The number of suicides related to unemployment remains stubbornly high despite the improving economy, according to a study published this week.
Researchers had previously registered a spike in suicides during the global economic crisis that began in 2008, suggesting that financial stress and hardship had contributed to the rise. But an analysis published on Tuesday in The Lancet Psychiatry by doctors at the University of Zurich in Switzerland estimates that about 5,000 suicides were associated with the crisis, while roughly nine times as many self-inflicted deaths are linked to unemployment each year.
Former Twitter engineer and Simple co-founder Alex Payne writes in response to yet another rant by venture capitalist Marc Andreesen:
We could go back and forth all day on what exactly defines technological change – I certainly have before. But what labor wants is self-determination, not a slowing of technological change. Taxi drivers protesting Uber aren’t saying that they want apps out of their cabs. They want leverage to negotiate wages and working conditions so they aren’t barely scraping by. The pushback is on exploitative business models, not technology.
“Let markets work”, you say, “so that capital and labor can rapidly reallocate to create new fields and jobs.” Well, we’re three decades into an era of systemic deregulation and financialization. The result? Global recession, lingering structural unemployment, and an accumulation of capital at the top of the economic pyramid. In this climate, capital has indeed “rapidly reallocated” … into hard-to-tax, hard-to-regulate asset classes like fine art. Small business loans are still crunched and austerity reigns while tens of billions in corporate profits sit in off-shore tax shelters.
The “severe macroeconomic down cycle, the credit crisis, deleveraging, and the liquidity trap” that you mention in passing? We “let markets work”, and that’s what we got in return. It’s been a failed experiment for everyone but the 1%. Dismissing “the crisis of inequality” as just a “pessimistic economic theory” has not been, historically, a move that’s gone well for aristocracy.
I’ve been calling the “sharing economy” the Urchin Economy, as in street urchin, named for the street kids that are always hanging around in fiction set during the Victorian period, ready to accept a schilling or two to do some chore for a protagonist. They have no job security, no safety net, they’re treated as if they’re utterly disposable. Of course today, there’s always some high-tech middleman looking to take a cut of these transactions.
I also tried to explore some of these ideas in my short story “The Faraday Bag“:
A bunch of my friends found work through this app where young guys–and it was always guys––could have people come over and clean their dishes, do their laundry, that sort of thing. I did that a couple times. Then a guy complained that he wanted “an American” to do his chores for him. I told him I was born in the U.S. and that my family had lived here for two generations. He gave me a one-star review, and I haven’t been able to find work through the app since.
Nicole Aschoff on the “Alt-Labor” movement, such as the Walmart and fast food strikes:
University of Colorado-Denver management professor Wayne Cascio has shown, through a comparison of Walmart/Sam’s Club and Costco, that low wages are not necessary for high profits and productivity. Costco employees average roughly $35, 000 per year ($17 per hour), while Sam’s Club workers average roughly $21, 000 per year ($10 per hour) and Walmart workers earn an average of less than $9 an hour. Costco also provides it workers predictable, full-time work and health benefits. However, contrary to popular assumptions, Costco actually scores higher in relative financial and operating performance than Walmart. Its stores are more profitable and more productive, and its customers and employees are happier.
Costco is not exceptional. Zeynep Ton, of MIT’s Sloan School of Management, has studied retail operations for a decade and argues that “the presumed trade-off between investment in employees and low prices can be broken.” “High-road” employers like Trader Joe’s, Wegmans, and the Container Store have all found ways to make high profits and provide decent jobs. Catherine Ruetschlin’s research shows that a modest wage increase—bumping up the average annual salary of Walmart or Target workers to $25,000—would barely make a dent in big retailers’ bottom line, costing them the equivalent of about 1% of total sales. Even if a company like Walmart passed on half the cost of the increase to customers, the average customer would pay roughly $17 more per year, or about 15 cents per shopping visit. And, considering most low-wage workers spend nearly their entire paycheck on necessities, the industry would see a boost in sales ($4 billion to $5 billion more per year) to its own workers. Fast-food companies are highly profitable. McDonald’s alone saw profits more than double between 2007 and 2011. They could easily send some of these profits downstream to franchise owners and workers.
So why do most big retailers and fast-food chains insist on a bad-jobs or “low road” model? There are a few reasons. MIT’s Ton argues that labor costs are a large, controllable expense, and retailers generally view them as a “cost-driver” rather than a “sales-driver.” Store-level managers are pressured by higher-ups to control labor costs as a percentage of weekly or monthly sales. And because store managers have no control over sales (or merchandise mix, store layout, prices, etc.) they respond to pressure from above by cutting employment or forcing workers to work off-the-clock when sales dip. Another factor is financialization—the increasing dominance of finance in the economy. Firms feel a lot of pressure from Wall Street to be a Walmart and not a Costco. As Gerald Davis has argued, the rise of finance and the dominance of “shareholder value” rhetoric have resulted in an emphasis on short-term profits that register in increased share prices and big CEO bonuses.
This is encouraging, but the possibility of fast food companies switching to “less-costly, automated alternatives like touch-screen ordering and payment devices” is not an idle threat. I’ve seen something like this setup in the food court at the JFK airport. But as I wrote earlier, cultural issues could stop this from becoming widespread — it’s not clear that customers will settle for robots and touch screens over human beings. But I sure wouldn’t rule it out.
Tim Maughan uses design fiction to sketch a vision of our precarious future:
Nicki is awake even before her mum calls her from the other side of the door. She’s sat up in bed, crackly FM radio ebbing from tiny supermarket grade speakers, her fingers flicking across her charity shop grade tablet’s touchscreen. She’s close to shutting down two auctions when a third pushes itself across her screen with it’s familiar white and green branded arrogance. Starbucks. Oxford Circus. 4 hour shift from 1415.
She sighs, dismisses it. She’s not even sure why she still keeps that notification running. Starbucks, the holy fucking grail. But she can’t go there, can’t even try, without that elusive Barista badge.
Which is why she’s been betting like mad on this Pret a Manger auction, dropping her hourly down to near pointless levels. It says it’s in back of house food prep, but she’s seen the forum stories, the other z-contractors who always say take any job where they serve coffee, just in case. That’s how I did it, they say, forced my way in, all bright faces and make up and flirting and ‘this coffee machine looks AMAZING how does it work?’ and then pow, Barista badge.
Zygmunt Bauman interviewed on the subject of the “precariat”:
The notion of precariat seems quite general and vague to many people. Who are therefore the precarians?
The “general” and “vague” character of the notion of precariat bothers people accustomed to the division of society into “classes” and, in particular, to the phenomenon of “proletariat” or its idea, which the concept of “precariat” should, in my conviction (but not only mine), replace in the analysis of social divisions. In comparison to its successor, proletariat appears indeed almost as an emblem of the “specific” and “concrete”…
How easy it was, when compared to precariat, to determine its content and limits… But the fluidity of composition is one of the features defining the phenomenon of precarity; one cannot get rid of that fluidity without making the notion of “precariat” analytically useless. […]
What issues do, in your opinion, differentiate precariat most distinctly from proletariat? To what extent can one connect the two notions? And finally: is precariat a social class?
Well, I have serious doubts about that. I would prefer to call precariat a social category. The mere similarity of situation is not enough to transform an aggregate of individuals bearing similar characteristics into a “class” – that is, into an integrated group willing to pursue common interests as well as proceeding to integrate and coordinate actions stemming from that will. If workplaces of the times of “solid modernity” were, irrespective of the kind of products manufactured, also the factories of social solidarity, liquid-modern workplaces are, irrespective of their business objectives, the producers of mutual suspicion and competitiveness.
One could argue that the resurgence of our cities does not necessarily portend the fall of the suburbs. But while many cities have been benefiting from an influx of wealth, the suburbs have been suffering a rise in poverty. From 2000 to 2010, the number of poor in the suburbs or the nation’s largest metro areas grew by 53 percent to a record 15.3 million. And while poverty has increased in cities as well, the growth rate in the number of poor living in the suburbs was more than twice that in cities during the decade—and the suburbs are now home to the largest and fastest-growing poor population in the country. This isn’t just the Great Recession at work; as early as 2005, the suburban poor outnumbered their city counterparts by almost a million. “We think of poverty as a really urban phenomenon or an ultra-rural phenomenon. It’s increasingly a suburban issue,” says Elizabeth Kneebone, Brookings fellow and coauthor of a recent Brookings book on the topic, “Confronting Suburban Poverty in America.”
But as with most things, decay isn’t evenly distributed. More affluent suburbs are “revitalizing”:
Some developers have actually turned their focus on these dead or dying malls. Ellen Dunham-Jones, architecture professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and June Williamson, associate professor of architecture at the City College of New York, have documented this phenomenon in their book, “Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs,” a comprehensive look at efforts to retool, reinhabit, or return to nature abandoned suburban forms. In some cases, this means turning gargantuan forgotten malls into hip, urbanized residential villages. One such experiment is under way in Lakewood, Colorado, an affluent suburb west of Denver. The former Villa Italia shopping mall, a 1.2-million-square-foot indoor mall built in 1966 that had fallen on hard times, has been turned into Belmar, 104-acre pedestrian-friendly community that has apartments, condos, town houses, office space, artists studios, and a shopping and entertainment promenade on twenty-two walkable, urbanized blocks. Now, instead of turning into the mall’s giant parking lot, you end up cruising along a downtown main drag, Alaska Street, which is lined with old-fashioned streetlights, coffee shops, boutiques, and restaurants. There are more than a thousand housing units, which range from town houses to loft condominiums to small-lot single-family homes, as well as a row of ground-floor artist studio and business incubator spaces. A public art project called “Urban Anatomy” has installed small works of art and fragments of poetry on manhole covers, sidewalk joints, and grates throughout the development, highlighting overlooked details of the urban environment.
The whole setup is definitely still suburban—the new urbanized village includes a Zales, Yankee Candle, and Sur La Table—but these suburbanites can leave their loft apartments on foot, pick up an espresso, and go hear a poetry reading, all on a site where Foley’s, Dillard’s, Montgomery Ward, and JCPenney once sat. There are dozens of these projects at other malls around the country. “It’s time to let the suburbs grow up,” Dunham-Jones says.
Why have Western security agencies developed such an unprecedented capacity to spy on their own domestic populations? Since the 2008 economic crash, security agencies have increasingly spied on political activists, especially environmental groups, on behalf of corporate interests. This activity is linked to the last decade of US defence planning, which has been increasingly concerned by the risk of civil unrest at home triggered by catastrophic events linked to climate change, energy shocks or economic crisis – or all three.
Here’s my article for Wired about why so many scientists ended up working in the tech industry:
Tech companies are snapping up scientists with backgrounds in fields like physics, mathematics and bioscience — people we might expect to be busy curing cancer, saving the environment or discovering the origin of the universe. It’s easy to be cynical about this. “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads,” former Facebook data scientist Jeff Hammerbacher told Business Week in 2010. But it’s happening for a reason.
It’s not that tech companies need people with PhDs. Many of the best data scientists in the business only have bachelor’s degrees. It turns out that many scientists are moving into tech because opportunities aren’t as prevalent as you might think.
The U.S. produced 100,000 PhDs between 2005 and 2009, while creating only 16,000 new professorships, according to data cited by The Economist. Though we’re used to hearing about PhDs in the humanities ending up as low-paid adjunct professors or baristas, we tend to expect another fate for people who major in fields like bioscience or physics. But even the natural sciences produce more PhDs than professorships. […]
Those that do land jobs are often frustrated. “Scientists spend more time chasing funding than thinking about the science,” Berkolz says. And because funding sources are so risk adverse, the type of research funded tends to be conservative. “Scientists are supposed to be all about falsifiability,” Miller says. “But your job as a professor is to never be wrong. It’s hard to be intellectually experimental when you’re a scientist.”
In Issac Asimov’s classic science fiction saga Foundation, mathematics professor Hari Seldon predicts the future using what he calls psychohistory. Drawing on mathematical models that describe what happened in the past, he anticipates what will happen next, including the fall of the Galactic Empire.
That may seem like fanciful stuff. But Peter Turchin is turning himself into a real-life Hari Seldon — and he’s not alone.
Turchin — a professor at the University of Connecticut — is the driving force behind a field called “cliodynamics,” where scientists and mathematicians analyze history in the hopes of finding patterns they can then use to predict the future. It’s named after Clio, the Greek muse of history.
These academics have the same goals as other historians — “We start with questions that historians have asked for all of history,” Turchin says. “For example: Why do civilizations collapse?” — but they seek to answer these questions quite differently. They use math rather than mere language, and according to Turchin, the prognosis isn’t that far removed from the empire-crushing predictions laid down by Hari Seldon in the Foundation saga. Unless something changes, he says, we’re due for a wave of widespread violence in about 2020, including riots and terrorism. […]
There are competing theories as well. A group of researchers at the New England Complex Systems Institute — who practice a discipline called econophysics — have built their own model of political violence and concluded that one simple variable is sufficient to predict instability: food prices. In a paper titled “The Food Crises and Political Instability in North Africa and the Middle East,” they explain that although many other grievances may be aired once the violence begins, the cost of food is the primary trigger. They make a similarly grim prediction: large-scale riots over food, beginning around October of this year.