What’s at stake in the automation-prediction game. “Intelligent agents” is what we called them, once upon a time, these programs that would perform tasks for us without our telling them. And that sounded great! An agent works for you, right? But now those software bots have joined up with hardware robots, drones, and autonomous vehicles. And if a new report from the Forrester research outfit is right, they might be putting us out of work (The Guardian). Forrester says that, “by 2021, a disruptive tidal wave will begin”: Robots will already have eliminated 6 percent of U.S. jobs — starting with customer service reps and taxi and truck drivers — and more will quickly follow. If true, it’s a grim prognosis: We don’t have nearly enough public resources in place to retrain that volume of unemployed workers or to give them a safety net. But wait! Here’s another report, this one from Goldman Sachs (Bloomberg), that says not to worry: We’ve survived similar industrial transitions before, and they will open all kinds of new opportunities for those who know where to look. We just need the government and other public institutions to manage the transition in a smart way. That’s when you might take a look at our deadlocked Congress and trivialized presidential election — and wince.
Big Ag keeps getting bigger. Bayer’s $56 billion buyout of Monsanto, if approved by regulators, will further consolidate the hold of a handful of agro-chemical industrial giants on the world’s food supply, writes Brad Plumer in Vox. Monsanto holds a big slice of the global seed market, but its trademark Roundup-Ready GMO crops are already losing ground, as bugs gain resistance to the pesticide. The BigCos engaged in this frantic mating dance — not just Bayer/Monsanto but Dow/Dupont, Syngenta/ChemChina and others — are all betting that the bigger they are, the better they’ll be able to influence governments and regulators in their favor. They might be right. But global consolidation only deepens the industry’s commitment to the path of mammoth monoculture, even if that hasn’t worked so well for Monsanto’s pesticide-resistant crops. If we hope for sustainable diversity in our food supply, we may need a little more of it in the companies that support our farmers, too.
The bank always wins. If you want to understand why Wells Fargo was just fined $190 million for charging customers to open fake accounts, and why such scandals are likely to keep happening, read Adam Davidson in The New Yorker. Davidson explains that the incentives for bank employees to cross-sell customers — to get you to keep adding more new accounts and services — are simply too great. If this is how banks make money (lots of money), then they will cut corners and break rules to do it, and the fines are never going to match the profits. The only penalty likely to work is to hold bank executives personally liable — and we have been singularly unable to make that happen. So the banks keep misbehaving, and our trust in them keeps fraying.
A more perfect credit union. Every time banks get a new black eye, as with the Wells Fargo scandal, more customers run to join credit unions (Bloomberg). As Millennials flock to this less conventional option — credit unions perform many traditional bank services but as non-profit coops — the once-dowdy credit union industry is spiffing up its technology to appeal to younger customers. In the end, though, the credit unions are never going to be able to top the giant banks for convenience. What they can say with a straight face is that they will never screw you. That has to count for a lot right now.
Infrastructure spending’s Achilles heel. “Spend more on infrastructure” is one of the few policies that both Democratic and Republican presidential candidates both embrace. Federal spending on roads, bridges, and other public works boosts economic growth and combats unemployment, right? Not so fast, writes Harvard economist Edward Glaeser (City Journal). Glaeser argues that when the feds pay for infrastructure, we make bad investments with poor results. We’d be better off handing these decisions to local governments, and getting users to pay for them. If you think the Obama stimulus was a waste, the evidence Glaeser assembles will give you some good debating points; if you think we needed an even bigger Roosevelt-style public works effort to pull us out of the Great Recession, then you’ll want to ponder Glaeser’s case and figure out how to contest it.
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