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Welcome to Kansas, the bastion of how not to run a state, but claim things are just dandy.  I noted in a prior blog that Kansas has no reserves.  And apparently a $350 million deficit in 2016, a continuing trend for a number of years now.  And bigger deficits to come.  Kansas is the poster child of why cutting taxes a lot does not work.

How did they get here?  The state governor and legislature decided that cutting taxes spurs economic growth.  So if you cut a lot of taxes, you get lots of growth. They cite the Laffer curve, a  totally discredited economic tool drawn on the back of a napkin  by Arthur Laffer at a 1974 dinner to argue why Gerald Ford should not raise taxes.  On the face of it it makes no sense but that has not stopped supply side politicians from using it for nearly 40 years  to cut taxes.  The problem, it is wrong.

Cutting taxes does not spur enough economic growth to make up for the loss in taxes when you go down the Kansas role.  If you s cut them too much, it is really hard to raise them if you run short.  The result is that  economic growth in most of Kansas will be stunted for years due to the lack of investment in Kansans.  Now you would think that Kansans would be up in arms about the poor stewardship by elected officials. But no.  See if you get constant bad news, just stop reporting revenues and deficits.  No news is good news right?  Welcome to Kansas!

http://www.governing.com/topics/finance/gov-kansas-connecticut-budget-news.html

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I have been saying this for a number of years – China, Indonesia, Japan, Korea and Immigrants didn’t take our jobs.  Robots did.  And now Paul Wiseman agrees:

https://www.pressreader.com/usa/richmond-times-dispatch-weekend/20161106/282969629631569

We make more cars in the US today than in the 1970s, with 1/3 of the labor force, mostly with robots.   We make more steel in the US today that in the heyday of the steel towns of Pittsburgh and Bethlehem because of robots and small scale recycle pug mills.  What’s more, industrial experts think the US, not China, will be the most manufacturing competitive country in the world because the costs to manufacture are cheaper due to automation (a fancy word for robots).

Ok, wait, isn’t unemployment now under 5% and we have had 70+months of continuous job increases?  How is that possible?  Companies want to cut costs.  Labor is easy when that labor can be replaced by robots. The trend will continue.  Automatic driving trains are real.  Automated trucks are coming – billions are being put into truck automation to reduce the 1.4 million truckers to as close to zero as possible, saving 1/3 the cost of transportation.  But automation does not mean less jobs – there are needs for higher tech jobs to maintain the robots.  And the ability to cut costs in one area means more income to spend on others, increasing jobs in other areas. So in reality there are more, higher skill jobs out there.

More to come, but  maybe we are now starting to understand what is meant by the “new” economy and how that might transfer to the water industry..

 


I love South Park.  Parody on the ridiculous stuff that goes on every day.  Most of the time the writers hit the target.  And I laugh.  There is an episode of South Park where the residents cry out about immigrants that “took ‘r jobs!!”  And then they go on to “rabble rabble rabble” because they don’t know what else to do.  And of course in the Republican debates, the illegal immigrant issue has arisen.  But how big a problem is this really?  And are these jobs Americans really want to do, or is the illegal immigrant market basically taken the bottom rung because today’s workers don’t want those jobs.

So first, what are those jobs? Steven A. Camarota and Karen Zeigler at the Center for Immigration Studies analyzed the census data from 2010 and found there to be 472 “professions” that could be categorized. Of the 472 civilian occupations, only six would be categorized as being “majority immigrant (legal and illegal).” The six are:

  • Plasterers,
  • Personal appearance workers
  • Sewing machine operators
  • Garment manufacturing, and
  • Agricultural occupations (2)

They note that these six occupations account for 1 percent of the total U.S. workforce and that even in those fields, native-born Americans still comprise 46 percent of workers even in these occupations.  In high-immigrant occupations, 59 percent of the natives have no education beyond high school, compared to 31 percent of the rest of the labor force.

Many jobs often thought to be overwhelmingly immigrant (legal and illegal) are in fact majority native-born:

  • Maids and housekeepers: 51 percent native-born
  • Taxi drivers and chauffeurs: 58 percent native-born
  • Butchers and meat processors: 63 percent native-born
  • Grounds maintenance workers: 64 percent native-born
  • Construction laborers: 66 percent native-born
  • Porters, bellhops, and concierges: 72 percent native-born
  • Janitors: 73 percent native-born

There are 67 occupations in which 25 percent or more of workers are immigrants (legal and illegal). In these high-immigrant occupations, there are still 16.5 million natives — accounting for one out of eight natives in the labor force.

Illegal immigrants work mostly in construction, cleaning, maintenance, food service, garment manufacturing, and agricultural occupations. They found no occupations in the United States in which a majority of workers are illegal immigrants. Even in the overwhelming majority of workers even in these areas are native-born or legal immigrants.

So then the question really is this – are they taking jobs that Americans want to do?  Historically the answer is no.  Both the agricultural and garment industries have struggled to get native workers.  The work is long, hard, and conditions difficult.  If you have education, you can find a better, higher paying job.  No American kids grows up wanting to pick beans or sew for a living.  Immigrants have always been the source of labor.  Plasterers are difficult to find when construction jobs are plentiful so that is the one exception to low paying jobs that no one wants to do.  Construction has always looked for labor help and certain specialties. And there are not that many of these jobs in comparison to the others on the list.  So for those 5 jobs the answer is no.  Same goes for most of the next seven (Maids, housekeepers, janitors, bellmen, etc.).  I should note that my great grandmother (an immigrant) cleaned houses, but made sure none of her kids would by making them get an education.  Ditto for my uncle who was a janitor.  Neither was well educated, but their kids were.  And there kids were far better  off economically.

So political rhetoric aside, the answer seems to be that immigrants do in fat take those jobs that we do not want to do that require less education.  These jobs mostly pay minimum wage. The study notes that 59 percent of the natives have no education beyond high school, compared to 31 percent of the rest of the labor force.   Get educated – get a job that pays better than minimum wage.  Seems like I have heard that rhetoric as well.


Power costs are stable.  Gas prices decreased markedly in 2014 Oil futures are low compared to 2013 and earlier.  .  Production is constant.  Low energy likely is fueling an economic expansion.  Gas economy in vehicles is at an all-time high.  Fuel efficiency lowers GHGs and cuts oil imports.  America is less reliant on foreign oil.  We have more money in our pockets.  Utility power costs and vehicle costs are lower.  Generator operations are lower.  Life is great.  Or is it?

 

Well, that depends on who you talk to.  Politicians in states with in oil and gas based economies are scrambling to deal with large deficits in their budgets.  The railroads are not happy over the Keystone pipeline vote.  Green energy manufacturer are unhappy.  Environmentalists are unhappy.    Heck even the Koch brothers are probably not completely happy

 

The first issue is methane gas.  Pipelines and fracking operations lose about 6% of the gas. A Washington Post article estimates 8 million metric tons of methane is lost each year.  That is where we are trying to capture and transport it.  The Bakken fields lack pipelines for gas, so much if it may be flared.  The amount of fracking will continue (Florida Power and Light has said it will get into the business – but outside of Florida), so more exploration will likely lead to more methane escaping.  Why do we care?  Methane is 22 to 80 times the greenhouse gas that carbon dioxide it (depending on who you talk to).  It accounts for 9% of GHG emission in the US – a third of that from the oil and gas industry.  That gas is concentrated in the western US which makes them ripe for regulation.

 

Enter cap and trade.  The cap and trade “industry” has been opposed by the oil and gas industry for years.  However there are a number of groups –from Indian tribes to NextEra Energy are posed to benefit from cap and trade (C&T) rules.   They have reduced their carbon footprint enough that they can sell carbon credits.  It is doubtful that this Congress with pass C&T legislation, but much of the regulatory focus could be shifted if C&T was in place.  C&T could accelerate green energy efforts.

 

Green energy folks want continued subsides or policies that encourage increased green power supplies, improve technology and reduce prices – all at the same time.  Rolling out a major change in the energy picture is a huge investment that will not gain traction without policies to encourage it   At least for now, green energy creates more jobs per KW-hr than conventional oil and gas, primarily in research and development and product manufacturing.  Sewing up the patents would portend positively for America in the 21st century, much as sewing up the car, gas engine, and nuclear patents did for the 20th century.  He who owns the technology should benefit.  Unfortunately that isn’t the Koch brothers who are unhappy with green energy but are happy that lower oil prices might decrease the competition in the future when oil prices inevitably rise.  But America would be better off in a non-oil based economy in 50 years if we developed an energy policy to address these issues with a long-term view.

 

However, that would take a lot of business and political leadership to overcome some of those who do not want change.  These are people who have more money than the Concord coach makers who could not fight the technology change to automobiles in the early 20th century.  It also takes a vision of what America should look like in 50 years. We might be short on those visionaries.  And how will utilities be a part of it.


ASCE came out with more bad news about infrastructure.  60 Minutes did a piece about deterioration of bridges. The magazine American City and County has published a couple articles about the risks of aging infrastructure.  Asset management is practiced by few governments, and even fewer small ones.  The public doesn’t want to foot the bill and lobbyists want taxes cut further.  Where does it end?

The infrastructure crisis is a political and business leadership crisis.  Or vacuum.  The economy of America and much of the developed world was built on advanced (for their time) infrastructure systems constructed by governments with a vision to the future.  Some of this infrastructure was repurposed (federal interstate system for example), but much of it has addressed critical issues that hampered our development.  For example, the lack of water severely inhibits many third world nations.  Even when they have water, it is unsafe to drink or use.  In America, at the turn of the 20th century 1:100,000 people DIED each summer from typhoid.  Just typhoid, not all the other waterborne disease options.  Many more were sick.  And the population was much smaller.  Talk about reduced productivity.  Now we have advanced water systems, disinfection practices that protect people and pipes, and few event get sick from contaminated water.  Those that do, become headlines.  You don’t want to be a headline.  Productivity is up.  But we expect good water and can’t see the pipes.

Sewer is an even better example.  People just don’t want to know.  Flush and it’s gone.  But the equipment, treatment and materials may be even more complex than the water system.  But few people get sick from sewage because of the systems we have built.  Now think about third world examples.  Or conditions you have seen in documentaries, the news or movies.  Being in sewage is not a great place to be.  Even the manhole thriving cockroaches agree..

Stormwater is probably the laggard here, in part because changes in development patterns have overwhelmed the old systems.  Miami Beach experienced this when redevelopment replaced small houses on permeable lots with large housed with mostly impermeable property.  Oops.  Meanwhile road and bridges have received a lot of funding – with much to do (see bridge that collapsed on I-75 in Cincinnati a few weeks back).  Most states fund transportation at a magnitude more than water and sewer.

What is the problem?  Local officials do not convey an understanding of these complex system to the public very well.  In part this may be because understanding the maintenance needs is difficult and highly variable.  And many do not fully comprehend the assets they have, their condition, life expectancy or technological needs.  No one knows when things will fails, so maintenance or replacement of some equipment or pipeline is always the thing cut in the budget, with no real understanding of the consequences.

The public does not see the asset, assumes it will have a long life, so is unconcerned until they are affected.  Then it is personal.  The public does not understood the impact or value that these assets have to society – they tend to be personal focused, not societal.  That is a leadership issue.  That leadership starts with vision and communication from those that understand the issue to the elected officials that need to advocate for their infrastructure.  Elected officials need to take ownership of infrastructure.  It is like your house – you need to upgrade and protect it constantly.  You do not let that roof leak keep leaking!  Elected officials that do not invest in infrastructure, are letting the roof leak.  Making is someone else’s problem for political expediency is not leadership.

Despite the infrastructure crisis, the good news is that construction of piping is increasing – both new and replacement.  Every so many months, the magazine Utility Contractor will note current trends and pipe seems to be going up.  That’s good but there is a long way to go.  Better news – the construction of buildings is increasing.  That could lead to more revenues.  In Florida, all of a sudden finding experienced construction workers is a problem.  Things are definitely better economically, but are we taking advantage to improve the local infrastructure, or is you economy simply an infrastructure disruption away from another fault?


Since 2010, the Federal Reserve Bank indicates that the wealthiest 10 percent of American have seen their income rise by 2%.  The Bottom 20% have seen their income DECLINE by 4 percent and the average for all families DECLINED 5%.  That tells me that the majority in the middle income brackets, decreased at a rate greater than the bottom 20%.  In other words more of us are moving down in economic standing, not up.  To make matters worse, the Federal Reserve Bank indicates that the top 3% actually had their incomes increase by 27.7% since 2010, meaning that the upper middle class people are falling back with the rest of us.  Quite the opposite of what our parents had hope for us.

Wages have not rebounded as many people had to take pay cuts or find new a career at lesser pay, which places all kinds of issues at risk – retirement age, retirement goals, college for the kids, investments, home ownership, etc.  All play a role in the economy of the country.  People spend less on eating out, new clothes and other things – generally more frugal, which means less demand for goods and services, and therefore less employment.  A vicious cycle that doesn’t help the economy.  We have already started to see real estate cool off as wages have not rebounded and people figure it is time to defer or get out.  Places like Miami and Las Vegas may remain warmer than say Cleveland or Detroit, but the Miami market has cooled in the past year.

Real losses in purchasing power goes back to the 1980s form the lower half of earners in the US.  And we argue about the minimum wage – which is the very bottom of the pile.  The failed concept of the Great Society was to try to get enough money in everyone’s pocket that the total purchasing power of the population would increase.  Did not work out that way, but the concept of increasing purchasing power of all has appeal.  Inflation goes up.  Purchasing power goes down.  The economy will stagnate if wages for the bottom 90% do not increase.  That makes official less likely to raise water and sewer rates to pay for those needed infrastructure upgrades.  Which will put more assets at risk of failure and stress operations budgets further.

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