Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

Financial Arson Watch IV

Robert Waldmann

Over at Firedoglake “Masaccio” has a very interesting report on a legal complaint by the estate of Lehman Brothers against J.P. Morgan.

on September 9, 2008, JPMorgan insisted that Lehman sign further agreements, under which Lehman guaranteed all obligations of its subsidiaries, including obligations under derivatives, and lost the ability to access its collateral overnight. That jeopardized the capital position of Lehman.

Then JPMorgan demanded even more collateral, finally winding up with some $8.6 billion in cash and liquid securities (paragraph 72) which made it wildly over-secured not only as to the minimal intra-day exposure, but even as to JPMorgan’s share of the unsecured line of credit and any reasonably estimated obligations with regard to derivatives.

On September 12, JPMorgan refused to give Lehman access to its collateral. Lehman collapsed into an uncontrolled bankruptcy, with little cash and less planning.

Why ?

The complaint says that JPMorgan admits that the additional collateral was not needed to cover exposures under existing agreements such as the unsecured loan agreement and the Clearance Agreement. It says that the purpose was to collect “… on the possibility of closing out derivatives contracts on favorable terms in the event of a [Lehman] bankruptcy.”

Mmm sure smells like financial arson to me.

Read the whole thing (Dimon is much more creative than me. The point of the bankruptcy appears to have been to prevent Lehman from paying premiums on CDSs it had bought from JP Morgan causing the contracts to terminate automatically).

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Telecoms Deregulation ?

Robert Waldmann

There seems to be a widespread view that the US experience with deregulation has been mixed. Financial deregulation was a disaster, but airline deregulation and telecoms deregulation were OK (except for how crowded airports are and irritating advertisements by competing phone companies).

What is this “telecoms deregulation” of which you speak.

I absolutely sincerely ask for information. I recall 2 episodes of newly intrusive telecoms regulation.

First ATT was forced to provide local (last mile) service to competing long distance carriers. This was imposed by the FCC. IIRC it was an application of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. Yes there was a huge increase in competition, but it was caused by regulation not by deregulation. The purpose of the act was to force companies to compete. Following that decision to interfere with the free market, there was more competition. A regulation served its stated purpose. Clearly this is a case of regulation not de-regulation.

Another FCC ruling that would affect the company [MCI] was the 26 June 1968 ruling in the Carterfone case that deemed AT&T’s rules prohibiting private two-way radio connections to a telephone network were illegal. AT&T quickly sought a reversal of the ruling, and when the FCC denied their request brought suit against the FCC in the U.S. Court of Appeals. The FCC’s decision was upheld thus creating a new industry: privately (non-Bell) manufactured devices could be connected to the telephone network as long as the manufacturer met interface standards.

That ruling, which consisted of the Federal Government telling ATT what it could do with its property, introduced long distance competition. I was actually thinking of a later ruling in which a judge ordered ATT to make sure the interfaces worked (ATT had been trying to use the “as long as” part to restrain trade).

The second episode was breaking ATT up into ATT and the baby bells. This was definitely an act of regulation under the authority of the Sherman act. Just ask ATT.

… an antitrust suit by the U.S. government against AT&T. The suit began in 1974 and was settled in January 1982 when AT&T agreed to divest itself of the wholly owned Bell operating companies that provided local exchange service.

That’s regulation not deregulation.

I suppose there might have been telecoms deregulation too, but that would be only dealing with minor issues left over by the huge acts of telecoms regulation.

Unless I am confused, people are mixing up competitive markets and laissez faire. Under laissez faire ATT could use its natural monopoly to block competition until the US was cabled for TV. The cable companies could offer telephone service (I don’t think they bother). Cable TV wasn’t deregulation. It was a tiny bit of technology and massive investment.

One of the principal aims of economic regulation in the USA has long been the promotion of competition. Sometimes regulation and public intervention over-ruling private property rights achieves its aims. It seems that, in one such case, it is therefore called “deregulation.”

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Holiday sweetness

I have been ‘doing’ the South Beach diet the last three weeks. It is quite amazing how sweet berries, and the occasional small slice of watermelon on this hoiliday week end, tastes. Much better than corn syrup.

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PSI?

Does anyone have a handle on pounds per square inch of pressure of the flow of oil (mud not heavy enough?) against the pounds per square of sea bed pressure, and then subsequent impact as the flow encounters considerably less pressure the closer to the surface the flow gets?

Update from comments in Oil Drum today:

Reservior quality oil is API 35 (right on edge between light & medium quality crude, few asphaltenes, which make the “best”, longest lasting tar balls) with lots of natural gas (3,000 GOS, 10,000 GOS is considered a gas well). The oil emulsifies with water easily, much better than most crude oils.

The reservoir pressure is 13,000 psi. (Temperature only 180 F from one report, unusually cold). 4 weeks ago the pressure was reported as 8,000 to 9,000 psi entering the BOP and just seawater pressure (@ 2,200 psi) + 400 psi exiting the BOP. This implies much more than just a frictional drop up 13,000′ of drill string, but some obstruction as well.

Since then sand entrained with the gas and oil has eroded the BOP and BP has stated that new observations of BOP pressures were “surprisingly lower” but gave no numerical data. OTOH, downhole, it is normal for wild wells to pull rocks as well as sand into the bore and clog things up.

However, this specific well has cased for production (later), which is designed to prevent being clogged up by produced rock and sand.

My GUESS is that the pressure drop downhole in the well bore is greater and drop across the BOP lower since Thad Allen leaked the pressure #s.

This also implies that the clogging the holes spewing that we can see does nothing, since they represent just a 400 psi drop. Raise that to 1,000 psi by reducing the size and that will feed back SLIGHTLY to the other, larger pressure drops.

One interesting observation is that the natural gas is dissolved in a super-critical fluid in the reservoir and begins to comes out of solution as it transits the BOP. Expanding gas is quite a force.

A major issue is inertia. Roughly 2 ft2 column coming up 13,000′ and a few feet/sec is quite a battering ram. Beyond that is a good sized reservoir. It has been sitting still for the last few million years, and now it begins to flow towards this new hole. Given the size (perhaps 100 million barrels) it will take months for all the oil to start flowing evenly towards the well. But that is another source of inertia which will continue to grow over time.

I am confused (me too) as to whether the Top Kill/Junk Shot is injecting mud & debris where the pressure once was seawater (@ 2,200 psi) + 400 psi or 8,000 to 9,000 psi.

I hope this helps a bit. I personally have very little hope for anything except the relief wells.

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Shockwave Rider: it’s Now, Don’t Tell the Terrorists

by Bruce Webb

I no longer try to follow Science-Fiction, but from 1964 to 1977 which is to say from the time I was seven until I turned twenty and joined the Navy I read pretty much everything and had built up a pretty massive library. Among them was a book called The_Shockwave_Rider by John Brunner. The wiki article explains the basic premise as follows

The title derives from the futurological work by Alvin Toffler. Future Shock. The hero is a survivor in a hypothetical world of quickly changing identities, fashions and lifestyles, where individuals are still controlled and oppressed by a powerful and secretive state apparatus. His highly developed computer skills enable him to use any public telephone to punch in a new identity, thus reinventing himself, within hours. As a fugitive, he must do this regularly in order to escape capture. The title is also a metaphor for survival in an uncertain world.

The novel, originally published in 1975, at a time when the Internet was still mostly a DARPA research project and the home computer was just a dream, was way ahead of its time both in terms of the technology represented and the genre, one that is now I guess known as cyber-punk (I told you I was out of touch). Well a couple of things combined today to make me realize that not only have we reached the world of Shockwave Rider, we have made it as banal as a trip to 7/11 and Safeway. Because in a world where the government is tracking just about everything, it has never been more easy to go off the info grid while paradoxically staying fully wired at all times. Good news for people who value privacy, which unfortunately include Mafia Dons, Mexican Drug Cartels, and international Terrorists. Some discussion below the fold.

First thing to realize is that none of this is secret to the bad guys, even public information tells us that these groups are pretty technologically sophisticated. Why is why the event that prompted the post is so misguided. Apparently Senator Schumer has introduced a bill that would require anyone buying a disposible pre-paid cell phone to show ID, This news, brought to me by John Cole at Baloon Juice spurred a long comment which the Intertubes just swallowed a few seconds ago (kind of ironic in context). Well this proposal tied into some things I have been thinking about in relation to my own life situation to add up to the question “Can anyone ride the Shockwave and remain undetected while still moving through ordinary society and all without engaging in criminal acts?” Well to a surprising degree you can.

Let’s start. Let’s assume you have enough existing ID to obtain a certified copy of your own birth certificate, as it happens I actually have the original of that as well as my original SS card, and some time back used them to secure a valid Passport which added to a valid Washington State Driver’s license. All perfectly legitimate, and all you need to do is to keep on the right side of the DMV and the IRS,

Now beyond your passport and driver’s license what are the essentials for living in American society legitimately but invisibly. Well first and foremost you need a mailing address, and ideally one that will accept packages for you. Well even small towns have some equivalent of Mailbox Express, and the IRS and your bank will accept that as a legitimate address. My mailbox place also offers secured storage, and with legitimate ID will link that to their own premises for invoicing. Having a mailing address and legit ID allows you to open a banking account which now universally come with a Debit Card which doubles as a Credit Card. But of course you can’t use that card in truly anonymous fashion. So what is next?

Well you establish an online presence, which in turn requires computer access. Now there are ways to do this anonymously via Internet cafes and the like but for true invisibility you have an option, buy a WiFi capable device, for me that is an iPad, paying cash, then find a truly anonymous public WiFi spot. Which these days is likely to be a MacDonalds or a public building. Now you are in business because you don’t have to supply proof of anything to set up multiple free accounts under Google, Yahoo, and the upgrade MS HotMail, each of which give you legitimate e-mail addresses and access to a variety of services including free online storage and with Google a free incoming phone number with auto voice mail. This in turn allows you to register for free content from across the web, none of which can be readily traced to you, after all if you paid cash or equivalent for you WiFI device and don’t register it with the manufacturer, all anyone can do is gather your device number (if that) and your current location.

Okay but not everything on the web is free and there will be times you want to engage in e-commerce. Well this is where riding the Shockwave has been reduced to the truly banal, all you need to do is go to the Gift Card section of your local Safeway where you will find a nice assortment of pre-paid and reloadable Gift Cards from each of the major credit card companies, none of which (at least to date) require you to show any ID and while online registration (in case of loss or theft) is possible it is not mandatory. Now this is a huge development whose implications have not I think been grasped. A few years ago I would have said it is near impossible to function at a reasonable level without credit, in particular travel was almost impossible, without a credit card equivalent with a reasonable line you couldn’t rent a car or often get hotel reservations, or in some cases even hotel check-in. Well these days you can buy your own credit in pretty much whatever amounts you need, and all without giving the credit card companies any room to screw you over by changing terms and rates or arbitrarily cutting your line. If you work it right and pay attention to grace periods you can have a wallet full of credit and store cards none of which tie back to your credit score or indeed even to your identity.

Put all the pieces together and you can live a life that is perfectly legitimate but for all practical purposes invisible, with online banking you can even cut your physical connection to the mailbox that remains your legal anchor point for your passport, drivers license, and for the tax authorities, and for those you can have a third party pick up official communications or simply have them forwarded.

This is not theoretical for me, sometime in the next six months I will be relocating, perhaps even taking a job that will have me in constant travel for the next few years, and one consideration was how I could be on the move all the time while still maintaining near 24/7 availability on the web while simultaneously free of the tyranny of the credit card companies and rating agencies. Five years ago I would have told you this was difficult and trending towards impossible, for example insurance companies were increasingly using credit scores to set your car insurance rates or even to deny you coverage at all, and there were indications that health insurers were moving in the same direction, while between your credit card company and your internet provider your entire life could be reconstructed via a combination of your purchases off and on line combined with your web surfing. Well not so now, a combination of a store bought pre-paid credit card, a Google account plus perhaps two or three other online e-mail accounts, and a WiFi browsing device and you too can be a Shockwave Rider, and all without the “highly developed computer skills” of the book’s hero.

This is not to say that there are not some tradeoff’s. Without current credit history and a good score you won’t be able to finance a house, then again for millions of people burned by the housing bubble and all too many having their equity and their credit disappear during foreclosure, this may be more a feature than a bug of riding the Shockwave. Similarly you might have serious problems financing a new car or getting it insured, which might get you thinking whether your really need a car to start with. Equally not having a good credit history is likely to block you from employment in the financial sector and perhaps from working for other Fortune 500 companies, not something that concerns me much either, and I suspect it would give a little heartburn to the FBI doing a background check for a security clearance, equally not high on my priority list. All in all I think I’ll give the Ride at least an approximation of a try, after all I’ll always be reachable on-line, just like I never left.

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Constitutional Originalism and Immigration

by Bruce Webb

Something has been bugging me. Why is it that the same people that indignantly claim that a requirement for people to show proof of insurance is unconstitutional but that it is perfectly fine, nay imperative that people show proof of citizenship or legal residency? Exactly where in the Constitution does it give the Congress the right to control the border to start with?

Constitution of the United States

Neither in 1776 or 1789 were there barriers to visiting or working in the Colonies or the United States. And from what I see the power to determine who was a Citizen or not was left to the various States with the reservation in Article IV Sec 2 that “The Citizens of each State shall be entitled to all Privileges and Immunities of Citizens in the several States.”

There is a drive afoot led by Rand Paul and others to repeal that section of the 14th Amendment that provides that everyone born on American soil is as such a Citizen

1. All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Well okay, but that would seem to just restore the situation to the status quo ante in which time there were no controls, and certainly no federal controls on free migration into or between the United States.

My ancestors did not have papers. Some of them reached the US before there was a US while others came from Ireland and Germany in the 1820s and 1830s and as far as I can tell the only requirement for entry was the price of passage. In fact from what I can glean the first restrictions on immigration only came in the 1870s and 1880s and were initially focused on criminals and lunatics to which in the 1890s were added ‘Asiatics’ and then in the 1920s national quotas, the latter designed to keep the US from being flooded with people from Southern Europe.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_United_States_immigration_legislation

Tea Partiers and allied groups claim NOTHING about their efforts is based on race, ALL is about returning to the Constitution as interpreted by the Founders. They equally claim that the ‘General Welfare’ clause in the Preamble and in Article II is not meant to be interpreted as giving Congress explicit powers and equally claim that Congress has greatly abused the Commerce Clause. Which leaves me this question. If you folks are so focused on Original Intent why NOT restore the immigration laws back to what they were in 1840? Because clearly you wouldn’t want to be accused of cherry picking the Constitution. Would you?

Consider this an open thread on immigration, originalism or anything related.

(P.S. Please keep clear the distinction between ‘naturalization’ and ‘immigration’. Clearly the States individually and the United States as a whole had powers to control who was a citizen, the question is what the Constitutional authority is to regulate residence by non-citizens whether from another country or another state.)

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To extend or not to extend, Pew (do you) Trust

by Linda Beale
crossposted with Ataxingmatter

To extend or not to extend, Pew (do you) Trust

The Pew Trust has published a study of the cost of extending the Bush tax cuts: Decision Time: The Fiscal Effects of Extending the 2001 and 2003 Tax Cuts. As surely all ataxingmatter (and Angry Bear) readers are aware, the Bush tax cuts were enacted with sunset dates. Some of those sunsets were 2008 but were extended to 2010. The Bush Congress intended to make the cuts permanent, but knew the price tag would be too high. So instead they used the sunset gimmick to pretend that the tax cut wasn’t really a major cause of increasing deficits.

Now the bill is due. And of course, Congress is today debating an “extender” bill for many of those cuts, that will be financed, at least, by other revenue increases, unlike the original Bush cuts.

Obama’s 2011 budget proposal calls for extending most of the tax cuts –i.e., Obama does not want to let the 2000 rates return as slated under current law for those singles earning less than $200,000 or couples earning less than $250,000. But he’d let the old rates return above those thresholds.

What’s the cost of the Obama extension? A significant $2.3 TRILLION over ten years, according to the Pew Trust report. And debt would extend to 78% of GDP by the end of the 10 years (all else staying the same, which of course it won’t).

If the cuts were allowed to expire as they are slated to do under current law, we’d have $2.3 trillion more in revenue and the debt to GDP ratio would be cut to 68% by 2020.

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The Fundamental Difference Between Scott Sumner and Me

by Mike Kimel

The Fundamental Difference Between Scott Sumner and Me

So Scott Sumner responded to my latest post. There’s a lot I disagree with, and I was all set to start responding point by point when I had an epiphany: essentially this all comes down to a difference in how we look at a government’s interference in the economic affairs of its citizens. As an example, he views Singapore and Japan as states that interfere less with the economic affairs of its citizens than Argentina (a view shared with organizations like Heritage). I see things the other way. I also think Sumner’s opinion on this matter is not just wrong, but also inconsistent and illogical.

Since Sumner began this with an anecdote, let me go with a little story myself to illustrate my point.

Say its 1980. A doctor decides to open a private clinic where he can ply his trade as he wishes. Perhaps he wants to peddle procedures deemed harmful or immoral, maybe he just wants to charge prices that the government doesn’t approve, perhaps he isn’t licensed to practice medicine, or maybe he has something else in mind. His motives aren’t our business in this little story. So he sets up shop in a quiet street in a suburban neighborhood in the capital. Fast-forward to 2010. The doctor has had a successful 30 year practice doing what he wanted, and he’s now passing on his business to a young associate. Given his entire practice would be deemed illegal in Argentina, Japan, and Singapore, in which of these three states is this story most likely to have occurred. Or put another way…. in which of these countries do you think you can most easily find a doctor practicing for the past three decades outside of all state control?

I would answer, without any doubt, Argentina. I don’t have any data, but I did live long enough in South America to know how easy it is to find such practices in several countries in the region. (I don’t know enough about Chile but I imagine its a bit harder in Chile than in, say, Argentina, Brazil, or Peru.) I imagine Scott Sumner would probably answer Argentina too.

The main reason we probably agree is that we probably have a similar view of what the social structure looks like in those three countries, and what the punishment would be for a doctor who got caught. The Japanese version of the doctor would face jail time, and perhaps worse (from his perspective): social stigma. The Singaporean version of the doctor would face jail time, and perhaps some form of physical punishment such as canings for which Singapore is famous. I’m not going to say its impossible for the Argentine to go to jail, but its almost ludicrously unlikely without some aggravating circumstances, like killing a patient or two. In the unlikely event he was closed down (and a very small bribe should have been enough to fix that, barring extenuating circumstances) he’d probably just re-open in a different location.

And the story doesn’t just apply to doctors. Change the facts slightly to cover a taxi driver, a bar owner, or someone looking to start a construction company. Again, I can easily see such a person operating for 30 years in Argentina. Heck, I’ve seen seen them operating. (And operating is the key word – if the taxi driver was the guy who decided to open the clinic and start doing surgery, medical education or not, who exactly is going to stop him in Argentina?) In almost every field of endeavor its easier to get around what the government wants from its citizens in Argentina than it is Japan and Singapore. Simply put, the only thing I can think of off the top of my head that the Argentine government seems to be able to do every so often that the Japanese or Singaporean government haven’t been in the habit of doing is placing restrictions on what one can do with one’s bank accounts. Having lived through that (albeit in Brazil) I can tell you its a pain in the behind, but everyone gets around the rules.

There’s also the flip-side. In Japan, a mid-level employee of one or another ministry can tell Sony and Toshiba and Toyota where to allocate their R&D funds… and the company would do it. In Argentina the government can tell people whatever it wants, but everyone knows it won’t happen. Singapore’s government still owns a sizable piece of the country’s productive output. Argentina’s used to, but no longer does.

And that’s the other point of contention. Not only do I feel that Argentina has far less control over the economic (and non-economic, for that matter, though that’s another post) life of its citizens than Japan and Singapore, but that difference increased over the length of the 1980 to 2008 period to which Sumner alludes. (Bear in mind, Sumner’s original post dealt with liberalization, that is to say, a process of getting the government out of its citizen’s hair.) I can tell you from personal experience – if you went to Argentina in 1980, your bags would be searched for electronic contraband. Thoroughly. See, they were trying to get an electronic industry off the ground. They’ve long since given up on that protectionist policy (some time in the 80s) and while I’ve been there a few times since 2000, I’ve haven’t so much as had to crack my suitcase a single time in the last decade. Also gone is state ownership of things like railroads, airlines, and all sorts of services. And then there’s the military dictatorship.

Exactly what have the governments of Japan or Singapore divested themselves of during this period? What changed? Ditto Hong Kong. Or the US for that matter. Do you really think deregulation of airlines, telecom, and financial services begins to compare to what happened in Argentina since 1980?

So there’s the difference. Sumner and Heritage and the like have a certain belief in freedom. That belief essentially is of a non-messy freedom. They view Singapore as relative free because it produces outcomes they like – Singapore is clean, efficient, and functional. I, on the other hand, think Argentina is relatively free, not because I like the outcome necessarily, but because the government has less ability to meddle in the lives of its citizens.

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Structural Unemployment and Technology

Martin Ford points us to an ongoing concern as our economy changes:

Structural Unemployment and Technology

Previously, I’ve argued here that job automation technology might someday advance to the point where most routine or repetitive jobs will be performed by machines or software, and that, as a result, we may end up with severe structural unemployment. The latest weekly report shows anincrease of 25,000 in new unemployment claims–instead of the decrease expected by economists. Clearly, the economy continues to struggle with job creation, and I think that automation is playing a significant role.

Catherine Rampell recently wrote an article in the New York Times that delves into the impact this issue is having in the lives of typical workers. As the article points out:
For the last two years, the weak economy has provided an opportunity for employers to do what they would have done anyway: dismiss millions of people — like file clerks, ticket agents and autoworkers — who were displaced by technological advances and international trade.

Rampell’s piece does an especially good job of capturing the denial that is likely to continue to be associated with this issue:

Ms. Norton is reluctant to believe that her three decades of experience and her typing talents, up to 120 words a minute, are now obsolete. So she looks for other explanations….The problem cannot be that the occupation she has devoted her life to has been largely computerized, she says.

“You can’t replace the human thought process,” she says. “I can anticipate people’s needs. Usually, I give them what they want before they even know they need it. There will never be a machine that can do that.”

The fact is that there will very soon be machines and software algorithms that can very effectively anticipate needs and perform increasingly complex (and high-paying) jobs that require higher and higher skill levels. The unwillingness to acknowledge this reality and confront its implications extends not just to impacted workers, but also to economists and policy makers—virtually all of whom are either in denial or oblivious to this issue.

Many mainstream economists are projecting that unemployment will remain high for years to come—but there is a near universal expectation that eventually, the problem will correct itself and we will gravitate back to something close to full employment. The problem with this assumption is that technology is not going to stop advancing while we are all waiting for the job market to recover.

In my book, The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future (now available as a free PDF eBook), I argue that automation technology is likely to continue advancing relentlessly and result in significant and continuously increasing structural unemployment within the next 10 to 20 years.

Most economists are likely to dismiss this prediction. Many will suggest that new technology will result in the creation of new industries and new employment sectors. The problem with that assumption is that the new industries created tend to nearly always be very capital-intensive and employ relatively few workers—while at the same time making available technologies that are highly disruptive to more traditional labor intensive sectors that employ millions of people.

The worker that Rampell interviewed for her article has ended up taking what is often the job of last resort: a part-time position at Wal-Mart. But what will happen when Wal-Mart begins to employ significant automation? Is that really unthinkable? In fact, Wal-mart management was already starting to think about it back in 2005.

To see the difference in employment between a traditional industry and a new technology industry, compare Wal-Mart (over 2 million employees and revenue of about $180,000 per worker) with Google (20 thousand employees and over a million dollars per worker). In time, Wal-Mart will begin to look more like Google and new industries that spring up will employ fewer and fewer workers.

A similar story can be seen by in the DVD rental industry. How many workers are (or have been) employed by Blockbuster in its thousands of retail locations, as compared with Netflix in a few highly automated distribution centers? The inevitable migration from delivering DVDs though the mail toward to instantly available streaming video can only accelerate that trend.

The fact is that structural unemployment is here to stay. It will very likely get worse, and it will increasingly impact workers with college educations and high skill levels. Those with few skills and little education have been the first to feel the brunt, but machines are getting better and smarter. The rest of us are next.

Martin Ford is the author of The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future (available from Amazon or as a free PDF download) and has a blog at econfuture.wordpress.com .

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