a thriving fast-food chain (Pal’s), and an award-winning computer animation studio (Pixar).

Francesca Gino is a behavioral scientist and professor at Harvard Business School. She is the Tandon Family Professor of Business Administration in the school’s Negotiation, Organizations & Markets Unit. No slouch professionally, she has been honored as one of the world’s top 40 business professors under 40 by Poets & Quants and one of the world’s 50 most influential management thinkers by Thinkers50.

Enough with the “In Praise Of” stuff, though. Let’s look inside the book. It’s divided into eight chapters, starting with “Napoleon and the Hoodie: The Paradox of Rebel Status,” and ending with “Blackbeard, ‘Flatness,’ and the 8 Principles of Rebel Leadership.” Gino then adds a “Conclusion” telling the story of Risotto Cacio e Pepe (a rice-in-Parmigiano-Reggiano dish invented by Chef Massimo Bottura), and an “Epilogue: Rebel Action” giving advice on releasing your inner rebel.

Stylistically, the narrative uses the classic “Harvard Case Study” approach. That is, it’s basically a pile of stories, each of which makes a point about how rebel leaders Gino has known approach their work. In summary, the take-home lesson is that those leaders encourage their employees to unleash their “inner rebel,” thereby unlocking creativity, enthusiasm, and productivity that more traditional management styles suppress.

The downside of this style is that it sometimes is difficult for the reader to get their brain around the points that Gino is making. Luckily, her narrative style is interesting, easy to follow and compelling. Like all well-written prose she keeps the reader wondering “What happens next?” The episodes she presents are invariably unusual and interesting themselves. She regularly brings in her own exploits and keeps, as much as possible, to first-person active voice.

That is unusual for academic writers, who find it all too easy to slip into a pedantic third-person, passive-voice best reserved for works intended as sleep aids.

To give you a feel for what reading an HCS-style volume is like, I’ll describe what it’s like to study Quantum Dynamics. While the differences outnumber the similarities, the overall “feel” is similar.

The first impression students get of QD is that the subject is entirely anti-intuitive. That is, before you can learn anything about QD, you have to discard any lingering intuition about how the Universe works. That’s probably easier for someone who never learned Classical Physics in the first place. Ideas like “you can’t be in two places at the same time” simply do not apply in the quantum world.

Basically, to learn QD, you have to start with a generous dose of “willing suspension of disbelief.” You do that by studying stories about experiments performed in the late nineteenth century that simply didn’t work. At that time, the best minds in Physics spent careers banging their heads into walls as Mommy Nature refused to return results that Classical Physics imagined she had to. Things like the Michelson-Moreley experiment (and many other then-state-of-the-art experiments) gave results at odds with Classical Physics. There were enough of these screwy results that physicists began to doubt that what they believed to be true, was actually how the Universe worked. After listening to enough of these stories, you begins to doubt your own intuition.

Then, you learn to trust the mathematics that will be your only guide in QD Wonderland.

Finally, you spend a couple of years learning about a new set of ideas based on Through the Looking Glass concepts that stand normal intuition on its head. Piling up stories about all these counter-intuitive ideas helps you build up a new intuition about what happens in the quantum world. About that time, you start feeling confident that this new intuition helps you predict what will happen next.

The HCS style of learning does something similar, although usually not as extreme. Reading story after story about what hasn’t and what has worked for others in the business world, you begin to develop an intuition for applying the new ideas. You gain confidence that, in any given situation, you can predict what happens next.

What happens next is that when you apply the methods Gino advocates, you start building a more diverse corporate culture that attracts and retains the kinds of folks that make your company a leader in its field.

There’s an old one-line joke:

I want to be different – like everybody else.”

We can’t all be different because then there wouldn’t be any sameness to be different from, but we can all be rebels. We can all follow the

  1. READY!
  2. AIM!
  3. FIRE!

mantra advocated by firearms instructors everywhere.

In other words:

  1. Observe what’s going on out there in the world, then
  2. Think about what you might do that breaks the established rules, and, finally,
  3. Act in a way that makes the Universe a better place in which to live.

Why Diversity Rules

Diverse friends
A diverse group of people with different ages and nationalities having fun together. Rawpixel/Shutterstock

23 January 2019 – Last week two concepts reared their ugly heads that I’ve been banging on about for years. They’re closely intertwined, so it’s worthwhile to spend a little blog space discussing why they fit so tightly together.

Diversity is Good

The first idea is that diversity is good. It’s good in almost every human pursuit. I’m particularly sensitive to this, being someone who grew up with the idea that rugged individualism was the highest ideal.

Diversity, of course, is incompatible with individualism. Individualism is the cult of the one. “One” cannot logically be diverse. Diversity is a property of groups, and groups by definition consist of more than one.

Okay, set theory admits of groups with one or even no members, but those groups have a diversity “score” (Gini–Simpson index) of zero. To have any diversity at all, your group has to have at absolute minimum two members. The more the merrier (or diversitier).

The idea that diversity is good came up in a couple of contexts over the past week.

First, I’m reading a book entitled Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most by Steven Johnson, which I plan eventually to review in this blog. Part of the advice Johnson offers is that groups make better decisions when their membership is diverse. How they are diverse is less important than the extent to which they are diverse. In other words, this is a case where quantity is more important than quality.

Second, I divided my physics-lab students into groups to perform their first experiment. We break students into groups to prepare them for working in teams after graduation. Unlike when I was a student fifty years ago, activity in scientific research and technology development is always done in teams.

When I was a student, research was (supposedly) done by individuals working largely in isolation. I believe it was Willard Gibbs (I have no reliable reference for this quote) who said: “An experimental physicist must be a professional scientist and an amateur everything else.”

By this he meant that building a successful physics experiment requires the experimenter to apply so many diverse skills that it is impossible to have professional mastery of all of them. He (or she) must have an amateur’s ability pick up novel skills in order to reach the next goal in their research. They must be ready to work outside their normal comfort zone.

That asked a lot from an experimental researcher! Individuals who could do that were few and far between.

Today, the fast pace of technological development has reduced that pool of qualified individuals essentially to zero. It certainly is too small to maintain the pace society expects of the engineering and scientific communities.

Tolkien’s “unimaginable hand and mind of Feanor” puttering around alone in his personal workshop crafting magical things is unimaginable today. Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus character, who had mastered all earthly knowledge, is now laughable. No one person is capable of making a major contribution to today’s technology on their own.

The solution is to perform the work of technological research and development in teams with diverse skill sets.

In the sciences, theoreticians with strong mathematical backgrounds partner with engineers capable of designing machines to test the theories, and technicians with the skills needed to fabricate the machines and make them work.

Chaotic Universe

The second idea I want to deal with in this essay is that we live in a chaotic Universe.

Chaos is a property of complex systems. These are systems consisting of many interacting moving parts that show predictable behavior on short time scales, but eventually foil the most diligent attempts at long-term prognostication.

A pendulum, by contrast, is a simple system consisting of, basically, three moving parts: a massive weight, or “pendulum bob,” that hangs by a rod or string (the arm) from a fixed support. Simple systems usually do not exhibit chaotic behavior.

The solar system, consisting of a huge, massive star (the Sun), eight major planets and a host of minor planets, is decidedly not a simple system. Its behavior is borderline chaotic. I say “borderline” because the solar system seems well behaved on short time scales (e.g., millennia), but when viewed on time scales of millions of years does all sorts of unpredictable things.

For example, approximately four and a half billion years ago (a few tens of millions of years after the system’s initial formation) a Mars-sized planet collided with Earth, spalling off a mass of material that coalesced to form the Moon, then ricochetted out of the solar system. That’s the sort of unpredictable event that happens in a chaotic system if you wait long enough.

The U.S. economy, consisting of millions of interacting individuals and companies, is wildly chaotic, which is why no investment strategy has ever been found to work reliably over a long time.

Putting It Together

The way these two ideas (diversity is good, and we live in a chaotic Universe) work together is that collaborating in diverse groups is the only way to successfully navigate life in a chaotic Universe.

An individual human being is so powerless that attempting anything but the smallest task is beyond his or her capacity. The only way to do anything of significance is to collaborate with others in a diverse team.

In the late 1980s my wife and I decided to build a house. To begin with, we had to decide where to build the house. That required weeks of collaboration (by our little team of two) to combine our experiences of different communities in the area where we were living, develop scenarios of what life might be like living in each community, and finally agree on which we might like the best. Then we had to find an architect to work with our growing team to design the building. Then we had to negotiate with banks for construction loans, bridge loans, and ultimate mortgage financing. Our architect recommended adding a prime contractor who had connections with carpenters, plumbers, electricians and so forth to actually complete the work. The better part of a year later, we had our dream house.

There’s no way I could have managed even that little project – building one house – entirely on my own!

In 2015, I ran across the opportunity to produce a short film for a film festival. I knew how to write a script, run a video camera, sew a costume, act a part, do the editing, and so forth. In short, I had all the skills needed to make that 30-minute film.

Did that mean I could make it all by my onesies? Nope! By the time the thing was completed, the list of cast and crew counted over a dozen people, each with their own job in the production.

By now, I think I’ve made my point. The take-home lesson of this essay is that if you want to accomplish anything in this chaotic Universe, start by assembling a diverse team, and the more diverse, the better!

Reimagining Our Tomorrows

Cover Image
Utopia with a twist.

19 December 2018 – I generally don’t buy into utopias.

Utopias are intended as descriptions of a paradise. They’re supposed to be a paradise for everybody, and they’re supposed to be filled with happy people committed to living in their city (utopias are invariably built around descriptions of cities), which they imagine to be the best of all possible cities located in the best of all possible worlds.

Unfortunately, however, utopia stories are written by individual authors, and they’d only be a paradise for that particular author. If the author is persuasive enough, the story will win over a following of disciples, who will praise it to high Heaven. Once in a great while (actually surprisingly often) those disciples become so enamored of the description that they’ll drop everything and actually attempt to build a city to match the description.

When that happens, it invariably ends in tears.

That’s because, while utopian stories invariably describe city plans that would be paradise to their authors, great swaths of the population would find living in them to be horrific.

Even Thomas More, the sixteenth century philosopher, politician and generally overall smart guy who’s credited with giving us the word “utopia” in the first place, was wise enough to acknowledge that the utopia he described in his most famous work, Utopia, wouldn’t be such a fun place for the slaves he had serving his upper-middle class citizens, who were the bulwark of his utopian society.

Even Plato’s Republic, which gave us the conundrum summarized in Juvenal’s Satires as “Who guards the guards?,” was never meant as a workable society. Plato’s work, in general, was meant to teach us how to think, not what to think.

What to think is a highly malleable commodity that varies from person to person, society to society, and, most importantly, from time to time. Plato’s Republic reflected what might have passed as good ideas for city planning in 380 BC Athens, but they wouldn’t have passed muster in More’s sixteenth-century England. Still less would they be appropriate in twenty-first-century democracies.

So, I approached Joe Tankersley’s Reimagining Our Tomorrows with some trepidation. I wouldn’t have put in the effort to read the thing if it wasn’t for the subtitle: “Making Sure Your Future Doesn’t SUCK.”

That subtitle indicated that Tankersley just might have a sense of humor, and enough gumption to put that sense of humor into his contribution to Futurism.

Futurism tends to be the work of self-important intellectuals out to make a buck by feeding their audience on fantasies that sound profound, but bear no relation to any actual or even possible future. Its greatest value is in stimulating profits for publishers of magazines and books about Futurism. Otherwise, they’re not worth the trees killed to make the paper they’re printed on.

Trees, after all and as a group, make a huge contribution to all facets of human life. Like, for instance, breathing. Breathing is of incalculable value to humans. Trees make an immense contribution to breathing by absorbing carbon dioxide and pumping out vast quantities of oxygen, which humans like to breathe.

We like trees!

Futurists, not so much.

Tankersley’s little (168 pages, not counting author bio, front matter and introduction) opus is not like typical Futurist literature, however. Well, it would be like that if it weren’t more like the Republic in that it’s avowed purpose is to stimulate its readers to think about the future themselves. In the introduction that I purposely left out of the page count he says:

I want to help you reimagine our tomorrows; to show you that we are living in a time when the possibility of creating a better future has never been greater.”

Tankersley structured the body of his book in ten chapters, each telling a separate story about an imagined future centered around a possible solution to an issue relevant today. Following each chapter is an “apology” by a fictional future character named Archibald T. Patterson III.

Archie is what a hundred years ago would have been called a “Captain of Industry.” Today, we’d refer to him as an uber-rich and successful entrepreneur. Think Elon Musk or Bill Gates.

Actually, I think he’s more like Warren Buffet in that he’s reasonably introspective and honest with himself. Archie sees where society has come from, how it got to the future it got to, and what he and his cohorts did wrong. While he’s super-rich and privileged, the futures the stories describe were made by other people who weren’t uber-rich and successful. His efforts largely came to naught.

The point Tankersley seems to be making is that progress comes from the efforts of ordinary individuals who, in true British fashion, “muddle through.” They see a challenge and apply their talents and resources to making a solution. The solution is invariably nothing anyone would foresee, and is nothing like what anyone else would come up with to meet the same challenge. Each is a unique response to a unique challenge by unique individuals.

It might seem naive, this idea that human development comes from ordinary individuals coming up with ordinary solutions to ordinary problems all banded together into something called “progress,” but it’s not.

For example, Mark Zuckerberg developed Facebook as a response to the challenge of applying then-new computer-network technology to the age-old quest by late adolescents to form their own little communities by communicating among themselves. It’s only fortuitous that he happened on the right combination of time (the dawn of a radical new technology), place (in the midst of a huge cadre of the right people well versed in using that radical new technology) and marketing to get the word out to those right people wanting to use that radical new technology for that purpose. Take away any of those elements and there’d be no Facebook!

What if Zuckerberg hadn’t invented Facebook? In that event, somebody else (Reid Hoffman) would have come up with a similar solution (Linkedin) to the same challenge facing a similar group (technology professionals).

Oh, my! They did!

History abounds with similar examples. There’s hardly any advancement in human culture that doesn’t fit this model.

The good news is that Tankersley’s vision for how we can re-imagine our tomorrows is right on the money.

The bad news is … there isn’t any bad news!

Robots Revisited

Engineer with SCARA robots
Engineer using monitoring system software to check and control SCARA welding robots in a digital manufacturing operation. PopTika/Shutterstock

12 December 2018 – I was wondering what to talk about in this week’s blog posting, when an article bearing an interesting-sounding headline crossed my desk. The article, written by Simone Stolzoff of Quartz Media was published last Monday (12/3/2018) by the World Economic Forum (WEF) under the title “Here are the countries most likely to replace you with a robot.”

I generally look askance at organizations with grandiose names that include the word “World,” figuring that they likely are long on megalomania and short on substance. Further, this one lists the inimitable (thank God there’s only one!) Al Gore on its Board of Trustees.

On the other hand, David Rubenstein is also on the WEF board. Rubenstein usually seems to have his head screwed on straight, so that’s a positive sign for the organization. Therefore, I figured the article might be worth reading and should be judged on its own merits.

The main content is summarized in two bar graphs. The first lists the ratio of robots to thousands of manufacturing workers in various countries. The highest scores go to South Korea and Singapore. In fact, three of the top four are Far Eastern countries. The United States comes in around number seven.Figure 1

The second applies a correction to the graphed data to reorder the list by taking into account the countries’ relative wealth. There, the United States comes in dead last among the sixteen countries listed. East Asian countries account for all of the top five.

Figure 2The take-home-lesson from the article is conveniently stated in its final paragraph:

The upshot of all of this is relatively straightforward. When taking wages into account, Asian countries far outpace their western counterparts. If robots are the future of manufacturing, American and European countries have some catching up to do to stay competitive.

This article, of course, got me started thinking about automation and how manufacturers choose to adopt it. It’s a subject that was a major theme throughout my tenure as Chief Editor of Test & Measurement World and constituted the bulk of my work at Control Engineering.

The graphs certainly support the conclusions expressed in the cited paragraph’s first two sentences. The third sentence, however, is problematical.

That ultimate conclusion is based on accepting that “robots are the future of manufacturing.” Absolute assertions like that are always dangerous. Seldom is anything so all-or-nothing.

Predicting the future is epistemological suicide. Whenever I hear such bald-faced statements I recall Jim Morrison’s prescient statement: “The future’s uncertain and the end is always near.”

The line was prescient because a little over a year after the song’s release, Morrison was dead at age twenty seven, thereby fulfilling the slogan expressed by John Derek’s “Nick Romano” character in Nicholas Ray’s 1949 film Knock on Any Door: “Live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse.”

Anyway, predictions like “robots are the future of manufacturing” are generally suspect because, in the chaotic Universe in which we live, the future is inherently unpredictable.

If you want to say something practically guaranteed to be wrong, predict the future!

I’d like to offer an alternate explanation for the data presented in the WEF graphs. It’s based on my belief that American Culture usually gets things right in the long run.

Yes, that’s the long run in which economist John Maynard Keynes pointed out that we’re all dead.

My belief in the ultimate vindication of American trends is based, not on national pride or jingoism, but on historical precedents. Countries that have bucked American trends often start out strong, but ultimately fade.

An obvious example is trendy Japanese management techniques based on Druckerian principles that were so much in vogue during the last half of the twentieth century. Folks imagined such techniques were going to drive the Japanese economy to pre-eminence in the world. Management consultants touted such principles as the future for corporate governance without noticing that while they were great for middle management, they were useless for strategic planning.

Japanese manufacturers beat the crap out of U.S. industry for a while, but eventually their economy fell into a prolonged recession characterized by economic stagnation and disinflation so severe that even negative interest rates couldn’t restart it.

Similar examples abound, which is why our little country with its relatively minuscule population (4.3% of the world’s) has by far the biggest GDP in the world. China, with more than four times the population, grosses less than a third of what we do.

So, if robotic adoption is the future of manufacturing, why are we so far behind? Assuming we actually do know what we’re doing, as past performance would suggest, the answer must be that the others are getting it wrong. Their faith in robotics as a driver of manufacturing productivity may be misplaced.

How could that be? What could be wrong with relying on technological advancement as the driver of productivity?

Manufacturing productivity is calculated on the basis of stuff produced (as measured by its total value in dollars) divided by the number of worker-hours needed to produce it. That should tell you something about what it takes to produce stuff. It’s all about human worker involvement.

Folks who think robots automatically increase productivity are fixating on the denominator in the productivity calculation. Making even the same amount of stuff while reducing the worker-hours needed to produce it should drive productivity up fast. That’s basic number theory. Yet, while manufacturing has been rapidly introducing all kinds of automation over the last few decades, productivity has stagnated.

We need to look for a different explanation.

It just might be that robotic adoption is another example of too much of a good thing. It might be that reliance on technology could prove to be less effective than something about the people making up the work force.

I’m suggesting that because I’ve been led to believe that work forces in the Far Eastern developing economies are less skillful, may have lower expectations, and are more tolerant of authoritarian governments.

Why would those traits make a difference? I’ll take them one at a time to suggest how they might.

The impression that Far Eastern populations are less skillful is not easy to demonstrate. Nobody who’s dealt with people of Asian extraction in either an educational or work-force setting would ever imagine they are at all deficient in either intelligence or motivation. On the other hand, as emerging or developing economies those countries are likely more dependent on workers newly recruited from rural, agrarian settings, who are likely less acclimated to manufacturing and industrial environments. On this basis, one may posit that the available workers may prove less skillful in a manufacturing setting.

It’s a weak argument, but it exists.

The idea that people making up Far-Eastern work forces have lower expectations than those in more developed economies is on firmer footing. Workers in Canada, the U.S. and Europe have very high expectations for how they should be treated. Wages are higher. Benefits are more generous. Upward mobility perceptions are ingrained in the cultures.

For developing economies, not so much.

Then, we come to tolerance of authoritarian regimes. Tolerance of authoritarianism goes hand-in-hand with tolerance for the usual authoritarian vices of graft, lack of personal freedom and social immobility. Only those believing populist political propaganda think differently (which is the danger of populism).

What’s all this got to do with manufacturing productivity?

Lack of skill, low expectations and patience under authority are not conducive to high productivity. People are productive when they work hard. People work hard when they are incentivized. They are incentivized to work when they believe that working harder will make their lives better. It’s not hard to grasp!

Installing robots in a plant won’t by itself lead human workers to believe that working harder will make their lives better. If anything, it’ll do the opposite. They’ll start worrying that their lives are about to take a turn for the worse.

Maybe that has something to do with why increased automation has failed to increase productivity.

Teaching News Consumption and Critical Thinking

Teaching media literacy
Teaching global media literacy to children should be started when they’re young. David Pereiras/Shutterstock

21 November 2018 – Regular readers of this blog know one of my favorite themes is critical thinking about news. Another of my favorite subjects is education. So, they won’t be surprised when I go on a rant about promoting teaching of critical news consumption habits to youngsters.

Apropos of this subject, last week the BBC launched a project entitled “Beyond Fake News,” which aims to “fight back” against fake news with a season of documentaries, special reports and features on the BBC’s international TV, radio and online networks.

In an article by Lucy Mapstone, Press Association Deputy Entertainment Editor for the Independent.ie digital network, entitled “BBC to ‘fight back’ against disinformation with Beyond Fake News project,” Jamie Angus, director of the BBC World Service Group, is quoted as saying: “Poor standards of global media literacy, and the ease with which malicious content can spread unchecked on digital platforms mean there’s never been a greater need for trustworthy news providers to take proactive steps.”

Angus’ quote opens up a Pandora’s box of issues. Among them is the basic question of what constitutes “trustworthy news providers” in the first place. Of course, this is an issue I’ve tackled in previous columns.

Another issue is what would be appropriate “proactive steps.” The BBC’s “Beyond Fake News” project is one example that seems pretty sound. (Sorry if this language seems a little stilted, but I’ve just finished watching a mid-twentieth-century British film, and those folks tended to talk that way. It’ll take me a little while to get over it.)

Another sort of “proactive step” is what I’ve been trying to do in this blog: provide advice about what steps to take to ensure that the news you consume is reliable.

A third is providing rebuttal of specific fake-news stories, which is what pundits on networks like CNN and MSNBC try (with limited success, I might say) to do every day.

The issue I hope to attack in this blog posting is the overarching concern in the first phrase of the Angus quote: “Poor standards of global media literacy, … .”

Global media literacy can only be improved the same way any lack of literacy can be improved, and that is through education.

Improving global media literacy begins with ensuring a high standard of media literacy among teachers. Teachers can only teach what they already know. Thus, a high standard of media literacy must start in college and university academic-education programs.

While I’ve spent decades teaching at the college level, so I have plenty of experience, I’m not actually qualified to teach other teachers how to teach. I’ve only taught technical subjects, and the education required to teach technical subjects centers on the technical subjects themselves. The art of teaching is (or at least was when I was at university) left to the student’s ability to mimic what their teachers did, informal mentoring by fellow teachers, and good-ol’ experience in the classroom. We were basically dumped into the classroom and left to sink or swim. Some swam, while others sank.

That said, I’m not going to try to lay out a program for teaching teachers how to teach media literacy. I’ll confine my remarks to making the case that it needs to be done.

Teaching media literacy to schoolchildren is especially urgent because the media-literacy projects I keep hearing about are aimed at adults “in the wild,” so to speak. That is, they’re aimed at adult citizens who have already completed their educations and are out earning livings, bringing up families, and participating in the political life of society (or ignoring it, as the case may be).

I submit that’s exactly the wrong audience to aim at.

Yes, it’s the audience that is most involved in media consumption. It’s the group of people who most need to be media literate. It is not, however, the group that we need to aim media-literacy education at.

We gotta get ‘em when they’re young!

Like any other academic subject, the best time to teach people good media-consumption habits is before they need to have them, not afterwards. There are multiple reasons for this.

First, children need to develop good habits before they’ve developed bad habits. It saves the dicey stage of having to unlearn old habits before you can learn new ones. Media literacy is no different. Neither is critical thinking.

Most of the so-called “fake news” appeals to folks who’ve never learned to think critically in the first place. They certainly try to think critically, but they’ve never been taught the skills. Of course, those critical-thinking skills are a prerequisite to building good media-consumption habits.

How can you get in the habit of thinking critically about news stories you consume unless you’ve been taught to think critically in the first place? I submit that the two skills are so intertwined that the best strategy is to teach them simultaneously.

And, it is most definitely a habit, like smoking, drinking alcohol, and being polite to pretty girls (or boys). It’s not something you can just tell somebody to do, then expect they’ll do it. They have to do it over and over again until it becomes habitual.

‘Nuff said.

Another reason to promote media literacy among the young is that’s when people are most amenable to instruction. Human children are pre-programmed to try to learn things. That’s what “play” is all about. Acquiring knowledge is not an unpleasant chore for children (unless misguided adults make it so). It’s their job! To ensure that children learn what they need to know to function as adults, Mommy Nature went out of her way to make learning fun, just as she did with everything else humans need to do to survive as a species.

Learning, having sex, taking care of babies are all things humans have to do to survive, so Mommy Nature puts systems in place to make them fun, and so drive humans to do them.

A third reason we need to teach media literacy to the young is that, like everything else, you’re better off learning it before you need to practice it. Nobody in their right mind teaches a novice how to drive a car by running them out in city traffic. High schools all have big, torturously laid out parking lots to give novice drivers a safe, challenging place to practice the basic skills of starting, stopping and turning before they have to perform those functions while dealing with fast-moving Chevys coming out of nowhere.

Similarly, you want students to practice deciphering written and verbal communications before asking them to parse a Donald-Trump speech!

The “Call to Action” for this editorial piece is thus, “Agitate for developing good media-consumption habits among schoolchildren along with the traditional Three Rs.” It starts with making the teaching of media literacy part of K-12 teacher education. It also includes teaching critical thinking skills and habits at the same time. Finally, it includes holding K-12 teachers responsible for inculcating good media-consumption habits in their students.

Yes, it’s important to try to bring the current crop of media-illiterate adults up to speed, but it’s more important to promote global media literacy among the young.

Babies and Bath Water

A baby in bath water
Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Switlana Symonenko/Shutterstock.com

31 October 2018 – An old catchphrase derived from Medieval German is “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.” It expresses an important principle in systems engineering.

Systems engineering focuses on how to design, build, and manage complex systems. A system can consist of almost anything made up of multiple parts or elements. For example, an automobile internal combustion engine is a system consisting of pistons, valves, a crankshaft, etc. Complex systems, such as that internal combustion engine, are typically broken up into sub-systems, such as the ignition system, the fuel system, and so forth.

Obviously, the systems concept can be applied to almost everything, from microorganisms to the World economy. As another example, medical professionals divide the human body into eleven organ systems, which would each be sub-systems within the body, which is considered as a complex system, itself.

Most systems-engineering principles transfer seamlessly from one kind of system to another.

Perhaps the most best known example of a systems-engineering principle was popularized by Robin Williams in his Mork and Mindy TV series. The Used-Car rule, as Williams’ Mork character put it, quite simply states:

“If it works, don’t fix it!”

If you’re getting the idea that systems engineering principles are typically couched in phrases that sound pretty colloquial, you’re right. People have been dealing with systems for as long as there have been people, so most of what they discovered about how to deal with systems long ago became “common sense.”

Systems engineering coalesced into an interdisciplinary engineering field around the middle of the twentieth century. Simon Ramo is sometimes credited as the founder of modern systems engineering, although many engineers and engineering managers contributed to its development and formalization.

The Baby/Bathwater rule means (if there’s anybody out there still unsure of the concept) that when attempting to modify something big (such as, say, the NAFTA treaty), make sure you retain those elements you wish to keep while in the process of modifying those elements you want to change.

The idea is that most systems that are already in place more or less already work, indicating that there are more elements that are right than are wrong. Thus, it’ll be easier, simpler, and less complicated to fix what’s wrong than to violate another systems principle:

“Don’t reinvent the wheel.”

Sometimes, on the other hand, something is such an unholy mess that trying to pick out those elements that need to change from the parts you don’t wish to change is so difficult that it’s not worth the effort. At that point, you’re better off scrapping the whole thing (throwing the baby out with the bathwater) and starting over from scratch.

Several months ago, I noticed that a seam in the convertible top on my sports car had begun to split. I quickly figured out that the big brush roller at my neighborhood automated car wash was over stressing the more-than-a-decade-old fabric. Naturally, I stopped using that car wash, and started looking around for a hand-detailing shop that would be more gentle.

But, that still left me with a convertible top that had started to split. So, I started looking at my options for fixing the problem.

Considering the car’s advanced age, and that a number of little things were starting to fail, I first considered trading the whole car in for a newer model. That, of course, would violate the rule about not throwing the baby out with the bath water. I’d be discarding the whole car just because of a small flaw, which might be repaired.

Of course, I’d also be getting rid of a whole raft of potentially impending problems. Then, again, I might be taking on a pile of problems that I knew nothing about.

It turned out, however, that the best car-replacement option was unacceptable, so I started looking into replacing just the convertible top. That, too, turned out to be infeasible. Finally, I found an automotive upholstery specialist who described a patching scheme that would solve the immediate problem and likely last through the remaining life of the car. So, that’s what I did.

I’ve put you through listening to this whole story to illustrate the thought process behind applying the “don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater” rule.

Unfortunately, our current President, Donald Trump, seems to have never learned anything about systems engineering, or about babies and bathwater. He’s apparently enthralled with the idea that he can bully U.S. trading partners into giving him concessions when he negotiates with them one-on-one. That’s the gist of his love of bilateral trade agreements.

Apparently, he feels that if he gets into a multilateral trade negotiation, his go-to strategy of browbeating partners into giving in to him might not work. Multiple negotiating partners might get together and provide a united front against him.

In fact, that’s a reasonable assumption. He’s a sufficiently weak deal maker on his own that he’d have trouble standing up to a combination of, say, Mexico’s Nieto and Canada’s Trudeau banded together against him.

With that background, it’s not hard to understand why POTUS is looking at all U.S. treaties, which are mostly multilateral, and looking for any niddly thing wrong with them to use as an excuse to scrap the whole arrangement and start over. Obvious examples being the NAFTA treaty and the Iran Nuclear Accord.

Both of these treaties have been in place for some time, and have generally achieved the goals they were put in place to achieve. Howsoever, they’re not perfect, so POTUS is in the position of trying to “fix” them.

Since both these treaties are multilateral deals, to make even minor adjustments POTUS would have to enter multilateral negotiations with partners (such as Germany’s quantum-physicist-turned-politician, Angela Merkel) who would be unlikely to cow-tow to his bullying style. Robbed of his signature strategy, he’d rather scrap the whole thing and start all over, taking on partners one at a time in bilateral negotiations. So, that’s what he’s trying to do.

A more effective strategy would be to forget everything his ghostwriter put into his self-congratulatory “How-To” book The Art of the Deal, enumerate a list of what’s actually wrong with these documents, and tap into the cadre of veteran treaty negotiators that used to be available in the U.S. State Department to assemble a team of career diplomats capable of fixing what’s wrong without throwing the babies out with the bathwater.

But, that would violate his narcissistic world view. He’d have to admit that it wasn’t all about him, and acknowledge one of the first principles of project management (another discipline that he should have vast knowledge of, but apparently doesn’t):

Begin by making sure the needs of all stakeholders are built into any project plan.”