I was generously invited to join my friends at PriceWaterHouse Coopers State and Local Government practice for the Regional Planning Association conference. Every year, the RPA brings together public and private leaders to help plant seeds for the future of the tri-state area.
I enjoyed the conference before, but this year had a stronger energy to the conference — it was as if folks realize that the stakes are higher.
Tom Wright, the RPA president, “A new relationship with nature that recognizes it is an integrated whole.”
There is a conscious recognition amongst politicians and agency leaders that the NY transition system is in need of an overhaul. Whether it be the RPA president, Hilary Clinton, Phil Murphy — each of them spoke of the importance of transit. As a New Yorker and someone who grew up in New Jersey — I could not agree more.
Andy Byrford is leading the charge at New York City Transit, and he seemed to be a very conscious and thoughtful individual. I appreciated his remarks on bringing women into leadership, and the importance of the integrating everyone into the transition (from the subway janitor to the top). He went on to say:
I will not pass a janitor on the subway without saying hello…
Andy Byford spoke about the importance of creating a forgettable journey within the NYC transit system. I hope they will create a transit system of beauty (e.g., the Oculus), but I think most of will settle for on-time rides.
Grow the Middle Class in a Technology-Charged Economy
Technology and the Middle Class is such a prescient topic: What do we do with the rapid pace of change in our world? How do individuals adapt more quickly to the changing times?
The moderator set the stage for a lively discussion by having panelist that each brought a very different frame of mind.
Enter Rob Atkinson
I so enjoy the study of economics, and was looking forward to Rob Atkinson — the innovation economics scholar.
A couple statements (paraphrased and with comment after >>) that stood out:
- We have not raised wages because we have not raised productivity. >> I had so much trouble believing this simple answer to the lack of wage growth was lack of productivity growth. Nonetheless, I believe it is important to try an understand the economic perspective, and that for many this is the prevailing hypothesis for a lack of wage growth.
- Why do we have so many low-income jobs? Because there are so many low-income jobs…
- Bill Gates’s idea of a Robot Tax is the dumbest idea. >> I was surprised to hear such a disregard for the idea, rather than explanation of how to solve for the transition of workers from the economy today to the economy tomorrow. Atkinson mentioned Singapore’s support for training and courses for citizens, and I believe state and federal budgets will need to begin focusing increasingly on education and training for the future of work.
As can be expected each panelist had their own point-of-view, rather than an open acknowledgement of the gray areas and nuances. For example, with Atkinson, I began to see a reductionist view of our capitalistic systems and his belief that the solution was to remove all barriers to innovation; and, any efforts to ameliorate suffering and transition the workforce of today must be owned and managed by government, and/or politics.
Bhairavi Desai is an activist for NYC taxi drivers, and seemingly Uber and Lyft drivers. The best quote to describe Desai…”One half of my heart is broken, the other is burning.” (NYTimes article )
A couple statements (paraphrased and with comment) that stood out:
- The gig economy or digital economy provides poverty paying gigs — the jobs are high-turnover and low paying.
- The business model relies on under employment and part time work. >> I think we are just beginning to truly understand the platform-economy business model: What are the levers? What are the fundamentals to enable it? Fundamentally, humans require a baseline of income to survive — is Uber and Lyft a mechanism to provide that? Or, is it a mechanism for additional income? Right now, anecdotally, it seems like the mechanism for many workers to make a basic income.
- Community of low wage workers who are people of color, but these are the marginalized.
- Just because a job is low skilled does not mean it should be low wage; and, just because it is low wage does not mean it is low skilled.
- There is a human cost to technology. There have been four suicides over the past couple of months with drivers. >> In New York City, Uber and Lyft added supply to a “taxi market” that was heavily regulated (i.e. the number of taxis were dictated by the Taxi and Limousine Commission via the sale of medallions). Medallions were very valuable for many years, and with the introduction of Uber and Lyft the values plummeted. There was inevitably a human cost.*
Desai spoke with the passion to defend the humanity of individuals in the gig economy. While Atkinson believed that companies should not hold any responsibility in transitioning the workforce to livable wages/conditions, Desai believed the companies absolutely should bare some of the costs.
Ultimately, the Atkinson viewed technological innovation as the highest utility, and that negative externalities would be solved by other parties (i.e. government and non-profits). On the other hand, Desai seemed to be shining light on the on-the-ground realities of the impact of technology on the day-to-day lives of workers.
Aisha Glover: Aisha Glover is the head of the Newark Alliance. At the end of the day, she spoke about the challenges being systemic more than anything else.
Her reflections seemed to encompass the idea that what we are seeing today is bigger than simply technology or the impact on workers.
Pablo: Pablo spoke to the significance of “upskilling” or “reskilling” workers to have more competitive and higher paying jobs. He mentioned: The launch pad in San Francisco; Burning Glass; Virginia providing open source data on education and income outcomes.
RobotTax: Do companies have a responsibility to help those jobs they are displacing?
- Rob Atkinson: We need Productivity, don’t impose penalties on companies
- Bhairavi Desai: Why don’t companies have a responsibility? Uber has lobbied for labor deregulation. They can profit from your labor, but you don’t get any protections. When did economists lose their human angle?
What about portable healthcare and benefits?
- Interestingly, no one had any real solutions to speak of (including medicare for all).
How will we create a thriving middle class?
- Atkinson spoke about Singapore as a model: workforce training vouchers; help people access their skills and get them to determine what they need for jobs
- Pablo spoke about creating a numerate society
- There is so much human suffering with these rapidly changing times. The speed of technology and economic change, seemingly outpaces economic and human capability to change.
- Do we believe each of us plays a role in supporting in that transition?
- How does a reductionist vs. integrated view of our economy change ones actions and points of view on our challenges?