The Broken Social Contract

I originally intended to update this position from four years ago, but honestly not a thing has changed.  In many ways, it continues to become worse.  So here it is, no changes at all.

Are you better off now than you were so many years ago? It was a question first raised in the 1980 campaign, a motto used to defeat President Carter. The answer then was a rather sure “No!” and the voters responded, blaming the man in charge. But are you better off now than then? And was it fair to blame Carter or any President for the state of the economy?

A few graphs showing the state of workers in the Postwar Era (1947-today) shows how the problem persists. Sen Sanders has often said that the last 40 years have been a slow retreat for workers, and he has a point. But who is to blame?

Let’s leave blame aside for a moment and check out the numbers first.

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A New Life

Life has a way of happening. Sometimes, you can make it happen, despite what the inertia of the world is hurdling you towards.

This is about the start of a personal journey. I am now married to a wonderful woman, Raquel, who is from Shenyang, China. We will be moving together to San Francisco next week. I do not want to dwell on personal details, especially given that Raquel is even more private than I am.

But it’s a great adventure all the same. And there are some aspects of it that I think the world might be interested in.

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The Purpose of Corporations

A corporation, by strict legal definition, is any group of people acting as if one for whatever their stated purpose. This definition is broad enough to include non-profits or NGOs. In practical terms, however, it refers to a an organization which makes something and hires people to do it.

But what is the purpose of them? Recently, it’s become very popular to assume that the main purpose of a corporation is to maximize shareholder value. That is, to grow and reward those who put their money down to make it all happen in the first place.

There are many reasons to see this need for constant growth as dangerous. Most generally, it’s not sustainable outside of the rate of population increase and productivity gains, at least once the entire planet reaches a similar level of development. But more important, the view of what a corporations is, or at least why it exists, is extremely damaging to its own stated purpose.  And it’s easily shown to not actually be true in practice.

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Work Redefined

What has been called “The best job market in half a century” is reason enough to revisit this piece from three years ago.

Is technology a net creator or destroyer of jobs? The question is as old as the Industrial Revolution, when workers in mills found themselves put out of work by large industrial looms. In France, they threw their shoes (sabots) into the weaving machines to destroy them – the origin of the term “sabotage”. The protests didn’t stop the machines, however, and the workers had to find something else to do in an ever-changing economy where machines did more and more work.

Today, the pace of technological change is faster than ever, with new gadgets coming into our lives constantly. Automation is also transforming our lives, with new robots and artificial intelligence replacing workers constantly. Are today’s productivity gains tomorrow’s unemployment? Increasingly those who study technology in our lives and the popular media are coming to the conclusion that yes, workers are net losers in the race against tech. And this is not a partisan issue.

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What Next?

With the federal government open again, there’s a little less uncertainty in the economy. Things are back to normal and everyone is happy again. Right?

Unfortunately, the effects of the record shutdown are still hard to predict. As with any economic data, we won’t know until the quarter is over just what happened. We do have a few clues, however, and a few things that we can watch to know just where it’s going.

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People’s Economics – Open Markets

Market day. The open stalls bubble with activity as vendors show off their products. Small handwritten signs tell you what it will take to make them yours, but you know that’s just a starting point. You can offer less, especially to the quieter booths away from the activity. But have cash on hand to make the trade quickly once you have a mutual agreement on what everyone considers fair.

That’s the common view of what a “free market” is, and it’s something everyone around the world has experience with. It seems perfectly natural, an essential part of being human. It can’t possibly need interference from other people to make it work, can it?

Yet as the world comes closer together, the definitions of nearly everything wind up befuddled in language, definitions of fairness, and sometimes the simple lack of a personal connection.

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Inflation is Hip

Inflation is certainly surging, it remains to be seen how much of a problem that is. What we do know is that some regions of the nation, particularly cities where businesses have embraced technology, are surging ahead quickly. Some a bit too quickly.

In a nation already divided, the success of some cities is only accelerating the divide. If they become too successful their high cost may ultimately slow growth. But for now, the benefits of the recovery are heavily centered on a few places.

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