Tariffs Imperil Workers in South Carolina, Deep in the Heart of Trump Country

From today’s New York Times:

In the middle of David Britt’s campaign to get BMW to put a car factory here, a man grabbed him by the tie while he was in a restaurant.

“Don’t give that land to the Germans,” the man hissed to Mr. Britt, a county official.

Two decades later, the automaker has become the most important local job creator, earning the affection of a deep-red county where one in 10 people earns a living making vehicles or their parts.

The Spartanburg plant is BMW’s biggest in the world. It has helped draw more than 200 companies from two dozen countries to Spartanburg County. And the German company — not an American icon like Ford or General Motors — is now the largest exporter of cars made in the United States, turning the port of Charleston, S.C., into a hub for global trade.

But by setting off a global trade battle, President Trump is threatening the town’s livelihood. People aren’t happy.

“BMW saved Spartanburg and transformed South Carolina into a manufacturing mecca to the world,” said Mr. Britt, a member of the County Council. “When you mess with the golden goose, they’re family, and you’re messing with me.”

On Thursday, the Commerce Department is holding a hearing in Washington on whether imported cars and car parts harm national security, the premise of an administration plan to impose hefty duties. If imposed, the tariffs would most likely have deeper and wider-reaching repercussions for the economy than levies on fish or steel. Cars don’t come together in one plant, with one work force — they’re the final result of hundreds of companies working together, in a supply chain that can snake through small American towns and cross oceans.

Automakers have lined up to oppose the measure, which they say would make it more expensive to build cars here and would prompt other countries to respond in kind, hurting exports.

Read the complete article here.

Robots or Job Training: Manufacturers Struggle to Improve Economic Fortunes

From today’s New York Times:

For Anthony Nighswander, rock-bottom unemployment is both a headache and an opportunity. For businesses and workers, it could be the key to reversing one of the country’s most vexing economic problems: slow productivity growth.

Mr. Nighswander is president of APT Manufacturing Solutions, which builds and installs robotic equipment to help other manufacturers automate their assembly lines. Lately, business has been booming: With the unemployment rate now below 4 percent, he says he gets calls every day from companies looking for robots to help ease their labor crunch.

The problem is that Mr. Nighswander faces a hiring challenge in his own business, especially because, in this town of fewer than 4,000 people near the Indiana border, the pool of skilled workers is shallow. But rather than turn to robots himself, he has adopted a lower-tech solution: training. APT has begun offering apprenticeships, covering the cost of college for its workers, and three years ago it started teaching manufacturing skills to high school students.

 “I never thought that I would be training high school students in our facilities,” Mr. Nighswander said. “What I knew was that I was in survival mode. I knew the orders for robots and for automation were coming in faster than I could get the jobs out.”
That kind of urgency could prove to be a powerful economic force. The investments in training and automation by Mr. Nighswander and his customers should, over time, make their companies more productive. Multiplied across thousands of companies, those decisions could have benefits for companies and workers that endure even after today’s hot economy inevitably cools.
Productivity — how much value the economy generates in an average hour of work — gets less public attention than more intuitive economic concepts such as employment and wages, but it may be even more fundamental.
Rising productivity — whether through better technology, more educated workers or smarter business strategies — is why people’s economic fortunes, on average, improve over time. When productivity growth is strong, companies can afford to pay workers more without eating into their own profit margins, letting a rising tide lift all boats.
Since the end of the Great Recession, however — and, to a lesser extent, even during the stronger economic times that preceded it — productivity growth has been confoundingly weak, forcing business owners and workers to compete over a relatively meager sliver of economic growth. There have been peaks and valleys, but not since the dot-com boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s has the American economy consistently delivered productivity growth above 2 percent a year.
Now some economists think a rebound could be on the way. For most of the recovery, wage growth has been anemic, suggesting companies faced relatively little pressure to invest in automation or to find other ways to squeeze more production out of workers. But as the labor market tightens, companies’ incentives could be changing.

Read the complete article here.

The Case for a Federal Jobs Guarantee

From the New York Times “Opinion” Section by Eric Loomis:

Employment numbers may look solid now, but economists, physicists and industrial engineers all say that automation will, in the not-so-distant future, drive higher unemployment. The Columbus Dispatch recently calculated that in Ohio, out of total state employment of about 5.5 million workers, 2.5 million jobs are at risk of automation.

How do we prepare for such disruption and the future of work? We might revisit an idea from the 1970s: a federal guarantee of employment. In recent weeks, three Democratic senators (and likely presidential contenders) — Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Bernie Sanders of Vermont — have either expressed their approval of the idea or unveiled initial ideas about how an updated version could work.

They are building on the legacy of the Humphrey-Hawkins Act, introduced in the 1970s by Senator Hubert Humphrey, Democrat of Minnesota, and Representative Augustus Hawkins, Democrat of California. In addition to the guarantee of employment, their initial bill allowed citizens to sue the government if they could not find a job.

Resurrecting Humphrey-Hawkins can help pre-empt a technology crisis and even future labor dislocation from globalization. In the original Humphrey-Hawkins bill — not the watered-down version that ultimately passed in 1978 — the president would submit an annual plan to Congress to achieve full employment, and local committees would coordinate job needs in their communities. The bill would have spurred private-sector job creation and a New Deal-style federal job creation program. Private employment would limit government investment, while federally mandated wage and price controls would fight inflation.

The final bill fell far short of this. Unions stripped out the wage and price controls in exchange for their support and put a priority on negotiating better contracts for their members over the fate of the nation’s poor. The Carter administration fretted about the potential impact on inflation from a bill without those controls. President Jimmy Carter never truly supported it, and the bill that passed committed the nation to ending inflation more than to full employment. Since then, the idea of full employment has largely disappeared from the American political system.

The arguments against Humphrey-Hawkins in 1978 are largely irrelevant today. After decades of low inflation, wage and price controls are unlikely to be problems. Mr. Booker’s pilot plan to test these ideas in 15 areas of the country builds on the Great Society belief in community control over federal resources.

Read the complete article here.

Public Servants Are Losing Their Foothold in the Middle Class

From today’s New York Times:

The anxiety and seething anger that followed the disappearance of middle-income jobs in factory towns has helped reshape the American political map and topple longstanding policies on tariffs and immigration.

But globalization and automation aren’t the only forces responsible for the loss of those reliable paychecks. So is the steady erosion of the public sector.

For generations of Americans, working for a state or local government — as a teacher, firefighter, bus driver or nurse — provided a comfortable nook in the middle class. No less than automobile assembly lines and steel plants, the public sector ensured that even workers without a college education could afford a home, a minivan, movie nights and a family vacation.

In recent years, though, the ranks of state and local employees have languished even as the populations they serve have grown. They now account for the smallest share of the American civilian work force since 1967.

The 19.5 million workers who remain are finding themselves financially downgraded. Teachers who have been protesting low wages and sparse resources in OklahomaWest Virginia and Kentucky — and those in Arizona who say they plan to walk out on Thursday — are just one thread in that larger skein.

The private sector has been more welcoming. During 97 consecutive months of job growth, it created 18.6 million positions, a 17 percent increase.

But that impressive streak comes with an asterisk. Many of the jobs created — most in service industries — lack stability and security. They pay little more than the minimum wage and lack predictable hours, insurance, sick days or parental leave.

The result is that the foundation of the middle class continues to be gnawed away even as help-wanted ads multiply.

Read the complete article here.

An International Final Four: Which Country Handles Student Debt Best?

From today’s New York Times:

Although an American college degree remains a good investment on average — the higher earnings for most graduates justify the cost— millions of borrowers are in default on their loans.

Policy analysts generally agree on a need for reform, but not on which path policymakers should take. Can America learn anything from other nations? We gathered experts with a range of perspectives, from America and abroad, and asked them to compare the systems in Australia, Britain, Sweden and the United States.

We chose this grouping of nations because they highlight important differences both in loan repayment systems and in related policies such as tuition and loan limits, not necessarily because they all belong among the best systems in the world. In the spirit of March Madness, we devised a bracket-style tournament, seeding the countries so that those with more similar systems would meet in the semifinals.

Sweden vs. United States

Sweden and the United States differ in whether the monthly loan payment remains the same over time and in the number of years borrowers can repay their loans.

The average American borrower with a bachelor’s degree leaves college with $28,400 in debt. Students can borrow for both tuition and living expenses, although loan limits make it hard for an undergraduate to borrow more than $45,000 over four years.

In Sweden, average debt levels are similar — the equivalent of around $21,000 — even though students borrow only for living expenses (Swedish universities do not charge tuition). Interest rates are also very low; the rate for 2018 is now 0.13.

In the United States, borrowers are required to begin making payments six months after leaving college. By default, payments are set so the whole principal and interest, which is tied to the market rate at the time the loan is made (currently 4.45 percent), will be paid off in equal monthly installments paid over 10 years.

American borrowers can opt into alternative repayment plans, including plans that tie payments to income or that start lower and increase over time. Income-based plans offer forgiveness of any remaining balance after 10 to 25 years, but enrolling in these plans requires making a request to the servicer and filing paperwork annually. If you miss the paperwork, you are put back into a 10-year repayment schedule, but can ask to re-enroll. There are a large number of plans that are hard for borrowers to navigate, especially in times of financial stress.

Swedish borrowers, on the other hand, pay off their loans over a much longer period. Borrowers can be in repayment for up to 25 years, with the typical borrower paying for 22 years.

Read the complete article here.

Tariffs bad news for American economy, including workers and consumers

From today’s The Hill:

There’s never a good time for tariffs. American workers and consumers will pay dearly for the Trump administration’s short-sighted action to protect an industry that shows no signs of needing any protection—the market values of the five largest steel companies have more than doubled over the past five years. Yet with a major infrastructure spending bill set to come through Congress over the next year, Trump’s tariffs are bad policy with even worse timing.

While a small amount of people will benefit from the proposed tariffs, many more will be harmed. The American steel industry employs roughly 140,000 workers, but industries that rely on steel to create their products—the ones who will suffer directly under the tariffs—employ 6.5 million workers. A recent study by the Trade Partnership found that the direct cost of tariffs on employment would be 18 jobs lost for every one created. On net, 470,000 Americans could lose their jobs.

The Trade Partnership’s study fits with the lessons of recent history. In 2002, President Bush instituted protective tariffs on foreign steel imports. After just a year in which steel prices rose by up to 50 percent, steel production was insufficient to meet demand, 200,000 Americans lost their jobs, and the tariff was dropped. A mere fifteen years later, these lessons have already been forgotten.

Nor will other countries sit idly by as Trump restricts trade. Well over 10 million Americans’ jobs are supported by exports—jobs which would be at risk in the case of a trade war. Already, the European Union has prepared a ten-page hit list of potential targets of retaliatory tariffs should Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs go into effect.

American consumers will be harmed as well. A combination of new steel tariffs and lumber tariffs imposed last year mean that the cost of new homes is likely to continue rising—nearly half of steel imports go towards construction. Other American staples such as cars and canned beer are also set to see price spikes resulting directly from tariffs.

Read the complete article here.

Will Trump’s Tariffs Help or Hurt American Workers? Contrasting Views

From the New York Times:

The Case for Trump’s Tariffs and ‘America First’ Economics

Robots Are Coming, and Sweden Is Fine

From New York Times:

From inside the control room carved into the rock more than half a mile underground, Mika Persson can see the robots on the march, supposedly coming for his job here at the New Boliden mine.

He’s fine with it.

Sweden’s famously generous social welfare system makes this a place not prone to fretting about automation — or much else, for that matter.

Mr. Persson, 35, sits in front of four computer screens, one displaying the loader he steers as it lifts freshly blasted rock containing silver, zinc and lead. If he were down in the mine shaft operating the loader manually, he would be inhaling dust and exhaust fumes. Instead, he reclines in an office chair while using a joystick to control the machine.

He is cognizant that robots are evolving by the day. Boliden is testing self-driving vehicles to replace truck drivers. But Mr. Persson assumes people will always be needed to keep the machines running. He has faith in the Swedish economic model and its protections against the torment of joblessness.

“I’m not really worried,” he says. “There are so many jobs in this mine that even if this job disappears, they will have another one. The company will take care of us.”

In much of the world, people whose livelihoods depend on paychecks are increasingly anxious about a potential wave of unemployment threatened by automation. As the frightening tale goes, globalization forced people in wealthier lands like North America and Europe to compete directly with cheaper laborers in Asia and Latin America, sowing joblessness. Now, the robots are coming to finish off the humans.

Read the complete article here.

Proof Retail Jobs Don’t Need to Be Bad

From today’s New York Times by Eduardo Porter

Bethamy Magrow is grateful that the minimum wage in New York City is rising to $13 at the end of next month. Earning the current minimum of $11 an hour at a Times Square fashion retailer and scheduled to work some weeks for only 19 hours, the 25-year-old sales worker realizes she doesn’t quite clear New York’s poverty line.

It would be nice if her schedule didn’t change so much from week to week, she told me, so she could set up her doctors’ appointments in advance. But at least New York bars retailers from changing the schedule from one day to the next. In any case, jobs she has had at Whole Foods and Pokéworks, a restaurant on Union Square, were no better or worse.

Millions of Americans have similar stories to tell. For all the talk about the “end of retail,” it is one of the largest employers in the country, accounting for about one in eight workers in the private sector. For every miner toiling in the United States, there are almost 25 retail workers. Manufacturing, the apple of President Trump’s eye, doesn’t employ nearly as many.

Typically paying full-time employees less than $33,000 a year, well below the midpoint across the economy, retail jobs have become the work of the lower class, the main source of support for Americans left behind by economic change.

This raises a fairly urgent question: If retail work sets the living standard for so many low-income families, why doesn’t it get more attention?

Read the entire article here.

In the Fight Against Poverty, Work Is Our Most Powerful Weapon

From today’s Harvard Business Review by Leila Janah:

Fourteen years ago, I left suburban Los Angeles to teach English in rural Ghana. I’d expected, like so many young people with bleeding hearts and big dreams, to make a difference by donating my time as a schoolteacher for six months. Upon arrival in the village, I was shocked to discover that my students, avid listeners of Voice of America and BBC radio, already spoke English quite well, and some could speak to me about President Clinton’s state visit to Africa. These were blind or partially sighted kids from families earning less than $3 a day.

How was this possible? I’d learned from countless TV specials on war and poverty in the continent that Africans needed aid. They needed us to send food and clothes and to build wells and schools. But on the ground, almost every poor person I spoke to told me the same thing: “We don’t want aid, we want work.” I spent the next four years studying development economics at Harvard, designing a special major to focus on African development, and later working at the World Bank to further understand the problem of poverty and how to fix it.

My conclusion after all this time isn’t so novel. But it bears repeating because we’ve lost our way: Work is the most powerful weapon we have to fight poverty and all its downstream effects, from child malnutrition to maternal mortality, both domestically and abroad. We need to modernize workforce training, incentivize companies to hire low-income people, and encourage consumers to support those organizations that #GiveWork, not aid.

Last year, the 2,000 largest companies spent an estimated $12 trillion on goods and services, a lot of it directed to suppliers that mine or harvest raw materials or make and grow things in poor countries. The fair trade movement was a strong first step in working to access these reserves of capital to fund poverty reduction directly. Started in the 1950s, it pushed purveyors of commodity goods like coffee, chocolate, sugar, and cotton to adhere to a rigorous set of core principles, including deliberately working in marginalized communities and paying living wages. And the results have been good. For example, Starbucks sources all its European espresso beans from fair trade certified producers, and Dutch company Fairphone sells the world’s first entirely fair trade Android phone, with batteries made from ethically mined minerals.

But I believe we now need something broader and simpler to mobilize companies and consumers to think differently about aid: a model called “impact sourcing,” which pushes for workforces (whether directly employed or employed through suppliers) to be economically diverse enough to include some of the world’s most disadvantaged people. This shift could, by our estimation, lift millions out of poverty in a single year.

Read the entire article here.