Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

Coping with Grade Inflation in Ontario

June 12, 2018
Ontario high school graduates often experience lower grades in first year university courses from those received in grade twelve. This can come as a shock to first year students…. and their parents. In the late 1960’s Ontario moved from province wide exams to each school grading its own students. The change resulted from proposals in the Hall-Dennis provincial report, which recommended the abolition of general exams for all students in the province. Grade inflation ensued.
In the 1960’s, less than 10% of Ontario high school students graduated with an 80% or higher average. Today over 60% have an average of 80%. Because university enrollment has expanded since the 1960s, the absolute number of those with an 80% average is today far higher. At the time teachers argued that there would be grade inflation if each school could grade its own students. They were correct. Now, if there are suggestions of returning to province wide exams, schools oppose the move because the results would reflect more directly on their ability to perform.
Today, almost all applicants can get accepted for Canadian university entrance but there will be limited enrollment for particular programs such as law, medicine, nursing, engineering and the need to maintain certain grades to remain registered in these programs. Universities have an interest in enhancing enrollment because they are in part funded by provincial governments on a per student basis and in part by fees. (Foreign students pay higher fees and do not receive provincial funding. Quebec offers lower fees to Quebec students than out of province students.)
Other jurisdictions use a common exam as a way of, amongst other things, avoiding grade inflation. The General Certificate of Education (GCE) is offered at three levels in the United Kingdom, and a number of other mainly Commonwealth countries; the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) in the US is an admission requirement for most graduate schools in the US; and the International Baccalaureate (IB) offers four educational programmes: the IB Diploma Programme and the IB Career-related Programme for students aged 16 to 19, the IB Middle Years Programme for students aged 11 to 16, and the IB Primary Years Programme. To teach these programmes, schools need to be authorized by the International Baccalaureate Organization. About 60 schools in Canada are listed as offering the IB program. Almost 11,000 Canadian students wrote IB exams in 2017.
While Canadian universities cannot say that they treat an IB grade different from a non-IB grade when accepting students from Canadian high schools, it does not take much imagination that this would be the case, especially when performance statistics are reviewed.
IB grades are reported to universities, most of which now understand what they mean.  The IB Schools of Ontario have devised a conversion scale for reporting to parents and for those universities that are not yet on board.  All IB schools in Ontario must agree to using this conversion scale just so that marks will not be inflated.  This customary (as opposed to mandatory) procedure allows universities to evaluate the IB grades relative to  the Ontario high school grades which have experienced massive inflation since the 1960s.
In a review of IB enrolment in the US, the following findings were published:
This analysis examines the postsecondary enrollment, persistence, and graduation rates of IB diploma seekers graduating from both public and private high schools in the US. Currently, the IB offers the Diploma Programme in 830 high schools in the US. Of these schools, 727 (88%) are public schools (state funded). Not surprisingly therefore, the data for this analysis included mostly public schools. When the results from this study are compared to national rates (as available) it is evident that diploma students, both earners and non-earners, enroll, persist, and graduate on time at notably higher rates. Diploma earners have generally slightly higher rates than non-earners. • Immediate enrollment for all diploma students was 78% compared to the national average of 69% • 2-year retention for all diploma students was 96% compared to the national rate of 77% • 2-year retention rates for diploma earners was 96% compared to the non-earners rate of 95% • 6-year graduation rates for all diploma students was 83% compared to the national rate of 56% • 6-year graduation rates for diploma earners was 87% compared to the non-earners rate of 72%
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The Storm Over Income Inequality

March 20, 2018

Thirty percent of the US electorate continue to stand by Trump despite his ability to change the channel when some issue gets too hot. Why do voters stick with him? Part 1 outlines some facts about income inequality in the US, as set out by Jonathan Tepper – (see his blog for Feb. 17, 2018.) Part 2 suggests some measures aimed at reducing income inequality.

Part 1

Income inequality in the US

  1. Corporate profits are rising but with corporations keeping a larger share of gross earnings, and a smaller share going to employee compensation.
  2. Changes in average hourly earnings use to be a leading indicator of a growing economy. Wages pick up and growth soon follows. Today, growth is leading, while slowly rising wages show that workers salaries are being left behind as the economy grows.

 

  1. Industrial concentration is rising, as are measures such as the share of gross and net income by the largest firms in an industry. Between 1997 and 2012, two-thirds of US industries are in the hands of fewer firms.

 

  1. Evidence for 3. is suggested by the fall in the number of publicly listed companies, so that more industries have only fewer but larger firms.
  2. Productivity is increasing at a faster rate than average hourly compensation, suggesting that workers are not being rewarded for their share in the rise.

 

  1. Corporations today having more market power is suggested by data showing that average markups of 18% in 1980 rose to 70% in 2014. In the beer industry, two American firms have 90% of the market. For high-speed internet access, 75% of households have one provider. Four US companies dominate US airline traffic. In many US states, the top insurers have 80-90 percent of the market. In pesticides, three companies have 70% of the US market, and three companies have 80% of the corn-seed market.

 

  1. Between 1996 and 2016, publicly listed companies fell by 50 percent (7200 to 3600). There are now less listed companies than there were in 1970.
    More US towns now have one major buyer of labour, or are a monopsonist, such as coal mining towns and towns with Walmart stores. These conditions tend to depress wage increases.

 

  1. The extent of unionized labour has fallen. In 1983, 20% of workers were unionized; today it is 11% and coincides with a fall of national income going to workers. The rate of strike action has also fallen from 1960 to today.

 

  1. The gap between CEO and worker compensation has increased markedly.All this is consistent with a U – shaped distribution of income by population, with a high proportion of income going to many low-income families and a similar high proportion to far fewer upper income families. Many of the 30% solid Trump supporters reside at the low-end of this scale and want the Washington swamp drained; some would have supported Bernie Sanders. They feel that the political and economic situation is stacked against them.

    Part 2

 Measures to counteract income inequality

If the US is experiencing domestic political upheaval due to growing income inequality, are there precedents elsewhere and what measures might address this situation? The French Revolution from 1789 and the Russian Revolution in 1917 have some similar features which played out in unique ways. (The American Revolution and the Declaration of Independence in 1776 were more a fight to overthrow British rule, than over aspects of income equality.)

In the case of France, the aggrieved classes took to the streets overthrowing the monarchy and eventually accepting Napoleon as their leader which he did until the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. This may seem a long time ago, but my grandfather was born in 1824 and must have grown up wondering what was going on in his world, as many of us do today in ours.

Income inequality in the US, and to some extent in Canada and Western Europe, has grown since the end of WW2 and especially with the economic growth experienced by many countries. The factors associated with this situation include the restoration of economies devastated by war such as Japan, Germany, the UK and other countries of Western Europe, as well as the USSR and countries of the Soviet bloc.

From the 1970s onward, the introduction of computer communications and the internet in many phases of production and distribution led to changes in the production of goods and services and the way supply chains are organized. This caused changes in the demand for labour skills and the need for retraining. What is happening today is not new but is occurring rapidly so that some workers get left behind and naturally feel aggrieved.

An earlier example from around 1900 is the mechanization of agriculture so that today only about two percent of the labour force is assigned to this sector, while output has vastly increased. That adjustment was made with the growth of manufacturing and good wages. Today manufacturing output is growing, but with less employment and some of the service sector jobs have lower incomes than in manufacturing. It is the latter who now are Trump-style supporters.

Some jobs disappeared and new ones introduced as supply chains are reorganized. The new ones are often not suited to those who have lost jobs. While retraining takes place, it is often not fast enough to make up the differences in required skills. Having said that, the unemployment rate is hovering around 4%. The problem is that many lower paid workers see little opportunity for rising incomes and experience a declining standard of living. All this results in growing income inequality.

If the foregoing is an approximate account of economic conditions in the US, and to some extent Canada, what policies might alleviate this situation. There is no quick turnaround to a set of circumstances that have built up over decades. It would be like trying to turn around the Queen Mary in the Thames. The example of how Silicon Valley emerged in the US illustrates some peculiarities of the policy environment, and the time factor which accompanied its development. The reasons for Silicon Valley’s success in the 1950s and 1960s include the following:

 

Government programmes, intended to surpass the Soviet Union in space and weapons systems, galvanized investment in education, research, and engineering across a broad range of technologies. This ultimately gave rise to Silicon Valley where it was infused by a spirit of free enquiry, vigorous competition and a healthy capitalist incentive to make money. It was supercharged by an immigration system that welcomed promising minds from every quarter of the planet. Sixty years after the Sputnik moment, America needs the same combination of public investment and private enterprise in pursuit of a national project. (Economist March 17th, 2018 The Battle for Digital Supremacy).

The foregoing is illustrative of what policymakers are up against and the recognition of the time it will take to bring about change incorporating new technology and modes of organization. Meanwhile there are policy initiatives that can be taken which may be helpful and nibble at the growing unease felt by those who feel disadvantaged by these entrepreneurial initiatives.

Following is a list of some fairly mundane measures which may help to reduce inequality and are easier to implement than waiting for structural changes in the economy and/or political unrest:

  1. The immediate circumstances of low incomes can be addressed by a combination of some form of guaranteed annual income, which phases out as incomes rise and labour receives a mix of education and training to address evolving technological conditions.
  2. Implementing a system of repayable loans to aid students entering the labour force as well as older persons requiring retraining. Repayment would be made out of future income according to ability to pay
  3. Planned increases of minimum wages that employers can anticipate.
  4. Improved access to good-quality public services such as libraries, public parks, bus services and safe streets for low-income people funded by taxpayers.
  5. Restructure executive remuneration at the high income end by paying executives out of current income rather than including some stock options.

(I am indebted to Professor Timothy Taylor, Macalester College for suggestions re 4. And 5.)

 

The Future of Employment – a Focus on Skills

January 7, 2018

Where will the jobs be – and how to prepare for them?

The answer depends in part on where you live and what age you are. Discussion of this question can be found in numerous places, authored by governments, think tanks and universities. Here I aim to address an audience of those in high school and university, but it may have some value for those already in the work force, since a main conclusion is that there will be fewer and fewer life-time jobs and many will have to retrain and requalify throughout their working life.

The chart found at the following site graphs how 16 labour force occupations by sector have changed between 1850 and 2015 in the US.

https://www.mckinsey.com/global-themes/future-of-organizations-and-work/what-the-future-of-work-will-mean-for-jobs-skills-and-wages

See Part 3, Exhibit 2.

The three categories above Agriculture (-55.9%) are:

Trade (wholesale and retail)

Construction

Transportation

The twelve categories below Agriculture are:

Manufacturing

Mining

Professional Services

Utilities

Business and Repair Services

Telecommunications

Healthcare

Entertainment

Education

Government

Financial Services

Source: McKinsey and Co. 2017

 

Two obvious changes are the vast reduction of those employed in the agriculture, shown by the shrinkage of the light blue area, and more recently the reduction of manufacturing jobs (dark blue). Each OECD economy would show similar changes modified by the physical location and a number of other factors affecting the geographic boundaries and natural and human resource endowment of the economy. Canada would be much like the US, but with a greater relative importance associated with natural resources such as forestry and mining.

The shrinking share of agriculture is associated with a vast increase in farming output, and the substitution of machinery such as tractors and combine harvesters. The manufacturing and other sectors have expanded their share of employment at the same time that it has shrunk in agriculture. Similar forces are at work today with manufacturing, which with automation has increased the demand for service sector employment associated with computer and communications related service activities. A main conclusion will be that it is more helpful to examine the skills that are likely to be needed in the economy than the changing share of the employment by sector.

 

Some facts about underlying changes

Employment takes place in different sectors of the economy; the share of employment by sector changes over time, sometimes slowly and today quite rapidly.

Existing sectors, as shown in the chart, can change the type of skills required and the arrival of new technology creates the need for new skills. (When you see the word skills think of education and training now and in the future).

For example, the agricultural sector employs fewer people today but the output of the sector has increased. Manual work was taken over by machinery such as tractors, and combines. At the same time the sector created new industries and jobs with employment rising in manufacturing, improvements in seed and cattle production and now the use of information technology. Output has grown in all sorts of ways.

A remarkable statistic shows that in 2012 the average American cow produced 22,000 lbs of milk each year compared with 5,300 lbs in 1950, an increase of 16,700 lbs per year or about four times as much a year. (I imagine a Canadian cow would be equally productive, although supply management may require it to work shorter days and take longer vacations.) With 1950 model cows, today’s 33 million Canadians could be supplied with a pound of milk per day by about just over two million cows. With today’s more productive cows, it would take about half a million cows, such has been the increase in productivity.

 Other sectors have seen a real shrinkage of employment. Horses no longer do the work of machinery so the work horse industry has declined to almost nothing, as have the people who bred horses. There is a horse industry but it is associated with equestrian events such as racing, show jumping, dressage, and circus performances.

In contemplating job opportunities look for situations of job creation and job destruction, as well as for education and training now and in the future.

 

Will technology eliminate jobs?

The lump of labour argument states that there is only so much work in an economy and that technology will reduce the need for work in the future. The facts show otherwise as argued by the “lump of labour fallacy,” namely that employment to-date shows the total amount of employment has increased over time, but the type of jobs has changed requiring different combinations of skills and development of new skills.

One difference today is that the rate of change has increased relative to most times in the past, and this has led to the need for retraining and re-education. Doctors and dentists undergo annual retraining seminars, academics do research and take sabbatical, teachers have PD days. People can train to be a nurse today, but will have to retrain to keep up to date with nursing skills. If in the future there is a declining need for nurses but an increased demand for MRI technicians then major retraining is required to operate this equipment.

My experience of training in economics and being an academic all my working life is not typical for many of those entering today’s work force. I was employed by several different universities but to teach economics in all instances. Part of my retraining came from doing research as well as teaching, including the use of online learning techniques. It was an evolving skill set that I had to learn.

 

What skills will be needed?

There is extensive research and reporting by economists and others on Future Work Skills and the education and training needed for a person to meet the likely needs. While economists and others don’t have a particularly good record of forecasting future jobs, they are better at suggesting what skills will be needed in the future, given the changes, technological and other, taking place. A focus on skills allows predictions to be made on the type of education and training likely to be needed.

 

Drivers of change – some examples

  1. People are living longer. With an older population, people may work to an older age, either full or part-time. They will have increased medical and care costs some of which can be provided by healthcare workers.
  2. Smart machines: these will be used to monitor healthcare needs for young and old persons. Security and defense are examples of other areas using monitoring techniques, such as the use of unmanned drones and security cameras.
  3. Technology now allows for massive amounts of information to be collected and manipulated in real time in areas such as medicine, security and education. This has allowed a computer to beat human chess players and win quiz games such as Jeopardy.
  4. New techniques of manipulation and communication of information has led to multimedia forms of communication. Oral, visual and written information can be created and stored for use anywhere on the planet, meaning that the footprint of an industry or occupation can be global
  5. Social media is a particular form of global footprint (Facebook, Twitter and email) where experimentation is taking place. I first used a computer in 1962. It was housed in a large air-conditioned room and processed input entered on punch cards in batches. Early portable computers weighed 25 lbs and had 64K memory. I first used email in 1989. Messages were sent and received with letters being written out slowly across a computer screen. Today we expect instantaneous receipt of the whole message together with pictures and sound.
  6. The world is connected globally so that information can be transmitted anywhere in the world that has the technical facilities. This expands the opportunities for all kinds of activity, medical, educational and other. It also allows for bad things to happen.

Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind – A Review

December 7, 2017

Yuval Harari, Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind (McClelland and Stewart, 2014)

 

There is no need to read this review of Sapiens by Yuval Harari as there are many excellent ones to read online, with praise offered by notables such as Barack Obama, Bill Gates and Jared Diamond. Harari is an historian at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, with a doctorate in history from Oxford. The author traces the origins and evolution of humans (homo sapiens) from 13.5 billion years ago, the Big Bang. Emphasis is placed on the past 200,000 years as humans are traced from Africa and their subsequent spread throughout the world. All inhabitants of North America, for example, are migrants from different times starting about 50,000 years ago.

Anyone who remains convinced that the Book of Genesis contains the genuine account of the creation of man and the universe should not bother with this book. The same goes for other religious beliefs about the universe’s beginnings. Accepted scientific findings to-date explain the origins in terms of the Big Bang.

Homo sapiens is one type of animal belonging to the genus homo. It has happened, largely by luck, to have become top-dog, so to speak, among other homos such as chimpanzees, gorillas and orang-utangs.

Harari traces the evolution of man through three stages, the Cognitive Revolution (about 70,000 years ago), the Agricultural Revolution (about 12,000 years ago) and the Scientific Revolution (500 years ago). How this is likely to end is the subject of another book Homo Deus to be reviewed later.

The Cognitive Revolution describes how sapiens evolves as hunter-gatherers to provide food and shelter for their families; the Agricultural Revolution sees the creation of a division of labour as family members specialize in certain tasks, with males undertaking farming activities on fixed plots of land, as opposed to wandering around gathering food, and females mind things on the home front; and the Scientific Revolution sees the development of new sources of power as, for example, steam power and later electricity and atomic power substitute over time for horsepower and manual labour. The outcome is today’s industrialized political economy found in many parts of the world.

Evidence of life in Cognitive times is found today in aboriginals living in Australia and in tribes travelling in the Amazon rainforest and places like Papua New Guinea. And examples of the Agricultural Revolution are found throughout Africa, and parts of Asia.

The book is written in clear non-jargon prose. Harari developed it for a course in world history and listened carefully to the feedback from students, the questions they asked and the clarification that was needed. Would that other textbook writers did the same thing. Aside from history, the author has a good grasp of economics, sociology and politics.

One set of concepts used throughout the book are terms like imagined order and myths to explain ways in which societies are organized. Formal education and family life teach people about the merits of families, the state, religions and things like paper money. The last is based on the belief that others will accept it in exchange for goods and services even though the paper notes have no intrinsic value. The structure of societies and their interaction is based on beliefs, which are accepted truths by people that things will happen or people will behave in a certain way. There is nothing concrete about these norms of behavior, but societies operate as though they should be followed. Laws are passed and attempts made to enforce them. When they are not accepted then conflict is likely to occur.

There is no substitute for reading this book. I have read it twice, and will use it as a reference in the future to explore a wide variety of topics covering different disciplines.

University Funding

October 7, 2017

A generous donation to Carleton University by the Nicol family is to fund a new commerce building to house the Sprott School of Business. One has to wonder whether this is the best use of the $10 million input to a $48 million building. Throughout universities many faculty offices are occupied only a few hours a week, as faculty work at home connected worldwide with their own computers. This has been the case since the early 1970s. University office sharing is an option as takes place in many businesses.

Another practice is online teaching which, while it will never altogether replace in class attendance, is increasingly being used in many disciplines. Check the Khan Academy website for one online example. Over time schools and universities will learn how to grant diplomas and credits which employers will recognize. This trend also works against creating more university space.

There will be no lack of suggestions as to how the Nicol donation could be used. An obvious one, at least to me, is financial support for students. Rising fees and reduced government funding increases the burden on students and their families. Nicol Fellowships could be created thereby spreading and perpetuating the Nicol name over numerous recipients rather than one building. Fulbright Fellowships, established in 1946, were named after Senator Fulbright. Although he provided none of the funding, his name lives on with fifty-four Fulbright alumni going on to win Nobel prizes.

Services are everywhere, some well and some less well paid

February 4, 2017

Economic policy is being driven by the belief that good paying manufacturing jobs are being lost and replaced by lower paying service sector jobs, and that the manufacturing jobs can be recovered by protectionist trade policies and subsidies.
It is the case that the share of employment classified as manufacturing is declining and that of services increasing, but the reasons and implications need to be understood. This phenomenon is occurring in all developed countries. A similar change took place in earlier times, when the share of employment in agriculture declined while agricultural output increased. The loss of agricultural jobs was offset at least in part by growth in other parts of the economy, especially manufacturing. What needs understanding today are overall changes in the economy and how jobs classified as manufacturing and services are recorded.

Employment data by firm and industry are collected on a plant and enterprise basis where the enterprise may consist of several plants. Each plant typically employs a combination of manufacturing and service sector personnel. The former include assembly line workers and the latter accounting, legal, secretarial and others. While the latter appear in national statistics as employees in the manufacturing sector, they are actually providing service-type employment.

If a firm decides to contract out the accounting and legal work to service sector firms which specialize in these activities, then manufacturing employment declines and services employment increases. Overall employment may remain unchanged.
(By the way a similar phenomenon occurs when plants and firms are allocated to industries. If a plant produces mainly automobiles but some bicycles, it will be allocated for reporting and data collection purposes to the industry where most of the production occurs, in this case automobiles. The bicycle industry will in turn under-report production of those bicycles produced in the automotive industry).

The loss of jobs in manufacturing can occur because manufacturing firms reorganize their operations by outsourcing service sector jobs. The reverse may be true if they insource certain services. The former case may be one reason for the loss of manufacturing employment. As technological change occurs, manufacturers are continually changing their production processes. The use of robots for humans on assembly lines will reduce the number of assembly line manufacturing workers, but increase the number of workers required to service the robotic equipment, positions that did not previously exist.

The services-manufacturing dichotomy means that a worker who uses a wrench on the assembly line is classified as a manufacturing employee, while a worker who programs a computer to instruct the robot to do the same work is a service worker. The distinction between what is considered manufacturing and services work can be messy.

Magnus Lodefalk, who has studied this issue for both Sweden and other industrialized countries, notes the following: (Review of World Economics (2014) 150:59-82)

Manufacturing in industrialised countries is intensifying its use of services, and there are indications that the share of services in total turnover is rising. On the input side, the ratio of bought-into value added services has increased since 1995 across all manufacturing industries, and in-house services production has also expanded. The manufacturing sector increasingly employs mathematicians, engineers, computing professionals and business professionals. Services used or produced by manufacturing firms include research and development (R&D) services but also extend to knowledge or intangible capital services more generally, as well as to services such as telecommunication and transport. On the output side, the share of services in total turnover also has grown since the mid 1990s for some countries. Regarding export, Lodefalk studies Sweden and finds that manufacturing’s service exports have more than doubled between 1998 and 2006. There are arguments for the ability of services to support exports in manufacturing. Services may help firms to overcome costly informal barriers, such as asymmetric information, in international trade. Changes on the demand side in industrialised countries are also likely to favour manufacturing firms that increase the services content of their offerings.”

 

 This is not to ignore the simultaneous growth of low paid service sector jobs in food and beverage operations and homecare businesses among other. What is happening is the simultaneous growth of highly paid skilled jobs in manufacturing and some services, and the growth of low paid service sector jobs in certain areas. The medium skilled jobs are in decline or growing slowly. A TED lecture by David Autor (Dec.2016) is worth viewing as it sets out how the skill structure of the labour force changes and is always changing.
The implications include the need for retraining existing members of the labour force and assuring that young people, new entrants, get the right skills. There is nothing new about such advice except that the speed of change may be faster now and educational and training institutions slower to provide the required skills. People can expect this to happen throughout their working lives.

Security versus Abundance

January 9, 2017

Economics is a discipline often introduced by focussing on scarcity, the scarcity of resources to satisfy human and animal wants, although the latter are usually ignored. An alternative approach is to focus on underutilized resources as illustrated by Uber and Airbnb. Both illustrate the absence of scarcity. Cars spend much of their lives parked and not providing transportation services, except as an option good for people to use when it suits them. Uber arose as owners decided that they could use their cars to make money when they were not needed to provide the owners transportation. The cars were underutilized resources and a way was found to make use of them. Scarcity was not the issue underutilization was.

The same could be argued for Airbnb where owners had space in their homes for others to use. Scarcity of living space could be reduced if not overcome in many societies if a process of sharing was organized. Bed and breakfast arrangements have been around for years and Airbnb is just a way of extending these hotel-like activities.

Anything which is a public good tends to be underutilized such as the text of a book, an empty park, road or beach. At home, wardrobes and chests of drawers hold clothing which is not being used. A surplus rather than scarcity is the issue because people want choice and are prepared to use their incomes to create options, but these require creating access to a surplus of clothing on hand.

Other examples illustrate not-scarcity, a surplus or underutilized resources include:

Cars being driven with no passengers, only the driver.

Truck owners try to avoid dead-heading by arranging full loads for their lorries travelling in both directions between two points.

Shops with unsold goods, especially when expensive and held for a long time. Annual sales are one way of disposing of surplus goods.

Buildings such as schools and universities which are only used for part of each day, and part of each year. Accommodation and lecture rooms are often hired out for other uses.

Empty warehouses and buildings of all kinds.

Trained workers unable to find paid work. OK, scarcity of jobs is the flip side to unemployment.

Underutilized resources occur with the sun in terms of both heat, light and energy as well as with wind, tides and waterfalls.

Recycling is a way of reducing scarcity by making more intensive use of resources.

This is not to suggest that scarcity is unimportant in examining economic issues, but to note that especially in high income societies, the issues are also often those of coping with underutilization not scarcity. If the focus is switched to developing countries, then there is obvious scarcity related to items like health, education, housing, safety, food, and water. And in developed countries examples of scarcity can be found. It just seems misleading to initiate the study of economics without noting that scarcity is not the only issue to address. Where scarcity is paramount is in the finite number of hours in the day, but these too can be underutilized.

Meeting with remarkable men – one occasion

January 3, 2017

In July 1966, I was fortunate enough to be introduced to and have lunch with Ronald Coase, the 1991 Nobel prize winner in economics. His citation included two articles, The Nature of the Firm and the Problem of Social Cost. Coase was a close friend of Basil Yamey his colleague at LSE and my PhD supervisor.

Coase and Yamey had undergraduate degrees in accounting and business before pursuing academic careers as economists. Both were interested in how firms worked and how and why transactions took place. For Coase, theory was derived from observation, and while he was not averse to mathematics, he felt it should come after studying actual agreements and how conditions and obligations were established.

In 2003, at age 93, Coase gave the Coase Lecture at the University of Chicago Law School. He said that he found it odd to be giving the Coase Lecture as every time he spoke it was a Coase lecture. What is of interest to economists today is his description of how the Nature of the Firm evolved, first as an undergraduate essay in 1929 which was turned into a published article in Economica in 1934, but which in 2003 he considered an undergraduate essay. At the time, he said the article drew no attention unlike his second famous article The Problem of Social Cost.

As a student while studying business and accounting at LSE Coase was awarded a travelling scholarship to the US where he visited a number of firms observing how production was organized at the plant level as well as at head office. A combination of lectures, onsite visits and interaction with other students, Coase viewed as a recipe for the development of both theories and policy alternatives. One implication today is the importance of both the school you attend and the calibre of fellow students. The two are probably related.
The lecture is posted on the University of Chicago Law School website under 2003 Coase Lecture.

Where will the jobs be? (2)

July 12, 2016

Those who subscribe to a “lump of labour” view believe that there is only so much work to be done, and when, for example, machines substitute for what was previously done by humans there is nothing more, or something less, for workers of any age, sex or race to do. I and many others don’t believe this is the case, but there are serious questions about what displaced workers will do and, for example, whether they can be retrained for other jobs.

In thinking about this question, consider the following, in no particular order:

  1. In countries like Germany and Japan, the population is ageing and the concern is for a future workforce shortage. This explains Germany’s welcome for refugees and displaced persons from the Middle East and Africa. Japan so far is reluctant to dilute its native population with foreigners, and will reap the consequences if it fails to do so. As people are living longer, the present retirement age can be extended providing partial relief, but there is a limit.

 

  1. Unemployment due to the need to adapt to changing technology – the Schumpeterian case of creative destruction – that is the introduction of different ways to produce familiar as well as new goods and services, gives rise to the need for retraining. This is easier for some, say younger folk, than others, but is an option that almost always occurs in similar circumstances. How fast workers can adapt is an issue. For example, a change from manual work to engaging with digitized production processes may require more of a generational change than a simple retraining course. If the change is too slow or virtually impossible then other measures, preferably of a temporary nature, can be tried.

 

  1. Young people have the flexibility to aim for employment in areas where demand is growing in both low and high skilled occupations, and to take courses accordingly. It is pretty obvious that in higher income countries there is strong demand for service sector employees in food and other types of retail operations. The job vacancy signs are posted in store windows as well as in help wanted electronic and other billboards. No, they don’t pay well, frequently offering minimum wage but they exist. Some taking these jobs may decide to experiment themselves by starting their own businesses.

 

  1. There is an active market for caregivers for old people (like myself) and for children in rich and poor countries as well as for healthcare workers. Where available nationals won’t apply for these jobs, temporary or permanent foreign workers are often hired. The work is there. The locals don’t want to do the jobs. In general, employment is increasing in the service sector in middle and upper income countries. There is no shortage of work, often a shortage of the type of work people may be willing to do.

 

  1. The educational and training paths may be out of whack with available job opportunities. A higher percentage of the population in upper income countries now go to university than previously, but the available jobs may not need degree training. Often a rewarding career in the trades benefits from attending community colleges where skills required from emerging technologies can be acquired. Past emphasis on the three Rs may now need the addition of skills like computer programming and apprenticeship-type programs. (I learned the basics of Fortran programming in the 1960s, and whereas I never followed this up and could not earn a living at it, I know what is involved. It may now be a necessary and rewarding skill in many industries subject to the use of computers.)

 

  1. There is considerable research available that addresses the question of where future job opportunities lie. I will refer to these in a future posting.

 

None of the foregoing suggestions involve rocket science. They do suggest ways of looking at the future labour market and its required skills. They do indicate a willingness to be adaptable and engage in life-long learning, something that recent technology facilitates. In my view, there is no fear of a finite lump of labour syndrome.

 

Where will the jobs be?

July 11, 2016

Global affairs is a stew with many ingredients and seasonings.  The flavours vary in different parts of the world. As of summer 2016, they include a US election, the fallout from Brexit, war and terrorism in the Middle East and parts of Africa, a stuttering Chinese economy and politics in the South China Sea, tensions on Russia’s European borders and events in numerous other places. Keeping track is challenging, let alone trying to understand how they interact.

 

An analysis of international affairs used to be simpler or at least appear to be. Parts of the world were not as connected as they are today, largely as a result of falling communication and transportation costs. These have lead to changes in the way people move, where and how they travel, as well as how, and the frequency with which they talk to each other.

 

When I moved to Canada from the UK over 60 years ago, it took ten days to travel from London to Vancouver by train, boat and train. A long distance phone call was exorbitant, the $3.00 per minute in 1962 dollars would translate into over $21.00 in today’s dollars. You just did not call. Snail mail and telegrams were a cheaper substitute. Few today using the internet would know how a telegram was transmitted and its cost. One result is that information and events which seemed to be unconnected no longer are, meaning that analysis and forecasting of events are much more difficult….at least for me.

The future for jobs?

Consider the issue of jobs and employment. With the mechanization of many jobs, how will future generations be employed? This question is frequently posed to grandparents enjoying , at least at the moment, a comfortable retirement. The following is one way to think about it.

First, reflect on what has happened to employment and occupations since the 1900s. The level of unemployment (employment) has fluctuated, but except for the 1930s and a few shorter periods it has been around 5% or less. WW2 solved the unemployment crisis and brought women into the workforce for wartime, if not later peace-time, production. It provided an enormous fiscal stimulus, and the immediate postwar period lead to civilian spending which was depressed during the war. When I first studied economics, a big macro question was whether there would be a return to the depression years. It did not happen for what now appears to be obvious reasons, but didn’t at the time.

Second, technological change always brings employment impacts in terms of level and type of jobs. Around 1900, about 25% of the labor force was in agriculture, today it is less than 2% in North America, while farming output has grown enormously, and with it rising labour productivity. But this took place with the growth of jobs associated with mechanization, and the development of improved strains of meat and crops. In a sense, jobs in agriculture morphed into jobs in machinery, equipment, agriculture research labs and firms producing new and improved plants and animals.  These were not counted as farm workers but in an indirect sense they were.

 

Similar adjustments took place in other industries as technology peculiar to those industries took hold, none more so than recently with the introduction of computers, the internet and all that. Jobs in almost all industries except perhaps hairdressing and undertaking have been affected. As new technologies are introduced, some jobs become obsolete while others open up often requiring a different type of education and training.

 

One difference is that today’s technological tsunami may be having a faster and perhaps more devastating effect on jobs than did the previous agricultural one. It has translated understandably into a political backlash as seen in both the US (Trump, Sanders and the dislike/distrust of Clinton) and Europe with Brexit, and the rise of mainly right wing political parties seeking to distance their countries from immigration, the EU and its bureaucracy.

 

How will this all pan out? Only God, Allah, Buddah or Brigham Young probably knows. I don’t. My gut instinct is that over time economic adjustments will be made that are not too disastrous for those of us and our children, who at present enjoy a remarkably high standard of living, at least relative to a century or even half a century ago. What it will require is for many existing workers to be retrained, and for new entrants to the labour force to receive a different type of education/training.

What type of education/training?

In the last 50 years, the proportion of people attending university has risen markedly as many feel that a degree is necessary for lifetime success. The data show that those with a degree tend to have higher lifetime incomes, than those with only a high school diploma. But at the same time many successful entrepreneurs were university dropouts including Bill Gates from Harvard – later he received an honorary degree from the university. People with technical training can often earn six figure salaries. Granted these are a small proportion of the population and workforce, but they point to one road to employment opportunities.

In recent years, community colleges providing education and training in the trades are experiencing increased enrollment as young people, and older people who have lost their jobs, receive training suitable for today’s workforce. This is merely a continuation of the idea apprenticeships and that education is a life-long process and not just undertaken at the start of life. A combination of university courses and trade skills is one option, as is a mix of academic courses and work related activities including apprenticeships. All point to adjustments being made and the need for these to occur during a person’s working life.

 

More on what and where are the jobs of the future? A topic for a future posting.