How Long Can Job Growth Keep Going?


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235,000 more jobs in February: That’s the latest number from the Labor Department (Bloomberg). It means President Trump’s first month extends the trend of the long Obama recovery, which over the last five years averaged an addition of 205,000 jobs a month.

Trump is already taking credit for the rosy statistic, even if it almost certainly reflects the policies and choices of his predecessor (The Washington Post). The president has promised to create 25 million jobs in a decade, so this is roughly the pace he’s going to have to maintain through two terms (plus an additional two years of someone else’s term) to meet his goal (Vox).

Workers to fill those jobs will have to come from somewhere, of course. If Trump has his way we won’t be significantly expanding the workforce through immigration. Baby boomers are retiring. Even if the birth rate somehow skyrockets it would take 18 years before those new workers are ready to apply for jobs.

So demographics are one limiting factor here; macroeconomic policy is another. These job numbers give the Federal Reserve a green light to resume its economy-constricting interest-rate hikes. Plans for a job-stimulating infrastructure spending spree remain all talk, and a Republican-controlled Congress seems more likely to try to cut spending overall than boost it. The international picture is full of risk. Climate change will accelerate the parade of natural disasters. And a volatile new administration looks determined to enact disruptive new policies with uncertain outcomes.

Thanks to “no drama Obama,” the U.S. economy steered its way into a boring but remarkably stable harbor (here are the numbers) and job growth maintained a predictable, stately pace for years on end. Is anyone willing to bet that drama-addict Trump can keep us there?

Welcome, Our New Automation Overlords

But how can we keep expanding employment in the era of automation? Aren’t robots coming for all those jobs? We all saw the videos of the machine named Flippy that started flipping patties at a Pasadena burger joint this week. Soon there won’t be any work left for us humans, right?

Maybe not, writes Sarah Kessler in Quartz. Reviewing centuries of automation scares and finding no case where the feared job apocalypse materialized, she assembles an optimist’s argument for a positive outcome to our robotics revolution.

Factories that save money through automation will either lower prices or increase profits and wages, and either way, we should see increases in demand and/or investment — which will require more hiring to meet. Amazon, for instance, relies heavily on automation, yet it keeps adding more warehouse workers, too.

Big transitions don’t make employment vanish. Agriculture employed 60 percent of Americans in 1840, and 150 years later, just 2 percent, but we survived and found different kinds of work. Of course, that took 150 years, and there were a few bumps (and world wars) along the way.

Kessler readily admits that in any automation-driven transition there’s no way to avoid “short-term labor displacement, wage depression, and, for some workers, pain.” But given a little time, we always seem ready to invent new jobs and industries when the old ones get automated. “if humans aren’t bogged down by routine tasks,” writes Kessler, “they will find something better to do.”

That sounds right. But it’s not a license to just wait for good things to happen. “Finding something better” means we have to look for it. Wondering where to start? In The New York Times, Claire Cain Miller offers a helpful roundup of steps individuals, companies, and organizations can take today to speed and smooth the transition.

Female CEOs Don’t Need Your Mansplaining

Sexism isn’t unique to the tech industry. But the combination of historical gender imbalances and male-engineer arrogance have certainly made condescension to talented women a particularly epidemic problem there. For a quick reminder of how bad things can still be today, read Lumi CEO Jesse Genet’s list of “five things you should never, ever say to a woman in tech” — drawn, depressingly, from her own experience (Recode).

Some things not to do: “Don’t ask me if my dad helped me draft a document” and “Don’t act surprised that I am the CEO.” The assumption of male privilege is so reflexive that it kicks in even when someone is applying for a job at Genet’s company. She recalls interviewing a man for a job as comptroller: “He asked me if I was familiar with financial statements, like a balance sheet. This person knew I had been an entrepreneur for years.” We’ve still got a long way to go, clearly, but the more leaders like Genet speak out, the better.

Wikileaks’ Campaign to Discredit Secure Messaging

Wikileaks dropped a big load of CIA documents on the internet this week and told the world they included “hacking tools” that allowed government spies to compromise smartphones and “bypass” apps that encrypt messages (like Signal and WhatsApp). But Wikileaks’ claims were exaggerated and inaccurate, writes Zeynep Tufekci (The New York Times). And too many journalists covering the story simply repeated the claims instead of investigating them.

What the Wikileaks docs do show is that, if the CIA or anyone else can compromise your phone, then they can read your messages — the same way you can. But they can’t seem to break the encryption in the apps. “If anything in the WikiLeaks revelations is a bombshell,” Tufekci writes, “it is just how strong these encrypted apps appear to be.”

We don’t know who fed these CIA documents to Wikileaks or what their motives were. But this document dump sure looks like it could be a disinformation campaign designed to discourage people from using relatively secure communications tools. Maybe we’ll all think, “If they can hack my encrypted messages, why should I bother?” But they can’t — right now, based on what we know. And we should bother.

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