He Has Driven for Uber Since 2012 and He Makes About $40,000 a Year

From today’s New York Times:

Uber’s public stock offering next month will make a bunch of people remarkably rich. Peter Ashlock is not one of them, although he has toiled for the ride-hailing company almost since the beginning.

Mr. Ashlock, who will be 71 next week, has racked up more than 25,000 trips as an Uber driver since 2012. His Nissan Altima has 218,000 miles on it — nearly the distance to the moon. His passengers rate him 4.93 out of five stars. His favorite review: “Dude drove like a cabdriver.”

While he is an integral part of Uber’s success, Mr. Ashlock is barely getting by. His 2018 tax return will show an adjusted gross income in the neighborhood of $40,000, better than 2016 and 2017. But he has maxed out his $3,200 credit limit at the local Midas car-repair shop and needs to come up with $5,000 to pay his taxes. He has Social Security but no savings to buy a new car that will let him keep working.

Silicon Valley has always been a lottery where immense wealth is secured by a few while everyone else must hope for better luck some other time. Rarely, however, has the disparity been on such stark display as with Uber. Its stock market value is expected to be about $100 billion, which would make it one of the richest Silicon Valley public offerings of all time.

Among those with something to celebrate: Uber’s founders, the Japanese conglomerate SoftBank, the elite venture capitalists Benchmark and Google’s GV, Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund and the mutual fund giant Fidelity. Some have already cashed in. Travis Kalanick, Uber’s co-founder and chief executive until he was forced out after a series of scandals, reaped $1.4 billion by selling fewer than a third of his shares to private investors in 2017.

As independent contractors, drivers are not eligible for employee benefits like paid vacations or stock options. Uber said Thursday that it would offer bonuses of $100 to $10,000 to long-serving drivers. Its chief competitor, Lyft, did the same when it went public in March.

Read the complete article here.

Spending Is as Easy as Pushing a Button. The Hard Part? Keeping Track.

From today’s New York Times:

How do New York Times journalists use technology in their jobs and in their personal lives? Tara Siegel Bernard, a personal finance reporter, discussed the tech she’s using.

What are your most important tech tools for tracking budgets?

This may sound strange coming from a personal finance reporter, but I’m not a big fan of traditional budgets — I don’t think they work. I try to keep my own spending in check by taking the reverse approach. Instead of tracking every dollar, I focus on what we need to save for: retirement, college or some other goal. After you’ve automated your savings goals and created a bit of a cushion for emergencies, you’re freer to spend without thinking too hard or feeling too guilty. It’s an imperfect system, but it’s better than a failed budget.

That method won’t necessarily work in all situations, especially if you need to tackle debt or establish a stricter spending plan in retirement. And everyone can benefit from tracking personal spending, even if you do it only for a few months or check in only every quarter.

Mint has been around for a while, but it is still a solid way to take stock of where all of your money is going and whether your net worth is moving in the right direction. It also allows you to create a budget, and alerts you when you’ve spent too much. I use it infrequently, and there’s usually at least one kink I need to work out whenever I log in; most recently, it counted all of my retirement accounts twice, which was kind of cruel.

Which basic tools would you recommend for people to increase their savings and investments?

It’s not so much a tool but a technology: automation. After you’ve settled on a low-cost investment provider such as Vanguard, automation is the surest way to set yourself up for success. Automate as much as you can — your Roth I.R.A. contributions, your kids’ 529 college savings accounts. If you have an employer-provided retirement plan like a 401(k), see if it will allow you to automatically increase the percentage you’re saving each year. If not, set a date in your electronic calendar to remind you to revisit all of those amounts annually.

I also like the little revolution that the roboadvisers have started. They lean heavily on technology to help invest and manage your money, though more of them are increasingly integrating human advisers. Betterment and Wealthfront have free tools that will let you play with various goals and savings amounts to see how long it will take you to save what you need.

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.

Cambridge Analytica CEO Suspended, Involved in Hacking American Elections

From National Public Radio News:

Cambridge Analytica has suspended its CEO, Alexander Nix. The London-based company, which is accused of using data from 50 million Facebook users to influence the 2016 presidential campaign, announced the move Tuesday afternoon — one day after the release of a video that appears to show Nix acknowledging the firm’s engagement in political dirty tricks.

“In the view of the Board, Mr. Nix’s recent comments secretly recorded by Channel 4 and other allegations do not represent the values or operations of the firm,” the company’s board of directors said in a statement, “and his suspension reflects the seriousness with which we view this violation.”

The board said it is replacing Nix with Alexander Tayler in the interim as an independent investigation is conducted.

Also, the British government says it has opened an investigation of its own, seeking a warrant to search databases and servers belonging to the company. U.K. Information Minister Elizabeth Denham had demanded access to Cambridge Analytica’s databases by Monday following reports that the company improperly mined user data from Facebook to target potential voters.

However, after the firm missed the deadline, Denham told Britain’s Channel 4: “I’ll be applying to the court for a warrant.”

Cambridge Analytica says it used legal means to obtain the data and did not violate Facebook’s terms of service. Facebook has promised “a comprehensive internal and external review.”

Denham’s statement follows the latest revelation in the British media about the firm co-founded by former White House adviser Steve Bannon and heavyweight Republican donor Robert Mercer. The company is an offshoot of behavioral research and strategic communications company SCL Group with ties to the 2016 Trump presidential campaign.

Read the complete article here.

Automation Could Displace 800 Million Workers Worldwide By 2030, Study Says

From today’s National Public Radio:

A coming wave of job automation could force between 400 million and 800 million people worldwide out of a job in the next 13 years, according to a new study.

A report released this week from the research arm of the consulting firm McKinsey & Company forecasts scenarios in which 3 percent to 14 percent of workers around the world — in 75 million to 375 million jobs — will have to acquire new skills and switch occupations by 2030.

“There are few precedents” to the challenge of retraining hundreds of millions of workers in the middle of their careers, the report’s authors say.

The impact will vary between countries, depending on their wealth and types of jobs that currently exist in each. In 60 percent of jobs worldwide, “at least one-third of the constituent activities could be automated,” McKinsey says, which would mean a big change in what people do day-to-day.

McKinsey looked at 46 countries and more than 800 different jobs in its research.

In the year 2030 in countries with “advanced economies,” a greater proportion of workers will need to learn new skills than in developing economies, researchers say. As many as a third of workers in the U.S. and Germany could need to learn new skills. For Japan, the number is almost 50 percent of the workforce, while in China it’s 12 percent.

Jobs that involve predictable, repetitive tasks are more easily automated, “such as operating machinery and preparing fast food,” and data processing, like paralegal work and accounting. However, McKinsey estimates less than 5 percent of jobs can be fully automated.

Jobs that pay “relatively lower wages” and aren’t as predictable are less likely to face full automation, because businesses don’t have as much incentive to spend on the technology. This applies to jobs like gardening, plumbing and child care, according to the authors.

Occupations that pay more but involve managing people and social interactions face less risk of automation due to the inherent difficulty in programming machines to do those types of tasks.

Read the complete article here.

Work Productivity: Laptops Are Great. But Not During a Lecture or a Meeting.

From today’s New York Times by Susan Dynarski:

Step into any college lecture hall and you are likely to find a sea of students typing away at open, glowing laptops as the professor speaks. But you won’t see that when I’m teaching.

Though I make a few exceptions, I generally ban electronics, including laptops, in my classes and research seminars.

That may seem extreme. After all, with laptops, students can, in some ways, absorb more from lectures than they can with just paper and pen. They can download course readings, look up unfamiliar concepts on the fly and create an accurate, well-organized record of the lecture material. All of that is good.

But a growing body of evidence shows that over all, college students learn less when they use computers or tablets during lectures. They also tend to earn worse grades. The research is unequivocal: Laptops distract from learning, both for users and for those around them. It’s not much of a leap to expect that electronics also undermine learning in high school classrooms or that they hurt productivity in meetings in all kinds of workplaces.

Measuring the effect of laptops on learning is tough. One problem is that students don’t all use laptops the same way. It might be that dedicated students, who tend to earn high grades, use them more frequently in classes. It might be that the most distracted students turn to their laptops whenever they are bored. In any case, a simple comparison of performance may confuse the effect of laptops with the characteristics of the students who choose to use them. Researchers call this “selection bias.”

Read the entire article here.

Class Actions Lawsuits by Women Could Fight Discrimination in Tech Industry

From today’s New York Times “Opinion” Section by Anita Hill:

The recent leak of a Google engineer’s screed against the company’s diversity initiatives is a reminder that the notion of Silicon Valley as the seat of human progress is a myth — at least when it comes to way the women behind the latest in technology are treated.

The tech industry is stuck in the past, more closely resembling “Mad Men”-era Madison Avenue or 1980s Wall Street than a modern egalitarian society. It may take the force of our legal system to change that.

The leaked memo, titled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber,” called on the company to abandon its efforts for gender diversity and replace them with a focus on “ideological diversity.” The author even claimed that biological differences make women poorly suited to engineering. While the document may be unusual in its explicit embrace of this kind of backward thinking, the attitudes that underlie it are nothing new in Silicon Valley. Google’s decision to fire the employee responsible for the memo neither dispels the notion that a systemic problem exists nor solves it.

Since a former Uber employee published her blog post detailing her experience with the ride-sharing company’s toxic, male-dominated culture, a stream of female coders, engineers and others have come forward to discuss their experiences with sexual harassment and hostile, discriminatory workplace cultures. Companies like Google, Tesla, Twitter, Microsoft and Oracle face allegations of sexism in the form of individual lawsuits and Labor Department inquiries.

Sadly, these types of cases represent only one element of the industrywide discrimination against women in tech. There’s also an alarming gap in pay and promotions, which has devastating effects on women’s careers.

Read the entire editorial here.

Robocalypse Now? Central Bankers Argue Whether Automation Will Kill Jobs

From today’s New York Times by Jack Ewing:

SINTRA, Portugal — The rise of robots has long been a topic for sci-fi best sellers and video games and, as of this week, a threat officially taken seriously by central bankers.

The bankers are not yet ready to buy into dystopian visions in which robots render humans superfluous. But, at an exclusive gathering at a golf resort near Lisbon, the big minds of monetary policy were seriously discussing the risk that artificial intelligence could eliminate jobs on a scale that would dwarf previous waves of technological change.

“There is no question we are in an era of people asking, ‘Is the Robocalypse upon us?’” David Autor, a professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told an audience on Tuesday that included Mario Draghi, the president of the European Central Bank, James Bullard, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, and dozens of other top central bankers and economists.

The discussion occurred as economists were more optimistic than they had been for a decade about growth. Mr. Draghi used the occasion to signal that the European Central Bank is edging closer to the day when it will begin paring measures intended to keep interest rates very low and bolster the economy.

“All the signs now point to a strengthening and broadening recovery in the euro area,” Mr. Draghi said. His comments pushed the euro to almost its highest level in a year, though it later gave up some of the gains.

But along with the optimism is a fear that the economic expansion might bypass large swaths of the population, in part because a growing number of jobs could be replaced by computers capable of learning — artificial intelligence.

Policy makers and economists conceded that they have not paid enough attention to how much technology has hurt the earning power of some segments of society, or planned to address the concerns of those who have lost out. That has, in part, nourished the political populism that contributed to Britain’s vote a year ago to leave the European Union, and the election of President Trump.

“Generally speaking, economic growth is a good thing,” Ben S. Bernanke, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, said at the forum. “But, as recent political developments have brought home, growth is not always enough.”

In the past, technical advances caused temporary disruptions but ultimately improved living standards, creating new categories of employment along the way. Farm machinery displaced farmworkers but eventually they found better paying jobs, and today their great-grandchildren may design video games.

But artificial intelligence threatens broad categories of jobs previously seen as safe from automation, such as legal assistants, corporate auditors and investment managers. Large groups of people could become obsolete, suffering the same fate as plow horses after the invention of the tractor.

Read the entire article here.

A New Kind of Tech Job Emphasizes Skills, Not a College Degree

From today’s New York Times by Steve Lohr:

ROCKET CENTER, W.Va. — A few years ago, Sean Bridges lived with his mother, Linda, in Wiley Ford, W.Va. Their only income was her monthly Social Security disability check. He applied for work at Walmart and Burger King, but they were not hiring.

Yet while Mr. Bridges had no work history, he had certain skills. He had built and sold some stripped-down personal computers, and he had studied information technology at a community college. When Mr. Bridges heard IBM was hiring at a nearby operations center in 2013, he applied and demonstrated those skills.

Now Mr. Bridges, 25, is a computer security analyst, making $45,000 a year. In a struggling Appalachian economy, that is enough to provide him with his own apartment, a car, spending money — and career ambitions.

“I got one big break,” he said. “That’s what I needed.”

Mr. Bridges represents a new but promising category in the American labor market: people working in so-called new-collar or middle-skill jobs. As the United States struggles with how to match good jobs to the two-thirds of adults who do not have a four-year college degree, his experience shows how a worker’s skills can be emphasized over traditional hiring filters like college degrees, work history and personal references. And elevating skills over pedigree creates new pathways to employment and tailored training and a gateway to the middle class.

Read the complete article here.

End the Tyranny of 24/7 Email

From yesterday’s NYT “Opinion” by Clive Thompson:

This Labor Day weekend, odds are you’ll peek at your work email on your “day off” — and then feel guilty about it.

You might envy the serene workers at Daimler, the German automaker. On vacations, employees can set their corporate email to “holiday mode.” Anyone who emails them gets an auto-reply saying the employee isn’t in, and offering contact details for an alternate, on-call staff person. Then poof, the incoming email is deleted — so that employees don’t have to return to inboxes engorged with digital missives in their absence. “The idea behind it is to give people a break and let them rest,” a Daimler spokesman told Time magazine. “Then they can come back to work with a fresh spirit.”

Limiting workplace email seems radical, but it’s a trend in Germany, where Volkswagen and Deutsche Telekom have adopted policies that limit work-related email to some employees on evenings and weekends. If this can happen in precision-mad, high-productivity Germany, could it happen in the United States? Absolutely. It not only could, but it should.

White-collar cubicle dwellers complain about email for good reason. They spend 28 percent of their workweek slogging through the stuff, according to the McKinsey Global Institute. They check their messages 74 times a day, on average, according to Gloria Mark, an authority on workplace behavior and a professor at the University of California, Irvine.

And lots of that checking happens at home. Jennifer Deal, a senior research scientist at the Center for Creative Leadership, surveyed smartphone-using white-collar workers and found that most were umbilically tied to email a stunning 13.5 hours a day, well into the evening. Workers don’t even take a break during dinner — where, other research shows, fully 38 percent check work email “routinely,” peeking at the phone under the table. Half check it in bed in the morning. What agonizes workers is the expectation that they’ll reply instantly to a colleague or boss, no matter how ungodly the hour. Hence the endless, neurotic checking, and the dread of getting in trouble for ignoring something.

So as a matter of sheer human decency and workplace fairness, reducing the chokehold of after-hours email is a laudable goal.

But it also appears that, from a corporate standpoint, the sky won’t fall. The few North American firms that have emulated Daimler all say it is surprisingly manageable.

At the Toronto office of Edelman, the global public relations firm, managers created the “7-to-7” rule. Employees are strongly discouraged from emailing one another before 7 a.m. and after 7 p.m. Sure, they can check email if they want — but they’re not to send it to colleagues. It’s an acknowledgment that the only way to really reduce email is to persuade colleagues not to reflexively write every time they have the tiniest question.

Those who do are scolded. “You have to stick to it,” Lisa Kimmel, the general manager of the office, told me. “When we tell prospective employees about it, their eyes light up.”

Even start-ups are experimenting with email limits. Book Riot, a website for book lovers, has eight full-time employees who mostly work remotely, in different time zones, on often hectic schedules. They all agree: Email someone whenever you want, but don’t expect a reply until the recipient is back in the office.

“It’s understood that if someone has a crazy idea at 3 a.m. and sends it, that’s their problem that it’s 3 a.m. — you respond when you want,” Rebecca Schinsky, the site’s director of content, told me. At the Boston Consulting Group, when a team of stressed-out consultants began organizing “predictable time off” — no-messaging zones during their off time — their total work hours dropped by 11 percent, yet the same amount of work was accomplished.

Why would less email mean better productivity? Because, as Ms. Deal found in her research, endless email is an enabler. It often masks terrible management practices.

When employees shoot out a fusillade of miniature questions via email, or “cc” every team member about each niggling little decision, it’s because they don’t feel confident to make a decision on their own. Often, Ms. Deal found, they’re worried about getting in trouble or downsized if they mess up.

In contrast, when employees are actually empowered, they make more judgment calls on their own. They also start using phone calls and face-to-face chats to resolve issues quickly, so they don’t metastasize into email threads the length of “War and Peace.”

This is basic behavioral economics. When email is seen as an infinite resource, people abuse it. If a corporation constrains its use, each message becomes more valuable — and employees become more mindful of how and when they write.

Granted, not all late-night email is bad. As Ms. Deal found, employees don’t like being forced to reply at 1 a.m., but they appreciate the flexibility of being able to shift some work to the evening if they choose. And they don’t mind dealing with genuine work crises that crop up during leisure hours. At Edelman in Toronto, employees try not to bug each other in the evenings — but if a client emails with a time-sensitive issue, they’ll respond.

These changes can’t happen through personal behavior: The policy needs to come from the top. (If your boss regularly emails you a high-priority question at 11 p.m., the real message is, “At our company, we do email at midnight.”) And some changes may seem like matters of housekeeping, but have major repercussions, like keeping a separate email box for your personal messages. You can’t ignore your work inbox if that’s also the place where friends send you weepy accounts of their breakups.

But it’s worth it. More than a century ago, blue-collar workers fought for a limited workday with an activist anthem: “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will.” It’s a heritage that, this Labor Day, we need to restore.