Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Jobless Experiences Contradict Political Claims

On Monday, President Obama hosted a video conference to answer questions submitted online and speak directly to a small group of voters and students. During the chat, a Fort Worth, Texas woman named Jennifer Weddel shared her husband’s personal story and used it to challenge the president on the nation’s employment situation. Her husband is a semiconductor engineer and has not been able to find permanent, full-time work in three years.

Weddel evidently recognizes this situation as contradicting the president’s claims about the availability of skilled labor jobs within American companies, but those same claims were precisely the response that Obama offered. He insisted that there is a great deal of demand for positions like those for which Weddel’s husband is qualified, and he reiterated the comments that he had made in the State of the Union Address to the effect that American high-tech companies want to hire American workers but cannot find enough of them with the appropriate skill sets. Furthermore, Obama offered to circulate the unemployed engineer’s resume among the companies that had been giving him that information.

Stories like this are all too familiar to me, and indeed to many of us. They illustrate the often stark, sometimes incredible differences between what private individuals experience and what persons and aggregates of persons claim from a position once-removed. There is clearly tension between Weddel’s story and the president’s claims. In this, it has to be that someone is disingenuous or misinformed.

Anecdotal evidence is unreliable in making general claims, but it is also the foundation for statistical data. Obama’s claims are based on anecdote, as well, provided to him by industry executives rather than low-level workers. At the same time, one surely need not look far to find other stories that parallel Weddel’s. Are those workers struggling because of some spectacular personal failing in their job search strategies? Conversely, are companies failing to connect with these workers because of deficiencies in their recruitment? If either or both of these explanations are entirely at fault, it’s a shame that the entire body of skilled laborers can’t channel their resumes through the White House.

I’m much more inclined to believe, though, that there are further explanations. For instance, perhaps the president’s industry contacts are not completely in earnest when they say that they want to hire American workers but can’t find them. That claim can be taken in different ways, one of which is that companies can’t find engineers whom they can hire for wages low enough to make it economically feasible for them to hire Americans over foreign workers. This might partly account for why according to figures utilized in last year’s Georgetown University study, of college graduates who majored in engineering, only thirty-two percent actually work in engineering. For many of those graduates, it may be economically preferable to take jobs that are outside of or only peripherally related to their field.

It seems to me that the president privileges the most optimistic interpretation of industry claims because he has been one of the most vocal supporters of the uncharacteristically simplistic assertion that whatever our problems are, more formal education will solve them. And the more fundamental assumption behind that thinking is that if one is qualified for a given type of job, he gets it. That too flies in the face of the lived experiences of many of the unemployed and underemployed (and those who, like me, are necessarily self-employed).

The president’s response to Mrs. Weddel could be seen as implying disbelief – a failure to comprehend why someone who purportedly has the skills necessary to be employed in a particular field hasn’t received a suitable offer. And the president should feel confused, because the great mass of citizens who are jostling for frightfully scarce positions feel that way with every resume that vanishes into the ether. But I worry that President Obama will not share in that feeling for long, because when his endorsement secures Weddel’s husband a job, it will be all too easy to believe that the only reason it took so long was because he hadn’t looked in the right place before. But that convenient explanation will do little good for engineer that I met who was working in a local cafĂ©, or any of the unemployed lawyers and teachers I’ve known, all of whom have been told, frequently and with sincerity, that the jobs are out there.

Monday, January 30, 2012

The McMillin Double-Standard

The Huffington Post a few days ago reported on a certain legislative conflict in the Indiana General Assembly. Republican Jud McMillin sponsored a bill to require drug testing of all welfare applicants in the state, leading Democrat Ryan Dvorak to introduce an amendment to levy the same requirement on members of the state legislature. As a result, McMillin temporarily withdrew the bill in order to reword it and try again.

This is a wonderful story, and it illustrates a breaking point I’ve been looking forward to for some time. Society needs to better recognize the responsibilities that holders of government office have to those entitlements that benefit them personally. Anybody who controls access to a good or service for other people should be subject to the most rigorous qualifications for their own access to the same. To structure a system otherwise is to invite conflicts of interest.

It belies his gratitude for the benefits of being on the government payroll if a legislator utilizes his salary, health benefits, and the like, but thinks nothing of limiting unemployment insurance or social security and erecting road blocks to such programs for citizens who rely on government money but can’t take it for granted as a sitting legislator can. It borders on dictatorial if a government official places some sort of burden of proof on his constituents in order that they may access something that he takes casually for himself.

It may seem sensible to place such restrictions on welfare recipients since they do not need to work for their entitlements as legislators have to work for their salaries. But the simple fact is that both groups derive personal benefit from their government, and it is unfairly and irresponsibly presumptuous to expect one and not the other to prove their worthiness, especially when one group is tasked with upholding the very system that feeds them both.

There’s no reason other than pure bigotry to think that poor people are more likely to be on drugs than are those who come from a socio-economic status that puts them close to the halls of power. But even if there was, if drug use ought to bar one’s access to government money, it ought to be a universal standard, and certainly not one from which assemblymen are exempt on the basis that they’re probably not on drugs anyway, so they don’t have to prove it. That would be a shockingly undemocratic double-standard.

If the poor owe it to their country to prove their worthiness for its entitlements, government officials owe it to their country to prove their own worthiness on the basis of the very same standards, and more besides. If your very livelihood is the preservation and improvement of the government that pays your salary and ostensibly serves its constituents’ interests, you should feel the full extent of what that government demands of its citizens. Government servants should never take government for granted, lest they lose sight of what it means to the rest of us.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Keystone XL and General Flaws in Media

I recall that a few years ago I received e-mails from Media Matters for America on a very regular basis. Since that time they seem to have substantially reduced their commitment to direct mailing, which is for the best since in that same time the quality of their content has plunged catastrophically. I used to be able to count on them for advocacy that, while it did come overwhelmingly from one side of the political divide, called attention to genuine factual errors in politically skewed news reporting.

Now, when I receive a communication or call to action, or listen to the Media Matters Minute, or browse their featured content the message that the group is trying to convey is little more than, “Can you believe this familiar asshole said this latest thing that is obviously disagreeable to us?”

Media Still Matters?

That’s why it came as such a welcome surprise when a mass e-mail from Media Matters’ Matt Butler presented us readers with actual research and factually-oriented objections to widespread news reporting. The partisan bias is as evident as it ever has been, but I don’t rush to demonize bias in and of itself. Obviously, I have a dense collection of my own biases, but I like to think that they are subject to new information and that I respect data far over and above my ideological commitments. We interpret data differently based on our biases, as I’m sure I will do with the subject at hand, but I think it’s perfectly reasonable for me to expect that responsible politicians, media personalities, and especially media watch dog groups ought to make every one of their arguments on the basis of something substantive, as opposed to just ranting and making shit up.

The staff at Media Matters is probably by and large opposed to the Keystone XL pipeline. I am, too. But the organization’s e-mail served to share a legitimate and potentially significant study of media coverage of the issue. They’re pushing a certain interpretation of the data, but even if their views and mine didn’t align on this, it would still do my heart good to see data in the first place.

Necessary Balance vs. Harmful Balance

The first data point cited by Media Matters is already a shocking indication of inaccuracy and inconsistency in news reporting. According to their research, sources quoted and interviewed on the topic of Keystone XL were differently split among support, opposition, and neutrality depending on for what type of news media they were being interviewed. Print media relied on pro-pipeline sources 45 percent of the time, and opponents 31 percent of the time. Cable networks, on the other hand, gave 59 percent of their attention to proponents and only 16 to opponents. Broadcast television was even more wildly unbalanced, making 79 percent of their sources for the pipeline and only 7 percent against.

Though Media Matters doesn’t say it explicitly, the liberal track record they have developed suggests to me that they take these figures to mean that popular sources of news are probably distorting the issue to indicate that there is far more support for the pipelines than there is. That’s actually not my concern. It could just as well be the case that public opinion really is overwhelmingly in favor of the pipeline, and that print media is for some reason giving more time to a the minority view than that view’s influence warrants. As far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t matter in towards which side the coverage tilts. What bothers me is the outrageous inconsistency. Regardless of which side the media or particular parts of it is trying to take, the inescapable conclusion here is that either print or television journalists are effectively lying.

Media Matters indicates its bias on the issue through its breakdown of the distribution of views on major cable networks and major newspapers. Fox News and the Wall Street Journal naturally extended more air time and print space to proponents of the pipeline. By way of contrast, Media Matters identifies the New York Times and MSNBC as being the most balanced in their respective media categories. While this is technically true given the numbers, the word “balanced” is something of a loaded term, and anyone who makes a career or a pastime of criticizing Fox News should recognize its manipulative use.

The perceived virtue of “balance” is among the most harmful notions in the news media today. A balance of two issues only contributes positively to the public understanding of it if there is a legitimate divide in public opinion on that issue. MSNBC and the New York Times are right to provide roughly equal time to opponents and proponents of Keystone XL only if expert opinion in fact divides in that way. Otherwise, they are manufacturing balance to obfuscate the actual state of discourse and put their presumptive conclusion on equal footing even if it doesn’t belong there.

No outlet ought to do this, no matter how much I personally agree with their point of view. Of course, I don’t know whether the Times and MSNBC are the best or the worst representatives of the state of expert opinion. It could be that the vast majority of economists agree that it will create substantially many permanent jobs, and that such economists vastly exceed the percentage ecologists who believe that it will devastate the environment. Or it could be that experts are evenly split on each separate issue. I don’t know, because unfortunately there’s nobody in the country whose job it is to tell me these things.

Rhetoric of Emphasis

On the other hand, I give Media Matters much credit for taking the responsibility upon itself to tell me exactly what other organizations have been telling me. As I indicated above, it could be that media imbalance between opposition and advocacy is justified because there’s an actual imbalance in expert opinion on the pros and cons of the issue. That justification doesn’t really apply, though, if a news organization privileges one type of expertise over another when both are relevant to understanding the issue and resolving the conflict between alternatives. According to Media Matters’ data, that is just what most of the media has done in this case.

Its second data point tracked how often each of four topics was mentioned in broadcast, cable, and print media. These topics were job creation, environmental concerns, US energy security, and criticism of the state department review. The former two appear to both be foundational to this issue, yet Media Matters found that in broadcast media job creation was mentioned in 67 percent of all coverage, but environmental concerns were raised in only 17 percent. On cable the discrepancy was 77 to 34 percent. Only in print was there a rough balance of the two issues, with job creation being mentioned in 68 percent of articles and environmental concerns in 65 percent.

This is an instance where balance is decidedly a virtue. It may be that the raw number of economic advocates of Keystone XL is enormously greater than the raw number of environmental opponents, but the number of active voices on each topic says nothing about the legitimacy of their claims. When the issue is a pipeline designed to carry tar sands oil across much of the Midwestern United States, the environment is a self-evidently legitimate subject to cite in either advocacy or opposition.

Even if there were only a dozen ecologists who had formed opinion on the potential impact of building the pipeline and ten of them thought there would be no environmental damage whatsoever, that is still something that needs to be pointed out to readers and television viewers. The only excuse for discounting one aspect of such a dialogue is if consensus has already been formed and the result is common knowledge among the public. This is clearly not the case with Keystone XL. In fact, it seems that many people still do not understand just how poisonous to the environment tar sands oil is.

Specific Failings

Beyond these two general points, Media Matters addresses a series of specific details regarding the pipeline, TransCanada, and the studies surrounding them that the media seemingly failed to address adequately. These are all well worth understanding both for the sake of drawing conclusions regarding the pipeline itself and assessing the value of the media’s role in informing the public on it. However, the above general data points are particularly significant to criticism of overall media practices as they are likely to apply to entirely different stories.

Both these practices and the particular details that Media Matters addresses point to the rhetorical power of omission. Of course, with respect to the criticisms of specific omitted details, Media Matters is possibly playing the opposite game and misidentifying the absence of their preferred bias as the presence of a contrary bias. On the other hand, no such counter arguments truly apply to observation of vast discrepancies in the general type of information that is covered by different media organizations. That situation gives the awful impression that someone of those who are charged with informing the public, and perhaps all of them, are routinely lying to us.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Only Taxing the Rich is Bad, Says O'Driscoll

The Yahoo! Finance web series the Daily Ticker today consisted of an interview with Gerald O’Driscoll, former Vice President and economic advisor at the Dallas Federal Reserve, and a senior fellow at Cato Institute. He was asked whether there was anything that either the Fed or Washington could do to spur job creation, and naturally O’Driscoll quickly turned to criticizing President Obama’s tax policies, describing the raising of marginal tax rates on millionaires and billionaires as economically destructive.

The interviewer reminded O’Driscoll of the counter-arguments that would come from the presidential administration and its supporters, then asked: “Do you make a distinction between taxes whether they’re aimed at individuals or corporations, or is it – bottom line – raising taxes on anybody is bad for the economy?”

I think that question presented O’Driscoll with a pretty clear choice: is the problem simply taxation in general within a weak economy, or is it taxation of businesses? Yet O’Driscoll appears to have avoided that simple choice and opted to advance an entirely different perspective.

He began, “Well I would say that raising taxes on the…” and then paused at length, searching for the right synonym for “wealthiest Americans.” I found that pause very telling. He knew about whom he was talking, but he needed to phrase it in a way that served his ends. Using the phrase “the rich” is perfectly clear to every viewer, but using the phrase “the source of savings and investment” obfuscates what we’re talking about and makes it harder to attach an image to the subject, but easier to affix it to a concept. So that was the phrase that O’Driscoll settled on, saying that raising taxes on the source of savings and investment is bad for the economy.

Now, did you notice how that avoids the simple one-or-the-other choice that he was given with the question? For simplicity, let’s drop the more pleasant synonym and just acknowledge that he’s talking about the rich. So when he’s asked whether it’s bad, in a weak economy, to raise taxes full-stop, O’Driscoll’s answer is really no, it’s bad to raise taxes on the rich in particular. Theoretically, his point of view leaves open the possibility of raising taxes on the poorest American’s without expectation of consequence. Of course, this is something that several Republicans have actually advocated, but it’s quite amazing to see that such callous initiatives have a theoretical underpinning.

O’Driscoll continues by rebuking the president for ostensibly failing to understand that most business are not C Corporations and thus are not taxed separately from their owners, “So when you raise taxes on individuals, you’re raising taxes on the business, and hence… you’re inhibiting job creation.”

I almost admire how the language of this quotation allows O’Driscoll to exclusively designate millionaire business owners as “individuals.” Raising taxes on lower or middle class workers doesn’t raise taxes on business. Even raising taxes on millionaires who primarily earn their income from things like investments in businesses they don’t own is not equivalent to raising taxes on businesses. Do neither of these groups count towards the discussion? That seems suspiciously convenient for O’Driscoll’s argument.

Essentially, that argument seems to be that it’s destructive to raise taxes on extremely wealthy individuals, because they might use some of their own wealth to invest in the businesses they own or from which they profit. Meanwhile, by this line of thinking, there is no particular problem with raising taxes on people who will definitely use a portion of their slight income to purchase things like food, clothing, and gas.

I admit that my understanding of economics is rather rudimentary, but it seems to me that a sure-fire way to create jobs is by raising demands for goods and services, thus increasing the size of the workforce required to supply that demand. Unless I’m wrong about that, it’s pretty asinine to suggest that allowing the wealthy to hoard their money while thinking nothing of depriving the poor of theirs is the best way to stimulate the economy. Sure, business owners need personal wealth to invest in their industries. But why on Earth would they do so if demand for what they’re offering remains flat.

By contrast, if a wealthy American is legitimately interested in earning the highest margins from his business, he would be a fool not to make investments to match growing demand, unless of course his wealth has been taxed out of existence. But I hardly think anybody’s proposing that, and I certainly don’t think that paying a thirty-five percent marginal rate would cripple a billionaire’s investment capabilities.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Shifting the Liability for Job Training

I think President Obama delivered a fine speech last night. I am particularly impressed with his remarks regarding higher education and unemployment. For the past three years, I have tried to be a particularly aggressive and passionate critic of the current administration’s policies and rhetoric regarding education policy. And more than that, for the past five years or so I’ve tried to direct that aggression towards certain common beliefs among American society as a whole. Maybe I haven’t been paying attention, but it seems to me that President Obama has changed course on the topic overnight, so that he is no longer peddling the easy answers that we’re used to or defending the status quo, but rather offering challenging and innovative alternatives.

After discussing the topics of renewed manufacturing and tax incentives to prevent outsourcing, the president changed direction slightly and said “I also hear from many business leaders who want to hire in the United States but can’t find workers with the right skills.”

Call me jaded, but I’ve never been particularly persuaded by that argument. It seems to me that if a business leader wants to hire within the United States, he can do so. If that is his earnest desire, but his prospective employees lack the necessary skills, it is at least theoretically possible for the business to take it upon itself to provide Americans with the requisite training. To my surprise, that was precisely what the president went on to propose.

He first presented the anecdote of a worker who was laid off, but at a time when a local community college and a new manufacturing plant had formed a partnership whereby the company helped to design the curriculum that would lead directly to the jobs that were now needed, and then paid the tuition for the laid off worker and hired her to operate the plant.

The president continued: “I want every American looking for work to have the same opportunity as Jackie did. Join me in a national commitment to train two million Americans with skills that will lead directly to a job.”

What an extraordinary, and yet extraordinarily simple concept! Prior to this, the only recommendations I’ve ever heard from the administration have been, give students more Pell grants, more Stafford loans, keep down the interests rates – all so that people who have not yet entered the job market have to take on a little bit less of a financial burden before they ever have a shot at being decently employed.

Could this new initiative actually signal the beginning of the end of this current climate, in which training is accepted as exclusively the responsibility of the worker and not the employer? Could this mean that in the near future, young people and laid off laborers won’t be asked to pick a vocation, pay hand over fist for the skills associated with it, and then simply gamble on the possibility that it will be available to them after two-to-four years?

Now, I’m sure I may seem glib in that I seem to be advocating for saving workers from the fruitless sacrifice of money and time by asking employers to do exactly the same. Some manufacturers can afford the risk, but not all can. In the latest issue of the Atlantic, Adam Davidson writes an article on American manufacturing, using Standard Motor Products in Greenville, S.C. as a case study. He explains that industrial profit margins in general, and Standard’s in particular, are remarkably slim, meaning that hiring more unskilled workers or paying them higher wages can put the entire business at legitimate risk. Furthermore, in order to be a Level 2 worker at a Standard plant, one needs to know programming languages and high-level mathematics. Consequently, “the gap between Level 1 and Level 2 is so wide that it doesn’t make financial sense for Standard to spend years training someone who might not be able to pick up the skills or might take that training to a competing factory.”

Given that reality, it certainly seems unfair to ask a company to bite the bullet and risk its own survival on doing the right thing for American workers. But it’s no less unfair to demand an untenable investment from a company than it is to demand if from an individual worker. They too risk their economic survival in taking out loans or removing themselves from the workforce for a period of years in order to acquire skills that, while necessary, may or may not actually lead to employment. No matter how lean its profit margins are, a company with stock valued at $400 million has more financial resources than a twenty-two year-old single mother working as an unskilled laborer.

There are ways around the sever risk involved in both providing and acquiring high-level training. Companies must first recognize that as their operations become more complex, training costs escalate as an element of initial overhead. It is unreasonable to expect that with greater automation and output, workers will be more and more capable to perform their functions before they even arrive at your door. Worker skills are an investment in the future of the company and the industry. Of course, they are also an investment in the future of the worker, but no man should be asked to make a substantial financial investment before he has even held a job.

So how about treating collegiate level training as an initial expense by the company, and a retroactive financial obligation for the worker? That is, a company can promise to hire from a pool of young applicants, then send pay their tuition upfront to the associated university, and subsequently deduct the cost of the education from each such worker’s pay over the course of their employment. Some might be averse to such an arrangement because it sounds like indentured servitude. But that’s the system that we already have; the only difference would be that the worker would be indentured to an employer rather than a bank. Also, for some there would be the added difference of actually being employed under the proposed system, as opposed to highly trained and still out of work.

The interests of both employer and employee can be protected. If a worker wishes to take their new skills to another plant, they can remain under contract to repay the cost of their training to their initial employer. By contrast, if a company fires the employee without cause, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to necessitate that they release the worker from that financial obligation in whole or in part.

Sacrifice is often necessary if one is to make it in this world, but there is no cause for one person or one organization to have to take on unbearable strain for the mere privilege of being employed or employing another. That has been the situation for too long – with people at every level of society, from government, to business, to private citizenry insisting that each new job seeker simply get an education whatever the expense and then hope for the best. It is high time that we rediscover what it means to share the burden. For the first time that I can remember, I think that with regard to education there may actually be some support within the government for that noble idea.