The Rentier Economy: A Primer (Part 2)

My plan for this week’s post was to present further data about the extent of the rentier economy and then provide a digest of articles for further reading.

Turns out that wasn’t so easy. The data is there, but it’s mostly buried in categories like corporate capitalization, profits, and market concentration. Extracting it into blog post sized nuggets wasn’t going to be that easy.

Further, the data was generally only footnoted in a maelstrom of worldwide commentary. Economists and journalists treated it as a given, barely worthy of note, and were much more interested in revealing, analyzing, and debating what it means. The resulting discourse spans the globe — north to south, east to west, and all around the middle — and there is widespread agreement on the basics:

  • Economic thinking has traditionally focused on income from profits generated from the sale of goods and services produced by human labor. In this model, as profits rise, so do wages.
  • Beginning in the 1980’s, globalization began moving production to cheap labor offshore.
  • Since the turn of the millennium, artificial intelligence and robotics have eliminated jobs in the developed world at a pace slowed only by the comparative costs of technology vs. human labor.
  • As a result, lower per unit costs of production have generated soaring profits while wages have stagnated in the developed world. I.e., the link between higher profits and higher wages no longer holds.

Let’s pause for a moment, because that point is huge. Erik Brynjolfsson, director of the MIT Center for Digital Business, and Andrew McAfee, principal research scientist at MIT, wrote about it in their widely cited book The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies (2014). The following is from a chapter-by-chapter digest  written by an all-star cast of economists:

Perhaps the most damning piece of evidence, according to Brynjolfsson, is a chart that only an economist could love. In economics, productivity—the amount of economic value created for a given unit of input, such as an hour of labor—is a crucial indicator of growth and wealth creation. It is a measure of progress.

On the chart Brynjolfsson likes to show, separate lines represent productivity and total employment in the United States. For years after World War II, the two lines closely tracked each other, with increases in jobs corresponding to increases in productivity. The pattern is clear: as businesses generated more value from their workers, the country as a whole became richer, which fueled more economic activity and created even more jobs. Then, beginning in 2000, the lines diverge; productivity continues to rise robustly, but employment suddenly wilts. By 2011, a significant gap appears between the two lines, showing economic growth with no parallel increase in job creation. Brynjolfsson and McAfee call it the “great decoupling.” And Brynjolfsson says he is confident that technology is behind both the healthy growth in productivity and the weak growth in jobs.

Okay, point made. Let’s move on to the rest of the rentier story:

  • These trends have been going on the past four decades, but increased in velocity since the 2007-2009 Recession. The result has been a shift to a new kind of job market characterized by part-time, on-demand, contractual freelance positions that pay less and don’t offer fringe benefits. Those who still hold conventional jobs with salaries and benefits are a dying breed, and probably don’t even realize it.
  • As non-wage earner production has soared, so have profits, resulting in a surplus of corporate cash. Low labor costs and technology have created a boom in corporate investment in patents and other rentable IT assets.
  • Rent-seeking behavior has been increasingly supported by government policy — such as the “regressive regulation” and other “legalized monopoly” dynamics we’ve been looking at in the past few weeks.
  • The combination of long-term wage stagnation and spiraling rentier profits has driven economic inequality to levels rivaled only by pre-revolutionary France, the Gilded Age of the Robber Barons, and the Roaring 20’s.
  • Further, because the rentier economy depends on government policy, it is particularly susceptible to plutocracies, oligarchies, “crony-capitalism,” and other forms of corruption, leading to public mistrust in big business, government, and the social/economic elite.
  • These developments have put globalization on the defensive, resulting in reactionary politics such as populism, nationalism, authoritarianism, and trade protectionism.

As you see, my attempt to put some numbers to the terms “rent” and “rentier” led me straight into some neighborhoods I’ve been trying to stay out of in this series. Finding myself there reminded me of my first encounter with the rentier economy nine years ago, when of course I had no idea that’s what I’d run into. I was at a conference of entrepreneurs, writers, consultants, life coaches, and other optimistic types. We started by introducing ourselves from the microphone at the front of the room. Success story followed success story, then one guy blew up the room by telling how back in the earliest days of the internet, he and Starbucks’ Howard Schultz spent $250K buying up domain names for the biggest corporations and brand names. Last year, he said, he made $76 Million from selling or renting them back.

He was a rentier, and I was in the wrong room. When it was my turn at the mic, I opened my mouth and nothing came out. Welcome to the real world, my idealistic friend.

As it turns out, following the rentier pathway eventually leads us all the way through the opinionated commentary and current headlines to a much bigger worldwide issue. We’ll go there next time.

Gonna Be a Bright, Bright, Sunshiny Day

We met Sebastian Thrun last time. He’s a bright guy with a sunshiny disposition who’s not worried about robots and artificial intelligence taking over all the good jobs, even his own. Instead, he’s perfectly okay if technology eliminates most of what he does every day because he believes human ingenuity will fill the vacuum with something better. This is from his conversation with TED curator Chris Anderson:

“If I look at my own job as a CEO, I would say 90 percent of my work is repetitive, I don’t enjoy it, I spend about four hours per day on stupid, repetitive email. And I’m burning to have something that helps me get rid of this. Why? Because I believe all of us are insanely creative… What this will empower is to turn this creativity into action.

“We’ve unleashed this amazing creativity by de-slaving us from farming and later, of course, from factory work and have invented so many things. It’s going to be even better, in my opinion. And there’s going to be great side effects. One of the side effects will be that things like food and medical supply and education and shelter and transportation will all become much more affordable to all of us, not just the rich people.”

Anderson sums it up this way:

“So the jobs that are getting lost, in a way, even though it’s going to be painful, humans are capable of more than those jobs. This is the dream. The dream is that humans can rise to just a new level of empowerment and discovery. That’s the dream.”

Another bright guy with a sunshiny disposition is David Lee, Vice President of Innovation and the Strategic Enterprise Fund for UPS. He, too, shares the dream that technology will turn human creativity loose on a whole new kind of working world. Here’s his TED talk (click the image):

David Lee TED talk

Like Sebastian Thrun, he’s no Pollyanna:  he understands that yes, technology threatens jobs:

“There’s a lot of valid concern these days that our technology is getting so smart that we’ve put ourselves on the path to a jobless future. And I think the example of a self-driving car is actually the easiest one to see. So these are going to be fantastic for all kinds of different reasons. But did you know that ‘driver’ is actually the most common job in 29 of the 50 US states? What’s going to happen to these jobs when we’re no longer driving our cars or cooking our food or even diagnosing our own diseases?

“Well, a recent study from Forrester Research goes so far to predict that 25 million jobs might disappear over the next 10 years. To put that in perspective, that’s three times as many jobs lost in the aftermath of the financial crisis. And it’s not just blue-collar jobs that are at risk. On Wall Street and across Silicon Valley, we are seeing tremendous gains in the quality of analysis and decision-making because of machine learning. So even the smartest, highest-paid people will be affected by this change.

“What’s clear is that no matter what your job is, at least some, if not all of your work, is going to be done by a robot or software in the next few years.”

But that’s not the end of the story. Like Thrun, he believes that the rise of the robots will clear the way for unprecedented levels of human creativity — provided we move fast:

“The good news is that we have faced down and recovered two mass extinctions of jobs before. From 1870 to 1970, the percent of American workers based on farms fell by 90 percent, and then again from 1950 to 2010, the percent of Americans working in factories fell by 75 percent. The challenge we face this time, however, is one of time. We had a hundred years to move from farms to factories, and then 60 years to fully build out a service economy.

“The rate of change today suggests that we may only have 10 or 15 years to adjust, and if we don’t react fast enough, that means by the time today’s elementary-school students are college-aged, we could be living in a world that’s robotic, largely unemployed and stuck in kind of un-great depression.

“But I don’t think it has to be this way. You see, I work in innovation, and part of my job is to shape how large companies apply new technologies. Certainly some of these technologies are even specifically designed to replace human workers. But I believe that if we start taking steps right now to change the nature of work, we can not only create environments where people love coming to work but also generate the innovation that we need to replace the millions of jobs that will be lost to technology.

“I believe that the key to preventing our jobless future is to rediscover what makes us human, and to create a new generation of human-centered jobs that allow us to unlock the hidden talents and passions that we carry with us every day.”

More from David Lee next time.

If all this bright sunshiny perspective made you think of that old tune, you might treat yourself to a listen. It’s short, you’ve got time.

And for a look at a current legal challenge to the “gig economy” across the pond, check out this Economist article from earlier this week.

Brave New (Jobs) World

“The American work environment is rapidly changing.
For better or worse, the days of the conventional full-time job
may be numbered.”

The above quote is from a December 5, 2016 Quartz article that reported the findings of economists Lawrence Katz (Harvard) and Alan Krueger (Princeton, former chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers) that 94% of all US jobs created between 2005 to 2015 were temporary, “alternative work” — with the biggest increases coming from freelancers, independent contractors, and contract employees (who work at a business but are paid by an outside firm).

These findings are consistent with what we looked at last time:  how neoliberal economics has eroded institutional support for the conventional notion of working for a living, resulting in a more individuated approach to the job market. Aeon Magazine recently offered an essay on this topic:  The Quitting Economy:  When employees are treated as short-term assets, they reinvent themselves as marketable goods, always ready to quit. Here are some samples:

“In the early 1990s, career advice in the United States changed. A new social philosophy, neoliberalism, was transforming society, including the nature of employment, and career counsellors and business writers had to respond. (Emphasis added.)

“US economic intellectuals raced to implement the ultra-individualist ideals of Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman and other members of the Mont Pelerin Society…In doing so… they developed a metaphor – that every person should think of herself as a business, the CEO of Me, Inc. The metaphor took off, and has had profound implications for how workplaces are run, how people understand their jobs, and how they plan careers, which increasingly revolve around quitting.

“The CEO of Me, Inc. is a job-quitter for a good reason – the business world has come to agree with Hayek that market value is the best measure of value. As a consequence, a career means a string of jobs at different companies. So workers respond in kind, thinking about how to shape their career in a world where you can expect so little from employers. In a society where market rules rule, the only way for an employee to know her value is to look for another job and, if she finds one, usually to quit.”

I.e., tooting your own résumé horn is no longer not so much about who you worked for, but what you did while you were there. And once you’re finished, don’t get comfortable, get moving. (This recent Time/Money article offers help for creating your new mobility résumé.)

A couple years ago I blogged here about a new form of law firm entirely staffed by contract attorneys. A quick Google search revealed that the trend toward lawyer “alternative” staffing has been gaining momentum. For example:

This May 26, 2017 Above the Law article reported a robust market for more conventional associate openings and lateral partner hires, but included this caveat:

“The one trend that we see continue to stick is the importance of the personal brand over the law firm brand, and that means that every attorney should really focus on how they differentiate themselves from the pack, regardless of where they hang their shingle.”

Upwork offers “Freelance Lawyer Jobs.” “Looking to hire faster and more affordably?” their website asks. “ Tackle your next Contract Law project with Upwork – the top freelancing website.”

Flexwork offers “Flexible & Telecommuting Attorney Jobs.”

Indeed posts “Remote Contract Attorney Jobs.”

And on it goes. Whether you’re hiring or looking to be hired, you do well to be schooled in the Brave New World of “alternative” jobs. For a further introduction, check out these articles on the “Gig Economy” from Investopedia and McKinsey. For more depth, see:

The Shift:  The Future of Work is Already Here (2011), by Lynda Gratton, Professor of Management Practice at London Business School, where she directs the program “Human Resource Strategy in Transforming Companies.”

Down and Out in the New Economy: How People Find (or Don’t Find) Work Today (2017), by University of Indiana Anthropology Professor LLana Gershon — the author of the Aeon article quoted above.

Next time, we’ll begin looking at three major non-human players in the new job marketplace:  artificial intelligence, big data, and robotics. They’re big, they’re bad, and they’re already elbowing their way into jobs long considered “safe.”