The future of unemployment

It’s not looking good, especially for the next few years. A recent poll of economists found that, on average, they don’t expect the U.S. unemployment rate to fall below 6% until 2013. (The unemployment rate at this writing is 9.8%.)

“Never before has business shed so many workers so fast, so many people failed to find work who are looking for work, and so many dropped out of the labor force as in the current circumstance,” said Allen Sinai at Decision Economics. Continue reading “The future of unemployment”

10 signals and trends

Gleaned from recent press reports and other sources:

These are boom times for U.S. makers of unmanned military aircraft (drones).

Sample Lab Ltd. opened a  “marketing cafe” in Tokyo that lets trend-setting women see and test new products.

With the recession crimping legal budgets, some big companies are insisting on flat-fee payments instead of law firms’ long-standing practice of the “billable hour.”

City “water cops” are handing out citations to people caught wasting water resources in drought-stricken areas.

Lumber mills that produce woods for hardwood floors and maple cabinets have been devastated by the U.S. recession’s double whammy: the housing bust and unavailable credit.

Some hospitals find that owning up to medical errors reduces litigation and helps them learn from their mistakes.

Despite a 25-year effort to improve U.S. education, the latest high-school SAT exam scores are disappointing. Asian-American students are thriving but the SAT gap for blacks and Hispanics widens.

More than half of Somalia’s population needs humanitarian aid, the U.N. says.

Software makers are scrambling to develop cell phone safety applications that prevent texting while driving.

Inexpensive mini-reactors may be an alternative to building giant nuclear powerplants, though there are technical, financial and regulatory hurdles.

OK, the 401(k) retirement system didn’t work. What’s next?

For years the conventional wisdom has been to plow money into 401(k) plans for retirement. Anyone who didn’t was considered a financial dunce. Well, so much for conventional wisdom. The 401(k) system has “serious shortcomings,” says The Wall Street Journal (“Big slide in 401(k)s spurs calls for change,” 8 January 2009). Employees have seen their retirement accounts drop, 20%, 30%, 44% in the economic downturn.

“This is the biggest test that the 401(k) plan has seen to date, and it has failed,” says Robyn Credico, head of defined-contribution consulting at Watson Wyatt Worldwide, noting that many baby boomers are ready to retire. “We’ve put people close to retirement in a very challenging position.”

The timing couldn’t have been worse.

[E]ven when workers make good choices, a market meltdown near the end of their working careers can still blow their savings to smithereens.

“That seems like such a fundamental flaw,” says Alicia Munnell, director of Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research. “It’s so crazy to have a system where people can lose half their assets right before they retire.”

The U.S. Congress is beginning to take a look at retirement and 401(k) policy, starting with an October 2008 committee hearing with a variety of witnesses.

Some proposed setting up “universal” retirement accounts, which would cover all workers. One such plan called for establishing accounts that would receive annual contributions from the federal government, and would offer a guaranteed, but relatively low, rate of return. Another proposed automatically investing contributions in an index fund that holds stocks and bonds, with the mix getting more conservative as workers approach retirement.

U.S. Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, recently issued the following principles for future 401(k) reform:

  • Expose excess fees that Wall Street middlemen take from workers accounts.
  • Bring young and low-wage workers into the system at a higher rate through automatic enrollment for employers already offering 401(k)s.
  • Ensure that retirement accounts have diversified investment options with low fees, including low-cost index funds.
  • Ensure workers have access to reliable independent investment advice.
  • Reduce vesting periods and improve portability of 401(k) accounts.

But is this just minor tinkering with a system still dependent upon the wildly fluctuating stock market (not much different from gambling)? Do we need more radical reform that provides a solid financial foundation for retirement?

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The president-elect will face big problems, threats

It’ll be a short honeymoon. The next U.S. president will face high expectations (which may be impossible to fulfill), a recessionary economy and huge budget deficits. And that’s just domestically. Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, gave a speech this week that lays out the broader threats. As The Washington Post reported:

The next U.S. president will govern in an era of increasing international instability, including a heightened risk of terrorist attacks in the near future, long-term prospects of regional conflicts and diminished U.S. dominance across the globe, the nation’s top intelligence officer said Thursday.

Competition for energy, water and food will drive conflicts between nations to a degree not seen in decades, and climate change and global economic upheaval will amplify the effects, [McConnell said].

“After the new president-elect’s excitement subsides after winning the election, it is going to be dampened somewhat when he begins to focus on the realities of the myriad of changes and challenges,” he said.

Of course, besides the predictable conflicts and threats, “there is always surprise,” McConnell said. (Futurists call ’em wild cards.)

Continue reading “The president-elect will face big problems, threats”

‘The Era of Angry Populism has only just begun’

Robert Reich — author, professor and former U.S. secretary of labor — describes the mood of the American populace tonight, shortly before the U.S. Senate vote on the so-called financial bailout bill. His conclusion: “angry populism is about to explode.”

This mood will last longer than one night or one week; it will carry over into the November elections and well into the first year of the next White House administration.

Excerpts from Reich’s blog post:

While more Americans are coming around to “supporting” the bailout bill, the vast majority still hate the idea of bailing out Wall Street. They’re for the bailout bill now only because they fear that a failure to pass it will have worse consequences — drying up credit at a time when Main Street is struggling. But make no mistake: America is mad as hell. They resent what they perceive as extortion by the Masters of the Universe.

Angry populism has always been a potent force in American politics. And now, with wages dropping, jobs insecure, fuel and food and health-insurance costs soaring, and millions of homes in jeopardy — and what’s perceived to be a massive taxpayer bailout of some of the richest people in the land — angry populism is about to explode.

The larger economic outlook is not encouraging. All signs point to the economy worsening, bailout or no bailout. Unemployment will continue to rise. Median earnings will continue to drop, adjusted for inflation. More Americans will lose their health insurance.

The Era of Angry Populism has only just begun.

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Related:
The resurgence of anti-business populism; more regulation ahead