Monday, December 17, 2018

The Morrill of the Story

I have lived in Champaign Illinois for a long time, more than 38 years, having started as a faculty member in Economics at the U of I in fall 1980.  For the first 10 years I lived in town, an apartment, then a condo.  The last 28 years I've lived in houses closer to the edge of town.  For 14 years I lived in an old Victorian house that had been moved to Champaign from Villa Grove and then renovated after the move. There we had a cornfield right outside our back yard and another one across the street in the front of the house.  Then we moved to a brand new house in a subdivision that was still having new construction at the time.  In this case the cornfield was a block away and there are other cornfields within walking distance of the house. (Some years, of course, they grow soybeans in those fields, rather than corn.)  I consider myself a displaced New Yorker, having grown up in Bayside, Queens, NYC, subscribing to the New York Times, and being a lifelong Yankees fan. But my perspective is different from my high school classmates who stayed on the East Coast after college.  Life in the Midwest in a college town is different and does have an effect on one's perspective.

The above is meant as backdrop for some speculation on my part, mainly in reaction to the piece The Hard Truths of Trying to 'Save' the Rural Economy by Eduardo Porter, and also a bit of reaction to Thomas Edsall's latest, The Robots Have Descended on Trump Country.   The starting point is that many folks in rural America, and ditto for those in Rustbelt towns where the big manufacturing employer closed the factory some time ago, stayed put because they had roots in those locations, but their job prospects were nil.  So they have suffered economically, and then went through all the psychic pain associated with that (think opioid crisis and suicide).  In Edsall's piece, several economists are quoted about the dislocation effects of automation, and that absent any policy to counter those effects, people will suffer.  There was agreement on that.  There wasn't as much agreement on what that countering policy should be.  In Porter's piece, the agglomeration effects of big metropolitan areas are so strong that the vast majority of jobs will be in the big metropolitan areas.  Therefore, if there is a policy established to relocate people so they can secure better employment, they should be relocated to big cities.

While there is clearly some logic to that recommendation, I want to challenge it on some grounds,  and then offer an alternative possibility, ergo the title of this piece.  Regarding big cities, sometimes other economic variables than jobs are brought up to suggest that the cost-benefit calculation must be done carefully.  The two that come to mind are the costs of housing and the time to commute to and from work.

But I would like to focus more on ecological/environmental factors that are rarely considered in this context.  We need to start questioning the wisdom of having a massive number of people living in chronic drought areas.  The California fires are the most recent and highly graphic example.  Does it really make sense to ship more people to California, unless through massive desalinization efforts or an incredible run of good luck that brings a lot of moisture back to the area the effects of the sustained drought can be countered?  This one, it seems to me is right in front of us.  Moving large populations to dry areas seems like a formula for disaster.   We've been doing it for some time already.  When are we going to wake up?

The other one, that perhaps is less visually evident but I gather is quite a threat as well, is to move lots of people toward coastal areas where rising sea levels pose a long term threat.  This too might be countered by the building of massive sea walls, but absent that, is it wise for people to relocate to coastal areas?  If we are going to have some policy for migrating people shouldn't such factors be taken into account as well the availability of jobs?

Let me say a bit more about the Champaign-Urbana (CU) area before getting to my suggestion.  The University itself is quite large and has been growing the number of students, particularly international students who pay substantially more than the in-state students and yet are willing to come here because the school has a strong reputation.  Data about the Champaign-Urbana MSA coupled with a map of the three counties in the MSA, Champaign, to the north Ford, and to the west Piatt.  What the reader should get from looking at this is a scattering of small towns around CU that, on on the one hand, may project a rural atmosphere and, on the other hand, are not too far from CU.   I can report that there are plenty of pickup trucks in the parking lots when I go grocery shopping or to visit my healthcare provider.

So, if you are thinking about psychological adjustment for somebody who must move to take advantage of economic opportunity, one might guess that it would be far easier for somebody with rural roots to move to the CU area than it would be to move to Chicagoland.   And in saying this I'm thinking that CU is emblematic for other college towns with big universities, all around the country.  Now, one might want to narrow it a bit.  The U of I is the land grant college in the state of Illinois.  The university has an Ag school (it goes by another name but it is still an Ag school).  And there is an Illinois Extension Service, that provides offerings for the entire state and beyond.  In other words, there are already structures in place that could be utilized for the re-education and workforce placement of rural people who migrated to the area.  I suspect this same thing is true for every college town which is the land grant college for that state.

Now just a bit on what work these people would do after they migrated here, for jobs that don't yet exist and would need to be created.  Perhaps some of this would be in "next generation agriculture" that aims at addressing global warming.  I am way out of date on this.  The last piece I can recall reading on the subject is from more than a decade ago.  So I should not be the one the who says which projects, if any, in this area are worth pursuing.  I did want to bring it up here in the following way. The jobs we're thinking about are going to be government subsidized, not jobs that emerge simply from market forces.  It makes sense to do some experimenting along these lines, so I would expected something in this area.

But there are also other already available technologies that could be much more intensively utilized.  (And now my chance to quote Bob Dylan - The answer is blowin' in the wind.)  If you drive along the interstate, once in a while you see a windmill farm.  What determines how many windmills there are, how big an investment has been made?  I know that near residential developments they are viewed as an eyesore, but the maps I showed have plenty of area left over.  Would converting a cornfield to a windmill farm make sense?  At the right prices, yes.  A lot more effort would need to be make to make the case for this seriously.   All I can say convincingly now is that it is really flat here and the wind blows hard quite frequently. If a massive investment in windmill farms makes sense, then installing and maintaining the windmills is the type of work I have in mind.

Similarly, some time ago I wrote a post called Hard Hats That Are Green.  There the focus was on solar panels, placed on roofs of existing structures, done so the government picks up the tab.  This would generate quite a few jobs, again on install and maintenance.

And while we're talking about it, there are huge needs regarding old style infrastructure - roads in bad repair, government buildings with a lot of deferred maintenance, ditto for water systems and sewers. If there's funding for this sort of thing, it would generate employment.

I want to make one more point and then close.  For something like this to happen, it has to be done on the Federal level - a 21st century Morrill Act.  At the state level, the big investments will go to the urban areas, where the bulk of the population is and where the big bucks are to support political campaigns.   There simply isn't enough of a constituency within the state to get this done at that level.  And at the Federal level, it clearly won't get done as long as the Republicans control either the White  House, the Senate, or the House of Representatives.  But if there were the political will to do it, who then would advocate for this sort of latter day Morrill Act?

Here I'm not trying to sell people on the idea.  Just to consider it.  I think life in CU is pretty good.  Maybe others would think so as well.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

The AI Guys Need to Work on Automating Politicians

This will be brief.  I'm reacting to Thomas Edsall's column today, which is more on the how robots have big positive effects on GDP, but big negative effects on the workers they displace.  We have yet to figure out a mechanism so all can internalize the benefit of automation.  One thought is that we aren't really trying hard to solve this problem, in part, because we have this bizarre and distorted notion of meritocracy.  So those who are being harmed by automation don't deserve any better.  What a myopic and ultimately foolhardy view of what is going on.

Some years ago I wrote a post called, The Economy as One Big Brain, where I deliberately tried to put the shoe on the other foot, so talked about some fiction which I called The Virtual CEO.  If we could automate the position at the top, might we start to focus on making more work for people down the line, as the virtual CEO would not require astronomic compensation to perform at a high level.  It is worth pondering along these line.

But a different thought should be entertained as well.  There is some presumption that AI works great with repetitive tasks, but is in over its head when the decisions require executive function and are therefore not nearly so routinized.  The question is this - do many people in executive positions nonetheless spend the vast majority of their time making routinized choices?

I don't know how to answer that question for CEOs.  But it seems to me the answer is yes for many politicians.  If so, we should start seeing The Virtual Congressman, if not The Virtual President.  I, for one would be very interested in an AI analysis of members of Congress, to see if the work could be automated or not.  My guess is that answer correlates with which party the member of Congress belongs, but I'd be interested in learning otherwise.