This Writer Thinks San Francisco’s Dilemma Could Affect the Nation

By combining the ideal that every working man and woman is entitled to a living wage of at least $15 an hour with the justice of requiring those who would substitute automation for human labor to forfeit a penalty, California may drive many businesses out of state and force many others to close. Or so thinks this writer for The Wall Street Journal.
 
 
 Fully-automated Amazon distribution center warehouse

Amazon recently received proposals from cities hoping to host its second headquarters. A number of California localities—including Los Angeles, Sacramento, Pomona and Chula Vista—were in the mix. But the tech titan should tread carefully in the Golden State, where policy makers are studying punitive measures against companies that use workplace robots.

San Francisco City Supervisor Jane Kim during an interview at City Hall.  Photo: Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

The latest example is a statewide campaign launched this fall by Jane Kim of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Ms. Kim intends to raise money to support a statewide ballot measure that would penalize private enterprise for embracing automation in the workplace, as Amazon has done in its warehouses.

“The idea is simple: if an employer replaces a human worker with a robot or algorithm, he or she would pay a tax,” according to the “Jobs of the Future Fund” website. It continues, “If we can expect millions of Californians may lose their job, it is our responsibility to prepare now through a modest tax on the robots and algorithms taking their place.

While Ms. Kim would like to tax the robots, some of her colleagues would prefer to eliminate them. Earlier this year San Francisco Supervisor Norman Yee proposed a ban on delivery robots. “Our streets are made for people,” he proclaimed. In an interview, Mr. Yee said he was concerned that “many delivery jobs would disappear” if such a ban were not enacted. He later amended the proposed ordinance to create a robot permitting process with geographic restrictions.

The workplace trend toward self-service and automation has indeed made some occupations obsolete. Customers have been accustomed to bagging their own groceries for at least a decade. Restaurant chains such as McDonald’s and Panera Bread are now rolling out kiosks that allow customers to place their own orders. And the automated delivery devices targeted by Mr. Yee will render some delivery jobs obsolete.

 Employees displaced by technology might appreciate that these San Francisco politicians are concerned, but an apology might be more appropriate. Over the past few years, San Francisco in particular, and California in general, has increased the cost to hire and train employees at risk of being automated. The minimum wage will rise to $15 an hour in San Francisco in 2018. The rest of California will get there four years later. On top of San Francisco’s hourly wage mandate are requirements for health care, paid leave and employee scheduling.

These added costs give employers with already slim profit margins a strong incentive to automate or embrace self-service. In an interview with Forbes, the founder of a delivery robot company linked his product’s value proposition to a rising minimum wage: “At something like $10 per delivery, the majority of citizens will not use [human delivery]. It’s too expensive.”

The empirical evidence supports the anecdotes: An August study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research linked a rising minimum wage to an increase in unemployment for workers in jobs that require a large number of routine tasks. The authors reported that it wasn’t just service-industry jobs at risk. A rising minimum wage also had a negative effect on job opportunities for older, less-skilled employees in manufacturing.

Instead of spurring self-reflection among advocates for new labor mandates, these consequences have inspired them to propose new laws to solve the problems caused by old ones. Consider the irony: San Francisco voters were promised in 2014 that the minimum-wage initiative backed by Ms. Kim would increase consumer spending by north of $100 million—without affecting employment. Now money from the new robot-tax proposal will be used to offset a reduction in job opportunities, in part caused by the rising minimum wage.

These misconceptions put the livelihood of employers and employees at risk. Mr. Yee’s suggestion that a ban on delivery robots would help save drivers’ jobs is a dangerous confusion of consequence and cause. If customers are unwilling to underwrite a $15 hourly wage for food delivery, and employers are prohibited from embracing an automated alternative, they’ll either stop delivering food or close their doors.

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Kitchen workers in a California restaurant

This is already happening in San Francisco. A study this year from Harvard Business School and Mathematica Policy Research economists found an increase in the closure of median-rated restaurants associated with the city’s rising minimum wage.

Automation can’t be stopped, and it will change more than the service industry. Earlier this year a PricewaterhouseCoopers report estimated that nearly 40% of U.S. occupations are at a high-risk of automation in the next two decades. But states like California are accelerating the trend by creating labor-cost mandates that exceed the productivity of employees to which they apply. It’s futile to try to resist the downward slope of the labor demand curve. Instead California’s do-gooder legislators should study up on the law of unintended consequences.

Mr. Saltsman is managing director at the Employment Policies Institute.

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Denying Ex-Prisoners Jobs Robs Both Applicant and Market of Needed Work – Part Four

This is the conclusion of the four-part article on men with prison terms who have difficulty getting work after they are released.

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Jeffrey Menteer, who is 26 and lives in northwestern Pennsylvania, has applied for 15 jobs since June, when he completed a six-month prison term for a gun possession charge. A company that makes screen doors told him it might hire him after he gets off parole in October. Other than that he has found nothing. He said his criminal record was making it hard to find work.

“Between that and my race, black living in a white town, it’s tough,” he said.

He worked steadily as a logger for about five years before he was arrested. He made about $800 a week except in the spring, the off-season for the tree-cutting business. Now he lives with his parents, and the only money he makes is from occasional work shoveling snow.

“I don’t really blame them, but I wish they’d be a little more open-minded,” he said of local employers. “People do change.”

These concerns, and a wave of stories like Mr. Menteer’s, have catalyzed efforts to legislate protections.

The first “fair chance” law was passed by Hawaii in 1998. The law prohibits most private employers from inquiring about criminal history until after making a conditional job offer. Then the offer can be revoked only if the offense is relevant.

In just the last few years, the list of jurisdictions with similar laws has expanded rapidly, although the details vary: Some apply only to public sector jobs, others allow background checks at earlier stages in the hiring process, and they all include long lists of exemptions.

Still, the trend is clear enough that several of the nation’s largest employers, including Walmart, Home Depot and Target, have also stopped asking about criminal records at the beginning of the job application process.

Breaking the Cycle

The current debate, however, is largely about mulligans: giving people a second chance after a fairly isolated mistake. It does not address the underlying cycles of crime and incarceration that plague many men in lower-income communities.

Gregory Payne, 52, worked for a company that made insurance manuals in Santa Monica, Calif., after graduating from high school. He said he lost the job when he needed care for a daughter who was ill.

“I had two kids and an apartment, and the only fast money I could see was dealing drugs,” he said. He was caught, went to prison, got out, said he couldn’t find work and returned to dealing. He served 16 months, then three years, then another three years and a final four years on top of that.

“You keep doing the things that get you the money because you can’t get other jobs,” he said.

About seven years ago, he left his life in Venice, on the PacificCoast, and moved with a newborn son to California City, about 100 miles inland. He said he hadn’t used or sold drugs since moving, but employers don’t seem any more interested.

“Your record hurts you, man,” he said. “In certain cases, I understand. They got a right to say no if you’re stealing and robbing people. I wouldn’t hire you myself. But people who went up for drugs?”

Last year, California passed a “ban the box” law but, at least for Mr. Payne, it came too late. He qualified for federal disability benefits two years ago and said he had no immediate plans to seek work.

Mr. Mirsky is more hopeful that New Jersey’s new law will help him find work.He says he hopes that he has hit bottom. In November a friend put him in touch with an agency that places workers in short-term jobs.

He said that most of the other men also have criminal records. He worked five days at a brewery, a half-day at a coffee plant and a few weeks at the dairy. When that job ended, the company liked him enough to offer him a second temporary job.

But on the January morning he was scheduledto start, just minutes before he planned to leave the house, the police arrested him again on a new charge of not paying child support.

This time he went quietly, and the judge let him go. And the dairy, after a few phone calls, said he could start the next day. It felt, Mr. Mirsky said, like the first lucky break he’d had in more than four years.

This concludes the article on ex-prisoners.

Denying Ex-Prisoners Jobs Robs Both Applicant and Market of Needed Work – Part Three

The continuation of a four-part article about what appears to be the unfair treatment of men and women after being released from prison, often for non-substantial crime.

 

Lucia Bone worries that background checks are getting a bad rap. Ms. Bone is the founder of a nonprofit called Sue Weaver Cause that urges employers — particularly those that send workers into homes — to check the backgrounds of new hires and to conduct regular checks on existing employees. She says that many companies are not being careful enough.

The nonprofit is named for her sister, Sue Weaver, who was raped and murdered in 2001 after she hired a local department store in Orlando, Fla., to clean the air ducts in her home. The two men sent to perform the work both had criminal records, but the store had not ensured that its subcontractor conducted a background check. A few months later, one of those workers returned, killed Ms. Weaver, then set her house on fire.

“I very strongly believe that everyone has the right to work, but not every job is right for everyone,” Ms. Bone said. “It is the employer’s responsibility to protect their business, their employees and their customers.”

The ready availability of criminal records databases has fueled the perception that it is irresponsible for employers to ignore available information. Local governments increasingly put criminal records online, and private companies like HireRight, Sterling BackCheck and LexisNexis Risk Solutions aggregate those records, offering almost instant results. In the early 1990s, less than half of companies routinely checked criminal histories. Now relatively few refrain.

“Criminal background screening is an important tool — nearly the only tool — that employers have to protect their customers, their employees and themselves from criminal behavior,” Todd McCracken, president of the National Small Business Association, testified before a congressional committee last year. Local, state and federal governments have embraced the same logic, writing background checks into professional licensing requirements and post-9/11 security regulations.

These policies affect a growing number of people. About 10 percent of nonincarcerated men had felony records in 2010, up from 4 percent in 1980, according to research led by the sociologists Sarah Shannon of the University of Georgia and Christopher Uggen of the University of Minnesota. The numbers are much higher among African-American men: About 25 percent of nonincarcerated black men had been convicted of a felony, up from 9 percent in 1980.

Christopher Uggen of the University of Minnesota.   Credit Tim Gruber for The New York Times

The problem with criminal background checks, in Mr. Uggen’s view, is a lack of deliberation about what employers should be looking for. Some employers ask about convictions for felonies; some ask only about narrow categories of felony like violent crimes or sex crimes. Others ask about any arrest whatsoever. “We haven’t really figured out what a disqualifying offense should be for particular activities,” he said.

Mr. Uggen was himself arrested few times as a Minnesota teenager for fighting and other minor sins but, when he submitted his college application to the University of Wisconsin, he was not asked and he did not tell. Now a professor, he said that some of his own students were not able to escape the past so easily.

Colleges routinely ask applicants about criminal history. So do landlords.

“For somebody of my generation who had a brush with the law, they were able to quickly put it in the rearview mirror and move on,” said Mr. Uggen, who is 50. “Now I have graduate students who maybe 10 years ago they were convicted of a crime and for them to try to get an apartment, it’s a huge barrier.”

The quality of the information used in background checks is another cause for concern. One of the most common problems is that databases may include arrest records without any indication of whether a person was convicted.

In 2008, for example, the government began to check the backgrounds of 1.2 million workers at the nation’s ports. A law passed after the 9/11 terrorist attacks mandated the exclusion of anyone with a conviction in the last seven years, and 59,000 workers were excluded as a result. But 30,000 of those workers filed appeals arguing their records were inaccurate, and in 25,000 of those cases, a more careful examination found no evidence of a conviction, according to a subsequent review by the Government Accountability Office. That’s worth repeating: When the background check system identified a felon, it was wrong at least 42 percent of the time.

And the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission warned in 2012 that the systematic exclusion of people with criminal records was effectively a form of discrimination against black men, who were disproportionately affected. It has filed lawsuits charging such discrimination by companies including BMW, Dollar General and Pepsi.

To be continued 

Denying Ex-Prisoners Jobs Robs Both Applicant and Market of Needed Work – Part Two

Michael Mirsky in the New Jersey home, now in foreclosure, that he bought in better days. Since pleading guilty to resisting arrest, he has been unable to find steady work so he can start rebuilding his life. “How can I pay child support if I can’t get a job?” he asked. CreditRichard Perry/The New York Times

Mr. Mirsky, 43, made a six-figure annual salary as a phone line technician in the decade before he lost his job in July 2012. He was fired after clashing repeatedly with a supervisor. The company declined to comment.

He spent a few months searching for a new job in his old industry, but there are not a lot of other companies in central New Jersey hiring people to repair copper phone lines. So in January 2013 he trained at a local community college as a heating and air-conditioning specialist. After graduating in December 2013, he was offered a chance to join the Pipefitters Union.

In the meantime, however, he was living on savings and gifts from friends. A woman from his church delivered occasional meals; a friend tucked $50 into a Thanksgiving card; another man hired him to unload a truck at his restaurant. He lived in a basement apartment in an old house in Port Murray, N.J., he bought in better days, beneath the ruins of his ambitious renovation plans. When I visited in January, the winter wind whistled through the broken windows and unfinished walls upstairs. Animal droppings speckled the floors. A stainless steel range and refrigerator sat in their original shrink-wrap. He had not paid his mortgage in three years and he was battling to prevent, or at least delay, foreclosure.

He also fell behind on child support payments, and under New Jersey law a warrant was automatically issued for his arrest. He says he knew nothing about it until police came to his home in June 2014. According to the police report, Mr. Mirksy struggled, and the officers knocked him down, handcuffed him and charged him with resisting arrest.

It was the first time that Mr. Mirsky had ever been arrested. A few months later, he pleaded guilty to a single felony. The immediate penalty was just $411 in court costs. The enduring problem is that he has a criminal record.

The Pipefitters Union had arranged a series of job interviews for him in May, June and August 2014. He also submitted about 30 applications to other employers last year, and received a couple of interviews, but no offers.

He is convinced nothing has panned out because of his legal troubles — the warrant, the arrest and the conviction.

“I’m 43 years old, not recently employed, and that doesn’t look great,” he said. “But mostly they don’t want the heartache.”

Of course, people rarely find out why they didn’t land a particular job. For the last several years, job applicants have vastly outnumbered job openings. Being fired from a previous job doesn’t help. And the issues that land people in legal trouble may also make them less attractive as applicants. But Ms. Pager, the Harvard sociologist, has found in her research that having a criminal record by itself is often a significant impediment.

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In 2001, Ms. Pager sent pairs of black men and white men to apply for low-wage jobs at 350 businesses in the Milwaukee area. She picked sets of men who looked alike and were comparably well spoken and she gave them similar résumés — education, employment history — except that one member of each pair was told to claim that he had served 18 months in prison for a felony drug conviction.

She repeated the experiment in New York in 2004, sending pairs of “well-spoken, clean-shaven young men” to apply for 250 different jobs.

In both cases, she found men who reported criminal convictions were about 50 percent less likely to receive a callback or a job offer. The difference was significantly larger in the black pairs than in the white pairs. White employers seemed to show more sympathy for the white applicants, Ms. Pager said, and most of the employers were white.

Employers seemed to use the reported convictions as “a proxy for reliability and trustworthiness and a broader range of concerns beyond simply whether they would be aggressive,” she said. “Faced with a large number of applicants, this was one easy way of weeding out applicants.”

To be continued

Denying Ex-Prisoners Jobs Robs Both Applicant and Market of Needed Work – Part One

This is Part One of a very long article we found in The New York Times archives about people with a prison record (mostly men) who cannot get a job. They are caught up in a vicious cycle from which it is difficult to escape. Often the charge behind their imprisonment was minor—a result of poverty—and might easily have been dismissed. 

Furthermore, many of these individuals possess skills that answer needs of our job market. Thus both worker and employer lose out. The situation described in this article from two years ago is unchanged today.

Because of its length we have presented this article in four separate blogs.

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Michael Hugh Mirsky landed a temporary job in December rolling stacks of crated milk and orange juice to the loading docks at a commercial dairy in central New Jersey. He’s not making much, and he doesn’t know how long it will last, but after 30 months of unemployment, he counts himself lucky. Mr. Mirsky is a convicted criminal, and work is hard to find.

A series of unfortunate events that began in 2012 when Mr. Mirsky lost a job as a Verizon technician culminated last year in a guilty plea for resisting arrest. He is facing the foreclosure of his home; his church has told him that he cannot serve as an usher; he is thousands of dollars in arrears on child support payments for his 8-year-old daughter. Even as the economy improves, Mr. Mirsky has been unable to find a permanent position so he can start rebuilding his life.

“Even your lower-paying fast-food jobs are now doing background checks,” he said. “How can I pay child support if I can’t get a job?”

Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch highlights in 2016 the difficulties faced by inmates — many of them low-risk drug offenders, officials say — as they return to society.

The share of American men with criminal records — particularly black men — grew rapidly in recent decades as the government pursued aggressive law enforcement strategies, especially against drug crimes. In the aftermath of the Great Recession, those men are having particular trouble finding work. Men with criminal records account for about 34 percent of all nonworking men ages 25 to 54, according to a recent New York Times/CBS News/Kaiser Family Foundation poll.

The reluctance of employers to hire people with criminal records, combined with laws that place broad categories of jobs off-limits, is not just a frustration for men like Mr. Mirsky; it is also taking a toll on the broader economy. It is preventing millions of American men from becoming, in that old phrase, productive members of society.

“Prior to the prison boom, when convictions were restricted to a smaller fraction of the population, it wasn’t great for their rehab potential but it wasn’t having a huge impact,” said Devah Pager, a Harvard professor of sociology. “Now such a large fraction of the population is affected that it has really significant implications, not just for those people, but for the labor market as a whole.”

Employers, of course, have always taken an interest in the histories of prospective employees. Banks do not want to hire embezzlers; trucking companies do not want drunken drivers. Schools and security companies don’t want to hire criminals of any kind. But the easy availability of online databases lets employers investigate everyone — indeed, it makes hard to justify not looking. Surveys show roughly nine in 10 United States employers check databases of criminal records when hiring for at least some positions. Some focus solely on felony convictions; others also consider misdemeanors or arrests.

Rising concern that background checks are being used to systematically exclude applicants with criminal records is fueling a national “ban the box” movement to improve their chances. The name refers to the box that job applicants are sometimes required to check if they have been convicted of a felony or a misdemeanor. Fourteen states and several dozen cities have passed laws, mostly in recent years, that generally require employers to postpone background checks until the later stages of the hiring process.

Georgia became the latest state to join that list when Gov. Nathan Deal signed an executive order Monday. It described the new policy as a matter of fairness and a way to strengthen the state’s economy by expanding the pool of workers. New Jersey passed its own “ban the box” law last year. It is scheduled take effect March 1. So help is on the way for Mr. Mirsky, too.

To be continued

When Will They Ever Learn?

The continual claim one hears today from Republicans, including the President and the three men in the photograph below—that their new tax bill will  generate greater revenue for the government, produce higher wages for workers and increase the prosperity of the middle class—flies in the face of reason, as the article below explains. Thomas Piketty clearly stated this in his book Capital in the 21st Century. Many qualified economists (see below) have warned us against this erroneous belief, and now the warning appears in an editorial in the leading conservative business newspaper.

It remains only for us to wait and see these three men and numerous others fall into the hole of debt they will have dug with their obduracy. Unfortunately, all of us will have to suffer too. How will they explain it when lowering taxes doesn’t produce the growth and prosperity they have predicted for small businesses and the middle class? On whom will Trump’s supporters take out their rage?

BN-WG255_3iE5o_M_20171121082313Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Republican Senator Orrin Hatch and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin at work on the new tax bill.  Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/Associated press

By WILLIAM A. GALSTON  Nov. 22, 2017 for The Wall Street Journal

Six months ago, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell favored revenue-neutral tax reform. Despite the new GOP budget, which permits a $1.5 trillion increase in the deficit over the next decade, and despite estimates from the Joint Committee on Taxation that the Senate Finance Committee’s tax proposal would in fact generate this increase, he insists that he still does.

In a recent CNN interview, Sen. McConnell suggested that the tax cuts would generate enough economic growth to make up for the lost revenue. “I actually think it’s a fairly conservative estimate of how much growth we’re likely to get out of this pro-growth tax reform,” he said.

It depends on how he defines “conservative.” If he means the estimate favored by many conservative politicians, he may be right. But if he means the estimate most conservative economists are offering, he is dead wrong.

Consider the view of Douglas Holtz-Eakin, who served as Congressional Budget Office director under President George W. Bush. “If it’s a well-designed tax policy, it will partially offset the cost” of the tax cuts, he said. But “there’s no evidence anywhere that a tax cut of that magnitude, regardless of composition, will offset” the full cost.

Or consider the argument made by Gregory Mankiw, one of the country’s most respected conservative-leaning academic economists. In principle, he favors so-called dynamic scoring, which builds the effects of increased growth into revenue models. It is “potentially more accurate,” he wrote in the New York Times. But he adds a caveat: “It is also more easily abused by those who want to promote their policies with an unhealthy dose of wishful thinking.”

 So where is the line between solid analysis and wishful thinking? Professor Mankiw continued: “Tax cuts rarely pay for themselves. My reading of the academic literature leads me to believe that about one-third of the cost of a typical tax cut is recouped with faster economic growth.”

If Mr. Mankiw is right, then the Senate bill would add $1 trillion to the national debt over the next decade. And the actual outcome could turn out to be even worse.

Here’s why. As drafted, the Senate bill reduces the cost of tax breaks through phase-in and phase-out provisions. The bill earns a better budgetary score from the Joint Committee on Taxation by setting all individual tax breaks to expire by 2025.

Republican congressional leaders are sensitive to the criticism that this amounts to a bait-and-switch strategy to sell the tax package. Democrats are gearing up to charge that while the corporate rate reductions are permanent, many individuals would find themselves paying higher taxes by the mid-2020s.

In response, Treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin has said, “there are certain parts of this that expire, but we have every expectation that down the road, Congress will extend them.” He may well be right. If so, the real 10-year cost of the bill would be $2.2 trillion, adding nearly $1.5 trillion to the national debt. Republicans cannot have it both ways.

Moreover, this is not a good time to be adding to the nation’s debt burden. According to the CBO, we are already on track to add more than $10 trillion to the national debt over the next decade, raising it from an already high 77% of GDP to a sky-high 91%. If there is even one recession during this period, the debt will rise even higher. We’re in a deep hole, and the Republican plan would dig it deeper.

Standard economics tell us that the best time to stimulate the economy is when unemployment is high and output is well below its potential. This is not what we see today. The labor market stands at what most economists believe is full employment, and the gap between potential and actual output—which stood at 6% during the lows of the Great Recession—has virtually disappeared. Economic output has accelerated, and there are early signs of more rapid increases in both wages and inflation.

 Republicans seem to think that 2017 is 1981 all over again and that large tax cuts are needed to counteract economic slack. But the better analogy for our current situation is to 1986, when Republicans and Democrats came together on historic tax reforms that lowered rates and broadened the base, without adding to the deficit.

Republican tax-drafters must have known that they could lower corporate tax rates to internationally competitive levels and wipe out a slew of special-interest provisions—without worsening the deficit. They made a different choice.

We needed bipartisanship in the service of tax reform and fiscal responsibility. Instead, we’re getting a party-line bill that cuts taxes and increases the deficit—without even giving permanent tax relief to President Trump’s working-class supporters. I wonder what will happen when they find out. 

Homeless but not Hopeless

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Evening walks along the boardwalk in Coney Island brought Keith Ford a modicum of peace when he was homeless. The dulcet sounds of crashing waves, he said, countered his anxiety during that turbulent time.

After his meditative ambling, Mr. Ford would board an F train and ride it back and forth for the remainder of the night. He stole sleep in one-hour spurts, waking when the subway cars reached the end of the line, then hopping aboard a train going the opposite direction.

Mr. Ford’s transience began in fall 2013 while he was a senior in high school. He and his mother were not getting along, Mr. Ford said recently, and he could no longer live in her home. Despite his precarious circumstances, he remained dedicated to his education.

“I knew I wanted to finish high school,” Mr. Ford, now 23, said. “That was a top priority — get my diploma, keep moving.”

One of his teachers at Voyages Preparatory High School in Queens took notice of his sullenness and encouraged him to open up about his troubles. Staff members at the school then helped Mr. Ford find housing. That November, he entered Safe Haven, now called Sheltering Arms, a transitional housing center in Queens.

Mr. Ford graduated from high school the following summer and began pursuing an associate degree in architectural technology, a subject that has always fascinated him, at Queensborough Community College.

In March 2015, he turned 21 and aged out of the shelter. Mr. Ford once again found himself unmoored. He resumed his erstwhile evening ritual, though not every night was spent by the ocean or in transit. He sometimes stayed with friends and lived briefly with his father. But the instability prompted him to drop out of college, Mr. Ford said.

Soon after, he learned about Green City Force, which prepares young people from low-income families for careers in the renewable energy industry. It is a partner of the Community Service Society, one of the eight organizations supported by The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund.

Green City Force is also an AmeriCorps program, which Mr. Ford said most appealed to him. “I thought that since it counted as national service, I could do something beyond myself,” he said.

He started the six-month job training program in early 2016. “It was just a phenomenal experience,” Mr. Ford said. “I managed to commit most of my time to service despite what I was going through.”

During this time, Mr. Ford was still without a permanent home. He decided during his job training that having a driver’s license would lead to better employment opportunities. His goal was to earn a salary that would allow him to afford a place of his own.

Community Service Society used $170 from the Neediest Cases Fund to pay for his driving lessons last year. Lacking access to a car to practice, he failed his road test but hopes to retake it soon.

When Mr. Ford finished his training at Green City Force, he began a six-month apprenticeship with the state program EmPower New York, conducting in-home energy audits.

In January, he landed a job as a business development associate at another energy efficiency company, BlocPower. That month, Community Service Society used $116.50 from the fund for a monthly MetroCard so he could commute for work.

Mr. Ford with a co-worker at BlocPower in Brooklyn. He began a new job last month. Credit Michael Noble Jr. for The New York Times

Mr. Ford continues to pursue work in energy efficiency. Late last month, he took a new job as a program coordinator at East New York Restoration Local Development Corporation.

His financial security is better than it has ever been, Mr. Ford said, but he still feels unsteady.

“Stable for me will be when I can turn a key into something that’s mine,” he said. “I can walk inside of it and lie down and not worry about anyone telling me to get out or that my time is up.”

He is confident that the pieces of his life will fall into place. When he first became homeless, he said, he made a vow never to succumb to cynicism.

“I believe that through hard work and dedication, I can be where I want to be,” Mr. Ford said. “I would never want to look at any situation of adversity as ‘I can’t make it through.’”

At Green City Force, he met his fiancée, Tanaeja Wright, and they plan to wed in 2020. The couple are living with her family in East New York, Brooklyn, while they search for their own apartment.

“I long for a space to call my own,” Mr. Ford said. “And I’m willing to accept the responsibly that comes with it.”

Mr. Ford said he would like to return to college someday. And his affinity for architecture has become more personal.

“This entire time, maybe I was always searching for a livable space to call home,” he said. “And why not be the one to make it?”

Where Computers Need Help from Human Agents

You have frequently read in this column how artificial intelligence (AI) will be putting humans out of work in the near future as it learns to drive our cars, replaces legal researchers and investment specialists, and performs diagnostics in hospitals. Here is a more hopeful estimate that suggests thousands of  new jobs  are arising for humans working alongside computers doing what computers haven’t yet learned to do.

 

By CHRISTOPHER MIMS   Nov. 12, 2017 for The Wall Street Journal

If you want to understand the limitations of the algorithms that control what we see and hear—and base many of our decisions upon—take a look at Facebook Inc.’s FB 0.92% experimental remedy for revenge porn.

To stop an ex from sharing nude pictures of you, you have to share nudes with Facebook itself. Not uncomfortable enough? Facebook also says a real live human will have to check them out.

Without that human review, it would be too easy to exploit Facebook’s antirevenge-porn service to take down legitimate images. Artificial intelligence, it turns out, has a hard time telling the difference between your naked body and a nude by Titian.

The internet giants that tout their AI bona fides have tried to make their algorithms as human-free as possible, and that’s been a problem. It has become increasingly apparent over the past year that building systems without humans “in the loop”—especially in the case of Facebook and the ads it linked to 470 “inauthentic” Russian-backed accounts—can lead to disastrous outcomes, as actual human brains figure out how to exploit them.

   

Whether it’s winning at games like Go or keeping watch for Russian influence operations, the best AI-powered systems require humans to play an active role in their creation, tending and operation. Far from displacing workers, this combination is spawning new nonengineer jobs every day, and the preponderance of evidence suggests the boom will continue for the foreseeable future.

Facebook, of course, is now a prime example of this trend. The company recently announced it would add 10,000 content moderators to the 10,000 it already employs—a hiring surge that will impact its future profitability, said Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg.

And Facebook is hardly alone. Alphabet Inc.’s Google has long employed humans alongside AI to eliminate ads that violate its terms of service, ferret out fake news and take down extremist YouTube videos. Google doesn’t disclose how many people are looped into its content moderation, search optimization and other algorithms, but a company spokeswoman says the figure is in the thousands—and growing.

Twitter has its own teams to moderate content, though the company is largely silent about how it accomplishes this, other than touting its system’s ability to automatically delete 95% of terrorists’ accounts.

Almost every big company using AI to automate processes has a need for humans as a part of that AI, says Panos Ipeirotis, a professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business. America’s five largest financial institutions employ teams of nonengineers as part of their AI systems, says Dr. Ipeirotis, who consults with banks.

AI’s constant hunger for human brains is based on our increasing demand for services. The more we ask for, the less likely a computer algorithm can go it alone—while the combination can be more effective and efficient. For example, bank workers who previously read every email in search of fraud now make better use of their time investigating emails the AI flags as suspicious, says Dr. Ipeirotis.

What AI Can (and Can’t) Do

A machine-learning-based AI system is a piece of software that learns, almost like a primitive insect. That means that it can’t be programmed—it must be taught.

   

To teach them, humans feed these systems examples, and they need truckloads. To build an AI filter to identify extremist content on YouTube, humans at Google manually reviewed over a million videos to flag qualifying examples, says a Google spokeswoman.

An algorithm can only be as good as “the quantity and quality of the training data to get [it] going,” says Robin Bordoli, CEO of CrowdFlower Inc., which provides human labor to companies that need people to train and maintain AI algorithms, from auto makers to internet giants to financial institutions.

Even when an AI has been trained, its judgment is never perfect. Human oversight is still needed, especially with material in which context matters, such as those extremist YouTube posts. While AI can take down 83% before a single human flags them, says Google, the remaining 17% needs humans. But this serves as further training: This data can then be fed back into the algorithm to improve it.

Relying on AI can lead to false positives, as when the company pulls down legitimate content that its algorithms think might be offensive.

There are many cases when AI can barely perform a task at all, as in the case of Facebook’s nude pic filter. Transcribing receipts and business cards, tagging videos and moderating adult content are all tasks that “should be easy for machine learning, but in practice are too unstructured,” says Vili Lehdonvirta, a senior research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute in the United Kingdom.

Dr. Lehdonvirta maintains the Online Labor Index, a real-time estimate of the number of people employed for these sorts of tasks. By his calculations, the number of tasks posted to crowdsourced online labor platforms, which includes this kind of work, is up 40% in the past year alone.

   

Systems at risk of being gamed by fraudsters also require constant human attention, says Dr. Ipeirotis. AIs, once trained, are inexhaustible, but this is a curse as much as a blessing: People who outsmart the algorithm can multiply their results a millionfold.

Humans, on the other hand, are slower than AI, but can identify patterns based on very little information. Any time a system must deal with bad actors—like when an entity posing as an American on Twitter is actually a Russian agent—there is no replacement for live staffers.

A Growing Workforce

Some of this labor happens through outsourced systems like CrowdFlower and Mechanical Turk, Amazon.com Inc.’s system for outsourcing individual computer microtasks to a global workforce of more than 500,000 people.

Across the globe, between 10,000 and 20,000 people a week pick up online piecework, flagging porn in online forums, teaching self-driving systems to identify pedestrians and training facial-recognition algorithms, Dr. Lehdonvirta estimates. When you include companies’ own internal teams, there are probably hundreds of thousands of humans, world-wide, whose work is sold as AI, he says.

The Three Richest Men in the World

  

Read what this blog is all about. These two men, Collins and Hoxie, who wrote the column are experts in economic inequality.

By CHUCK COLLINS and JOSH HOXIE  Nov. 15, 2017 for The Los Angeles Times

It can be hard to grasp just how much money is concentrated in just a few hands in our lopsided economy today. But here’s a start: The richest three people in the United States — Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett — together have more wealth than the entire bottom half of the country combined.

To put an even finer point on it: That’s three people versus about 100 million people.

To really comprehend just how insane the wealth concentration has become, consider Bezos, the head of Amazon. Worth about $90 billion, he recently was declared the richest man in the world. In October alone, his wealth jumped by $10 billion — or about $4 million per second.

Given his massive wealth, one might imagine that his company has enough to pay its warehouse workers a minimum of $15 an hour. But apparently it doesn’t. Amazon pays some of its workers as little as $12.84 an hour.

 That’s pretty much the trend we’re seeing play out over and over across the U.S. economy— wealth funneling to a tiny group at the top while everyone else scrambles for crumbs.

On the other end of the spectrum from Bezos, tens of millions of families are trying desperately to make their paychecks last through the week. One in 5 households has zero or negative wealth today, meaning they have as much debt as they do assets. (That’s why the three-versus-160 million figure is so stark: Many people have nothing.)

Having no savings or wealth means having no cushion to fall back on when you’re hit with the unexpected — an illness or medical emergency that results in large hospital bills, say, or the loss of a job. With no buffer, even a broken-down car can wreak financial havoc on a family, turning a stable situation into quicksand. We see this domino effect play out all the time, as our social media feeds are filled with crowdfunding requests by people who need help covering basic life expenses.

Not surprisingly, these zero-wealth households are disproportionately African American or Latino, a result of our country’s long history of discrimination. Three in 10 black households are underwater. Nearly the same proportion of Latino households are too.

The problem is getting worse, not better. Today, the poorest member of the Forbes 400 has $2 billion. This represents a tenfold jump from when the magazine first started its list in 1982. And that’s after adjusting for inflation.

In fact, with a combined wealth of $2.68 trillion, the billionaires of the Forbes 400 have more wealth than the entire GDP of the United Kingdom, the world’s fifth wealthiest country. This marks yet another tenfold increase from the 1980s.

The rest of the country has not shared in the economic gains of the past three decades. In 1983, the first year the Federal Reserve started collecting consistent data, the median family had $83,000 in today’s terms. That number has now fallen to $80,000.

In other words, while today’s 400 richest Americans are 10 times richer than 1983’s richest Americans, the median family is worse off than the median family 34 years ago.

The few at the top of the ladder have captured a massive share of the nation’s wealth, and they’re quickly translating that wealth into political power — pushing for more tax cuts for themselves, to be shepherded through the legislative process by politicians who are indebted to them for their campaign contributions. This is a moral disgrace.

We urgently need to close, not expand, our wealth divide. And we need to start by saying no to more tax cuts for the wealthy and growing economic opportunities for everyone else. Enough is enough.

Chuck Collins and Josh Hoxie are co-authors of a new report, Billionaire Bonanza 2017: The Forbes 400 and the Rest of Us.” They co-edit the web site Inequality.org at the Institute for Policy Studies.

The Good Businessman—Yes, He Does Exist or, at Least, He Did

What a joy to read William Galston’s Opinion piece this morning in The Wall Street Journal. We fully share his feelings on both issues:  first, that it is possible (though rare) to combine a moral outlook with successful business practice; second, that—from past experience—we know  it is extremely unlikely that lowering taxes will provide any benefit at all to the worker. 

By WILLIAM A. GALSTON  Nov. 15, 2017 for The Wall Street Journal

The older I get, the more drawn I am to obituaries, but not for the obvious reason. They often offer a reminder of the United States as it used to be, and they make me wonder whether we have lost something precious.

Arjay Miller and Henry Ford II.

 I had one of these moments this weekend, when I read about the death of Arjay Miller, 101, who was president of Ford Motor Co. and later dean of Stanford Business School. Under Miller’s leadership (1963-68), Ford modernized its management, introduced the highly successful Mustang, and achieved record earnings.

At the same time, Miller made Ford take automobile safety seriously while General Motors lagged behind. The choice cost Ford sales because some customers balked at paying for innovative equipment such as seat belts. Miller defended his policy as the right thing to do and said corporate leaders should always ask themselves whether they were willing to have their decisions publicly reported. Volkswagen executives have paid dearly for ignoring this advice, and they are not alone

After leaving Ford, Miller helped move Stanford into the top rank of business schools by diversifying the faculty and student body while expanding coverage of ethics and public policy. He founded the Economic Development Corporation of Detroit, supported black-owned and -operated business, and backed a negative income tax to reduce poverty. “Making money is the easy part,” he declared. “Making the world a better place is the hard part.”

 

I wonder how many of today’s executives would be prepared to sacrifice sales and profits to do the right thing. Most of them have been taught that maximizing shareholder value is their sole responsibility—and if this means ignoring the needs of workers and the well-being of local communities, so be it.

 Miller’s example is especially relevant today, as Republicans in the House and Senate consider tax legislation that would allow corporations to repatriate foreign assets at concessionary rates. The bills’ drafters are assuming that executives will use these funds to invest in their businesses.

But that’s not what happened the last time this was done, in 2004, when corporations were allowed to bring back overseas assets if they paid a tax of only 5%. During the next three years, the 15 companies that repatriated the most raised salaries for senior executives, cut more than 20,000 jobs, decreased investment in research, and expanded dividends and stock buybacks. [When will the right get this truth through their thick heads?] All this happened despite the letter of the law, which specified that the funds be used for investing in research and the workforce and prohibited their use for compensating executives and repurchasing stock.

Law is a blunt and often ineffective instrument for inducing corporate leaders to take a broader view. They have enormous discretionary authority. The question is how they choose to use it. Legality is just the beginning. “Moral judgment transcends legalities,” Miller once said. So does moral responsibility.

The tax bills now under consideration in the House and Senate represent the largest corporate tax cuts in many decades. If these bills pass, average Americans will expect something in return—higher wages, better working conditions, and more opportunities for their children. If corporations take the money and run, public retribution will be severe.

Earlier this week, a group of 400 rich Americans sent a letter to Republican members of Congress. Their message: don’t cut our taxes. We don’t need the money; others do. Besides, it is folly to add $1.5 trillion to already dire forecasts of the growth of the national debt over the next decade.

This is a good start. But in addition to political responsibility, America’s financial elite ought to exercise business responsibility. America needs a new era of broad-minded, socially aware corporate leaders who understand the long-term relationship between the well-being of their companies and the well-being of their country.

 An environment in which profits soar while wages stagnate may make for satisfied shareholders. But the revolt against the arrangements that sustain this imbalance is already under way. Today the targets are immigration and trade treaties. Tomorrow the demands could include restrictions on the ability of corporations to shutter plants and fire workers at will. The day after tomorrow, if massive corporate tax cuts yield no benefits for workers, we could see an intensified revolt against elites, not only cultural elites, but the captains of industry and finance as well.

 

Taking the long view is self-interest rightly understood. It means refraining from squeezing the last bit of profit out of your business right now in order to secure a flow of profit over time. The economy rests on a set of political arrangements that the people can revise and—if things get bad enough—upend.