GFB Update 4:1, 2014 


A monthly newsletter on the vast and underappreciated world of current affairs books


Prepared by Michael Marien

In This Issue: Inequality, Workplaces, and Good Jobs
The Second Machine Age
Jobs and Changing Workplaces
Remedies for Fuller Employment

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Technology Rapidly Driving Inequality 


(Book of the Month)

The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee (W. W. Norton, Jan 2014, 306p) makes three important points:   

1) A strong case is presented that "we're living in a time of astonishing progress with digital technologies," that computers will continue to improve, and that "we're at an inflection point" where the curve starts to bend sharply upwards; 

2) A more problematic argument follows that "the transformations brought about by digital technology will be profoundly beneficial" due to increased "bounty"; 

3) The third key idea is most important and provocative: that technological progress, as it races ahead, will leave some people behind, "perhaps even a lot of people," and that growing "spread" of the technological bounty is a major problem. The authors of this well-written bestseller go on to discuss growing inequality of skills and superstars as the biggest winners in emerging "winner-take-all" markets. Of special note is the warning that the advantages of low-cost labor in developing nations will largely disappear by installing robots and other types of automation.

Both of the authors are at the MIT Center for Digital Business, probably not the best place for an objective analysis of the long-term pros and cons of digital technologies for all people. But, to their credit, they do focus on technology as the major driving force underlying growing inequality worldwide, and they devote several chapters to a wide range of strategies for dealing with labor force challenges.

In a March 2014 interview on National Public Radio,

Brynjolfsson suggested that "we need to get the diagnosis right before we come to prescriptions." However, as indicated below, there are many recent books and reports on this central issue. What is really needed is an ongoing consolidation of the literature, pointing our similarities and differences in remedial agendas, highlighting best practices worldwide, and taking action to pursue them. "More research" is too often an excuse for inaction!

Inequality, Workplaces, and Good Jobs
(Special Feature )


Inequality Several excellent overviews sketch the contours of growing inequality within and between nations. Report of the World Social Situation 2013 (United Nations Publications, June 2012, 128p) examines key drivers of inequality, the impact of rising inequality, key trends in social/economic/spatial inequalities, why inequality matters, and the potential role of empowerment. The Atlas of Global Inequalities by Ben Crow and Suresh K. Lodha, both at the University of California-Santa Cruz (University of California Press/Myriad Editions UK, Feb 2011, 128p), uses informative maps, charts, and brief discussion to show differences within and between countries in economic inequalities, power inequalities, social inequalities, inequalities of access (to food, water, energy, digital technology), access to healthcare and education, and environment inequalities (climate change impacts, deforestation, air and water pollution). Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Professor Thomas Piketty of the Paris School of Economics (Harvard University Press/Belknap Press, March 2014, 685p) analyzes data from 20 countries back to the 18th century, arguing that the main driver of inequality--economic forces concentrating more and more wealth into the hands of the few-will almost surely continue, threatening extreme inequalities that stir discontent and undermining democratic values.

Divided We Stand: Why Inequality Keeps Rising, a report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD, Dec 2011, 388p), explains the widening of wage gaps and household income over the past three decades in a large majority of OECD countries, major underlying forces (globalization, technology, institutional and regulatory reforms), and the most promising policies to counter increasing gaps. Inequality in America: Facts, Trends and International Perspectives by Uri Dadush et al. (Brookings Institution Press, Aug 2012, 100p) also points to the rise of income inequality since the late 1970s and calls for increased investment in crucial public goods, a more progressive tax system, and international cooperation to avoid a race to the bottom. The Price of Inequality: How Today's Divided Society Endangers Our Future by Columbia University economist Joseph E. Stiglitz (W.W. Norton, June 2012, 352p) argues that moneyed interests compound their wealth by stifling true capitalism, crippling growth, trampling on the rule of law, and undermining democracy; he offers a plan for a more just and prosperous future. Aftershock: The Next Economy and America's Future by former US Secretary of Labor Robert B. Reich (Knopf, Sept 2010, 174p) views the main cause of the Great Recession as the structural problem of increasing concentration of income and wealth at the top, and a middle class going deeply into debt; he calls for a New Deal based on wage supplements, a carbon tax, higher taxes on the rich, a re-employment system, and wage insurance. Changing Inequality by Rebecca M. Blank, formerly at the Brookings Institution (University of California Press, Sept 2011, 240p) views the sharp rise in inequality as mostly due to increases in wage inequality, and critically assesses four ways to reduce the gap: improving skills (effect would be small), increased earnings (won't begin to catch up with earnings of higher-income people), increasing marriage to reduce poverty (small effects only), and an increased safety net (not likely to substantially reduce economic inequality).

   Jobs and Changing Workplaces


Jobs are important, but the nature of work is changing for the worse. World Development Report 2013: Jobs (World Bank, Oct 2012, 420p) stresses that jobs are the drivers of development, shows that the best policy responses vary across countries, and explores the notion of the "good job" in that some jobs do more for economic and social development than others. Good Jobs America: Making Work Better for Everyone by Paul Osterman of MIT and Beth Shulman of DEMOS (Russell Sage Foundation, Sept 2011, 200p) argues that there are not enough jobs to go around, far too many jobs fall below the standard of "decent work," and a quarter of working adults are trapped in jobs that do not provide living wages or much hope of upward mobility; examples are provided, however, of how bad jobs can be made into good ones. Good Jobs, Bad Jobs: The Rise of Polarized and Precarious Systems in the United States, 1970 to 2000s by Arne L. Kallenberg of the University of North Carolina (Russell Sage Foundation, 2011, 312p) shows the rise of "precarious employment" since the 1970s due to government deregulation, global competition, and weakened worker protections; the growth of low-wage precarious jobs with few benefits and no long-term security will continue in the absence of long-term counter-strategies. The Fissured Workplace: Why Work Became So Bad for So Many and What Can Be Done to Improve It by David Weil of Boston University (Harvard University Press, Feb 2014, 392p) offers the novel interpretation that large corporations have shed their role as direct employers, in favor of outsourcing work to small companies that compete fiercely with one another; the result has been declining wages, eroding benefits, inadequate health and safety conditions, and ever-widening income inequality. Handbook of Unethical Work Behavior: Implications for Individual Well-Being edited by Robert A. Giacalone of Temple University and Mark D. Promislo of Rider University (M.E. Sharpe, 2013, 360p) covers discrimination, ostracism, abuse, bullying, aggression, violence, revenge, fraud, corruption, and the long-term costs of short-term thinking. (No indication is given in the publisher's catalog as to whether these behaviors are increasing, but it would seem likely.)

The Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has issued two very interesting and disturbing reports on the relationship of disability and of mental health to work. Sickness, Disability, and Work: Breaking the Barriers. A Synthesis of Findings Across OECD Countries (OECD, Oct 2010, 105p) describes a "social and economic tragedy common to nearly all OECD countries," where too many workers leave the labor market permanently due to health problems or disability, and too few people with reduced work capacity remain in employment. Despite improvement of average health status in OECD countries, large numbers of working-age people are leaving the workforce to rely on long-term sickness and disability benefits. A series of major reforms are needed to promote better incentives for workers, employers, doctors, and service providers to tighten inflows and raise outflows from disability benefits, and encourage job retention and new hiring of people with health problems. Sick on the Job? Myths and Realities about Mental Health and Work (OECD, Jan 2012, 206p) notes that mental illness is responsible for a "very significant loss of potential labor supply, high rates of unemployment, and a high incidence of sickness, absence, and reduced productivity at work." A conservative estimate from the ILO puts the costs of mental ill-health in the EU at 3-4% of GDP. "Today, between one-third and one-half of all new disability benefit claims are for reasons of mental ill-health, and among young adults that proportion goes up to over 70%." Moreover, there is an "urgent" need to address mental health problems in the workplace, since many jobs can cause strain or exacerbate mental illness. The OECD calls for more prevention and early intervention, shifting focus away from severe to common mental disorders and sub-threshold conditions, and greater focus on those who are employed rather than inactive.

  Remedies for Fuller Employment


Methods Working Towards Sustainable Development: Opportunities for Decent Work and Social Inclusion in a Green Economy (International Labour Office and Edward Elgar, 2012, 288p) argues that a green economy is necessary to realize sustainable development, and with the right policy mix it can also create more and better jobs, lift people out of poverty, and promote social inclusion; a new development model is needed that puts people, fairness, and the planet at the core of policymaking.
Towards a Greener Economy: The Social Dimensions (International Labour Office, 2012, 102p) argues for policies that will reallocate jobs from high- to low-polluting sectors, lead to a quicker economic recovery, and increase decent work opportunities. Skills for Green Jobs: A Global View by Olga Strietska-Ilina et al. (International Labour Office, Feb 2012, 442p) examines the experiences of 21 developed and developing countries in adjusting their training provision to meet the demands of a greener economy; skills development is critical to unlocking the employment potential of green growth, yet skills shortages are becoming an obstacle to realizing this potential. Good Green Jobs in a Global Economy: Making and Keeping New Industries in the United States by David J. Hess of Vanderbilt University (MIT Press, Oct 2012, 304p) notes the policy victories of "blue-green" alliances, largely at the state and local levels, and the prospect of a green transition reflecting tectonic shifts in the global economy.

Work Sharing During the Great Recession: New Developments and Beyond edited by Naj Ghosheh and Jon C. Messenger (International Labour Office and Edward Elgar, May 2013, 250p) examines this important labor market instrument to spread a reduced volume of work over the same number of workers in order to avoid layoffs; if properly designed and implemented, work sharing can be a "win-win-win" for workers, businesses, and governments. Analyzes programs in nine countries, synthesizes lessons learned, and shows how work sharing can improve well-being and encourage more sustainable economies. Social Justice and Growth: The Role of the Minimum Wage (International Labour Office, June 2012, 120p) describes minimum wages as a lever to reduce poverty and inequality and to stimulate the economy, "living wage" campaigns in the US, current debates in Europe, efforts to strengthen minimum wages in Brazil and India, and the Asia Floor Wage Initiative in Southeast Asia's garment industry. Rethinking Workplace Regulation: Beyond the Standard Contract of Employment edited by Katherine V.W. Stone of UCLA and Harry Arthurs of York University (Russell Sage Foundation, Feb 2013, 440p) notes that recent changes in technology and the global economy have dramatically eroded the traditional form of secure employment, as employers increasingly hire employees for short-term or temporary work. Contributors from 10 countries describe legal attempts to update the employment contract, regulatory strategies in labor relations such as the Dutch version of the "flexicurity" model, and legislation to influence labor market institutions. Marginal Workers: How Legal Default Lines Divide Workers and Leave Them without Protection by Ruben J. Garcia (New York University Press, Jan 2012, 192p) argues that labor and employment laws are supposed to protect employees from poor wages, bad working conditions, and unfair dismissal, but the rights of many marginal workers (immigrants, women, guest workers, etc.) are often dictated by constitutional and immigration laws; argues for a new paradigm in worker protection based on human rights and freedom.

Better Skills, Better Jobs, Better Lives: A Strategic Approach to Skills Policies (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, May 2012, 120p) argues that, without proper investment in skills, people languish on the margins of society, and technological progress does not translate into economic growth. OECD's Global Skills Strategy helps countries to identify strengths and weaknesses of their national skills systems, benchmark them internationally, and develop policies that can transform better skills into better jobs, economic growth, and social inclusion. For skills to retain their value, however, they must be continuously maintained and upgraded throughout life. Time for the U.S. to Reskill? What the Survey of Adult Skills Says (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Oct 2013, 110p) finds that "low basic skills are more common in the U.S. than on average across countries." One in six U.S. adults have low literacy skills, compared to 1 in 20 in Japan; nearly 1 in 3 US adults have weak numeracy skills, against a cross-country average of 1 in 5. There are few signs of improvement: "today, adults in the US have similar or weaker literacy skills to their counterparts in the mid-1990s, and the average basic skills of young adults are not very different from older persons." Concerted action is needed to improve basic skills and tackle inequalities, linking efforts to improve basic skills to employability and responding to the diverse challenges of different groups. Global Employment Trends for Youth 2013: A Generation at Risk (International Labour Office, Aug 2013, 70p) finds that little progress has been made in reducing youth unemployment in the advanced economies, while youth unemployment rates are expected to remain the same or increase in most developing regions. In sum, the "youth employment crisis" continues in all economies.  



This is a mere outline of synthesizing scholarly work that urgently needs to be done on a continuing basis: going further into the books and reports listed above, identifying similar books and reports (both recent publications and in the publisher's pipeline), comparing similarities and differences, providing a full listing of policies aimed at enhancing employment, and analyzing the full costs and benefits of each. Such work is not done for at least two reasons.

First, there is a huge divide between the work of individual scholars and the integrative reports of major international organizations (the UN, the World Bank, and especially OECD and ILO), which is scarcely recognized, if ever, and is certainly as scholarly and important as the work by individuals or a handful of scholars, as clearly indicated by the reports mentioned above.

Second, many scholars assume-falsely-that integrating the work of others is not a form of scholarship. This obsolete assumption is addressed in the seminal report of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate by the late Ernest L. Boyer (Princeton University Press, 1990, 147p), which articulates four kinds of scholarship: the traditional Scholarship of Discovery, the Scholarship of Teaching, the Scholarship of Application, and the Scholarship of Integration (making connections across the disciplines, placing the specialties in larger context, illuminating data in a revealing way, etc.) "As the boundaries of human knowledge are being dramatically reshaped, the academy surely must give increased attention to the scholarship of integration." (p.21) But it has not, and people and societies suffer, not only from lack of attention to bigger integrated pictures, but also to the scholarship of application: communicating the findings in many ways to the widest possible audience.

Unfortunately, the Carnegie Foundation report did not provide specific examples of needed integration. This biblio-essay suggests a concrete application regarding the related issues of growing inequality, changing workplaces, and the quantity and quality of jobs. As Boyer concluded: "to sustain the vitality of higher education in our time, a new vision of scholarship is required, one dedicated not only to the renewal of the academy but, ultimately, to the renewal of society itself." (p.81) This rings true today, more than ever. 

Global Foresight Books is an experimental nonprofit website, the 21st century successor to Future Survey, a monthly publication that Michael Marien founded and edited for the World Future Society. Please visit GFB often, use it freely as a resource, tell your friends (click Forward, below), and think wisely about current affairs.