Work Futures Daily - Jet Lagged Like Never Before

I shoulda hit Hawaii on the way back, I think.

Beacon NY- 2018-07-17 - After a week in Qingdao, I returned with a pulled muscle, a head cold, and the most serious jet lag humanly possible. Qingdao is 12 hours off from Eastern time, which is as upside down as you can get. Strange that I didn't feel jet lagged when I arrived there, but had a double dose on my return.

Next trip (September) I think I'll add a weekend in Honolulu coming back.

Due to taking a week off prior to my China sojourn, and then the week away, I discover I have several hundred saved bookmarks suitable for including in Work Futures Daily. I am going to on ramp slowly back into the newsletter, and resist the temptation to blitz.

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A Factoid

81 percent of health executives say their organizations are not prepared to face the societal and liability issues that will require them to explain their AI-based actions and decisions, should issues arise, according to Accenture’s Digital Health Technology Vision 2018 report. | Greg Slabodkin, Health execs not ready for societal, liability issues from AI


The Case Against Work

I read John Danaher's jeremiad against work back in May, when it was published, but somehow it slipped between the cracks, and I didn't write about it. But he makes a great case against the culture of overwork, and starts with a refreshing boundary condition:

Work, suitably-defined, is a bad thing and we should try to create a society in which it is no longer necessary.

He goes on to qualify 'badness', saying work is 'structurally bad':

Structural Badness Thesis: The labour market in most developed countries has settled into an equilibrium pattern that makes work very bad for many people, and it is getting worse as a result of technical and institutional changes.

His comments about the precarious nature of work are ones we have read before, but I find his insights on the 'colonizing power of work compelling -- where we think about our work far more than we are paid for in our work agreements with employers:

We spend a significant amount of time working, of course, but we also spend a significant amount of time thinking about, preparing for and recovering from work. For knowledge workers like myself, the problem is particularly acute. Our productivity is not obviously linked to the number of hours we “clock in” on a given day. Indeed, the very notion of “clocking in” is alien. There is no meaningful upper limit on the number of hours I can spend reading the latest research and writing my own papers. The latest, career-changing insight could be right around the corner. This realisation results in a significant amount of guilt when I am away from my desk. When I’m not working, my mind is still troubled by work. This is despite the fact that my contract stipulates that I am only being paid for a 37.5 hour working week.

The colonising powers of work express themselves most keenly in the “employability” agenda. We are now disciplined from an early age to learn the language of employability, to constantly build and manage our CVs so that we are attractive prospects for employers. The intrinsic merits of activities are commonly overlooked or ignored in favour of their instrumental benefits for employability. People run marathons and raise money for charity not simply because they enjoy doing those things, but also because it provides evidence of their seriousness and diligence to potential employers. Anyone who works in education will know how common and soul-destroying this logic is. Students are trained to organise their extra-curricular activities into “employability portfolios” and resist learning anything that does not contribute to their employability.

And so, we need to escape, he concludes:

I think we have got caught up in game that deadens our spirits and limits our horizons. We need to escape. The obvious objection is that escape is impossible: we need to work in order to survive. If everyone just did as they pleased, without the disciplining power of the market, our economies would stagnate and we’d become idle and feckless. But this objection no longer as persuasive as it seems. We have been hearing for some time that innovations in robotics and AI promise increased economic abundance, while at the same time threatening to displace large numbers of human workers. Far from this being something to fear, it could – if managed correctly and if moderated by redistributive policies – be exactly what we need escape from the badness of work.


On Universal Basic Income

Picking up almost exactly where Danaher stopped, Robert Reich reviews two books about universal basic income.

Robots and related forms of artificial intelligence are rapidly supplanting what remain of factory workers, call-center operators and clerical staff. Amazon and other online platforms are booting out retail workers. We’ll soon be saying goodbye to truck drivers, warehouse personnel and professionals who do whatever can be replicated, including pharmacists, accountants, attorneys, diagnosticians, translators and financial advisers. Machines may soon do a better job than doctors at scanning for cancer.

This doesn’t mean a future without jobs, as some doomsayers predict [Ed. Interesting he positions this as 'doomsaying', and offers no proof of his assertion]. But robots will almost certainly push down wages in all the remaining human-touch jobs (child care, elder care, home health care, personal coaches, sales and so on) that robots can’t do because they’re not, well, human. Even today, with technology having already displaced many workers, there’s no jobs crisis. The official rate of unemployment is at a remarkably low 3.8 percent. Instead, we have a good jobs crisis. The official rate hides millions of people working part time who would rather have full-time jobs, along with millions more who are too discouraged to look for work (many ending up on disability), college grads overqualified for their jobs and a growing army of contingent workers with zero job security. Blanketing all are stagnant or declining wages and vanishing job benefits. Today’s typical American worker earns around $44,500 a year, not much more than what the typical worker earned in 1979, adjusted for inflation. Nearly 80 percent of adult Americans say they live from paycheck to paycheck, many not knowing how big their next paycheck will be.

Advancing technologies aren’t the only cause of this predicament, but notwithstanding Trump’s claim to the contrary, technology is a bigger culprit than trade. The economy keeps growing yet most economic gains are going to a few — largely financiers and, increasingly, inventors and owners of the digitized devices that are replacing good jobs. Our economic system isn’t designed for this. If the trend continues, it’s unclear who will even earn enough to buy all the future robots.

Economic change on this scale doesn’t happen without something cracking. The shift from farm to factory featured decades of bloody labor conflict; the move from factory to office and other sedentary jobs caused more upheaval. What will happen when robots push most people out of steady work and into lower-wage gig jobs? I doubt we’ll see a revolution. A more likely scenario is a slow slouch toward authoritarianism and xenophobia. We may already be there.

I'm not so sure: a revolution of some sort seems inevitable.

At any rate, Reich, having set the scene, goes on to review (lightly) books by Annie Lowry and Andrew Wang (a candidate for President), and more or less collapse them into one review of their highly similar views on UBI:

Several recent books have provided good background briefings for what a U.B.I. could be, including those by the labor leader Andy Stern, the Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes and the Belgian academics Philippe Van Parijs and Yannick Vanderborght. To these offerings, Andrew Yang, an entrepreneur, adds his own, somewhat breathless version in “The War on Normal People.” Annie Lowrey, a contributing editor for The Atlantic, provides a similarly upbeat, although more measured, assessment in “Give People Money.” Both are useful primers on the case for a U.B.I.

The two books cover so much of the same terrain that I’m tempted to wonder whether they were written by the same robot, programmed for slightly different levels of giddy enthusiasm. Both cite Martin Luther King Jr., Richard Nixon and Milton Friedman as early supporters of a U.B.I. Both urge that a U.B.I. be set at $1,000 a month for every American. Both point out that with poverty currently defined as an income for a single adult of less than $12,000 a year, such a U.B.I. would, by definition, eliminate poverty for the 41 million Americans now living below the poverty line. It would also improve the bargaining power of millions of low-wage workers — forcing employers to increase wages, add benefits and improve conditions in order to retain them. If a U.B.I. replaced specific programs for the poor, it would also reduce government bureaucracy, minimize government interference in citizens’ lives and allow people to avoid the stigma that often accompanies government assistance. By virtue of being available to all, a U.B.I. would not only guarantee the material existence of everyone in a society; it would establish a baseline for what membership in that society means.

And Reich closes on a truly dark vision:

A world inhabited only by robots, their billionaire owners and a large and increasingly restive population is the plotline for countless dystopian fantasies, but it’s a reality that appears to be drawing closer. If we continue on the path we’re on, we will need to make fundamental choices about how to support human livelihoods and ensure equal participation in our economy and society. Most basically, we will have to confront the realities of vastly unequal economic and political power. Even if we manage to enact a U.B.I., it will not be nearly enough.

As I wrote a few years ago,

The central question of 2025 will be: What are people for in a world that does not need their labor, and where only a minority are needed to guide the 'bot-based economy? | Stowe Boyd, August 2014, cited in Pew's AI, Robotics, and the Future of Jobs.


Ten Commandments of Liberal Inquiry

Yascha Mounk recently unearthed Bertrand Russel's Ten Commandments of Liberal Inquiry, which I reproduce here:

  1. Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.

  1. Do not think it worthwhile to produce belief by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.

  1. Never try to discourage thinking, for you are sure to succeed.

  1. When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavor to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.

  1. Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.

  1. Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.

  1. Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.

  1. Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.

  2. Be scrupulously truthful, even when truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.

  3. Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.

Mounk observes,

One of the greatest dangers, as Russell saw it, was that "the man who has any doubts" would be "despised." But liberalism, he argued, "is not so much a creed and a disposition." It involves tolerance for what you believe to be others' errors.

We have a lot to learn from that.


Quote of the Day

The most successful organizations are now turning their attention to employee wellbeing as a way to gain emotional, financial and competitive advantage.

Tom Rath, author of Wellbeing, cited in Wellbeing: A Bottom Line Issue. It's odd that so much ink is being spilled for wellbeing, but a workable definition escapes us.