Friday, July 21, 2017

Are we facing "Robocalypse Now?"

For ages there have been concerns about workers being displaced by machines.  remember Ned Ludd?  John Henry?  With the growth of machine learning and artificial intelligence, those concerns have become heightened recently.

Basic economics says that the introduction of a new advanced technology will have two effects on the labor market: (1) there will be some displacement of workers whose skills are no longer in demand (e.g., blacksmiths and the automobile, bookkeepers and the computer) and (2) the extra wealth created by more efficient production methods will lead to increased demand for a wide range of products.

MIT economist David Autor has taken a look at the historical evidence on productivity enhancements and displacement.  Exploring 19 countries over 35+ years, he finds that the displacement definitely happens and is sizable within the affected industries.  However, employment actually ends up growing overall.

The downside is that some skilled workers are displaced and lack attractive options.  This means we face a challenge creating new opportunities for the unskilled and medium-skilled workers who are most likely to be affected.  The full report can be found here.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Go play your video game

Young men are becoming less and less likely to be in the labor force or in school.  How are they spending their time, compared to comparable young men a generation ago?  Apparently no small number of them are spending their extra time playing video games.

Chicago Booth economist Eric Hurst has just released his study of time allocation of jobless young men.  Men aged 21 to 30 are working 203 fewer hours than 15 years ago; men aged 31 to 55 are working 163 fewer hours.  Older men used their extra free time on TV, sleeping, eating and personal care; younger men used theirs on recreational computer time, mainly video games.  On average young men game 3.4 hours weekly.  Hidden underneath that average is a wide dispersion, with many clocking zero hours but some spending 20 or more.

There is a bit of a chicken-egg problem in interpreting the results.  One possibility is that the games are so enthralling that they become an alternative world with amenities superior to everyday existence.  In this case a job may never be seen as an attractive option.  Alternatively joblessness leads to free time and in today's age video games have transplanted other forms of idleness such as watching television or hanging out at the mall.  Perhaps it is no coincidence that some companies are using video games as part of their hiring process?

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Seattle hits some bumps on the path to a $15 minimum wage

Two years ago I blogged about the $15 minimum wage.  At that time the mainstream view among economists was that federal and state minimum wage laws had a modest, negative impact on employment.  The wave of $15 minimums passed recently by numerous cities is uncharted territory because (1) the increases are so large and at such variance from federal and state minimums and (2) many businesses -- especially those in service industries -- can easily relocate to avoid paying the higher wage.

We now are getting the first wave of economic research looking at the impact of the $15 minimum.  At the beginning of this year, companies with more than 500 employees in Seattle had to pay a minimum wage of $15 an hour.  The minimum is now $11 for most other employers and will increase to $15 for all by 2021.  So what has been the impact on firms and workers?

A new study of the Seattle labor market has found that incomes of low wage workers have fallen since the minimum was hiked.  This has happened because employers cut back on work schedules.   Wages increased by 3% but hours fell by 9%, resulting in an overall drop in income of over $100m per year for low-wage workers.  Overall employment did not change, but employers substituted more highly skilled workers for low-wage workers which made the latter group worse off.

The Seattle study will continue and researchers will be looking at other cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco that have hit the $15 mark.  The sure winner from these minimum wage changes -- data-hungry labor economists.