Left Behind

I am dictating this column to my laptop. An inexpensive piece of software is converting my words into text with surprising accuracy. Such technology, in the view of Gregory Clark, an economic historian at the University of California, is bad news for low skilled workers and for the skilled whose taxes will have to support them. The former, unable to command a living wage, may well, Clark thinks, have to become permanent wards of the latter.

Clark had an epiphany of sorts while making some complicated airline bookings over the telephone. He found himself talking to a computer. “My mechanical interlocutor,” he wrote in the Washington Post last week, “seemed no less capable than the Indian call center operatives it replaced.”

Machines have been displacing workers forever, of course, but even something as simple as processing an order for a McDonald’s Big Mac has called for “an astonishing repertoire of spatial and language skills”, in Clark’ phrase,  that cannot easily, let alone economically, be outsourced to a robot. Hitherto.  The question is: for how much longer can the hamburger flipper maintain his or her edge? Not long, says Clark. Continue reading “Left Behind”


Health wrongs

As President Barack Obama struggles to build consensus on an overhaul of the American health care system, he could be forgiven for wishing he was working under South Africa’s constitution rather than his own. The system is desperately broken.  The SA constitution, by enshrining  justiciable rights to health care and other basic needs , would give Obama badly needed leverage to get it fixed. The US constitution, admirable though it is in most respects, is rooted in distrust of government and makes the task devilishly tricky by design.

Fixing the system has eluded multiple presidents, not least Bill Clinton whose administration never recovered political momentum after his ambitious reform programme foundered in 1994.  High then, today the stakes are much higher.  The status quo not only inflicts great cruelty on countless Americans,  unchanged it will continue to erode the competitiveness of American business (the US motor industry can already be counted as a casualty) and will render the American government insolvent.

The US spends a far larger proportion of its GDP to health care – over 15 per cent and rising — than any other OECD country, but not to commensurate effect, performing relatively poorly in terms of health outcomes.  The next biggest spender is Switzerland, at 11.3 per cent and France at 11 per cent.  The UK spends 8.4 per cent, which is roughly the proportion of GDP that the US private sector alone spends on health.  The US public sector – essentially Medicare for retirees and Medicaid for the truly indigent —  spends 7 per cent of GDP, only slightly less than the 7.3 per cent share consumed by UK’s National Health Service. Continue reading “Health wrongs”

Losing It

I do not handle Kafkaesque situations well. My wife has on more occasions than I care to remember had to rescue me from self-destruction when tangled with authority that does not make sense.

One such occasion involved a Jeep and Washington’s Department of Motor Vehicles.  This was your basic Jeep, direct descendent of the military kind, bulked up for the consumer market.  At the time in question, some 25 years ago, one of the downsides of living in Washington was having to take your vehicle to the DMV annually to have it tested for roadworthiness.

Marion Barry was mayor, seemingly for life. He had yet to be filmed smoking crack cocaine with a woman other than his wife. Had Transparency International been around and ranking cities as well as countries, it would likely have put the American capital a rung below Zimbabwe.  The city would have fared no better in the World Bank’s ease of doing business ratings. Continue reading “Losing It”