Monday, July 22, 2013

Solving the wrong problem

On Friday, NPR's Morning Edition ran a story that was ... somehow I want to say "The gift that keeps on giving," but that would imply that I liked it. The problem with "Will robot nannies save Japan's economy?" started with the framing by the host.

"OK, you might think the U.S. with its high unemployment and slow growth doesn't have much advice for other developed countries when it comes to how to get out of an economic slump."

Obviously U.S. economic performance since the end of 2007 has been at first abysmal and then merely lackluster, but look at that phrase, "much advice for other developed countries." And how are those other developed countries doing?

I'm not one to mindlessly worship faster growth of GDP per capita as the surest sign of economic success, but that is the standard they set here. And in the last few years, the U.S. has done respectably in that regard, "beating out" most of the OECD, and almost all of the EU.

As for unemployment, our rate is high, but edging down. In the last few years, our unemployment rate has improved more than most OECD members.

In general, countries that have pursued "austerity"--cutting government expenditure in order to reduce government deficits--have stumbled in the last few years; the U.S. has pursued only modest austerity, and has only stumbled modestly.

I doubt there's some nefarious plan to promote austerity, though that's possible. I suspect it's more that they were looking for a clever segue, and they went with conventional wisdom. On the other hand, that would point to the idiocy of conventional wisdom among US elites.

But again, that was just the framing. The fun starts with the story itself, the premise of which is that the U.S. should be teaching Japan how to have more women stay in the labor force after having kids.

The main points are these:

  • Too many women leave the workforce after having kids, and too few come back.
  • Daycare is hard to find, partly because of the lack of immigrants (compared to the U.S. situation, where immigrants provide large amounts of childcare).
  • Husbands put in 60 or 70 hours a week at their jobs, so they're not much help in making it possible for their wives to hold even a normal full-time job.
  • Women are subject to the same expectations as men as far as giving your all at work, so there's disapproval of a woman who tries to divide her time between doing her job and being a mother.
  • Engineers are working on robots that will be able to take care of children, so that mothers can be freed up for the workplace.
And one specific passsage from the story:
If more women returned to the workforce, it could give a huge boost to household income in the country, says Kathy Matsui, chief Japan strategist at Goldman Sachs. "Increasing income levels will boost consumption," she says. "Consumption would increase profits, profits would increase wages, and that turns into a virtuous cycle."
 Where to begin? I guess with a list of questions.
  • If there are more women out of the workforce than there "should" be, why can't some of them provide paid childcare while others do other jobs?
  • Or would that be too expensive, because a Japanese woman would expect to get paid a decent wage, whereas an immigrant can be paid less?
  • Robots? Srsly? If you're short on labor, how about having robots do the "jobs" and free up some human time for raising children?
  • Is the problem not enough available labor to do the work that fims want to get done, as Kathy Matsui implies, or is the problem that there's not enough consumer spending to support the work places that Kathy Matsui says there should be?
  • If Japanese women (and families) feel this is a problem, why isn't anything being done about it?
  • Above all, what are all these people doing that's so God Almighty important that they have to do it 60 or 70 hours a week?
Don't get me wrong--there's plenty of work to be done. Among other things, we've got just a wee problem with global warming, which is basically driven by our ceaseless need to consume ever more stuff. If you're working 70 hours a week to help your company sell more cars, or build more highways, or sell more gadgets that will consume more electricity, and at the same time you're never home while your kids are growing up, what exactly is it you're accomplishing?

I'm not advocating a journey to a fictitious paradise of stereotyped domesticity, where men earn money and women stay home to tend the hearth. There are obviously huge issues around how any society--and any individual or family in that society--balances competing needs and desires of raising children, earning income, and having stimulating, rewarding employment outside the home.

I would like our culture to do a better job of not shaming women, either for continuing to be employed after having kids, or for being "only" a stay-at-home mom if that's their choice. And to get over the whole "Mr. Mom" thing when a couple decides to have the woman earn the income and the man stay home. We're doing better than we used to in those respects, but we could still improve. And on the economic side we could go on about policies regarding maternity (Edit: parental) leave and flexible scheduling for parents.

So the story's subject matter touches on an interesting and important set of issues, but they're left essentially untouched. Instead, we get robot nannies and some fatuous framing about how Japan can learn from us ("U-S-A! U-S-A!").

This is journalistic Sweet-N-Low. It tricks the ear into thinking you're learning something, while not providing any actual sustenance for your mind.


  1. Hi Karl, interesting story. However, sounds like it's basically a case of one of those "gee, it's so weird (and technological) in Japan" kinds of stories. Probably won't have much impact.

    But closer to home, how about Thomas Friedman's touting of the new Sharing Economy? Apparently we can all pay our mortgages by renting out extra rooms and power tools. The comment stream correctly takes Friedman apart, but it seems rather mind-boggling, a much more prominent case of "not solving the right problem" perhaps.

    1. Yeah, it occurred to me after I wrote this that the original story would fit comfortably into the whole genre of, "Japan! -- The mysterious, inscrutable East!!" No, it probably won't have much impact, but in its overlooked questions it's symptomatic of our broader lack of introspection--Why are we doing things the way we're doing them?

      I'd read about the Friedman piece but had not read it (thanks for making me do that ...). I didn't read all the comments, but in those I read, I saw some people raising the issue of replicability, which is nibbling around the edges of the deeper problem with Friedman's idea. As someone pointed out, the logical extension is everyone taking in everyone else's laundry.

      The antidote for the confusion at the root of the column is a coherent theory of value and where it comes from. I'm working on it ...

      But in the meantime, my favorite comment was from Dennis in Boston, who had a couple of further "sharing" suggestions, including:

      "1. Online toilet finder. Rent your toilet. Homeowner registers with the online service, gives the house coordinates , conditions of use, when available, service level, i.e., disabled possible, infant change possible, family use possible, etc. and price. Subscriber registers with the service, gives credit card details. There are millions and millions of people on the highways, city roads, pedestrians suddenly with the urge to use a toilet. One click on your iPhone directs you from your current location to the nearest toilet in the shortest time."

    2. I forgot another angle, which is that Airbnb etc. can actually be good from a global-warming perspective. If lots of people used the service, and so fewer new hotels were built, there would be a decrease in the manufacture of cement (a significant contributor to greenhouse gases), a decrease in the operation of construction equipment, a decrease in the amount of new hard surface replacing permeable surface.

      In general, replacing hotels with a system of bunking up in each other's houses is more environmentally friendly. OTOH, what happens to the incomes of the people who would have been working in the hotels or at the cement factories or on the construction sites?

      The glib answer is that they'll find jobs doing something else. OK, but what? Again, we need a coherent theory of where value comes from ...

    3. Hi Karl, first must say that I love the online toilet finder! In fact, this kind of happened to us one night in Oneonta when someone knocked on our door. Would have even paid money, but in the true spirit of the "sharing economy" we did not charge.

      As for Airbnb being environmentally friendly, I would say that's a big "maybe." I like the idea that we may not have to make so much stuff if we are all using it more efficiently. However, it would be interesting to calculate the environmental impact of a large hotel building--if it were built to environmental codes--versus spreading out in hundreds of residences. Given that most people don't have high-efficiency washers, low-flush toilets, or efficient lighting, there are ways that a hotel is able to save and implement that are more difficult in Airbnb.

    4. So for the next time that someone knocks on your door seeking urgent relief, and you think they're willing to pay, it would be fun to charge them, but say you only accept bitcoin. That would make it even more cutting-edge, and Friedman could do a column about what virtual whizzes people are.

      And that's an interesting point on the environmental advantages of hotels over Airbnb. It's a bit like how a wood-burning power plant can be cleaner than a whole bunch of individual homes heating with wood. The power plant can burn the wood hotter, which reduces the emissions, and then it can run what's left through further cleaning steps. There are home units that are relatively clean-burning (just as an Airbnb host could have efficient lighting and low-flow toilets), but you get more bang for your buck when you make one big source clean than when you try to tidy up a hundred small sources.

  2. This will add almost nothing to the discussion but I really want a robot nanny. For me, not the kids.