The Supply Chain Broke. Robots Are Supposed to Help Fix It.

The people running companies that deliver all manner of products gathered in Philadelphia last week to sift through the lessons of the mayhem besieging the global supply chain. At the center of many proposed solutions: robots and other forms of automation.

On the showroom floor, robot manufacturers demonstrated their latest models, offering them as efficiency-enhancing augments to warehouse workers. Driverless trucks and drones commanded display space, advertising an unfolding era in which machinery will occupy a central place in bringing products to our homes.

The companies depicted their technology as a way to save money on workers and optimize scheduling, while breaking down resistance to a future centered on evolving forms of automation.

persistent economic shocks have intensified traditional conflicts between employers and employees around the globe. Higher prices for energy, food and other goods — in part the result of enduring supply chain tangles — have prompted workers to demand higher wages, along with the right to continue working from home. Employers cite elevated costs for parts, raw materials and transportation in holding the line on pay, yielding a wave of strikes in countries like Britain.

The stakes are especially high for companies engaged in transporting goods. Their executives contend that the Great Supply Chain Disruption is largely the result of labor shortages. Ports are overwhelmed and retail shelves are short of goods because the supply chain has run out of people willing to drive trucks and move goods through warehouses, the argument goes.

Some labor experts challenge such claims, while reframing worker shortages as an unwillingness by employers to pay enough to attract the needed numbers of people.

“This shortage narrative is industry-lobbying rhetoric,” said Steve Viscelli, an economic sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania and author of “The Big Rig: Trucking and the Decline of the American Dream.” “There is no shortage of truck drivers. These are just really bad jobs.”

A day spent wandering the Home Delivery World trade show inside the Pennsylvania Convention Center revealed how supply chain companies are pursuing automation and flexible staffing as antidotes to rising wages. They are eager to embrace robots as an alternative to human workers. Robots never get sick, not even in a pandemic. They never stay home to attend to their children.

A large truck painted purple and white occupied a prime position on the showroom floor. It was a driverless delivery vehicle produced by Gatik, a Silicon Valley company that is running 30 of them between distribution centers and Walmart stores in Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas.

Here was the fix to the difficulties of trucking firms in attracting and retaining drivers, said Richard Steiner, Gatik’s head of policy and communications.

“It’s not quite as appealing a profession as it once was,” he said. “We’re able to offer a solution to that trouble.”

Nearby, an Israeli start-up company, SafeMode, touted a means to limit the notoriously high turnover plaguing the trucking industry. The company has developed an app that monitors the actions of drivers — their speed, the abruptness of their braking, their fuel efficiency — while rewarding those who perform better than their peers.

The company’s founder and chief executive, Ido Levy, displayed data captured the previous day from a driver in Houston. The driver’s steady hand at the wheel had earned him an extra $8 — a cash bonus on top of the $250 he typically earns in a day.

“We really convey a success feeling every day,” Mr. Levy, 31, said. “That really encourages retention. We’re trying to make them feel that they are part of something.”

Mr. Levy conceived of the company with a professor at the M.I.T. Media Lab who tapped research on behavioral psychology and gamification (using elements of game playing to encourage participation).

So far, the SafeMode system has yielded savings of 4 percent on fuel while increasing retention by one-quarter, Mr. Levy said.

Another company, V-Track, based in Charlotte, N.C., employs a technology that is similar to SafeMode’s, also in an effort to dissuade truck drivers from switching jobs. The company places cameras in truck cabs to monitor drivers, alerting them when they are looking at their phones, driving too fast or not wearing their seatbelt.

Jim Becker, the company’s product manager, said many drivers hade come to value the cameras as a means of protecting themselves against unwarranted accusations of malfeasance.

But what is the impact on retention if drivers chafe at being surveilled?

“Frustrations about increased surveillance, especially around in-cab cameras,” are a significant source of driver lament, said Max Farrell, co-founder and chief executive of WorkHound, which gathers real-time feedback.

Several companies on the show floor catered to trucking companies facing difficulties in hiring people to staff their dispatch centers. Their solution was moving such functions to countries where wages are lower.

Lean Solutions, based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., sets up call centers in Colombia and Guatemala — a response to “the labor challenge in the U.S.,” said Hunter Bell, a company sales agent.

A Kentucky start-up, NS Talent Solutions, establishes dispatch operations in Mexico, at a saving of up to 40 percent compared with the United States.

“The pandemic has helped,” said Michael Bartlett, director of sales. “The world is now comfortable with remote staffing.”

Scores of businesses promoted services that recruit and vet part-time and temporary workers, offering a way for companies to ramp up as needed without having to commit to full-time employees.

Pruuvn, a start-up in Atlanta, sells a service that allows companies to eliminate employees who recruit and conduct background checks.

“It allows you to get rid of or replace multiple individuals,” the company’s chief executive, Bryan Hobbs, said during a presentation.

Another staffing firm, Veryable of Dallas, offered a platform to pair workers such as retirees and students seeking part-time, temporary stints with supply chain companies.

Jonathan Katz, the company’s regional partnerships manager for the Southeast, described temporary staffing as the way for smaller warehouses and distribution operations that lack the money to install robots to enhance their ability to adjust to swings in demand.

A drone company, Zipline, showed video of its equipment taking off behind a Walmart in Pea Ridge, Ark., dropping items like mayonnaise and even a birthday cake into the backyards of customers’ homes. Another company, DroneUp, trumpeted plans to set up similar services at 30 Walmart stores in Arkansas, Texas and Florida by the end of the year.

But the largest companies are the most focused on deploying robots.

Locus, the manufacturer, has already outfitted 200 warehouses globally with its robots, recently expanding into Europe and Australia.

Locus says its machines are meant not to replace workers but to complement them — a way to squeeze more productivity out of the same warehouse by relieving the humans of the need to push the carts.

But the company also presents its robots as the solution to worker shortages. Unlike workers, robots can be easily scaled up and cut back, eliminating the need to hire and train temporary employees, Melissa Valentine, director of retail global accounts at Locus, said during a panel discussion.

Locus even rents out its robots, allowing customers to add them and eliminate them as needed. Locus handles the maintenance.

Robots can “solve labor issues,” said Nathan Ray, director of distribution center operations at Albertsons, the grocery chain, who previously held executive roles at Amazon and Target. “You can find a solution that’s right for your budget. There’s just so many options out there.”

As Mr. Ray acknowledged, a key impediment to the more rapid deployment of automation is fear among workers that robots are a threat to their jobs. Once they realize that the robots are there not to replace them but merely to relieve them of physically taxing jobs like pushing carts, “it gets really fun,” Mr. Ray said. “They realize it’s kind of cool.”

Workers even give robots cute nicknames, he added.

But another panelist, Bruce Dzinski, director of transportation at Party City, a chain of party supply stores, presented robots as an alternative to higher pay.

“You couldn’t get labor, so you raised your wages to try to get people,” he said. “And then everybody else raised wages.”

Robots never demand a raise.

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How Abbott Kept Sick Babies From Becoming a Scandal

But in any individual case, it can be hard to prove what caused an infection. The potentially deadly bacteria resides in dirt and water; studies have found it in kitchens. Because the bacteria can clump together in formula containers, it’s possible for a sample to test negative even if Cronobacter was in the powder that went into a baby’s bottle.

Nick Stein, a lawyer with a small practice in Indiana, recalled the first time he encountered a case involving contaminated formula. A woman walked into his office with her toddler, limp in her arms, and explained that the child had suffered brain damage after being fed formula. Mr. Stein negotiated a settlement. More cases followed, and they, too, resulted in settlements that required Mr. Stein and his clients to keep quiet.

In 2005, Mr. Stein received an email from Kimberly Sisk in rural Pisgah Forest, N.C. Her son, Slade, had suffered debilitating brain damage after consuming Abbott’s Similac powdered infant formula in 2004. Ms. Sisk, who lived in a mobile home and worked as a house cleaner, faced a lifetime of medical costs. In February 2007, Mr. Stein and a colleague, Stephen Meyer, sued Abbott in state court in North Carolina.

The ensuing seven-year battle would become a case study for how firms like Jones Day use their mastery of the legal system to grind down — and in some cases attack — plaintiffs who have limited money and time on their hands.

The first volley came in late 2007. Jones Day filed a motion seeking to remove Mr. Stein and Mr. Meyer from the case. The rationale was that, in an unrelated infant-formula case in Kentucky, Mr. Meyer had been in touch with an expert witness that Abbott had used in a different case. It turned out the expert had an ongoing relationship with Abbott. None of this had anything to do with Ms. Sisk’s case. But the trial judge concluded that the contact with the expert “constitutes the appearance of impropriety” and granted Abbott’s motion. An appeals court reversed the decision. Then, in 2010, the State Supreme Court upheld the initial ruling.

More than three years had passed since Ms. Sisk’s lawsuit was filed, and the case hadn’t progressed. Now she had no lawyers. Mr. Stoffel, the Abbott spokesman, denied that the company was trying to delay the legal proceedings, but Ms. Sisk was skeptical. “Time is on their side,” she said. “It behooves them to stretch it out.”

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Student Loan Forgiveness Is Complicated, Because This Is America

If we want higher education to cost less, we should make it cheaper when people enroll.

But that’s not how we do things in the United States, where the first rule of personal finance is that it should never be simple.

Instead, we befuddle people with a menu of a half-dozen retirement accounts. We fetishize the tax code and its deductions and credits and refunds. We name gold, silver and bronze health insurance plans after precious metals but award no medals for clearing the enrollment hurdles.

And so it goes with President Biden’s executive action around student loan debt cancellation. The potential $20,000 in relief per person gets the headlines. But the sleeper element here is a new income-driven debt repayment plan that would help many people pay much less of their student loan debt over time, if they’re not big earners.

choose among H.M.O., P.P.O., P.F.F.S., S.N.P., H.M.O.-P.O.S. and M.S.A. plans. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services website has an acronym glossary with 4,420 entries, because personal finance is its own language. You learn as you go, or not at all.

Pamela Herd is a professor at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy, with an expertise in these “administrative burdens.”

With certain social welfare benefits, Professor Herd explained in an interview this week, the original program designers believed that obstacles were appropriate. Anyone desperate enough should find a way to muddle through and prove their poverty, or so the logic went.

More recently, administrative burdens have resulted from the conviction that private sector actors — who are often seeking profits — would be the most efficient intermediaries between people and federal programs that involved money.

You see it in those Medicare Advantage Plans, and it was a feature of federal P.P.P. loans during the early stages of the pandemic. Rather than give employers money up front to keep people on the payroll, there were forgivable loans that required frazzled small business owners to beg a banker to bum rush a balky government website on their behalf.

And so it goes with the federal student loan system.

Both the income-driven repayment plans that have existed for years and a special debt cancellation program for public servants are already poster children for administrative burdens. Tracking your progress is a part-time job, complete with self-help Facebook groups of frustrated debtors and companies to help people manage the process.

And wouldn’t you know it? There are several third parties to which the federal government has outsourced the work of collecting student loan payments and enforcing the rules.

would go to 5 percent from 10 percent of discretionary income; the amount of a person’s income that doesn’t meet the definition of discretionary would rise; and there would be a new, more generous way of calculating how balances shrink or grow over time. There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical that something this complex would roll out smoothly or quickly.

And it would not be cheap. Estimates from the Penn Wharton Budget Model put the 10-year cost of the new repayment plan at anywhere from $70.3 billion to over $450 billion, depending on the implementation details and how students and schools change their borrowing and tuition-setting behavior. Again, it’s complicated.

By comparison, Mr. Biden had proposed spending $45.5 billion over five years to make up to six semesters of community college free nationwide. That would have paid for most of the cost, with states contributing the rest. No debt for tuition, no hoops to jump through.

Politics got in the way of free community college, and the Inflation Reduction Act that Mr. Biden signed last month did not include it. Instead, students who borrow would get a subsidy on the back end through the more generous repayment program, years later, if they know it exists, enroll without incident, clear every hurdle over a decade or two and their loan servicer doesn’t make a hash of it.

There are bad words and associated acronyms that we could use to sum all of this up as we scream into the void. But our framing could just as easily center on a single word: Respect.

Professor Herd surprised me this week when she said the word in passing. I asked her to elaborate.

“Respect includes everything from respecting people’s time to not treating them as if they are trying to cheat or game a system,” she said. “It’s about treating them as if they are full-fledged citizens and human beings who have basic rights to access services and benefits for which they’re eligible.”

It seems simple enough. But too much of our personal finance infrastructure becomes adversarial through its complexity. The “prove it” nature of Mr. Biden’s executive action, with its income measurements and repeated checking in with third-party servicers, does not help, as generous as it may turn out to be for people who would eventually pass muster.

Disrespect is calling student debt cancellation “forgiveness” when it’s really an apology for a dysfunctional higher education financing system. Disrespect is doing little to make tuition cheaper on the front end of this process. Disrespect is letting many for-profit schools continue to put people of color deep into debt for certificates or degrees that don’t mean much in the labor market.

Disrespect guarantees full-time employment for personal finance journalists, too. I’m lucky to have the work, but it shouldn’t be necessary in the first place.

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Streaming Is Changing How Companies Make Money, For Better Or Worse

By Newsy Staff
September 1, 2022

Streaming companies are prioritizing how to get and keep subscribers, but the risk in producing new or buying old shows is much higher.

Over the summer, Nielsen reported that streaming viewership surpassed cable usage for the first time in the U.S. It’s worth noting Nielsen only records on TVs and internet-connected TVs; it’s not even measuring mobile or desktop, which means their share of the market is probably even higher.

This new landscape is changing the ways streamers are trying to make money, for better or worse.

As more and more people are signing up for streaming platforms like Netflix, HBO Max or Disney+, companies are starting to roll out new ad-supported models.

In the past, one of Netflix’s co-chief executives repeatedly stated how there was “no advertising coming onto Netflix — period.” But after a huge loss of subscribers and a difficult quarter, that same executive told investors Netflix is looking into ad models “over the next year or two.”

Netflix’s woes aren’t exactly good news for its competitors that raced to make streaming platforms of their own. The news highlights a wider conversation about how these massive platforms are actually making money and how stable the new streaming model really is.

That model first includes original content.

Big blockbuster hits like “Stranger Things” on Netflix or “Wandavision” on Disney+ can definitely draw new subscribers, but it seems the threshold for a new show to survive is pretty high. Even popular shows like “The OA,” “Sense8” or “The Baby-Sitters Club” can get canceled after only a season or two. Netflix is particularly notorious for this.

Unlike with cable, streaming services are prioritizing how many new subscribers a show can bring in, not just how popular a show is within the existing subscribers. Netflix has also stated it focused on the first 28 days of release to see how many viewers began the show and how many finished a season within a month. 

Compare that to a show like “The Office.” Today, it’s one of the most popular modern sitcoms, but it was at risk of cancellation due to poor ratings on NBC for its first two seasons.

There’s a reason the risk of hoping a show will grow and build an audience is much higher for streaming than it used to be for cable. Part of that is because platforms now pay production companies all production fees up front, in exchange for more control over distributing the show. So, there are much bigger losses if a show doesn’t take off. Unfortunately, as it’s been widely reported, shows with diverse stars and casts seem to be on the chopping block more often.

But while streaming services churn out original shows hoping for a breakout hit, the real competition is actually in the battle over old shows and movies that already come with fanbases.

Sky Moore, an entertainment lawyer, explained why.

“Streamers: the winner is whoever has the most content,” Moore said. “So what is happening is consolidation. Everybody is attempting to be the last man standing. There’s only probably going to be four players when the party is over in a couple of years, and whoever has the most content wins.”

This explains the jaw-dropping amounts some platforms have paid for old sitcoms like “Friends,” “Seinfeld” and “The Office,” or for intellectual property like Amazon’s record-breaking purchase of rights to “Lord of the Rings” source material.

When networks used to buy syndication rights to a show, the number was based on available ad and viewership data for that network. In the subscriber model, it’s actually unclear what these numbers are really based on.

All that is clear is that these huge purchases and mergers show how important it is to consolidate big libraries. Companies are betting massive libraries stocked with old favorites are what will keep subscribers around, and it’s part of the reason why even more mergers and buyouts between big entertainment companies are likely.

“If you look on a broad scale of entertainment, which is really who they’re competing against, it’s no longer, for example, the studios,” Moore said. “It’s studios against streamers, and broadly, it’s studios and streamers against Facebook and against YouTube and against Instagram. It’s a much broader universe of entertainment than it used to be, so they’ve got to consolidate.”

Source: newsy.com

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Iraqis Heed Cleric’s Plea To Leave Streets After Clashes

At least 30 people have died in violent clashes with police following the resignation of an influential Shiite cleric, according to Iraqi officials.

Armed supporters of a powerful Iraqi cleric who clashed with security forces in the capital began to withdraw from the streets Tuesday, restoring a measure of calm after a serious escalation of the nation’s political crisis.

Following two days of deadly unrest that sparked fears instability might spread throughout the country and even the region, cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, 48, told his supporters to leave the government quarter where they had rallied. Within minutes, some could be seen heeding the call, dismantling their tents and walking out of the area known as the Green Zone.

The cleric’s supporters packed up their belongings and trucks ferried away bundled up mattresses. Mounds of trash littered thoroughfares and the steps leading up to Iraq’s parliament building. A portrait of al-Sadr waving was placed against a tree as his followers rolled up carpets, tea glasses and the remnants of their four-week sit-in.

Iraq’s military also announced the lifting of a nationwide curfew, further raising hopes that the immediate crisis was ebbing, though the larger political crisis remained unresolved. Al-Sadr’s move to de-escalate tensions raised questions of how issues such as the dissolution of parliament and the holding of early elections will be handled between rival groups.

Protesters supporting al-Sadr’s rivals also withdrew from their demonstration outside the government zone.

Iraq’s government has been deadlocked since al-Sadr’s party won the largest share of seats in October parliamentary elections but not enough to secure a majority government. That led to months of political infighting between al-Sadr’s Shiite followers and his Iran-backed Shiite rivals before it became violent Monday.

The chaos began when al-Sadr announced he would resign from politics. Many dismissed the move as a ploy to gain greater leverage, and his supporters stormed the Green Zone, once the stronghold of the U.S. military and now home to Iraqi government offices and foreign embassies. They eventually breached the gates of the government palace, rushing into its lavish salons and marbled halls.

On Tuesday, his followers could be seen on live television firing both machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades into the heavily-fortified Green Zone, while security forces sporadically returned fire and armored tanks lined up. Some bystanders filmed the gunfight with their mobile phones, though most hid behind walls, wincing when rounds cracked nearby.

At least 30 people were killed, officials said, before al-Sadr urged those loyal to him to go home, following pleas for restraint from several Iraqi officials and the United Nations.

“This is not a revolution,” the cleric said in a televised address.

Al-Sadr, who spurred his followers to storm the parliament in July with calls for revolution and reform, apologized to the Iraqi people and said he could not support the violence.

The immediate shift on the streets underscored his enduring control over his loyalists, and by extension his influence over the Iraqi political class.

In addition to the dozens killed, over 400 were wounded, two Iraqi medical officials said Tuesday. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to release the information to journalists.

In a sign of the fear that the unrest would spread, Iran closed its borders to Iraq earlier Tuesday, though even before al-Sadr’s order, streets beyond the capital’s government quarter largely remained calm. The country’s vital oil continued to flow, with global benchmark Brent crude trading slightly down.

Later on Tuesday, Iran resumed flights to Iraq, Iranian state TV reported.

Members of Iraq’s majority Shiite Muslim population were oppressed when Saddam Hussein ruled the country for decades. The 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam, a Sunni, reversed the political order. Just under two-thirds of Iraq is Shiite, with a third Sunni.

Now, the Shiites are fighting among themselves, with those backed by Iran and those who consider themselves Iraqi nationalists jockeying for power, influence and state resources.

It’s an explosive rivalry in a country where many are wary of the Iranian government’s influence even though trade and ties between people remain strong. Iraq and Iran fought a bloody war in the 1980s that saw a million people killed.

Al-Sadr’s nationalist rhetoric and reform agenda resonates powerfully with his supporters, who largely hail from Iraq’s poorest sectors of society and were historically shut out of the political system under Saddam.

Al-Sadr’s initial announcement that he would leave politics implicitly gave his supporters the freedom to act as they see fit. His speech on Tuesday, effectively reined them back in.

Before that, the unrest led neighboring countries to issue warnings to their citizens and one embassy closed.

In addition to closing its borders, Iran urged its citizens to avoid any travel to the neighboring country, citing the unrest. The decision came as millions prepared to visit Iraq for an annual pilgrimage to Shiite sites.

The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad issued a security alert for U.S. citizens urging them to avoid the Green Zone and other areas where demonstrations are occurring as well as a Do Not Travel advisory.

Additional reporting by The Associated Press.

Source: newsy.com

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