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Donald Trump

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Four-Day Work Week

As countries in Europe and North America emerge from lock-down and start trying to rebuild their devastated economies, the great concern is jobs.

Unemployment in the US and Canada is over 13%, a post-Second World War high. If it weren’t for subsidies that keep up to a fifth of the working population in paid ‘furloughs’ from their jobs, jobless rates in Europe would be as high or higher. That can’t go on forever, so there is a frantic search for job-saving strategies – and the ‘four-day work week’ keeps coming up.

Like that other proposed magic bullet, the guaranteed basic income, the notion of a four-day working week has been kicking around for a long time. The current emergency has given both ideas a second wind, and neither is nearly as radical or extreme as it sounds.

Less than a century ago the whole industrialised world transitioned from the traditional six-day working week (Saturdays included) to a five-day work-week, for the same pay, with no political upheaval and no significant loss of production. So why don’t we do that again, spread the work around, and save lots of jobs?

Because it doesn’t work like that. The four-day week is not about spreading the load. It is about finding ways for people who already have jobs to squeeze the same work into four 10-hour working days instead of five 8-hour days, or to work ‘smarter’ so that they can get the same work done (or more) in only four 8-hour days.

The 40-hour week done in four days is the only available option for most process workers on assembly lines or other repetitive physical tasks. Ten-hour workdays are even harder than they sound, but the prize is a three-day weekend and some people are willing to pay the price.

If everybody buys into that, then management can shut the plant down one extra day and save on power. If only some do, then management has the headache of scheduling some 10-hour shifts and other 8-hour shifts, plus the cost of the mistakes that may accumulate when exhausted people are approaching the end of a 10-hour shift. And no saving on electricity costs.

Nevertheless, it does make for a happier workforce, by all accounts, and maybe therefore a more efficient and productive one. There are already a few examples of this kind of four-day working in every industrial country, and now the prime ministers of Finland and New Zealand are both talking it up. Neither woman, however, is proposing to impose it nationally, and nobody is suggesting that it will create more jobs.

The four-day week is an easier and more attractive package for people in administrative and sales jobs, because everybody knows that there is a lot of wasted time in office work: social media, pointless emails, long boring meetings, etc. You could get the job done a lot quicker if everybody was motivated to concentrate on the bits that are actually useful and skip the rest.

So motivate them. Tell them that they can drop to four 8-hour days a week for the same pay as the old five days if they can still get the same work done – and leave it to them to figure out how. If they can’t, then it’s back to the same old five-day grind.

Miraculously, they almost always do manage to find the time. In many cases, indeed, productivity actually rises: happy workers do better work. The four-day week is an excellent idea whose time may finally have come, but it is not a magic bullet. Companies don’t ever hire more people just to spread the work around.

So what might spread the available work around? The US Congress had a brilliant idea in 1938, when it passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which required employers to pay overtime at 150% of the normal hourly wage for anything over 40 hours of work a week.

The idea was to make employers hire more people. If they had 40 employees working 50 hours a week, they would have to pay each of them overtime for the last 10 hours. So why not just hire another 10 people and save all that overtime pay? It worked quite well at the time, but it would not work now. Don’t hire more people; just put in more automation.

The coronavirus is just an accelerator. The real problem with employment ever since the 1990s has been automation, which has been eating up good jobs and excreting low-paid, insecure ones instead – or none at all. Six million good manufacturing jobs were automated out of existence in the US in 2000-2010, which led fairly directly to the election of Donald Trump in 2016.

The current pandemic is speeding the process by driving more jobs online, especially in sales (a different kind of automation), and fiddling with working hours or minimum wages is not going to stop it. So what’s left? Maybe a guaranteed basic income would help, but that’s a discussion for another day.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 12 and 13. (“So what…work now”)

Brazil: Populist Pandemic

What do you do if you are in charge of dealing with the pandemic and the number of deaths is getting out of control?

Simple. Stop publishing the number.

Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro has been having a bad time with the pandemic. His default mode has been callous disinterest: when told in early May that the country’s Covid-19 death toll had reached 5,000, he said “So what? I’m sorry. What do you want me to do?”

When the number reached 30,000 dead early this month, he tried a philosophical tone instead: “I regret every death, but that’s everyone’s destiny.” But the victims’ families and friends remain unreasonably fixated on the question of why they had to die from coronavirus this month rather than of something else many years from now, and blame Bolsonaro for their untimely departure.

So on Sunday, with Brazil’s death toll about to pass 40,000 and become second only to that of the United States, Bolsonaro stopped his government from publishing the total any more.

From now on, only today’s number of infections, deaths and recoveries will be announced. No more awkward comparisons with other countries, no five-digit running total to confront him with his failure each day. And of course no attempt to establish the real number of deaths, which is almost certainly at least twice the official number since many victims never got to hospitals.

There is a temptation to group the three populist leaders of big Western democracies together, and they do have a lot in common. Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson removed a similarly damning piece of data from the daily press conference when the UK’s death toll per million overtook that of every other major European country. (It is now second-worst in the entire world.)

America’s Donald Trump, Bolsonaro’s idol, spent just as much time in the early months of this year belittling the gravity of the threat (Bolsonaro: “It’s only a little flu”; Trump: “It’s going to disappear. One day it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.”) None of the three men will wear a mask, and they are all compulsive serial liars.

Nevertheless, there are major differences. Johnson manages to sound as if he cares about all the lives lost, and Trump at least goes through the motions occasionally. Johnson eventually declared a lock-down, although much too late, and Trump at least went along for a while with the lock-downs declared by almost all of the states.

Bolsonaro, by contrast, openly condemned the lock-downs declared by the various Brazilian states and ostentatiously disobeyed them. He held rallies and took crowd baths. He swiped his nose on the back of his hand and then shook hands with a fragile old lady. He showed up at a barbecue on a jetski.

He has fired two successive health ministers since January because they were taking the pandemic too seriously and hindering Brazilians’ return to work. He joined a street protest calling for a return to the military dictatorship that finally fell in 1985. He regularly vilifies the poor, the left, indigenous Brazilians, gays and non-whites.

Like Trump, he hates the World Health Organisation, but unlike Trump he also accuses the WHO of encouraging masturbation and homosexuality among children. He is widely believed to have links with paramilitary groups associated with the mafia.

And he is currently presiding over a pandemic that will probably kill over 100,000 Brazilians without lifting a finger to stop it.

Yet in late 2018 he won the presidential election in the first round with 55% of the vote, and his character was hardly a secret even before the election. A recent poll showed that his popularity is now down to 32%, so Brazilians have noticed that something is wrong with him, but it still verges on the inexplicable. Or does it?

The electorate that voted for Bolsonaro in 2018 was little changed from the one that gave Luiz Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva, the absolute antithesis of Bolsonaro, two terms in the presidency immediately before him. Just as the American electorate that put Trump in office in 2016 was little changed from the one that elected Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.

They didn’t suddenly go blind when confronted with a candidate as fraudulent as Trump or Bolsonaro. They deliberately overlooked his flaws because he offered them something they needed. It was probably something economical or psychological, and not specific to any single country because the mood struck British and Brazilians and Americans at the same time. (And Hungarians and Turks and Filipinos and Indians too.)

What this tells us – and I’m sorry to be the bearer of this news – is that if that same something is still bothering the voters when the next election rolls around next November in the US, or in Brazil in 2022, or in the UK in 2024, the same person can win again, no matter how badly he misbehaves in the meantime.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 12. (“When…departure”; and “Like…mafia”)

Basic Income: A Done Deal?

The First World War speeded up the emancipation of women; the Second World War led to the creation of welfare states in all the industrialised countries. What great change will the coronavirus crisis bring us?

This crisis has not yet killed tens of millions, and it probably never will. No great empires have fallen, and no human villain can be blamed for the problem. Yet there will probably be changes as great as those after the two world wars.

One great change will be in the pace of automation. As Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella put it, we have seen “two years’ worth of digital transformation in two weeks,” as tens of millions of people stayed at home and worked online. A great many of them will not go back to working in an office when the threat of the coronavirus recedes.

So does five weeks of lock-down equal five years’ worth of digital transformation? Probably yes. Last week Twitter became the first major Silicon Valley company to publicly accept this new reality, announcing that “If our employees are in a role and situation that enables them to work from home and they want to continue to do so forever, we will make that happen.”

But for the considerably larger number of people whose occupations do not allow them to work at home, the news is not so good. For them, the digital transformation means automation and unemployment. In a recent survey of company executives in 45 countries,
auditors Ernst and Young found that 41% of them are investing in greater automation of their work processes.

More will follow. The reason that the service industries (apart from retail sales) have largely escaped automation so far is that the new technology is expensive, disruptive, and annoys the customers, not that it doesn’t exist. But now the crisis is forcing the customers to get used to that kind of service, at the same time that the owners and managers are realising what a nuisance it is to depend on human employees.

The process that has already destroyed the assembly lines (and given us Donald Trump) will continue through the workforce until around half the existing jobs have been destroyed, as Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne of Oxford University predicted in their famous 2013 study. Their prediction was for the year 2033, but the coronavirus may be bringing that date forward.

However, the other great change wrought by the coronavirus works in the opposite direction. When unemployment suddenly leapt to 30% as lock-downs spread across the world, we were suddenly confronted with a working model of that future – and the social and economic changes that might deal with the mass destruction of jobs by automation are actually being road-tested right now.

In some countries, like the United States, it is real unemployment, only slightly alleviated by hand-outs like a $1,200 cheque signed by Trump. In most richer countries, it is some form of ‘furlough’, with the government paying 75%-85% of people’s wages, up to a limit that is high enough to let them live in modest comfort, until their jobs resume in two or three or four months’ time.

Either way, it does concentrate people’s minds, rather like the prospect of being hanged in the morning. A lot of them will notice a) that this is the level of unemployment that already lies in wait for them down the road; and b) that there is still enough money around to keep them going anyway. Or, in the case of the US, that there could be if the government was willing to try.

It’s a small step from there to the concept of a guaranteed basic income as the long-term solution for a society where half the jobs have been destroyed by automation but productivity is higher than ever.

There are, of course, a number of codicils to this conclusion. The current levels of income support could not be sustained long-term without a significantly higher rate of tax. Widespread job-sharing would be needed to avoid creating a permanent under-class of the unemployed and to keep people connected. There are no magic bullets.

We were already sleep-walking towards this level of unemployment anyway, just over a much longer period. At least now we’re awake to the fact that such things can happen, and we know that they can be managed.

More or less normal service will probably be resumed in a few months, or at worst in a year or so, but automation is getting a big boost and from now on it will be an ever-present companion. But the experience we are going through right now makes it a lot less scary.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 4. (“So does…happen”)

Trump and the Yellow Peril

It was completely predictable that Donald Trump would try to blame China for the fact that at least 30 million Americans are unemployed and that 70,000 Americans have already died of Covid-19. His polling numbers are down and the election is only seven months away. What else was he going to do? Blame himself?

That’s why we’re now getting the good old ‘Yellow Peril’ defence, fresh from the late 19th century. As a memo sent out by the National Republican Senatorial Committee to Republican candidates put it: “Don’t defend Trump, other than the China Travel Ban – attack China.”

The coronavirus now spreading death across the world certainly originated in China. The Chinese government itself said so, before it started prevaricating after Donald Trump began using China as a scapegoat.

There was at least a week’s delay in late December when officials in Wuhan didn’t report the outbreak to Beijing, fearing they would be blamed for alarmism, or simply for letting it happen. That’s when Dr. Li Wenliang wrote in a private WeChat group: “7 confirmed cases of SARS were reported [to hospital] from Huanan Seafood Market.”

It wasn’t really Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. It was a new coronavirus closely related to SARS, which had caused a much smaller but lethal epidemic in 2002. But Wuhan officials didn’t want to believe it, and on 3 January Li got a warning from the local police to stop “making false comments on the Internet”.

Six days later the first person in Wuhan died of what we now call Covid-19. On the same day, 9 January, the World Health Organisation (which Trump now vilifies as ‘China’s public relations agency”) announced that China had reported the emergence of a new coronavirus like those that caused the SARS and MERS epidemics.

So there was at least a week when Chinese officials at the local or national level had the information and hesitated to publish it, partly because they weren’t sure yet themselves. But only two days later Chinese scientists published the full genetic sequence of Covid-19 so that researchers everywhere could start working on potential treatments and vaccines.

Other East Asian countries that had experience of SARS understood the seriousness of the WHO warning and promptly began diligent testing, tracing and isolation of infected persons. As a result, they never had to go into lockdown (South Korea has had 250 deaths; Taiwan had 6). China did a partial lockdown, but is now up and running again.

But then the real delay happened, and it had nothing to do with when China reported the disease. The point is that Western countries did nothing serious about the pandemic for an astonishing TWO MONTHS after that.

Trump boasts that he banned travel from China to the United States early, but in fact the United States was the 41st country to declare such a ban, on 2 February. And it was a very leaky ban, affecting only non-US citizens. Another 40,000 US citizens and permanent residents flew in from China during the next two months, many not being checked for coronavirus at all.

Italy started locking down some municipalities in the country’s badly hit north in late February, but no European country went into national lockdown until 9 March. The United Kingdom waited a further two weeks after that, until 24 March. The United States never did a national lockdown, but most states had social distancing policies in place by early April.

Those even longer delays explain why the UK and the US are on track to be the two countries with the highest Covid-19 death rates, but why did they all wait so long. Why weren’t they at least setting up comprehensive testing, tracing and contacting systems and making more ventilators and protective clothing back in January? Did they think they were exempt?

That’s probably what they did think, and their people are now being punished for their governments’ arrogance. But Donald Trump’s attempt to shift the blame for a huge US death toll and a looming economic disaster onto China is utterly cynical and false. The problem wasn’t a week’s delay in China; it was a couple of months’ delay in America.

If it should turn out that the first human infections with Covid-19 were due to a leak from the Biosafety level 4 Wuhan Institute of Virology, not at the Huanan Seafood Market in the same city, it changes nothing. BSL4 labs (there are around twenty in the world) routinely work with dangerous viruses, because otherwise we’d never develop defences against them.

An accidental leak from a BSL4 lab would be a rare and very serious mistake, but that’s probably not what happened in Wuhan, and in any case it’s clear that no hostile intent was involved. The US national intelligence director’s office has determined that Covid-19 “was not manmade or genetically modified.”

That will not stop Donald Trump from scapegoating China, even at the risk of causing a new Cold War. Never mind the fate of the world. It’s the fate of Trump’s presidency that’s at stake here.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 10. (“Other…again”; and “Trump…at all”)