Thursday, July 2, 2020

On the Road to Recovery: Employment Data Improves, Including AJSN, Showing Latent Demand for Jobs, 5 Million Lower Than 2 Months Ago

After last time, I didn’t even try to guess what this morning’s Employment Situation Summary would say, and not many others seemed to either.  The only projection I saw was for a gain of 2.4 million jobs.

That turned out to be only half of what we got.  Total nonfarm employment increased 4.8 million from May, with seasonally adjusted joblessness down from 13.3% to 11.1%.  The latest data showed 17.8 million unemployed, down 3.2 million, with those out for 27 weeks or longer up 200,000 to 1.4 million.  The two measures of how common it is for people to have jobs or be officially unemployed, the labor force participation rate and the employment-population ratio, both improved, with the former going from 60.8% to 61.5% and the latter up from 52.8% to 54.6%.  Those working part-time for economic reasons, or wanting a full-time position while holding on to something shorter, counted 9.1 million, bettered from 10.7 million.  Average hourly private nonfarm payroll earnings fell 38 cents, reflecting people with lower pay returning to work, and is now at $29.37. 

A measure I have not previously mentioned, those on temporary layoff, has gone from 18.1 million in April and 15.4 million in May to 10.6 million last month.  That is because fewer people considered themselves off only short-term, along with others returning to work. 

The American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, the measure showing how many more positions could be quickly filled if all knew they would be easy to get, dropped 2.9 million this month, as follows:

The AJSN has greatly improved since April’s 34.3 million, but is still almost 13 million higher than a year ago.  Almost all of the difference since May is from lower official unemployment and a smaller count of those wanting work but not looking for it for a year or more, although those claiming no interest in work counted almost 2 million fewer.  That means jobs are getting more available in at least some areas.

Although there is still a lot of confusion about temporary versus permanent layoffs, and the BLS household survey response rate dropped again to 65%, the American employment situation is clearly improving.  That is hardly confusable with “good,” but we are on the way back – at least we were, before our new coronavirus case tally went up late last month.  The turtle, though far behind his pre-April position, took a healthy step in the right direction. 

Friday, June 26, 2020

A Terrible Covid-19 Week, with Projections to Match

Though at least this past Friday, it had seemed the United States was on the way to getting out of the coronavirus pandemic.  Now it doesn’t look that way at all.  I’m not basing that on a bad outcome, on one or two pessimistic predictions, or even on general disappointment about jobs, the economy, or our progress in daily life.  Here I have eight different articles with varying things worth worrying about.

Whether we label it a second wave or not, the word, over three months after the Covid-19 turned the nation upside down, that “U.S. Sets Record for Daily New Cases as Virus Surges in South and West” (The New York Times, June 25th) is seriously bad news.  Although states in the Northeast are far below their infection peaks, those in the South and West, especially Florida, Texas, Oklahoma, Arizona, and South Carolina, are doing the worst.  As a result, New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, the first two the most dangerous American places in March, are, in an indication of deficient federal action, requiring that Americans arriving from states with the highest rates quarantine themselves for 14 days.

On the economic front, we have settled in to a typical 1.5 million state unemployment claims per week, putting the lie to any idea that all job movement is now people returning to work.  Ben Casselman and Tiffany Hsu’s “Continued Layoffs Signal an ‘Economic Scarring’,” from the June 18th New York Times, documented that we had 13 consecutive weeks with at least one million filings, up to 14 with The Washington Post’s June 25th Economy Alert that “another 1.48 million people filed for jobless claims last week.”  Amazingly, there had not been more than a weekly 695,000 for the previous 37 years.  As well, “Millions of Job Losses Are at Risk of Becoming Permanent,” per Olivia Rockeman and Jill Ward on June 14th in Yahoo Finance.  That is because efficiency, the largest reason for the number of jobs to decrease long-term after automation and globalization, has jumped with companies’ discoveries that they can run remarkably well without workers laid off or furloughed.  In March, almost all employees losing their income expected that, after the pandemic, they would be back on the job, but now we and they strongly suspect otherwise.  It is true that many people are resuming their pre-coronavirus employment, but, overall, we are still in serious trouble.

Over the past four weeks there were three broader looks at how we are doing with Covid-19, and all were negative.  Yascha Mounk’s The Atlantic “The Virus Will Win,” subtitled “Americans are pretending that the pandemic is over.  It certainly is not” almost forecast attitude changes since then manifested in this past Wednesday’s 700-point Dow Jones drop.  Since per one poll, the share of Republicans trusting “the information you hear about coronavirus from medical experts” went from “nearly nine out of 10” to “just about one in three” in two months, “it is now difficult to imagine that anybody could muster the political will to impose a full-scale lockdown for a second time,” especially in the states listed above, all of which Donald Trump won in 2016.  Similar sentiments were expressed by Michelle Goldberg in the June 22nd Times “America is Too Broken to Fight the Coronavirus,” along with “Republican political dysfunction” making “a coherent campaign to fight the pandemic impossible,” and the statistic that after “slowly declining,” “the number of new cases” are “up a terrifying 22 percent over the past 14 days.” 

More ambitious in scope if not longer is Annie Lowrey’s June 23rd Atlantic “The Second Great Depression.”  She projected a recovery, instead of looking on a graph like a V or a U, resembling “a kind of flaccid check mark, its long tail sagging torpid into the future.”  Given the steady and way-high unemployment claim numbers that may be most realistic, also with the Congressional Budget Office not only projecting an $8 trillion next-decade economic activity cut but expecting consumer spending to drop “$300 billion to $370 billion” each quarter through 2021 year-end.  Now, per Lowrey, “economists expect that 42 percent of people recently let go will not return to their former employers,” and, with lower tax revenues, we will have “a budget crisis for state and local governments.”  She also pointed out that “never getting the pandemic under control means never unleashing the economy.”

The good news is that Trump is, for the first time in years, a substantial reelection underdog.  I say that not because of poll results, but from, an offshore betting facility located where it is legal to wager on elections, which, as of yesterday morning, had the Democratic candidate, presumably Joe Biden, as slightly better than a 3 to 2 favorite.  This company cannot afford to be biased, as bettors would exploit that, so its lines are the most realistic actual probabilities.  Yet it is still more than four months until November 3rd, and a lot more can and will happen. 

Otherwise, we should root for a vaccine to be available by Christmas or sooner.  But until then, we need to keep evaluating our choices – and to keep our expectations in line.

Friday, June 19, 2020

The May Jobs Report, Revisited, Will Stand

The most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Situation Summary was as controversial as any I have seen.  It showed a solid improvement, including 2.5 million more jobs and an unemployment rate cut to 13.3%, although analysts had forecasted 19.8% and a 7 million loss instead.  I didn’t believe it, calling these outcomes “severely in error,” citing the report as saying “BLS and the Census Bureau are investigating why this misclassification error continues to occur and are taking additional steps to address this issue,” and mentioning the possibility of deliberate distortion.  On its release date and soon afterwards, many commentators, from economist Paul Krugman to former Vermont governor Howard Dean, voiced similar concerns. 

Since then, though, a flurry of articles, all in the New York Times, have defended these results.  Ben Casselman, in his June 8th “No, the Jobs Report Wasn’t Rigged.  Here’s What Happened,” called it “all but impossible to manipulate the jobs numbers undetected,” and said that, classification problems notwithstanding, joblessness still dropped in May.  The muddle, per Casselman, came from people describing themselves as ““employed but absent from work” – a category meant to reflect vacation, family leave or other temporary absences.”  Clearly, many people invoked this label expecting to automatically return to their labor once the pandemic abated or ended; while most will be, all the talk about the coronavirus causing permanent workplace changes suggests a large number of others will not return.  And the question remains:  Just how bad was the American jobs situation in mid-May?

Two others were released not only in the same place but on the same date.  “About Those Jobs Numbers…” from the Dealbook Newsletter, said “the job growth reflected mostly laid-off or furloughed workers returning to their jobs,” and that, per Neil Irwin of the Times, we are seeing an “epic collapse in demand.”  Krugman asked “Will the Jobs Report Destroy Jobs?” by impeding further “emergency aid” in part responsible for recent economic improvements, and projected that “there will soon be many more layoffs unless aid comes soon.”  “Don’t Cheer Too Soon.  Keep an Eye on the Core Jobless Rate,” on June 15th by Jed Kolko, just added to the murkiness, but, echoing Krugman, said that May’s output “could give false hope, and lead to complacency about the labor market from public officials.”  

Overall, what can we keep and reject from these updates?  Per Casselman, a previous BLS chief said that group is “extremely reluctant to make any changes, in part because doing so would invite charges that the agency was massaging the numbers for political or other reasons.”  Indeed we can’t have that, even if the data we did get was poor.  Expect no corrections from me or anyone else.  But we don’t, either, need to jump to the conclusion that the economic side of the crisis will soon be over.  June’s data, which is now being collected, will tell us more, and we can go from there, as well as we can.

Friday, June 12, 2020

The Coronavirus: Must We Lose, Give Up on It, or Fail the Marshmallow Test?

United States response to the COVID-19 pandemic is now solidly in a new phase.  We’re past the time when mandated closings dictated what we could or could not do, and are moving on into “reopening.”  With that, there has been a flurry of views suggesting we, collectively, are not doing so well. 

When Paul Krugman said “America Fails the Marshmallow Test” in the June 9th New York Times, he referred to “a famous psychological experiment that tests children’s willingness to delay gratification” by offering them one marshmallow now or two in 15 minutes.  While “other advanced countries, even hard-hit nations like Italy and Spain” now have sharply reduced new infection rates, “it now looks likely that by late summer we’ll be the only major wealthy nation where large numbers of people are still dying” from the virus.  He named South Korea, one of the most prosperous and densely packed countries in the world, and New Zealand, elsewhere in the news for now having zero cases, as achieving great success by not only getting the most from social distancing but by implementing “a regime of testing, tracing and isolating, quickly identifying any new outbreak, finding everyone exposed and quarantining them until the danger is past.”  He blamed us being “too disunited, with too many people in the grip of ideology and partisanship.”  Americans, judge thyselves.

Avoiding the latter, columnist Ross Douthat, in the June 7th edition of that same publication, came out with “Why the Coronavirus Is Winning.”  He quoted a computer science doctoral student (of all people) reminding us that all the organism “wants is targets,” is totally unaware of and unresponsive to “the elaborate social nuances humans have carved out through patterns of communication, representation and discourse,” and in the process “has exposed how much of Western society… is permeated with influential people who have deluded themselves into thinking that their ability to manipulate words, images and sounds gives them the ability to control reality itself.”  Douthat tracked resistance to avoiding coronavirus exposure as starting from Republicans, “who embraced the idea that economic carnage was just the result of misguided government policy,” despite crashing demand being roughly concurrent with legal restrictions, and, after George Floyd’s death, moving “to the public health establishment, many of whose leaders are tying themselves in ideological knots arguing that it is not only acceptable but essential, after months circumscribing every sort of basic liberty, to encourage mass gatherings to support one particular just cause.”  With those most responsible for objective public policy now infected, so to speak, Douthat proclaimed that “there will be no further comprehensive attempt to fight the virus.”  At the least, we must prepare for that possibility.

Observing the same variable standard began “America is Giving Up on the Pandemic,” by Alexis C. Madrigal and Robinson Meyer in The Atlantic on June 7th.  They say “Americans may wish the virus to be gone, but it is not,” as, outside the Northeast, “cases have only plateaued,” and “there’s no point in denying the obvious:  Standing in a crowd for long periods raises the risk of increased transmission of SARS-CoV-2,” with head epidemiologist Anthony Fauci calling these protests and subsequent police actions “a perfect set-up” for virus proliferation.  As well, United States residents “never stayed at home to the degree that most Europeans have.”  Overall, per Madrigal and Meyer, “the problems with our response to the pandemic reflect the problems of the country itself” – I add that they also illuminate cultural differences, specifically our higher independence and risk-taking, the same things that assure that our life expectancy will not match the likes of those in Japan or Norway.

Overall, our chance of getting or giving the coronavirus is now, more than ever, a function of our individual choices.  A great-seeming article idea, which precipitated “When 511 Epidemiologists Expect to Fly, Hug and Do 18 Other Everyday Activities Again” by Margot Sanger-Katz, Claire Cain Miller and Quoctrung Bui in the June 8th New York Times, was neutralized by respondents’ overriding view that it would depend on availability of “an effective vaccine or treatment,” but still provided worthwhile information.  Activities least likely for quick epidemiologist resumption were “sporting events, concerts and plays,” with most expecting to pass them up for more than a year.  “Weddings and funerals,” “airplanes,” and “visiting the elderly” were the most mixed and controversial.  But our own preferences and situations must dictate.  For me, I expect to fly within the year, but think my Chewbacca hairstyle is a small price to pay for avoiding close contact with someone who has had that with many others.  Group protest marches are out, but I can walk for exercise without a mask all I want, as here I rarely get within 20 feet of other pedestrians let alone 6.  As carryout is fine, I don’t want to eat at even a virus-modified restaurant.  You need to think about your own choices, as this thing isn’t ending soon and the law won’t protect you anymore.  Just don’t catch yourself settling for one marshmallow now instead of two soon, as the answer to the title question is “no.”

Friday, June 5, 2020

Totally Unexpected May Jobs Report Leaves Unemployment Lower and Jobs Added – AJSN Shows Latent Demand at 32.1 Million, Another Improvement

When the paragraph introducing this morning’s Employment Situation Summary popped up at its usual 8:30 on the Bureau of Labor Statistics site, I thought I was reading the wrong thing.  Here we were, expecting something like the published projections of 7 million more jobs gone and 19.8% unemployment, and both actually improved.

Per the document, we gained 2.5 million net new nonfarm positions, compared with April’s 20.5 million loss, and seasonally adjusted joblessness is down 1.4% to 13.3%.  Most other numbers followed the modest but significant improvement, with the labor force participation rate up 0.6% to 60.8% and the employment-population ratio rising 1.5% to 52.8%.  The count of people working part-time for economic reasons, or holding on to less than full-time work while seeking that, shed 300,000 to 10.6 million, and average private payroll nonfarm hourly wages fell 26 cents, no doubt due to more low-paying jobs being actually or allegedly reinstated, to $29.75.  The number of those unemployed for 27 weeks or longer, almost irrelevant to the current situation, gained almost 300,000 to return to March’s 1.2 million.  Unadjusted joblessness matched the adjusted version by losing 1.4% and came in at 13.0%.

The American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, the metric showing how many currently unavailable positions could be quickly filled if all knew they were out there, lost 2.2 million from April’s all-time record, as follows:

All but 400,000 of this upturn is from lower official unemployment, with almost all the rest from fewer people wanting to work but not looking for it for a year or more.  Compared with May 2019, the AJSN has gained 16.5 million, most from huge increases in these same two categories.

What happened?  The notes with the BLS numbers gave several possible reasons:  replacement of surveying at their regional data collection centers with more phone use, a 67% household survey response rate down from about 82% before coronavirus’s effect, and a possibility of confusion from workers still technically employed but “absent from their jobs” along with classification mistakes on people with other gray-area work statuses.  It seems certain that if complete lack of pay would make workers on payrolls officially unemployed, the rate would be far higher, and might indeed be roughly 20%.  As a result, “BLS and the Census Bureau are investigating why this misclassification error continues to occur and are taking additional steps to address this issue.”  We can only hope this is not a political scandal.

Accordingly, this data is not only obsolete, as was the case for the last two versions, but severely in error.  There is a good chance the BLS will issue a correction or at least a corrective estimate, and reopenings may have made 13.3% a reasonable estimate for today, but in the meantime, the turtle went backward, not forward.

Friday, May 29, 2020

Around the Coronavirus Horn, Murkily

We’re going through odds and ends this week.  Here we are, with interpretations to favor the pro-Trump and anti-Trump sides.  I’m not calling them Democratic or Republican since the real values of both parties are in flux, and certainly not liberal or conservative since our president is not a conservative:

First, in response to Mike Bebernes in the May 26th Yahoo News, “Is the $600 unemployment bonus helping or hurting?,” the rough answer is clear:  It’s helping.  It may be too high in many cases, but as I have written more there is nothing more economically stimulative than jobless pay, as it goes to people very likely to spend it.  As for any idea that they should be encouraged to work by being denied it, that’s straight out of A Christmas Carol, when almost all of the currently readily available jobs for which those who lost low-end ones are qualified potentially expose them to Covid-19.  We are the farthest we have been in many decades from consistent workplace safety – where is OSHA these days? – and nobody should be required to make that choice.

Second, there is nothing wrong with a president’s son crowing about a big stock market gain on the same day our cumulative virus deaths reached 100,000.  Many other things happened then, and we should be complimenting ourselves for doing social distancing so well that this total, as many people in early March openly feared, was not in the millions.  I don’t want to be reminded of the “AIDS quilt” made with a square for everyone who had ever died from that, when a similar “cancer quilt” might have been the size of Rhode Island.  There is also nothing immoral about businesses choosing to reopen – or to stay closed.

Third, “World economic prospects darken, rebound delayed:  Reuters poll” (Shrutee Sarkar, Reuters, May 26th) seems behind the curve – but were many people really expecting a fast recovery?  Jobs have gone away not only from pandemic precautions, but from the loss of unemployed people as customers.  Reuters-poll projected 2020 world economy shrinkages have gone from 1.2% on April 3rd to 2.0% on April 26th and this week 3.2%.  The last one still seems low to me; despite the number of deaths being lower than expected, I expect it will be about 5%.  Rapid normalization is not promising, as it was also announced this week that Sweden, of the “herd immunity” strategy, now tops the planet’s nations in per-capita fatalities. 

Fourth, I don’t think our current situation will kill off ride providing or room sharing, but it is giving de facto hotel and taxi businesses another severe blow, as shown in “California Sues Uber and Lyft, Claiming Workers are Misclassified,” by Kate Conger in the May 5th New York Times.  As before, once these two and Airbnb are legally obligated to the same rules as their established equivalents, including being unable to call obvious employees “contractors” with few rights, they will almost go away.  There will be niches in which they can survive, but eventually common sense in regulation will cut them vastly back.

Fifth, how about those maps showing total coronavirus cases by state giving us per-capita instead?  That would help when, as should be happening soon, we get good data on month-before decisions to reopen.  Ten days after them, as in “Georgia Went First.  And It Screwed Up,” by Keren Landman in the April 30th New York Times, is too soon for assessment, but in the next few weeks, we will know a lot, and it would be good to see that graphically and clearly.

Sixth, in a few eventful months the Times Editorial Board has gone from cellular phone surveillance being a huge national threat, worthy of a whole special section, to the devices being “particularly useful at this moment, when it’s crucial to know where infected people have been, and whom they’ve been close to.”  The same source, May 1st’s “We the People, in Order to Defeat the Coronavirus,” even seemed to laud “several countries around the world, as well as some American states,” for starting “apps that either encourage or require their citizens to check in regularly and report their locations.”  Whew!  These problems could challenge master philosophers, so how will we common folk resolve them?  And some wonder why democracy has so often been called a great experiment. 

Seventh, is it truly necessary that spectator sports resume this year?

Eighth, if the Democrats think they are on a path to win back the White House this fall, they are mistaken –, an offshore casino where it is legal to bet on elections, has Trump as a 5 to 4 favorite.

Keep safe – next week we’ll see just how bad American unemployment has officially become. 

Friday, May 22, 2020

Coronavirus This Week: Where We Are Now, Going, and Not Going

We have had a lot of recent news about reopening pieces of American life.  Per last week’s post, we have shifted from waiting for a vaccine, which could take anywhere from several months to several years, to relying on the social distancing we have learned and generally done well with to keep us safe in additional situations.

Per the May 19th New York Times, “All 50 States Have Eased Coronavirus Restrictions.” Places like Connecticut and Pennsylvania, previously with bans on people leaving their homes for anything nonessential, are in the process of lifting those and at least matching policies here in New York state, where, for example, general driving has been allowed.  On the other side, Alaska is, effective today, returning to total pre-virus openness. 

The important thing to realize here is that freedom to conduct business does not mean the economy returning to February’s levels.  Between people broke from losing their jobs, those pulling back financially in preparation for possible problems, and those of us not wanting to risk our health for things as small as haircuts, most in-person businesses can expect only about 25% of their previous sales.  Confidence, through drastic reductions (not just leveling off) of new-infection rates, will we hope improve with time, but no legislation, short of spending not only trillions but tens of trillions of dollars on personal subsidies instead of large-corporation bailouts (with the low cost of money, large firms should be borrowing instead), will turn the clock back.  With intense politicization of the pandemic and poor federal guidance, people will be trusting their own judgment, which, with stores in small Idaho towns generally less crowded and therefore safer than those in Philadelphia or Cleveland, is appropriate.

One area getting especially large press has been what colleges will do in the fall.  Previously I wrote on a piece remarkably reckless for an Ivy League president, and an unstated rebuttal, “Colleges Are Deluding Themselves,” came out in the May Atlantic.  Its author Michael J. Sorrell, president of tiny Paul Quinn College, made all of the right points:  the background that “American higher education was in crisis long before the coronavirus”; the need for, and Sorrell’s experience at, universities adapting forcefully to changing times; a research discovery that “physical classes alone put almost all students on campus in close proximity to one another,” with “replacing the largest lecture courses with online classes… not enough to reduce the risk”; and clear statements that “if a school’s cost-benefit analysis leads to a conclusion that included the term acceptable number of casualties (italics his), it is time for a new model” and “for college students… sacrifices will include long periods of remote learning.”  I think  efforts to have normal campus life this fall are doomed to tragic, spectacular failure, and, as I wrote before, we have more critical national problems than requiring that people mostly around age 20 choose between taking a gap year or making do with online courses.

Elsewhere, we may need to “Hunker down:  Some states say no full-scale reopening until coronavirus vaccine, treatment is ready” (Tyler Olson, Fox News, May 19th).  As reasonable as Alaska’s choice in context are statements from governors and mayors of New Jersey, Michigan, Los Angeles, Illinois, and Oklahoma City, that for example, per New Jersey governor Phil Murphy, “until either a proven vaccine is in our midst or proven therapeutics are widely available, we cannot firmly enter the new normal, which eventually awaits us when life will once again return to all of our workplaces, downtowns and main streets… and if we begin to see a backslide in public health, we will have to also pull back on the reins of our restart.”  And per “What to Expect When a Coronavirus Vaccine Finally Arrives,” in the May 20th New York Times, it may take a while.  The polio virus was stopped by the 1950s Salk and Sabin vaccines after, of three similar attempts, “two proved ineffective, another deadly,” and the Salk vaccine itself had “flawed batches” which “caused more than 200 polio cases and 11 deaths.”  

So, let’s cheer the work being done here, but not hold our breaths.  Likewise, we’ll hope the reopenings, which seem generally sober and measured, work without a second Covid-19 explosion.  But we will need to be patient.  As the new saying goes, six feet apart is better than six feet under.

Friday, May 15, 2020

American Coronavirus Response Takes Shape, Now and in Cities in the Future

What is America’s true pandemic status?  Senators reflected major issues in questions they asked national disease expert of sorts Anthony S. Fauci on May 12th, put forth in Amber Phillips’ “The 5-Minute Fix” in that day’s Washington Post.  If places resume activity “too early,” per Fauci, “there is a real risk that you will trigger an outbreak that you might not be able to control, which in fact paradoxically will set you back not only leading to some suffering and death that could be avoided, but could even set you back on the road to trying to get economic recovery.”  We don’t know when a vaccine could be ready, “but development is moving extraordinarily quickly,” and those now in early testing could prove successful “by late fall or early winter,” which, per Phillips, is “super fast.”  (However, many others say it could be years away – see, for example, Stuart A. Thompson’s April 30th New York Times “How Long Will a Vaccine Really Take?”.)  We can expect that “40 to 50 million tests a month” will be performed by September.  Unlike in many other countries, the rate of infections in the United States is not clearly declining, and the current tally of deaths, about 85,000, is more likely to be an undercount than an overcount.  “Evidence stacking up” says people do get immune from the virus once they have had it, though maybe not permanently, and, when asked if it will ever be “completely eradicated,” Fauci said, flatly, “no.” 

All of the above points to what business folks would call a paradigm shift, from waiting for a vaccine, giving it to everyone, and then fully reopening and resuming everything, to gradually allowing more people to be closer in public, the rate varying greatly with the activity, the setting, and the location.  It may now be perfectly fine for a wider range of businesses to come back now in the likes of Montana, if people wear masks and stay six feet apart, but Madison Square Garden rock concerts may wait for 2022 or later.  There will be plenty of legal and personal disagreements, but those are healthy, and despite some recurrences being inevitable we will generally progress as we grope into the future.

But what is that future?  Three pieces in recent weeks give us ideas.  The most recent and largest, “The Cities We Need” from the New York Times Editorial Board on May 11th, gets its worth from documenting a left-wing wish list rather than being constructive.  Harsh, perhaps, but I wish such Times articles could stay away from complaining about inequality (a natural American cultural outcome), result and anecdote-driven accusations of racism, and the delusion that we will want, after this harrowing experience, to unite against climate change, and deal with problems in a reasonably bipartisan manner.  This editorial, which printed out to 19 pages, boiled down to almost nothing. 

The second, Uri Friedman’s “I Have Seen the Future – And It’s Not the Life We Knew” on May 1st in The Atlantic, shows how that publication, despite being historically at least as liberal as the Times, can set aside any platform and get to the true issues.  Here, Friedman showed how in China’s city Wuhan, where the coronavirus started and has since mostly departed, and elsewhere such as in Denmark where new case numbers are now very low, “life returns in dribs and drabs, and the new normal is not the old normal.”  People in these places are still wearing masks and frequently washing their hands, and where schools are open, students cannot touch each other.  The real point here is that we should not wait for everything to come back as before but adjust to the new limitations while doing what we can.

Better still was Derek Thompson’s April 27th “The Pandemic Will Change American Retail Forever,” also in The Atlantic.  Forever is a long time, but until the vaccine is distributed, the changes Thompson showed here have excellent chances of taking hold.  One will affect our most densely populated cities, particularly New York, as restaurants and other businesses must become less crowded and will therefore generate less revenue, resulting in current rents being far from affordable, meaning they, along with the values of storefront real estate, will crash.  Another is not a change, but “the big acceleration” of “preexisting trends,” such as fewer shopping malls, the obsolescence of department stores, and “the big-business takeover of the economy” as, realistic levels of government assistance or not, “one survey… found that just 30 percent of them expect to survive a lockdown that lasts four months.”  It is companies like “Amazon, Walmart, Dollar General, Costco, and Home Depot” that have the cash and the structure to outlast competitors, making the pandemic “a toxin for underdogs and a steroid for many giants.”  With fewer distinctive businesses and immigration halted, Tennessee Williams’s attribution that, except for New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans, all other American cities were the same will become more apt than ever.  Restaurants themselves may become less significant, and many, even on the high end, will stay takeout-only.  There will be more and more deliveries of almost everything.  As a result of advantages of living in them going away, people may leave cities in large numbers, resulting in, strangely, currently hopelessly gentrified places like Greenwich Village going back to their bohemian roots. 

Will these things materialize?  If a vaccine is indeed pervasive within a year, many will not.  Otherwise, we may indeed be starting a new chapter of American life.  Be prepared for it. 

Friday, May 8, 2020

Expected Disastrous Jobs Report, Current April 12th, Has 14.7% Unemployment and 20.5 Million Fewer Jobs: 34.3 Million AJSN Showing Latent Demand Highest Ever

This morning’s Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Situation Summary should surprise no one, with the only suspense the exact length of the drop.  We’re worse now, which is 26 days after the final survey date used here, but it still documents the first part of the American coronavirus economic plunge.

As of April 12th, we had lost 20.5 million nonfarm payroll positions, with adjusted joblessness 14.7% (unadjusted 14.4%).  There were 23.1 million unemployed Americans, up 16.0 million from mid-March.  The unaffected count of those out for 27 weeks or longer improved, losing over 200,000 to 939,000, and average private nonfarm earnings, warped by the loss of massive numbers of lower-paying jobs, gained $1.39 to $30.01.  From there, though, everything was bad.  There were 10.9 million people working part-time for economic reasons, or keeping shorter-hours positions while unsuccessfully seeking full-time ones, up 5.1 million.  The two measures showing best how common it is for Americans to be working or one step away from it, the labor force participation rate and the employment-population ratio, fell 2.5% to 60.2% and 8.7% to 51.3% – these figures are the lowest, respectively, since January 1973 and before January 1948. 

The American Job Shortage Number or AJSN reached an all-time peak by gaining 16.9 million, as follows:

Over 80% of this increase is from higher official unemployment.  A similar share of the rest came from people wanting work but not looking for it for a year or more, with the number of people reporting this status more than doubling from 3.3 million.  The number of those saying they were not interested in work rose 2.3 million, understandable for those in fields expected to employ few over at least the next several months.  The share of latent demand from those in the Unemployed category is now 59.1%, up from March’s 38.3%. 

Compared with a year ago, the AJSN is up 125%, with almost all of that from the two statuses contributing heaviest to April’s jump. 

Yes, this is terrible, and right now we are probably over 20% officially jobless.  As we level off, this data will better match the true release-date status, but for now only shows territory we have been through.  Be aware, though, that the above counts have no distortion from those not successfully filing for unemployment, as they are from personal and company surveys.  As for the turtle, someone picked him up and took him a long way back. 

Friday, May 1, 2020

Jobs and the Economy: Now and After the Pandemic, and Our Only Way Back

More views of where we are now, and where we will be when this thing eases, are coming forward. 

First, “America’s real coronavirus job losses could be worse than we thought.  Nearly 14 million people haven’t been able to apply for unemployment since the pandemic began” (Business Insider, April 28th).  The title says most.  We are only speculating about current jobless numbers, yet it is sad that per economist Elise Gould we may have many millions more who can’t apply for benefits or for whatever reason have not tried yet, on top of 26 million already filing.  Per the Economic Policy Institute we can thus add 60% to those who have got through the systems, many of whom cannot pay for rent or food, requiring, per a university economist, “a stimulus well beyond what we’ve already seen.”  The May 8th Bureau of Labor Statistics output, while hardly current, will be more accurate than the last one was on its release, and will tell us most of what we need to know.

Second, per the April 22nd Fox Business, “Global CEOs see U-shaped recession due to coronavirus.”  That is what three-fifths of them expected as of mid-April, with others predicting “a double-dip recession,” with the chance that “some household names will not survive.”  That is worse than the V shape some once hoped for, but is better than the L-shape we may well see into 2021.

Something else is happening which we haven’t had for decades – a high need for more unions.  Per “’We can’t go back to the way things were before.’ Pandemic job actions offer hope for renewed labor movement,” by Nicholas Riccardi and Dee-Ann Durbin of the Associated Press in the April 28th USA Today, the life-endangering nature of work not paying enough for that is causing de facto strikes.  Although, as Indeed economist Jed Kolko and the authors put it, “high unemployment and the end of a tight labor market create “the headwind for more worker power,” finding grocery and fast-food workers, among others, willing to risk their lives is proving harder, and health protection from employers has been spotty.  That recreates the situation we had in the likes of steelmaking and construction positions before their unionization, and labor organizations seem more justified than they have been for generations. 

Not every idea from educated people well-connected in their fields has merit, though – this week’s example is Brown University president Christina Paxson’s April 26th New York Times “College Campuses Must Reopen in the Fall.  Here’s How We Do It.”  All the author offered was noting how many jobs higher education supports and brushing off online instruction, to which other industries have no equivalent recourse, as presenting “financial, practical and psychological barriers.”  I could rewrite this article for other businesses in similar trouble, with at least as much merit and less need for vain hopes such as “regular testing” being able “to prevent the disease from spreading silently through dormitories and classrooms.”  Sorry, Dr. Paxson, but your backyard is no more entitled than others, and your article succeeds best at showing both how noncritical holding September college classes is and how unjustified it would be.

I was surprised not to see something pithier in “There’s Really Only One Way to Reopen the Economy” in the April 26th New York Times, but Aaron Carroll put his value in the statement, thus far underemphasized, that businesses will be crippled by customers either broke or unwilling to endanger their health.  I estimate that retail places, if allowed to open, would now average about one quarter of their previous sales.  As Carroll again correctly pointed out, we won’t be clearly back on track until there is a widely available vaccine.

Currently, Americans would do best, as Thomas L. Friedman put it also in the Times, to have “a science-based, nonpartisan debate through the hellish ethical (and) economic… trade-offs we have to make.”  We are inside a triangle with the three points personal economic wellbeing, national financial strength, and minimal coronavirus-caused death and illness, and can choose differing amounts of each of these but cannot give top priority to all.  For now, we as a nation are choosing health first and personal economic survival second, a course reasonable if unstudied.  Can we do better?  I do not know, and wish I were more optimistic about our ability to objectively determine and implement the solution.  In the meantime, let’s all cheer for Oxford and other vaccine researchers – until they succeed, we aren’t going much of anywhere. 

Friday, April 24, 2020

Redefining Jobs? Creating a New Working Class? Will the Coronavirus Do These Things?

Now that we have settled into the pandemic, we are getting more material on its greater implications.

Since last week, two such articles came out.  The first was “How the Coronavirus Could Create a New Working Class,” by Olga Khazan, dated April 15th in The Atlantic.  Actually it’s about a new working class movement, headed by employees perceiving insufficient virus protection in various ways:  being delayed on promised quarantine-leave pay, told to work despite contact with infected people, being fired for staying away while infected themselves, and even being denied use of masks as they “will disrupt the appearance of normalcy.” 

Clearly we have abuse here, but more often it’s normal low-level-job employment conditions running afoul with changing sensibility and even current social distancing, with one example citing a group of delivery drivers being dispersed by police outside a New York restaurant where they were waiting to pick up orders.  On the other side, I was surprised to see that over 40% of those earning under $24,000 annually could work remotely.  Those who cannot, though, even if not unionized are well positioned to get attention with labor actions. 

Will we have coronavirus-caused labor law changes?  Probably, but per Khazan “it will depend on how severe the death toll turns out to be among service workers.”  For now, beyond their senses of fairness and compassion, companies must be guided by public relations effects, where backlash against, say, a grocery chain with the highest death rates and the most stories of treating its workers as disposable, could be even more lethal.

A week later came Ravin Jesuthasan, Tracey Malcolm, and Susan Cantrell’s Harvard Business Review “How the Coronavirus Crisis is Redefining Jobs.” The title is a bit of an overstatement, as nothing mentioned here is new, but the pandemic will push employers more in certain directions.  Their first bullet point, “make work portable across the organization,” suggested splitting jobs into component tasks distributable to many, allowing reassignment from areas idled or nearly so.  The second, “accelerate automation,” talked to a suspicion I have had for a long time, that companies were not pursuing opportunities there as much as possible savings could indicate.  Contrary to what the authors wrote, it is still a “job-killer,” but is also, more than ever, “a mandatory capability to deal with a crisis.”  Public opinion on automation has probably already reversed, as people want to be assured of getting the likes of food and medical care no matter who, or what, provides them.  (Who now would object to extra toilet paper made without human involvement?).  The third point, “share employees in cross-industry talent exchanges,” lauded such agreements as “supermarket Kroger… temporarily borrowing furloughed employees… from Sysco Corporation, a wholesale food distributor to restaurants that has been hit hard by the coronavirus.”  There should be more of those.

By let’s call it 2023, when the virus is history, how will the world of work show its effects?  There will be benefits, protection, or both, covering similar events, added to employment agreements of in-person service workers.  Whether legally mandated or by employer decision we don’t know, but that won’t matter much.  We won’t see anything like fast-food workers getting $20 an hour, since their potential supply once again will bury demand, yet as with first responders since 9/11 we might have, as Khazan put it, “a return to a 1950s-style view of the working class, in which low-wage jobs conferred a sense of dignity” and higher social status.  As one writer said, the West German political system overvalued farmers, which reasonably reflected memories of the post-war years “when there was nothing to eat.”  Food-related and health care employees may be valued more – and there is nothing wrong with that.  Otherwise, stay tuned – more may change.

Friday, April 17, 2020

After-Coronavirus Ideas: Some Bad, but Mostly Good

This week we’ve had a flurry of views on the steps we as a nation – and as states and groupings of states – should take after the pandemic, which, with a noteworthy lack of terrible news this week, is probably leveling off.  Some called themselves “plans,” but they weren’t really, though all had worthwhile points. 

First was “Joe Biden:  My Plan to Safely Reopen America,” in the April 12th New York Times.  Our Democratic contender, as of yesterday evening listed as a 6 to 5 election underdog against Donald Trump in, put forth more of a campaign statement than a course of action.  He had the right main idea, though, that “the plan has to start with responding effectively to the immediate medical crisis and ultimately lead to the widespread availability and administration of a vaccine,” something consistently mentioned in these articles but not enough in previous weeks.  Per Biden, “social distancing has to continue” (yes), and as “things will not go back to “normal” right away” (something also previously missing), “we should expect activity to resume gradually, with sites like offices and stores reopening before arenas and theaters.”  While “restaurants may need new layouts” and “offices and factories will need to space out workers,” those changes need not be permanent.  A proposal in Robert Epstein’s responding letter that “self-testing… would allow the uninfected Americans… to return to work and school immediately” is unworkable as it would depend on almost every exception to know and be honest about their status.

In the same publication the next day, Jim Tankersley told us that “Economic Pain Will Persist Long After Lockdowns End.”  He mentioned the absolute need for a vaccine, that government edicts will not restart the economy all by themselves as “unemployment claims rose and restaurant reservations vanished even before the lockdown orders hit,” and the same thing will happen again with individual judgments dictating caution, as, per U.S. Chamber of Commerce president Suzanne Clark, “you can’t just turn the light switch on and have everyone go back to work.” 

Also on April 13th, we learned that “(Dr. Anthony) Fauci says ‘rolling reentry’ of US economy possible in May” (Fox Business).  Past the headline, the article more accurately clarified that as “parts of the U.S. could reopen and get back to business as early as next month.”  Vague, but if the number of new cases is not only consistently declining but low in some places, those could move forward.  Yet all should understand that Wyoming opening restaurants does not mean New Yorkers should plan on attending Yankees games.

The next day we went back to other motives with Thomas L. Friedman’s New York Times “Post-Pandemic, Here’s How America Rises Again.”  The columnist’s affection for non-oil energy ran through this piece, but he also emphasized the need for the entire country to have high-speed Internet, something overdue if not strictly pertinent to the recovery.  His third idea of “deployment across America of more affordable tools of invention, design and manufacturing” was, even when given a page later, unclear and of little value.  No plan here either.

Also in the Times on the 14th, Julie Bosman’s “U.S. Governors, at Center of Virus Response, Weigh What It Will Take to Reopen States” quoted those from Oregon, Illinois, Mississippi, Massachusetts, California, New York and more with their insights, best from California’s Gavin Newsom for saying “normal it will not be, at least until we have herd immunity and a vaccine.”  Some states and groupings of them are working out what might be called pre-plans, such as six from Delaware to Massachusetts “by an improvised think-tank-like team with three representatives… from each state.”  Overall, the governors seemed sober, patient, and realistic, and a “Frequently Asked Question” after the piece correctly said that “when will this end?” was “a difficult question” that could not now be answered.

A third article in the same place that day had Gail Collins and Bret Stephens kicking around “We’re Not Going Back to Normal, but What Can We Go Back To?.”  Nothing much new here, but yet again we see the perception, from Stephens, that “there won’t be any going back to normal until we have a vaccine or effective medication.”  He also called for “wide-scale antibody testing,” for the benefit of the testees, and quarantining those with the infection.  Basic, but worthwhile.  That was much the same idea of the concurrent USA Today “2 coronavirus tests hold the key to reopening America from pandemic lockdown,” namely the do-you-have-it ones long available but of limited value as those testing negative can become positive later on, and the antibody assessment, “a version of which has yet to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration.” 

The most detailed set of information on how to recover was in “Coronavirus recovery:  Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt weighs in on rebuilding economy” (Fox Business, April 15th).  This one-time major corporate leader gave us a mixed bag, getting fooled by mass unemployment’s chance to “be avoided through job retraining and reskilling” and by “jobs being created by virtue of the digital platforms” being a significant factor, but also named “a broadly available vaccine and herd immunity” as preconditions for normalcy, and that reopening schools, “because we don’t fully understand the transmission path with kids and their parents and especially their grandparents,” would be especially problematic.  Schmidt also recommended that governors seek expertise from universities as well as at corporations. 

Finally, on the same date’s Fox News, we saw Dom Calicchio’s “Social distancing may be needed, on and off, until 2022:  Harvard study.”  I think the vaccine, when distributed, would put an end to that, but this piece ends with something else underemphasized.  Per epidemiologist Micharl Osterholm, “people haven’t understood that this isn’t about the next couple of weeks.  This is about the next two years.”  That, important for our mental health as well as our logistics, is where I end this week.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Five Facets of Coronavirus and Employment: Five Views

Over the past week-plus we have seen innumerable articles on our public health crisis.  Most is perishable, if not outright obsolete by the time it hits electronic print.  Yet on the larger issues, where much less is being written, what is coming out will be valid much longer.

Peoples’ luck is making huge differences in their current situations, and needing a professional job, even one with no connection to the industries on hold, is of the bad variety.  In’s April 5th “Can You Even Job Search Right Now?,” Alison Green concluded that, except for positions in sudden high demand, no, you really can’t.  Per Green, “there’s never been a more depressing time to be a work advice columnist.”  She pointed out that those “who accepted job offers – and quit their current jobs – only to then find out that the new job has been put on hold” have been damaged even more than people previously unemployed, and noted that emerging adults lucky enough to get good work soon after graduation are often now in danger of losing it, and fear that if they “have to move home again” they will “be stuck there forever.”  Except for those in the likes of health care, hiring managers and organizations will seldom be willing to give up their hands full of cards to streamline hiring practices, and clearly, in most places, typical interview processes cannot now take place.  So, perhaps, here, it’s sort of an indefinite late December.

Amazon, in my mind sort of fresh off their New York City debacle, has drawn controversy for their approach to coronavirus worker safety.  While their sales overall, beyond obvious things such as groceries, must be way up, per Karen Weise and Kate Conger’s  April 5th New York Times “Gaps in Amazon’s Response as Virus Spreads to More than 50 Warehouses,” the company has not implemented a unified way of protecting their order-fillers, and as a result has seen employee unrest, unauthorized departures, and poor acceptance of voluntary overtime.  Amazon has since “raised wages and added quarantine leave, and… is offering overtime at double pay.”  Whether those things will be enough to prevent widespread national customer resentment is unknown.

Next, we get into a concern which should surprise no one – the politicization of coronavirus responses.  It was at its most depressing in McCay Coppins’s “The Social-Distancing Culture War Has Begun,” published March 30th in The Atlantic.  Here we had alleged or self-identified Republicans in suburban Dallas and Atlanta, places with high populations and thus real numbers of infections but away from both the largest virus hot spots and large numbers of tourists, who broke not only general rules such as six-foot distancing but, for example at a golf course, “made a show of shaking hands,” “complained loudly about the “stupid hoax” being propagated by virus alarmists,” and, against new course policy, “piled defiantly into golf carts, shoulder to shoulder.”  I am glad I have heard nothing about such behavior in my county, despite its 57% 2016 Trump majority, and hope such attitudes are not widespread. 

Despite some impatient and thoughtless presidential wishes for way-premature normalization, Jim Tankersley wrote in the April 6th New York Times that “U.S. Is Nowhere Close to Reopening the Economy, Experts Say.”  He tried to stumble out of the gate by starting with “How long can we keep this up?,” when clearly, per national infectious disease advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci, “the virus makes the timeline,” but then surveyed various prominent economists, who together made the main point that now, as it is dependent on epidemiological information not yet available, we can’t possibly know.  One or two interviewees correctly said that we will not have a sudden, total restart, with one saying “it’s important not to lift too early” and another that “we should certainly be prepared for a meaningful level of deliberate suppression of economic activity for the rest of the year.”  It will be best, in the long run, for people to be pessimistic about when we will get back to normal – consider whether if, at a restaurant, when it takes 40 minutes to be seated, you would rather have been told 20 minutes or an hour – and, for now, reject any timelines. 

During my lifetime, events from the Cuban Missile Crisis to 9/11 have failed to imprint permanent social effects.  Urmimala Biswas, writing for Zacks in the April 8th Yahoo Finance, says this time will be different, as “Coronavirus to Permanently Change Way of Life, Here are 4 Trends (Revised).”  His piece, geared toward investors, suggests some possibilities for large upsides, particularly telemedicine, virtual education, video communication, and e-commerce.  I am skeptical about the first three, since although people have been required to use them recently, they may still consider them inferior goods.  It’s different with ordering online, since those just discovering it may like the convenience, though businesses will find out once again that the amount they must charge for shipping bulky items such as groceries will be too high for many people.  The virus will certainly permanently help some businesses and break others, but I doubt entire industries will do as well as Biswas suggests. 

Agree or disagree, but, in any event, keep safe. 

Friday, April 3, 2020

Just the Beginning: March Jobs Data Reflects the First Coronavirus Losses, with AJSN Latent Demand Up 1,435,000 to 17.3 Million

This morning’s jobs statistics are almost worthless.

The reason is that it came from surveys around the middle of March, when the crisis was only starting to show in employment, and the overwhelming majority jobless now were still working.  Still, it gives us a taste of what we’re going to see.

We lost 701,000 net nonfarm positions, at the bottom of an 800,000-job-wide range reflecting uncertainty about how many people had lost them at survey time.  Adjusted unemployment rose 0.9% to 4.4%, with unadjusted up 0.7% to 4.5%.  The unemployed count rose 1.3 million to 7.1 million, with the number of those out for 27 weeks or longer – not affected yet by the virus – up 100,000 to match January’s 1.2 million.  Average private nonfarm payroll wages for those still working gained 10 cents per hour, above inflation, to $28.62.  The data showed 1.5 million more working part-time for economic reasons, or wanting but not having full-time propositions, and is now 5.8 million. 
The most dramatic changes, historically speaking, were in the two measures of how common it is for Americans to be working or officially jobless.  The labor force participation rate fell 0.7%, and is now at a 42-year bottom, equaling December 1977’s 62.7%.  The employment-population ratio, off 1.1% to 60.0%, is at its lowest since February 2017’s 59.9%. 

The American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, the Royal Flush Press product showing in one figure how many new positions could be quickly filled if they were understood to be easy to get, jumped 1.4 million as follows:

That only just over one million of this increase came from official unemployment showed that other statuses have gained people as well.  The count of those wanting work but not looking for it for a year or more added about 400,000.  Those claiming no interest in working were up almost 1.6 million.  However, others did not – for example, the number of people in the armed forces, institutions, and with unknown statuses lost a little, implying that, at least as of the middle of last month, there had been no rush to go off the grid.

Compared with a year before, the AJSN has given up its almost monthly improvement and is now up 1.2 million.  Two thirds of that is from higher official unemployment, with most of the rest from a larger count of those wanting work but not searching for it for the past year. 

We’ll see what happens when the new employment data comes out May 8th.  We could easily be down tens of millions of jobs, with unemployment way into double figures.  The turtle took a large step backwards this time, but may need to be lifted and carried next. 

Friday, March 27, 2020

Depressing but Necessary to Hear: This Thing Won’t End Soon

Over the past week, there have been a wide range of forecasts, possibilities, expectations, timelines, and statements about when we can expect American life to return to normal.

Some are reasonable and some are not.  But the more you understand the truth about where we are now, you can see that we’re not getting out of this quickly. 

First, our president’s call for everything to be back to normal by Easter, now 16 days away, is insane.  Coronavirus is not a nightmare which we can end by waking up.  It is not HIV, with almost every case preventable.  The United States is now purported to have more coronavirus cases than any other country.  While I think the numbers are usually misleading, reflective of our more open information sharing and always out of date before publication, they are, as you read this, sharply increasing, and will continue that for at least a month or two.  True, it will cost our government a trillion dollars per month to keep everyone reasonably afloat, getting us a national debt in the dozens of trillions, but this is the territory in which we now live. 

Second, the social distancing, critical to reduce the spread of this long-lasting and highly contagious virus, will need to continue until almost all Americans are immune.  That, even more than the shortage of medical equipment, medical personnel, and hospital space, will put severe restrictions on our freedom.

Third, with viewpoints, recentness of information, and sources varying, there have been a lot of false hopes spread about when we, for example, might be able to comfortably travel again.  If not Easter, many are acting as if all of this might be over by May, but that makes no real sense either. 

For your planning realism, here is what I expect to happen.  Any normalcy we have before Christmas will be a bonus.  There will be no 2020 major league baseball season.  The NFL will probably delay, then cancel, theirs as well.  The Kentucky Derby, now rescheduled for September, will be lost outright.  Airlines will all but stop operating, limited to a small number of flights with a maximum of one passenger for every five to 10 seats.  Other large-audience in-person entertainment, from movies to festivals, will stay nonexistent.  Schools of all kinds will be closed through at least the fall.  For the rest of this year, it will take hiring efforts by the likes of Amazon to hold unemployment to about 18%. 

It may get better sooner, but don’t count on it.  If there were a viable and perfected vaccine in a laboratory right now, it would need months for confirmation, months for mass-production, then months more for distribution.  That goes similarly for the malaria drugs and other solutions about which people now hold hope.  Even those most optimistic see little chance of a vaccine, the main possibility for widespread immunity, being effectively implemented before a year from now – to others, spring 2022 or even later is a live possibility. 

For the final downer, remember that everything I have written above pertains to the United States.  The rest of the world, with 95% of the population, will have its own issues.  We read about how some countries, in Scandinavia and elsewhere, are doing quite well, but what would happen if just one infected person wandered around the packed slums of Dhaka or Kolkata?  Tens of millions would die in their countries alone, with little hope for containment.  International travel will long be problematic. 

Eventually, when we know more about the virus, our new order will set in.  Then we can get our expectations in line with reality.  They are not there now. 

Friday, March 20, 2020

Coronavirus Devastates Jobs and the Economy, and Shakes Up About Everything Else

I almost titled this post “Only One Possible Topic This Week.” 

It’s been sudden.  I read three small local newspapers here in the Catskills and Poconos, and between their coming slowly in the mail, my wife seeing them first, and my putting them on the bottom of my stack below Times Herald-Record issues and the Sunday New York Times, I often don’t get to them until two weeks after their cover dates.  One I saw yesterday was from March 5th and had not a word about our now-dominating local, national, and world situation. 

I trust you know what’s happening.  I won’t try to recap it, since as well any details or status assessment I learned and sent along to you would be obsolete before I keyed it.  I offer, instead, some general observations.

First, the Coronavirus effect on jobs, which will get worse before it gets better, is truly devastating.  The only question now is whether we are in a depression or just a stiff recession.  When Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said we were, without government intervention, soon to reach 20% unemployment, he was not exaggerating.  This country contains 2.6 million waitpeople alone, almost none of whom can now do that for a living, and if you add to them others in food service, hotels, transportation (not just airlines), spectator sports, anything else connected with gatherings of people, and much more, that twenty percent seems too low.  As well, it’s hard to imagine our economy shrinking less than 10%. 

Second, while this is temporary, we have no idea when it will end.  Some may still be under the illusion that American life will be back to normal by month’s end.  It won’t, and a better question is whether, say, the Kentucky Derby will be able to stick to its new September date.  We all need to realize that we are running a marathon, not a sprint.

Third, we’ve seen other things related to this, but none quite the same.  It’s kind of like a long series of snow days or hurricane days but lasting vastly longer.  It’s reminiscent of the outpouring of patriotism we had after the 2001 terrorist attacks, with truck drivers and health care workers the heroes instead of first responders, but then we were only impeded from some travel.  It’s probably most akin to our national World War II effort, which lasted about four years and didn’t immediately end with victory, yet then we didn’t have to avoid the physical closeness which made those times more bearable. 

Fourth, because our current situation feels stultifying, isolating, and claustrophobic, we need to pay attention to our psychological and emotional health.  We need to take care of ourselves, be patient with ourselves, and give others some breaks as well. 

Fifth, we may already be on a de facto guaranteed income.  The first checks of $1,000 or more should arrive within two weeks.  Andrew Yang, the former presidential candidate known for his supporting a universal basic income, says these payments should continue monthly until “this crisis is over,” and politicians on both sides are, if not expressly agreeing, moving in that direction. 

Sixth, and for the first time in months, Donald Trump is not favored to win reelection.  The line, on which we can bet if we think it’s wrong, had him and Biden the same.  This line can change hourly, so check it for what’s probably the most objective assessment of 2020 outcomes available – it’s on the left-hand menu under Politics.

Seventh, we don’t know what will be permanently changed, but it may end up not being much at all.  People commonly thought the apparent national-character shifts from 9/11 would last, but they did not.  Two things which could remain are more knowledge of how well online gatherings and alternatives actually work and new efficiencies discovered by businesses.  In response to one article headline question, yes, we will get back to normal, though it may be pushing Christmas by then.  We can look forward to, as happened after the war, great pent-up demand for goods, services, travel, and in-person activities, which may finally be valued more highly than virtual ones.

For now, we need to physically avoid each other.  If you have any doubts about that, please read Jason S. Warner’s article here:  This may be the hardest year in our lives, but we can get through it.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Checking In On Autonomous Vehicles: Any Improvement?

It’s been months now, years really, since driverless cars got a lot of press.  There were, though, a string of small articles in the past two months. 

In “When will the highways be filled with autonomous cars?,” in the January 17th Fox Business, reporters there interviewed Intel CEO Robert Swan on the title topic, which hasn’t been gathering many encouraging views lately.  Swan was “pleasantly surprised by the amount of technology innovation that our teams have been able to deploy in cars over the course of the past couple of months,” and said that “no one really knows when that day will come.”  So no headway there. 

One promising area is bringing things to customers, exemplified in “Pizza-toting robots:  U.S. lets Nuro deploy driverless delivery vehicles (Reuters, February 6th).  Here, David Shepardson told us about a “first-of-its-kind approval by U.S. regulators,” in which company Nuro could “deploy up to 5,000 low speed electric delivery vehicles without human controls like mirrors and steering wheels.”  These “R2s” could truly be thought of as robots, as they would have neither drivers nor passengers, but would “at all times be monitored by remote human operators who can take over driving control if needed.”  The federal government helpfully ruled that “as a low-speed neighborhood vehicle,” the R2 “does not need to meet all safety requirements.”  Though Nuro’s road testing is still in the future, it seems they have a clear path to this limited objective, delivering pizzas and groceries on “pre-mapped neighborhood streets” in Houston within two years.  Per other coverage of this event, “US highway agency approves autonomous vehicle” that same day on Fox Business, these robots would stay below 25 miles per hour and allow customer access through providing an access code.  If it materializes, this would be, indirectly as well as directly, good news for driverless cars in general.

Going back to the Phoenix area, “The city of Peoria, Ariz., is piloting an autonomous shuttle program” (Times Herald-Record, February 10th).  Beep, “a Florida-based autonomous mobility solutions company,” planned to launch that 15-mile-per-hour-maximum transport, designed with an attendant onboard to help passengers but who cannot drive it as it has no pedals or steering wheel, on February 22nd, but I could find no confirmation in other press or the Beep website that that actually happened.  Beep, though, in conjunction with NAVYA is currently running a short-range shuttle in Orlando, so it has, almost uniquely, moved its services into the present.

 Another relatively live driverless possibility is the vehicle just large enough for one non-driving passenger.  Gary Gastelu described one in the February 11th Fox News “MOTIV single-seat autonomous ‘car’ is the ultimate in personal transportation.” The all-electric four-by-eight-foot device, “technically classified as a quadricycle,” can do 40 miles per hour and run for 150 minutes between charges, and would be summoned as a taxi “through an Uber-type scheme.”  The MOTIV looks like an enclosed golf cart, and won’t be here soon, as “there are currently no firm plans to put it into production.”

Overall, we have glimmers of hope in the driverless car world, but going is slow, and maintaining working examples seems to be unexpectedly hard, even when the technology is apparently fully ready.  The areas in which they can run are unusually small and are away from snow and major highways.  I will release my annual forecast in July, but now it doesn’t look good at all for anything broad-based, even later this decade.