September 24, 2018

Workers Overdose on the Job, and Employers Struggle to Respond

In theory, employers are in a unique position to confront opioid misuse, through random testing and spotting erratic behavior or absenteeism, said Mr. Chase, the author of “The Opioid Crisis Wake-Up Call.” They could change their health insurance policies to limit opioid prescriptions to five days and waive deductibles for addiction treatment — an option that is often not available to construction firms because they typically do not provide health insurance.

But many employers have been slow to act.

The Nord Family Foundation, a charity in northern Ohio, hosted an event in May in Elyria, near Cleveland, that was designed to teach employers how to identify and treat employees with substance use problems. Dr. Donald S. Sheldon, a trustee at the foundation and a former hospital president, advertised in local newspapers and reserved a room at the local community college that would seat 200.

Just 30 people showed up, he said.

Of the 10 companies whose employees’ suspected opioid overdose deaths were detailed in O.S.H.A. reports since 2014, most did not respond or refused to address specific incidents.

Sam’s Club, a division of Walmart, said in a statement that it provided mental health and substance abuse coverage to employees and offered an employee assistance program. Fiat Chrysler said in an email that it had adopted more stringent opioid prescribing guidelines in its health plan and supported the use of medication-assisted addiction treatment.

Just one employer, Giovanna Painting in Spencerport, N.Y., agreed to an interview. Alan Hart, the company’s president, said he was shocked when one of his employees was discovered dead from a heroin overdose in a port-a-potty on a job site in 2017.

A recovered addict himself, Mr. Hart said he tries to be sympathetic and help workers get into rehab, though he does not provide health insurance.

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Tech We’re Using: Windows on How Cities Change Can Be All Too Captivating

I also like to know how places vote. For the 2016 election, I refer to a pretty incredible interactive precinct-level map The Times published this year. I draw information from the Census Bureau on things like demographics, population change and housing stock. The University of Virginia’s Racial Dot Map, based on the 2010 census, is a fantastic resource for eyeballing patterns of racial segregation; also, it’s just beautiful to look at. And I spend a lot of time lurking on the housing market in other cities through sites like Trulia and Zillow.

What have you found are some of the main unintended consequences of technology on how we live?

For nearly every form of technology I use for work, or use for myself, I have mixed feelings. (These mixed feelings are also a good source of story ideas.) I love apps, like Redfin, that make public information about the housing market incredibly accessible. But I wonder if they also reinforce the unhealthy American expectation that we should all make money off our homes.

Redfin emails me probably once a month with its estimate of what my house is worth. (I assume the company figured out which house is mine based on what I’ve clicked on in the past.) The subtext is that I can watch my investment grow, just as someone might check on a stock portfolio. And I suspect that for a lot of people, this becomes addictive. But fretting about property values is at the root of a lot of political problems in cities — fights over where to open homeless shelters, how to draw school boundaries, whether to build new housing. I’m not sure these fights are helped by this addictive live feed of data about housing values.

Tech advances in transportation have major unintended consequences, too. We clearly see this in the fight in New York City over whether Uber and Lyft have made traffic worse. Studies in several cities suggest that they’re putting cars on the road for trips people might otherwise have taken by foot or transit, or not at all. And they’ve certainly made the curb more crowded. Now, all of a sudden, cities have to figure out how to manage that space where people hop in and out of cars — as if at a cab stand, but everywhere.

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State of the Art: Why Jeff Bezos Should Push for Nobody to Get as Rich as Jeff Bezos

“We have technology that has allowed us to create vastly more wealth for society,” said Erik Brynjolfsson, director of the M.I.T. Initiative on the Digital Economy. “But there’s no economic law that says that these benefits will be distributed evenly — and it’s worked out that some people have gotten most of the benefits and a lot of other people have been left behind.”

But economics isn’t destiny, he said.

“Technology has led to some of this concentration, but since it makes the pie bigger, you could make everyone better off simultaneously — you could make the poor better off and the rich better off — and whether we do that is a matter of policy,” he said.

As Annie Lowrey pointed out in The Atlantic last month, economic policy is currently tilted toward benefiting people like Mr. Bezos far more than the hundreds of thousands of people who work in his warehouses. Among other policies, Amazon has capitalized on a weakened union movement and a low minimum wage, which has allowed it to expand by hiring an army of workers for its warehouses.

Amazon said that on average, its full-time warehouse workers made $15 an hour, including wages and other compensation; the company also said it provided full benefits, including tuition for career skills, to those workers. A $15 wage is higher than at some other retailers, but it is lower than estimates for what a family in the United States needs to meet its basic needs, known as a living wage.

“They’re not providing the sort of high-wage, middle-class jobs to a broad swath of individuals that we used to associate with corporate success,” Lawrence Katz, an economist at Harvard, said of Amazon and other high-flying tech firms. “What we’re seeing is not the sharing of the productivity benefits that we used to see in the past. And that may be even more galling than the concentration of wealth.”

How could Mr. Bezos address these issues through philanthropy? Mr. Giridharadas suggested several liberal economic policy ideas, among them efforts to strengthen unions, equalize how we pay for education, increase minimum-wage laws and push for a more progressive tax system. Both Mr. Gates and Warren Buffett — the second- and third-wealthiest people in the world — have said they should pay higher taxes.

Those ideas strike me as unlikely; Mr. Bezos is a far-thinking innovator, but he has expressed little interest in near-term political questions.

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Republicans Opposing Trump on Trade Face Election Quandary

Few Republicans break with Trump on tariffs

The awkwardness starts at the top for congressional Republicans. Mr. Ryan, for example, has been one of the loudest cheerleaders for the $1.5 trillion in tax cuts that Republicans sped through Congress late last year, and has frequently praised Mr. Trump for them. He criticized Mr. Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs when they were announced.

“There are better ways to help American workers and consumers,” Mr. Ryan said in May, after Mr. Trump allowed the tariffs to hit imports from Canada, Mexico and the European Union. “I intend to keep working with the president on those better options.”

Last week, though, Mr. Ryan urged “patience” for Wisconsin farmers who have been caught in an escalating series of tariffs between the United States and China. “So I think the idea and the strategy of — it’s hard ball, it’s tariffs, it’s tough talk — but if it results in good agreements with our allies and a unified developed world front to go get China to play by the rules, then that’s a pretty darn good outcome,” Mr. Ryan told the website “So I would simply say, be patient for that.”

But to the chagrin of some Washington conservatives, Republican voters nationwide support Mr. Trump just as strongly on trade as they do on taxes — and they say trade will be a bigger factor in their midterm vote. Among registered voters, 80 percent of Republicans support Mr. Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs, compared with 84 percent who support the tax cuts. Nearly two-thirds of them say that the North American Free Trade Agreement has been bad for the American economy.

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Bits: The Week in Tech: Apple’s Watch Steals the Show

It is significant that Apple is consulting with regulators as it does so. The prevailing ethos across much of the industry is to charge forward with new tech — to beg forgiveness from the world when things go wrong, instead of asking permission first. How refreshing it is, then, that Apple went through proper channels here. When it comes to health, moving fast and breaking things isn’t an option.

There was some other news in tech this week:

■ The spotlight on Google grew harsher. Breitbart, the right-wing outlet, posted a leaked video of a Google staff meeting that took place shortly after the 2016 presidential election. The contents aren’t surprising: Google executives and employees were visibly shaken and horrified by Donald J. Trump’s victory. Breitbart and many on the right took those political views as support for the notion that Google biases its search results against the right, a claim that President Trump has made repeatedly. The video added to political pressure on Google, which had escaped the scrutiny that fell on Facebook and Twitter after the election.

■ Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, and his wife, MacKenzie, pledged $2 billion to fund initiatives for the homeless and for preschools. It’s the first major foray into philanthropy for Mr. Bezos, who recently became the world’s wealthiest man. It’s hard to criticize someone who’s giving money away, but it’s worth noting that $2 billion isn’t that much. Other billionaires have given away much more of their wealth — Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has pledged $45 billion, which at the time was nearly all he was worth — and as Amazon’s stock price keeps rising, Mr. Bezos, who is worth $164 billion, is likely to keep getting richer still.

And that’s it, folks! See you next week.

Farhad Manjoo writes a weekly technology column called State of the Art. You can follow him on Twitter here: @fmanjoo.

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Stealing From a Cashierless Store (Without You, or the Cameras, Knowing It)

“We learn behaviors of what it looks like to leave,” said Michael Suswal, Standard Cognition’s co-founder and chief operating officer. Trajectory, gaze and speed are especially useful for detecting theft, he said, adding, “If they’re going to steal, their gait is larger, and they’re looking at the door.”

Once the system decides it has detected potential theft behavior, a store attendant will get a text and walk over for “a polite conversation,” Mr. Suswal said.

Predicting theft requires a lot of data about shoppers, much of which does not exist yet — “or at least no one is willing to give it to us,” he said.

So a few days before Standard Market opened, Standard Cognition hired 100 actors to shop there for four hours. In Japan, the team has worked with a convenience store chain, whose name it has not disclosed, in a very useful data collection effort.

Standard Cognition said that unlike facial recognition, it did not collect biometric information, a possibility that has troubled privacy experts watching the technology evolve.

The growth of cashierless technology could hurt the American labor force; there are nearly five million retail sales workers in America. But as Mr. Suswal has pitched Standard Cognition’s technology, he said, he has found that most shop owners are not looking to replace workers. Instead, they want their workers wandering the stores more, in hopes of luring shoppers back into brick-and-mortar retail.

“They all talk about new services, making shopping more fun, making it worthwhile to shop offline,” Mr. Suswal said.

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Defying Erdogan, Turkey’s Central Bank Raises Interest Rates

In a statement announcing its move, the Turkish central bank said there were “upside risks” to inflation, despite “weaker domestic demand conditions.” It added that, as a result, it had “decided to implement a strong monetary tightening to support price stability.”

For nearly two decades, Turkey had uninterrupted growth that helped reduce poverty, increase the ranks of the middle class and, until recently, turned the nation into a darling of international investors.

But the growth was built chiefly on a construction boom fed by cheap credit and an avalanche of government spending that Mr. Erdogan poured into the economy to stimulate even more activity. That success story has become increasingly unsustainable.

On the ground, the plunge in the lira has had an impact on daily life in a litany of ways, affecting even the availability of pharmaceutical supplies. Major drug wholesalers in Turkey are running low on stocks, and soon many antibiotics, as well as drugs for oncology, as well as cardiovascular and neurological ailments, will fall out of date, according to Vedat Bulut, the president of the Ankara Chamber of Pharmacists.

“Hundreds of thousands of people will be affected,” Mr. Bulut said. “Especially for cancer patients, a delay of even a few days in treatment may cause metastasis.”

The lira’s dizzying ups and downs have mirrored many of the challenges faced by emerging market currencies. As the Federal Reserve has begun increasing interest rates in the United States and as the European Central Bank looks to withdraw monetary stimulus of its own, investors have become less tolerant of the risks present in many smaller developing countries, and have begun pulling their cash. The South African rand has lost almost a fifth of its value since the start of the year, while the Indonesian rupiah has declined nearly 10 percent and the Indian rupee 13 percent in the same period.

The lira has since recovered many of its losses. At its weakest, in mid-August, 7.2 lira were required to buy one dollar, but at one point on Thursday the Turkish currency had strengthened to 6 against the dollar.

While Turkey remains a relatively minor economy in the global context — its annual output is about the same as that of a country like the Netherlands — several European banks have investments or subsidiaries there. That exposes the region to risks emanating from Turkey, even as the European Union grapples with its own challenges, including a trade dispute with the United States and concerns over slowing economic growth.

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E.C.B., at Latest Meeting, Highlights Risks From Trade War

The French economy is looking perkier. Eurozone unemployment, at 8.2 percent, is lower than it has been for around a decade. Wages in the common currency area are rising after years of meager growth.

But the list of risks is growing. The economy of Turkey, an important trading partner, is slowing, and that country’s central bank had to raise interest rates sharply on Thursday. Talks with Britain to negotiate an amicable divorce with the European Union are deadlocked. And German car exports slumped in July, probably because buyers are unsettled by the trade war, analysts say.

Trade is easily the biggest worry for European companies. For the moment, an uneasy truce prevails between Europe and the United States on trade. Mr. Trump and Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, agreed after a meeting in July not to impose more punitive tariffs on each other while they try to negotiate a broad trade deal.

But European political leaders and business managers are nervous that the American leader could grow restive if the talks do not produce quick results — and they probably will not. The European Commission is methodical in its approach, and hamstrung by the need to get approval from its 28 member states.

“There is really nothing the union can do to expedite its decisions on trade,” said Mujtaba Rahman, managing director in London at Eurasia Group, a political consultancy.

United States tariffs on steel and aluminum imports remain in place, raising prices and disrupting intricate supply chains. The Commerce Department continues to examine whether foreign-made cars are a threat to national security, a process that would create the legal foundation for the 25 percent tariffs on auto imports that Mr. Trump has threatened.

Mr. Trump seems to thrive on keeping people guessing, but businesses hate uncertainty. As long as the Damocles sword of Trump tariffs hangs above the eurozone, companies will be hesitant to buy new machinery or expand operations.

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U.S. Household Income Rises to Pre-Recession Levels, Prompting Cheers and Questions

The stagnation was striking because of the increase in the share of Americans with full-time jobs. Such an increase would ordinarily be expected to produce a rise in health insurance coverage rates. Robert Greenstein, the president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said the likely explanation was the Trump administration’s efforts to undermine the Affordable Care Act. Otherwise, he said, “we probably would have seen further progress in 2017.”

Turmoil in health insurance markets as Congress considered proposals to repeal the Affordable Care Act may have also created uncertainty. “Between 2016 and 2017, we saw that the uninsured rate decreased in three states, and it increased in 14 states,” said Edward Berchick, a demographer at the Census Bureau. “This was the first time since 2013 that we saw an increase in any state.”

The effect of opposition to the Affordable Care Act, passed by Democrats during the Obama administration, is most clearly visible in states that declined to expand Medicaid.

In states that did not expand Medicaid, 16.7 percent of the population had no health insurance coverage at any time during 2017, up from 16.1 percent in 2016. By contrast, in states that chose to expand Medicaid, there was no significant decrease in coverage. The Census Bureau said 9.4 percent of people age 19 to 64 had no health insurance coverage, roughly the same as last year.

The states with the highest proportion of uninsured residents were Texas (17.3 percent) and Oklahoma (14.2 percent), followed by Alaska, Georgia, Florida and Wyoming, all with more than 12 percent of their residents lacking coverage. Massachusetts, which has been working systematically to expand coverage for more than a decade, had the lowest uninsured rate last year, with 2.8 percent of residents uninsured. Five other states — Hawaii, Iowa, Minnesota, Rhode Island and Vermont — as well as the District of Columbia had uninsured rates of less than 5 percent.

In both expansion states and non-expansion states, the uninsured rate for working-age adults has declined significantly over the last decade. Most of the decline has taken place since 2013, as provisions of the Affordable Care Act expanding coverage took effect in 2014.

Larry Levitt, a senior vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation, said the new census data suggested that “the historic progress in reducing the number of people uninsured has stalled.”

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Are You Middle Class? This Calculator Claims to Tell You

When Pew asked Americans in 2015 what was needed to be considered middle class, they said it was necessary to have a secure job and the ability to save money.

There was less agreement as to whether it was important to own a home or take vacations. And in 2015 a college education was seen as less relevant to middle-class status than it was in 2012.

After the Great Recession, there was a big increase in the number of people who identified as being lower class, said Tom W. Smith of NORC at the University of Chicago, a public opinion research center.

“This measure is at 9 percent, the highest ever,” said Dr. Smith, who runs the organization’s Center for the Study of Politics and Society.

That may have to do with political rhetoric, he added, in particular Donald J. Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again,” which suggests that typical Americans are not well off.

[Read more: The Great Recession knocked them down. Only some got up again.]

The size of the nation’s middle class has remained fairly stable since 2011, according to Pew. Even so, the income gap between upper-income households and middle- and lower-income households has widened, and the median wealth of middle-income Americans fell by 28 percent from 2001 to 2013, Pew reported.

Painting an even darker picture, in 2016, the most recent data available, the median income of middle-class households was about the same as in 2000, Pew said, in part because of the Great Recession and an earlier recession in 2001. In addition, “the wealth gaps between upper-income families and lower- and middle-income families in 2016 were at the highest levels recorded,” Pew said.

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