WeWork and the Death of Leisure

From today’s New York Times “Opinion” by Ginia Bellafante

This past week, Hudson’s Bay, whose story begins 347 years ago in the fur trade, making it the oldest company in North America, announced that it was selling Lord & Taylor’s flagship store, on Fifth Avenue, several years after it had acquired the department store chain through a deal with a private-equity firm.

The buyer would be WeWork, the office rental outfit very much rooted in the virtue-and-shell-game ethos of 21st-century capitalism. The founders Adam Neumann and Miguel McKelvey got together in a building on the Brooklyn waterfront where they both worked — Mr. Neumann as the proprietor of a company called Krawlers that produced padded clothes for babies — and quickly realized that they could make money from all the vacant space they saw around them by simulating the atmosphere of the Silicon Valley workplace, fueling the dreams of young entrepreneurs who always wanted to appear as if they were having fun. Over the summer, seven years into its existence, WeWork reached a $20 billion valuation.

On the face of it, the transformation of a department store — the first in the country to install an elevator — into the headquarters of a start-up is simply a story of the new economy cannibalizing the old. Traditional retail businesses have been in decline for a long time; the cult of shared goods and services enabled by technology is ever ascendant.

The first iteration of Lord & Taylor was a dry goods store on Catherine Street in Lower Manhattan that opened in 1826. The 676,000-square-foot Italianate building in Midtown it eventually occupied in 1914 (a building for which WeWork is now paying $850 million) stood not merely as a monument to turn-of-the-century commerce but also as the grand testament to what the sociologist Thorstein Veblen called the rising culture of “conspicuous leisure.”

Leisure, Veblen wrote, “does not connote indolence or quiescence.’’ What it conveys is the “nonproductive consumption of time,” by which he was not anticipating the 10,000 hours people would fritter away playing Minecraft, but any time spent away from the activity of labor. In their infancy and well into the first 80 years or so of the 20th century, department stores were largely places to pass the hours. When Lord & Taylor opened on Fifth Avenue and 38th Street it featured three dining rooms, a manicure parlor for men and a mechanical horse that could walk, trot or canter. Harry Gordon Selfridge, founder of Selfridges in London, dictated that “a store should be a social center.” To that end he installed an ice rink and shooting range on the roof of his store and exhibited the first plane to fly over the English Channel.

Read the entire article here.

Growth Without Jobs

From yesterday’s NYT editorial:

In a statement last Wednesday — just hours after the government reported headline-grabbing economic growth of 4 percent in the second quarter —the Federal Reserve said it would continue to stimulate the economy because, despite overall growth, the labor market remained weak. In a speech the same day in Kansas City, Mo., President Obama echoed the Fed. “I’m glad that G.D.P. is growing, and I’m glad that corporate profits are high, and I’m glad that the stock market is booming,” he said, (which it was before profit-taking at week’s end dented its performance). “But what I really want to see is a guy working 9 to 5, and then working some overtime.”

Those cautionary views were validated on Friday, when the employment report for July showed slower job growth, flat earnings, stagnant hours and stubbornly high long-term unemployment. The challenge now, as always, is to translate official concern over the job market into change for the better.

The economy added 209,000 jobs last month, a decent enough figure in and of itself, but a slow start to the third quarter compared with the average monthly gain of 277,000 last quarter. Worse, July’s relatively slow pace of growth may not be sustainable. Many of last month’s job gains were in automobile manufacturing, which could reflect a statistical blip from shorter-than-usual factory shutdowns in July rather than new positions added.

Moreover, the upswing in the auto industry is tied to a surge in high-cost auto loans to uncreditworthy borrowers, an unstable foundation for future growth. In addition, the sectors that generally add the most jobs each month all slowed in July from their pace in June, including bars and restaurants, retail, health care and temporary services. As for the president’s vision of a 40-hour week plus overtime — well, if only. For the fifth straight month, the average workweek for most of the labor force was stuck at 33.7 hours. Factory overtime, once a mainstay in the lives of working-class Americans, dropped in July for the second straight month. Average hourly wages have, at best, kept pace with inflation over the past year. Pay is languishing, but working longer hours is not an option.

In its statement, the Fed said it was basically a tossup whether the economy would speed up or slow down. Faster growth, however, generally requires a healthy real estate market and that requires a healthy job market, especially for younger workers.

But in July, the jobless rate for workers ages 25 to 34 was 6.6 percent, compared with 6.2 percent over all. Among young people who are working, many are in low-wage or part-time jobs, or jobs that otherwise do not make use of their education or experience. So it is not surprising that the sale of new homes plummeted recently at the fastest pace in nearly a year. Sales of existing homes have risen, a positive sign but a questionable trend given the still-ailing job market.

The most likely scenario is for the economy to continue to muddle along at an overall annual pace of 2 percent to 2.5 percent. The Fed has affirmed its commitment to keep interest rates low until the labor market recovers, but the real test of its resolve will come if and when inflation meets or exceeds its preferred annual rate of 2 percent. In a sluggish economy with significant employment slack, continued stimulus policy would be called for even if inflation exceeded the target, but whether the Fed will oblige is unknown.

As for Mr. Obama, he seems to understand that with a Republican-dominated House and Republican senators keen on winning a majority in the Senate, he is on his own to push for change. He can and should continue to issue executive orders to improve pay and working conditionsfor the federal contract work force. He should work with the Labor Department on upcoming rules to re-establish a broad right to time-and-a-half for overtime. And he should continue to rally public support for Democratic legislation to raise the minimum wage and to combat the growing use of unpredictable part-time scheduling.

None of that is enough to counter significantly the forces responsible for job growth that is too weak, wages that are too low and workweeks that are too short. For that, a functional political climate is needed, one in which leaders find compromise solutions to the nation’s problems. Without that, the Fed’s modest prediction that the economy has an even chance of getting better may in fact be too optimistic.