Friday, September 18, 2020

Autonomous Vehicles Fizzling Out – Why, and What Does That Mean More Generally?

 Aah, for the old days, when the future seemed so bright. 

I’m not talking about just before the pandemic started, though that would qualify too.  I’m talking about the fall of 2017, only three years ago.  Then there was so much news about driverless cars, certain to upend American employment and vastly more, that, so other topics could squeeze in, I needed to put formal limits on how much I would write about.  For example, The New York Times devoted almost an entire Magazine to different aspects of what seemed to be an inexorable mass of social changes, not to mention a total ground transportation makeover – do you remember the picture of the steering wheel moldering in the earth? 

Now, though, progress and milestones here seem to have come to an end.  Published articles are so scarce that I will be going back over four months to get you the latest. 

We begin with “Self-Driving Cars Are Taking Longer to Build Than Everyone Thought,” by Roberto Baldwin, dated May 10th but from the April 2020 issue of Car and Driver.  That publication won’t need to consider any name changes for a while, as “humans take the ability to manage the cognitive load of driving for granted, but building a computer system that can match our abilities is extremely difficult.”  That reminded me of the longstanding lack of automated facial recognition, which ended, though much later than observers around say 1990 thought.  Per Baldwin, “years of research and development are still needed before Level 4 autonomy – in which the car can safely perform all driving tasks but only in limited areas – is accessible to consumers” – in fall 2017, that got a consensus projection of completion by the next year’s Christmas.  Now, such forecasts include Nissan saying “that it’s unlikely to produce self-driving cars before the end of the decade,” and companies are still dealing with a need for common standards, what safety levels consumers will need, and known or feared resistance from the one-off 2018 pedestrian death. 

Soon after, The New York Times published “This Was Supposed to Be the Year Driverless Cars Went Mainstream,” on May 13th by Cade Metz and Erin Griffith.  They reminded us that “tech companies once promised that fully functional, self-driving cars would be on the road by 2020 and on the path to remaking transportation and transforming the economy.”  They blamed the coronavirus for preventing cars from being tested with two drivers, that “start-ups spend $1.6 million a month on average” (that seems, in context, like Puppy Chow to me), and that “bigger companies are hunkering down to wait out the delays,” making it clear that they have other problems – indeed, at least one firm was still struggling with getting vehicles to restart after they waited for traffic to pass, and, in general, “the cars still made mistakes in unexpected ways.”  On the same date the Times also came out with Shira Ovide’s “Where Is My Driverless Car?,” in which she claimed that “the ubiquitous computer-driven car that seemed just around the corner for a decade is now further away than ever,” and blamed mostly technology difficulties. 

One possible semi-solution for driverless technology companies has been, per Baldwin, focusing instead on assistance structures for other vehicles.  However, per “AAA: Partially automated driving systems don’t always work” (Fox Business, August 6th), those aren’t ready either, with AAA researchers finding such technology from five automakers producing “problems every eight miles,” including staying in lanes and avoiding stationary vehicles in their paths.  Overall, “researchers said little had changed from a test of four other vehicles in 2018,” with drivers getting “overly reliant on the technology” offsetting much of its advantage. 

What’s really going on here?  The problems are not financial – there has never been so much excess capital (if you doubt that, look at your bank’s interest rates), and potential profits, during most of our lifetimes, are into the trillions.  The problems are not pandemic-related – for one thing, very well-paid engineers and their families could form pods with others and end the multiple-safety-driver issue.  The problems are not technical – driving is algorithmic, and with continuing intense effort it can be solved.  The problems are not with government regulations or slow federal movement – it’s all in private, generally at least potentially fast-moving hands.  The problems are not excessive complexity – we landed on the moon 51 years ago, with only rudimentary software and project management knowledge.  The problems are certainly not from a lack of use or applications for autonomous vehicles.

The problem is will. 

For whatever reason, Americans no longer have what it takes to complete large technical projects.  It’s an exaggeration to say that over the past 20 years the only trappings of American life which have changed are software and telephones, but not much of one.  Until we understand and fix our will problem, nothing big and good will happen, be it hyperloop or viable supersonic transportation, cures for cancer and other chronic diseases, space settlement and industrialization, or anything else you can think of that has seemed within our grasp for too long.  For now, we can kiss true technological progress, which now slows down or stops progressing when future developments seem too hard, goodbye – in driverless cars and everything else.

Friday, September 11, 2020

The Logistics of the Upcoming Vaccine, and Other Early September Coronavirus Issues and News

 

It’s been three weeks since I wrote a post dedicated to Covid-19.  The United States has reached a relatively stable point, with the number of cases slowly declining, to a September 9th 7-day rolling average of 36,733.  The hot spots keep changing – here is yesterday’s New York Times map, with red showing counties with 56 or more coronavirus incidences per 100,000 population over the previous 7 days:





First and oldest up is “US stockpiling 3 different types of coronavirus vaccines through ‘Operation Warp Speed’” (Megan Hanney, FOXBusiness, September 2).  The title said it – our government is quickly amassing inventories of vaccines being tested, which cannot be used now but, if the FDA approves any, will provide a running start.  A fine tactic, even if any or all turn out to be worthless. 

Preparation was also the topic of more recent pieces, such as “What We Know About the C.D.C.’s Covid-19 Vaccine Plans,” by Carl Zimmer and Katie Thomas in the September 3rd New York Times.  This three-page primer answered questions we should all have, such as “how do these vaccines work” (by exposing human bodies to weakened or inactivated virus shells or pieces of same so they can learn to resist others), and “who will get it first” (not fully resolved, but probably health-care workers, “essential workers,” and those in the likes of nursing homes), along with a description of Phase 1, 2, and 3 testing.  Some here has been updated below, but it remains a worthy one-source reference.

Next was “’Mind-bogglingly complex’:  Here’s what we know about how Covid-19 vaccine will be distributed when it’s approved” (Elizabeth Weise, USA Today, September 6th).  A Johns Hopkins operations manager, someone who should know, was responsible for the title quotation, but Weise clearly and understandably compressed its subject into four-plus printed pages.  Here we learned that “no one will be charged for the actual dose” (though insurance-plan treatment is not yet established), that “people at high risk for severe disease” may also get high priority, that the Pfizer and Moderna products now “are seen as the front-runners” among American-made efforts, that sites for vaccinations will be approved by the CDC and will order their product from their state governments, how the doses will be handled considering that the two leading contenders must be stored at -4 and -94 degrees Fahrenheit respectively, and even something about the producers’ “specially designed transportation containers.”  Once more we are reassured, by knowing that great effort has put into vaccine logistics and coordination.

Then two days ago came out “SD governor criticizes study suggesting Sturgis bike rally led to 260,000 COVID-19 cases,” by Megan Raposa in USA Today.  The Center for Health Economics and Policy Studies, located at San Diego State University, did that research, concluding that the 462,000 people attending that August event, at which masks and social distancing were far from universal, could have propagated over half a new case per person, resulting in, per another study, a $12.2 billion, or $26,500 per attendee, public health cost.  These estimates were getting heavy criticism yesterday and may change.  As of the latest New York Times data that same day, though, North Dakota had the highest number of new daily per-capita Covid-19 cases of the 50 states, followed by South Dakota.  It is certain that such a huge and arguably imprudent gathering would be bad for the pandemic, regardless of exact or even approximate numbers. 

Also September 9th and in the same publication, by its Editorial Board, came “Rushing coronavirus ‘Holy Grail’ vaccine could turn into a curse.”  It warned of “politics bullying science” being able to “cripple health institutions’ credibility for years” if “Donald Trump’s great bid for redemption after so many coronavirus failures… also fails because of mismanagement.”  Such a reelection-related tactic has at least a real chance of being attempted, and, as this piece warns, cannot be allowed to influence the FDA.  This will remain a polarized controversy, whether we want it to be or not, through at least November 3rd.

Last was one from yesterday, “Pay People to Get Vaccinated” by economics textbook author N. Gregory Mankiw in The New York Times.  From a strictly economic view, Mankiw wrote that, given the disheartening 36% of Republicans and the downright depressing 58% of Democrats saying in an NBC News/Survey Monkey Weekly Tracking Poll that they would “get the vaccine,” and that 70% to 90% of Americans would need it for the country to “develop herd immunity,” it would be worthwhile for our government to offer a monetary incentive, the amount of $1,000 per person suggested by a Brookings Institution economist.  That could be $300 billion, but would be a bargain if it completely ended the pandemic.  More food for thought, and something, as with the above topics, we will hear much more about – I will report it here.

Friday, September 4, 2020

August Jobs: People Went Back to Work While Coronavirus Cases Decreased – AJSN Down 3.5 Million as Latent Demand for Work Now 24.3 Million

Two things happened with this morning’s Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Situation Summary which haven’t for a bit. 

First, both the 7-day average Covid-19 cases and the unemployment rate improved.  The former went from 65,418 to 51,603 from July 16th to August 16th, yet seasonally adjusted joblessness at the same time plunged from 10.2% to 8.4%.  Second, the published projection of net new positions, 1.4 million, was not only reasonable but right on the money.  We are now at 13.6 million, down 2.7 million, unemployed with an unadjusted rate, off 2.0%, of 8.5%.

The report showed us other real progress.  The count of those in temporary layoff plunged from 9.2 million to 6.2 million.  Those working part-time for economic reasons, or holding on to less than full-time jobs while looking thus far unsuccessfully for conventionally longer-hours ones, counted 7.6 million, down 800,000.  The two measures of how common it is for people to be either working or officially unemployed, the labor force participation rate and the employment-population ratio, gained 0.3% and 1.4% respectively and are now at 61.7% and 56.5%.  The downside was an increase in those out for 27 weeks or longer, up 100,000 to 1.6 million, and another gain, this one 8 cents, in hourly earnings for average private nonfarm payroll workers, which at $29.47 is elevated enough to mean that former low-pay employees are not returning in significant numbers.

The American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, the measure showing succinctly how many more positions could be quickly filled if all knew that getting one would be as easy as getting a pizza, improved 3.5 million over the previous month as follows:

 

We continued the trend of those marginally attached to the labor force getting fewer.  Of the July to August drop, 677,000 was not due to lower official unemployment – that included 657,000 from  a reduced count of people wanting work but not looking for it for a year or more and 135,000 from fewer people calling themselves discouraged.  However, 1.4 million more Americans claimed no interest in employment, offsetting the above by 70,000.  The share of the AJSN from those officially jobless fell from 54.7% to 50.9%.     

Although we are recovering, both from the coronavirus and from the economic shock it caused, we are still far worse than before the pandemic began.  The unemployment count and percentages are more than double what they were in August 2019, and the AJSN is 8.1 million higher.  If we can stay on track, both with employment-related indicators and with Covid-19 case counts, that will be good.  If one or the other relapses, we will be in even more trouble.  Although the turtle cannot see where he was as recently as March 2020, he, indeed, took a big step forward this month.

Friday, August 28, 2020

Tolerance of Nonconformers: An Ever More Endangered Ideal

 

For the first time since March, I am writing a post not centering on the Covid-19 pandemic.  There, we have reached a stable position that may last for months:  new American cases still a problem but slowly drifting down from our mid-July peak, about one million weekly employment applications but many other jobs resuming, new outbreaks popping up here and there but offset by decreases, a steady stream of misinformation from the White House but most people including Republicans wise enough to make their own more informed life-activity choices.  I will return to this issue, as there is nothing much to say about employment without considering it.

Something else has been getting attention these past two months.  Problems with responses to public disagreement with what are perceived as the most appropriate positions – whether called “the free exchange of information and ideas,” the cause of “cancel culture,” “freethinking,” refusing to cooperate with “political correctness,” or just “nonconformity” – have been brought to our attention, first by over 100 prominent academics, authors, and journalists, and then by two major columnists.

We could start with attempted university First Amendment violations around 1990, or even millennia before, but we’ll instead choose last month.  In Harper’s Magazine, dated July 7th and simply titled “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” a piece decried an “intolerant climate that has set in on all sides,” in which “it is all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought.”  The 153 signatories, including those who have written hundreds of well-regarded books of all kinds among many other achievements (such as those of Wynton Marsalis and Garry Kasparov), agreed that we now have “institutional leaders… delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms”; as examples, “editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study.”  And a week after, a second New York Times editor was forced out for printing unacceptable views.  They stated that “the way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away.”  I was surprised to see how many people, especially on the left, signed this document despite having histories of suppressing intellectual dissent in the past, but was glad to see it blaming those on both sides. 

One week after that, Ross Douthat’s “10 Theses About Cancel Culture” appeared in The New York Times.  He defined this phenomenon: “cancellation, properly understood, refers to an attack on someone’s employment and reputation by a determined collection of critics, based on an opinion or an action that is alleged to be disgraceful and disqualifying.”  While “cancellation isn’t exactly about free speech… a liberal society should theoretically cancel less frequently than its rivals,” he meant liberal in the liberty sense instead of the political one.  He maintained that “the internet has hastened the consolidation of cultural institutions,” and saw “increased uniformity across cities and regions and industries in general,” and that “the point of cancellation is ultimately to establish norms for the majority,” as “the goal isn’t to punish everyone… it’s to shame or scare just enough people to make the rest conform.”

On July 23rd followed David Brooks’s Times “The Future of Nonconformity.”  He stated that “intellectual exclusion and segregation have been terrible for America, poisoning both the right and the left,” which was hastened as “Sarah Palin and Donald Trump reintroduced anti-intellectualism into the American right: a distrust of the media, expertise and facts.”  He understated that “in some ways the left has become even conformist than the right,” and that our arguably greatest university, Harvard, has only 1.5% conservative faculty.  Brooks called cancel culture “an attempt to shift the boundaries of the sayable so it excludes not only conservatives but liberals and the heterodox as well.”  Now, per a Cato Institute poll he cited, “sixty-two percent of Americans say they are afraid to share the things they believe,” which would be higher among those with terminal degrees. 

That is one wonderful thing about writing this blog.  As I am beholden to nobody, I am under no opinion restrictions.  I had to look up the meaning of “heterodox,” but my writings and broadcasts match Google Dictionary’s definition of “not conforming with accepted or orthodox standards or beliefs.”  I handcraft my ideas and opinions, which can only be refuted through argument and persuasion.  Come back – you can count on that to continue. 

Friday, August 21, 2020

The Latest on Coronavirus – Beyond the Latest on Work

 

By the pandemic’s standards, it’s been a peaceful United States and world week.  The chart for the latter changed little, but the role-model countries of New Zealand and South Korea had small if discouraging relapses.  There are now a huge variety of graph shapes, ranging from many with high pinnacles early on followed by minimal cases since, to another group with skateboard-park curves going up, down, then up again.  Here is the American one, which is unique: 

 

The story this August 20th New York Times chart tells is clear.  We went up as expected, then decreased only slowly as many people resumed risky activities too quickly.  That resulted in a second climb to double the previous peak, and has been slowly drifting down, as there has been only uneven practice of prudence and patience since.

In other news, we’re back over one million weekly jobless claims (The Washington Post, August 20th); “Trump’s extra $300 unemployment benefits may only last 3 weeks – here’s why” (because they are taken from FEMA funding, a fixed pot of $44 billion – Fox Business, August 18th); “Amazon reportedly looking to transform shuttered JCPenney, Sears stores into fulfillment centers (a suitable retrofit for the times – Fox Business, August 9th); and “Consumer prices jump again in July, rebounding from pandemic lows, but inflation remains low” (because money is continuing to pool up – MarketWatch, August 12th). 

We’re getting more discussion on what our country will be like after the pandemic is over.  You can expect a lot from me on that in the next few months, as I’m reading a groundbreaking book on social and political inflection points that author George Friedman expected to hit this decade even before Covid-19 appeared, and will have plenty of conclusions of my own for your consideration.  In the meantime, we have “The Workforce Is About to Change Dramatically,” by Derek Thompson on August 6th in The Atlantic, which took a remarkably wide scope, with three major predictions and much information in and around them. 

His first, “The “Telepresence” Revolution Will Reshape the U.S. Workforce,” names the at least temporary ending of two decades of large spending on “leisure and hospitality,” caused by reduced business travel and commuting-connected eating, drinking, and shopping.  Yet a lot of that will come back in smaller and relocated form, as people not only leave larger cities but do those things closer to their homes.  When the author said that “face-to-face meetings might even feel more valuable in a post-pandemic world,” he brushed up against my 2000 prediction, still waiting for widespread fulfillment, that in-person activities would come to be valued more than electronic ones.  Overall, while it is easy to say that “telepresence will almost certainly increase in the aftermath of this crisis,” its problems, starting with productivity losses from less motivated workers and moving on to uneven and often inadequate home-office settings and resources, have not gone away.

Thompson’s second prediction was “Remote Work Will Increase Free-Agent Entrepreneurship,” including employees having new “emotional relationships with colleagues” as “many white-collar companies have become virtual group chats punctuated by Zooms,” problematic since “online communications can be a minefield for mutual understanding.”  That takes coworkers out of their special category, since “at the kitchen counter, hunched over your computer, you are as close to the people and communities on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram as you are to the Slack messages and chats of your bosses and colleagues.”  Accordingly, “more Americans may take on side gigs and even start their own companies,” as they want to profit from being alone.  Against that, companies, in the footsteps of IBM and Yahoo, may rush back to offices once the threat of the virus is way down, with the variation in home work caused, as it was in the past few decades, by the choices of employers, some of whom “were, just seven months ago, outfitting their offices with the finest sushi bars, yoga rooms, and massage rooms.”

Third, “A Superstar-City Exodus Will Reshape American Politics.”  The author’s idea there was that Democrats might become less concentrated in large cities and on the coasts, leading to less of a gap between electoral-college and popular-vote outcomes.  I suspect this won’t have that effect, since most movements will be made either within states, to neighboring ones with similar political tendencies (for example, New Jersey or Connecticut instead of New York City), or to already solid-blue college towns.  For this prediction to come through, telework would need to be common enough that people would not care where they lived, even after anticipating possibly needing to be rehired, and would actually move into states with generally opposite political currents. 

In all three of these outcomes, Thompson acknowledged that a vaccine being distributed early next year could blunt them.  “Still, even a moderate increase in remote work could lead to fundamental changes,” as those employees will allocate more money and online community time at home, and will be at least slightly more likely to relocate.  There will, though, be backlashes and countertrends which we cannot forecast with any accuracy.  In all, Yogi Berra was right when he said, “it’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” 

Friday, August 14, 2020

Public Health and Jobs: Where Are We Now, and How Can We Save Both?

With the monthly employment report and AJSN issue, I did not post last week on other aspects of our situation.  The largest jobs news since the previous one was on weekly unemployment claims, which had a 20th straight week of over a million followed by the end of that streak. 

We now have a lot of chaos, ambiguity, and uncertainty about the jobless numbers, shown by, per Patricia Cohen in the August 6th New York Times “New Unemployment Claims Decline, but Remain ‘Alarmingly High’,” 30 million people collecting benefits but only 16.3 million in last week’s Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Situation Summary.  We have a lot of positions starting and ending, and, apparently, a lot of people just guessing when answering surveys whether their pandemic-lost job will come back.  That wildness is also going on with the virus in our country, which offers, in different locations, world-high infection rates and role models of nonspreading, numbers of cases increasing and holding and decreasing, and responsibility variation ranging from here in the Catskills where whole counties have no Covid-19 hospitalizations and maskless people at all close to others are nonexistent to a Florida sheriff actually banning masks for deputies and visitors.  Overall, though, we are still among our planet’s worst, with this latest New York Times map putting us with Panama, Colombia, Peru, Brazil, Suriname, and Argentina, but no other countries, with daily new infections of over 14 per 100,000:

In these past two weeks there has been a flurry of published opinions on how we can end these two huge problems.  The first, “The Extremely Boring Idea That Could Save the Economy (Jordan Weissman, Slate, July 31st), proposed “automatic stabilizers,” which “could redesign unemployment benefits and food stamps to increase in value when unemployment spikes,” sort of like automatic stock-market shutdowns when losses reach certain amounts.  That, which unfortunately would have only partisan appeal, would prevent needing to develop and agree on additional assistances when they are suddenly and urgently needed. 

Next, we had “America’s Coronavirus Endurance Test,” by Howard Markel in the August 6th New Yorker.  Markel, a physician and medical historian, recounted how he and others developed the idea of flattening a virus-infection curve over 10 years ago, that social distancing may have prevented over half a billion coronavirus cases in six countries alone, but keeping physically away from others “cannot cure or defeat Covid-19” and “only allows us to hide from the virus while scientists do their work.”  Such may be necessary in some times and places into 2022, so accordingly “businesses need to give up on the idea of a near-term return to normal and commit to letting people work from home or in staggered shifts until a vaccine or other treatment becomes available.”  Stern advice, but it is a clear conclusion that we cannot get the economy back until the virus is vastly less prevalent.

On the same date, the USA Today Editorial Board released “Coronavirus ride:  4 ways America can get back on track.”  The bullet points are “once and for all, fix testing results,” since, as few have dared put in print, “tests that take a week or more for results are virtually worthless.”; “ensure adequate supplies” (if multiple companies are not mass-producing them now, I don’t know why); “build a COVID-19 infection barometer to guide the states,” with which many Republicans and many state governments disagree; and “tell the truth” (it is out there, but it needs to contend with conspiracy theories, cherry-picked statistics, runaway tribalism, national priority confusion, and much more.)  These suggestions are useful, but preventing spread is most critical.

Only the day after that, we saw “Here’s How to Crush the Virus Until Vaccines Arrive,” by Michael T. Osterholm and Neel Kashkari in the New York Times.  It’s more castor oil – the authors called for “a more restrictive lockdown, state by state, for up to six weeks to crush the spread of the virus to less than one new case per 100,000 people per day,” or one-sixteenth of what the map above shows.  We failed as a country because “we gave up on our lockdown efforts to control virus transmission well before the virus was under control.” 

On August 8th, the next day, the Times Editorial Board printed “America Could Control the Pandemic by October.  Let’s Get to It.”  The “six to eight weeks” the authors called necessary seems like a lot less time than it did in the spring.  The piece offered the new insights that “airborne transmission is a far greater risk than contaminated surfaces,” while “the virus spreads through singing and shouting as much as through coughing” and “superspreading events – as in nursing homes, meatpacking plants, churches and bars – are major drivers of the pandemic.”  They asked for “clear, consistent messaging,” which seems a doubtful product from our current presidential administration, along with “better use of data,” “smarter shutdowns” more severe for places doing worse, and the old favorites “testing, tracing, isolation, and quarantine.”  I found this piece less effective than two above, since it hoped for things with poor current prospects and advocated measures already taken. 

None of this is very encouraging, but we will do what we can, including on November 3rd, to minimize damage before the vaccine arrives.  Only then will the pandemic, and employment with it, start to normalize. 

Friday, August 7, 2020

Despite 6 Million Unemployment Applications, Joblessness Drops 0.9% in July to 10.2 Percent – AJSN Shows Latent Demand for Work Down 1,350,000 To 28.0 Million

 

I was the predictor this time, and fell flat on my face.  Because of new unemployment compensation applications camping out at over one million per week, I thought we would see the seasonally adjusted rate worsen from June’s 11.1% to 13% or 14%.  Not only did it not reach that level, it improved.

Other numbers released in this morning’s Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Situation Summary got better as well.  Unadjusted unemployment fell 0.7% to 10.5%.  Total nonfarm payroll jobs were up 1.8 million, meaning that along with those six-plus million position losses that sent people virtually or in person to their employment offices, there were about 8 million jobs created or reinstated.  The count of the unemployed lost 1.5 million and is now 16.3 million, with people considering themselves to be on temporary layoff adding up to 1,400,000 less to reach 9.2 million.  Those out for 27 weeks or longer, meaning they lost their jobs long before the pandemic, now number 100,000 more and total 1.5 million.  The employment-population ratio, the best indicator of how common it is for Americans to be working, gained 0.5% to 55.1%, and those working part-time for economic reasons, or keeping less than full-time opportunities while seeking them, dropped from 9.1 million to 8.4 million.  The two statistics on which I have been reporting that did not get better were the labor force participation rate, down 0.1% to 61.4%, and average private nonfarm payroll hourly earnings, up 2 cents to $29.39, not an improvement since increases in this number, way-high since coronavirus started, indicate more lower-level workers unemployed.

The American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, the metric showing how many additional positions could be quickly filled if all knew they would be easy to get, fell over 1.3 million as follows:

The AJSN is now 6.5 million less than when the first month of the pandemic reached the data in mid-April, but is 11,400,000 higher than a year before.  Only 54.7% of it comes from those officially unemployed, meaning that latent demand for work includes 12.6 million positions from those with other statuses, roughly a three-way split between those wanting work but not looking for it for a year or more, those claiming no interest in employment, and all others. 

What is really happening now?  Given the historically elevated counts of those filing for jobless benefits, there is great employment churn.  Apparently it is, or those working are, coming and going at an unusually rapid pace, on the order of five times as much as before Covid-19.  There are almost certainly too many people being allowed to work in the Deep South and Florida, the states now worst at containing the virus.  Beyond that the picture is muddled, especially as lower joblessness is less desirable now than lower infection rates.  Until we see both together, we cannot take credit for any employment improvement.  The turtle went forward again, but is too concerned with getting sick to be happy with that.  

Friday, July 31, 2020

The Unmitigated American Disaster Continues with Another Execrable Week, and a Call for Cutting Vaccine Expectations – When Will We Get Relief?


Another seven days of frightful news.  Here are its headlines and subheads:

“Eighteen states set daily case records in the past week, and 40 have had 14-day increases in cases per capita” – The New York Times, July 26th

“U.S. GDP Fell 9.5 Percent (in the second quarter)” – The New York Times, July 30th

“The U.S. economy’s contraction in the second quarter was the worst on record” – Same

“1.43 million filed new state unemployment claims last week,” for the 19th straight of over a million – Same

“U.S. Surpasses 150,000 Coronavirus Deaths, Far Eclipsing Projections” – The New York Times, another July 30th article

“Baseball’s Dumb Decision” – of a July 29th-published letter written to the Times by Kenneth L. Zimmerman, in which he pointed out that “17 as of this writing” players and coaches on one team alone – the Miami Marlins – had recently tested positive, and said “allowing the Major League Baseball season to be played in the middle of a deadly pandemic is the worst decision the league has made since allowing Roseanne Barr to sing the national anthem 30 years ago.”

“Coronavirus in the U.S: Latest Map and Case Count” – same source, July 30th.  This article’s headline wasn’t scary, but it showed 68,000-plus new cases and 1,400-plus deaths the previous day alone.  The Deep South, including and especially Florida, is doing the worst now.  “New cases are decreasing” in Arizona, South Carolina, Texas, Kansas, Vermont, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, but are “mostly the same” or rising everywhere else. 

And, though a bit older, this chart, where all you need to see is the shape of the curves:



And now, to adjust our expectations, along comes “A Vaccine Reality Check.”  This piece by Sarah Zhang, listed as from July in The Atlantic, told us why, even if one of those arrives as early as it reasonably can, “it certainly will not immediately return life to normal.”  Our central government, lately ineffective even when competent, “will have to allocate doses, perhaps through a patchwork of state and local health departments with no existing infrastructure for vaccinating adults at scale” to those are sure they want it, now only about half of adult Americans.  Zhang projected five months, or December, for “a safe and effective vaccine,” which I presume includes distribution.  In the meantime, “without the measures which have beat back the virus in much of Europe and Asia, there will continue to be more outbreaks, more school closings, more loneliness, more deaths ahead.”  The good news is that “at least six” different versions are in “or about to enter” the third and final phase of human testing, which “will take several more months,” and “the high and rising rates of COVID-19 in the United States do make it easier to test vaccine candidate here.” 

Then, we will get a series of ugly disagreements.  We can sensibly agree that healthcare workers should get the first vaccinations, but who after that?  People in states with highest infection rates, rewarding them for their less prudent behavior?  Those in the Northeast as appreciation for their good conduct, who need it immediately the least?  Blacks, because their lives Matter, even if that would be obvious bigotry?  Those whose local governments are most prepared to distribute it, punishing those not as lucky?  I could easily see the first virus distribution ready for, say, December 1st, but a month or two of legal motions making us all wait and all lose.  Accordingly, while we appear to be on the path to recovery, and a vaccine still seems our only chance to start that within the next year, we still have many steps to walk before then. 

What will happen?  I forecast a vaccine ready by year’s end, with dissemination, while muddled, piecemeal, divisive, resource-constrained, and court-hobbled, to be 95% completed by the end of March.  That is eight months from now, so we must maintain patience.  Then we can work out what life will be like in America after that.  Much more on that huge issue will follow in this space in the weeks and months to come. 

Friday, July 24, 2020

Coronavirus and Jobs: More Bad American Weekly News, But…

The beat goes on…

The United States has a new peer group of countries, which is Colombia, Bolivia, Brazil, South Africa, Kyrgyzstan, and Oman.  They were the only others with a rate of over 14 new Covid-19 infections last week per 100,000 population.  Here is the map as it appeared in the Thursday New York Times:


The Bahamas, in the face of a 50% case increase blamed on American tourists not wearing masks or practicing social distancing, rolled back their willingness to allow them.

The major league baseball mini-season started yesterday, and I give them an even chance of completing all 60 pre-playoff games. 

We achieved our 18th straight week of over 1 million unemployment claims, with 1.4 million.
Moving on from there to our national financial and trade situation, we have Ben Casselman and Jim Tankersley’s “How to Save a Half-Open Economy” in the July 17th New York Times.  We’ve heard plenty from those two over the years, and what they published here was a cut clearer and more thoughtful than most other pieces on this subject.  They recommended five general things.

The first, “prioritize public health,” included “the economy cannot recover until the virus is in check,” obvious to half the population, and matched my recent observation that if we try to bring back businesses prematurely, we will get neither economic nor pandemic success.  The authors meant making public health the top priority.  Taking short-term pain here has always been better than prolonging it, and for examples we need look only at the seven northeasternmost states. 

Second, “extend unemployment benefits.”  As Casselman and Tankersley pointed out, such payments “are serving three purposes” by keeping people away from workplaces to serve their first recommendation, allowing them to stay afloat, and helping the economy by providing money likely to be spent and circulate.  We may not need to maintain $600 per week, with $400 possibly nearly as effective, but with OSHA nowhere in sight it is blithe to suggest that people be encouraged to go back to jobs with doubtful or worse safety.

Third, “spend what it takes to reopen schools safely.”  Well, four out of five ain’t bad.  I still think that, advantages acknowledged, we have no business opening in-person elementary and middle schools this fall, if only because children cannot be expected to be disciplined about following social distancing, Plexiglas shields notwithstanding.  (I assure you that my third-grade self would not have behaved himself any more with that than he did with less life-preserving rules, which wasn’t much.)  We would do better to defer to the authors’ first rule above.

Fourth, “keep businesses alive.”  Casselman and Tankersley put into print something that hasn’t been there enough, that it is the small enterprises, not large corporate ones with more money and more borrowing power, which need our help now.  The owners may be sustained with other programs, but their ventures may otherwise be erased, as their rents or mortgages and additional expenses simply cannot be made without a full number of customers.  As well, as economist David Wilcox put it, paraphrased by the authors, “the government has effectively forced business owners to take a hit… so it should help them survive.” 

Fifth, “provide some certainty.”  That would call for congressional planning and interparty cooperation, in letting people and small firms know what they can expect for a year or more, without looming questions such as this week’s about whether federal jobless payments will continue. 

That brings us to the good side of this week’s events.  Although we are lacking any formal announcement, except for China saying they expected one to be available by year’s end, news media scuttlebutt has it that we are getting close to having a vaccine developed.  Trials in three different Western labs have apparently gone very well, and articles have mentioned the need for sufficient funding and glass containers.  Based on the admittedly vague things I have seen, I call us a favorite to have widespread vaccine implementation by the end of the first quarter.  In the scheme of things, that will arrive before we know it.  Then we will be rescued.  If that fails to materialize, we can take heart about another probable pandemic-easing outcome – per sportsbook.ag, Donald Trump is now a 29 to 20 reelection underdog. 

Yes, likely something good will happen.  In the meantime, you know the drill – wear a mask and stay six feet away from others.

Friday, July 17, 2020

The United States in 2020: Another Week Heading Down the Swirly-Swirly


Not a lot to like this time.  As with the old dictum that people who give up freedom for security deserve neither, Americans have tried to trade public health for improving the economy and failed miserably at both.

We now have a situation where relatively low unemployment is an indication of irresponsibility, as many states with that have a lot of people who should be avoiding infections instead of working.  That’s one takeaway from “The Fed Sets Out Many Reasons to Worry About the Economy,” by Jeanna Smialek in the July 1st New York Times.  Also “there is a serious chance of a double-dip downturn that could permanently scar the American labor force,” and Federal Reserve gathering participants “saw “substantial likelihood” of additional waves of virus outbreaks with the potential to cause a drawn-out period of economic weakness.”  This article was written before the large infection jumps in Florida and the Southwest.

Echoing and addressing a question often heard last week was Derek Thompson’s “COVID-19 Cases Are Rising, So Why Are Deaths Flatlining?,” in the July Atlantic.  He offered five possible reasons, the first and most important being that “deaths lag cases.”  After that, “expanded testing is finding more cases, milder cases, and earlier cases,” “the typical COVID-19 patient is getting younger,” “hospitalized patients are dying less frequently,” and “summer might be helping.”  Since then, per “As U.S. Coronavirus Cases Hit 3.5 Million, Officials Scramble to Add Restrictions” (July 16th, New York Times), the 14-day change in number of new instances, 67,190 identified on July 15th alone, is up 44% while the count of deaths, 958 that same day, has gained 51%.

“It’s 2022.  What Does Life Look Like?”  That titled an article by David Leonhardt in the July 10th Times.  He and others are getting a bit frisky about assuming what changes will and won’t become permanent, but he tempered it by saying “The financial crisis of 2007-9 didn’t cause Americans to sour on stocks, and it didn’t lead to an overhaul of Wall Street.  The election of the first Black president didn’t usher in an era of racial conciliation.  The 9/11 attacks didn’t make Americans unwilling to fly.  The Vietnam War didn’t bring an end to extended foreign wars without a clear mission.”  I add that even when this thing is below 100 new daily American cases, we won’t be having all our business meetings on Zoom, wearing masks everywhere, eschewing handshakes, or avoiding bars.  But for now, Leonhardt quoted Warren Buffett saying “it’s only when the tide goes out that you learn who’s been swimming naked,” and applies that to not only weak individual companies being culled out but to nearly entire industries, such as malls, department stores, and small colleges, that have gone from being in big trouble to becoming completely unviable.  “Politics will shape the economy,” depending vastly on who wins November 3rd, and “if there is a single lesson of the current era of American politics, it’s that change can happen more quickly than we imagined.”  With the suddenly resurging Black Lives Matter movement, two incidences of stunning idea and opinion suppressing in a publication cited above and below, and renewed talk about (of all things) climate change, we can’t disagree.

The real American exceptionalism again took center stage in “In Some Countries, Normal Life is Back.  Not Here” (Michelle Goldberg, The New York Times, July 13th).  Several posts ago I compared the “marshmallow test,” where children are offered a choice between one of those now or two some minutes away, to pandemic responses, and here is clear confirmation of which too many Americans  have chosen.  Elsewhere, “Taiwan, where most days this month no new cases have been reported, just held the Taipei Film Festival, and a recent baseball game drew 10,000 spectators,” and “there were 321 new cases in all of Canada last Friday,” similar to the current number in Italy, “once the epicenter of Europe’s outbreak.”  Shockingly enough, in the Global Health Security Index 2019 report, America was rated most prepared.  It seems hardly surprising that “there’s no drumbeat of calls for the president’s resignation,” but even when you don’t factor in reactions to the Minneapolis police chief, “that’s how you know the country was broken before coronavirus ever arrived.”
 
We also see that, starting with Los Angeles and San Diego’s, not all public schools will open this fall.  We achieved a 17th straight week with 1.3 million new unemployment claims.  And, if all of that isn’t bad enough, “The Pandemic Could Get Much, Much Worse.  We Must Act Now” (John M. Barry, again The New York Times, July 14th).  Would that we had the will to do things like Australia, which “just issued fines totaling $18,000 because too many people attended a birthday party in someone’s home,” but instead we have “the highest growth rate of new cases in the world, ahead even of Brazil,” including one state with one-quarter of Germany’s population achieving “over 15,300” of those, or, per capita, over 150 times as many.  However, if “Nynex” (New York and the six New England states) were a country, it would fit in well with Europe’s pandemic outcomes, so we may get more and more internal travel restrictions.

What does all this mean for United States Covid-19 prospects?  When you also consider the intractability of some of our citizenry, we will, as a nation, stay reduced to waiting for a vaccine.  That could be widely available in the first quarter of 2021, or it could never materialize.  Could we break up into several de facto countries if it doesn’t?  Don’t bet against it.  And in the meantime, wear that mask and stay six feet apart - at least, then, YOU can survive.

Friday, July 10, 2020

American Impatience, and Its Antidotes


What is the United States doing now?

Four months after first acting, having more new Covid-19 cases than ever – up to 62,751 on Wednesday, including 9,979 in one state (Texas).

Getting over 1 million, about 5 times the usual amount of, new unemployment applications every week – the 16th straight being 1.3 million ending Saturday.

Once again, running short of protective supplies and hospital beds.

Precipitating columns from moderate commentators such as David Brooks, who two weeks ago wrote “that we are losing the fight against Covid-19,” as “our behavior doesn’t have anything to do with the reality around us,” and “we just got tired so we’re giving up.”

Staying divided into two main camps, each with its own sacred cows, which both push their own priorities over public health.

Arguing about whether to open public schools this fall, which, if either part of the vague and poorly substantiated notion that children neither get infected nor spread it turns out to be wrong, could create over 100,000 first-rate virus incubators spread throughout the land. 

Distorting the simple acts of wearing masks and staying six feet away from others into affronts on freedom and even indications of a huge, impossibly well-hidden conspiracy from people who cannot even deliver mail consistently.

Getting the worst of both worlds of cutting coronavirus infections and healing its economy, succeeding only in doing neither.

Suffering through wildly irresponsible central leadership.

Disgracing itself – if not going down the drain altogether.


What can we do about all of this?

Wear that mask – for others, not yourself – and keep your distance.

Read and keep the following chart, and make your own judgments about what is worth risking and what is not:





Read something about civilized, blameless people having much more hardship than needing to stay home more and putting large gatherings on hold.  Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl is a good place to start, along with other accounts of World War II with its rationing that went on long afterwards, loved ones away and in mortal danger, indefinitely conscripted soldiers, and other things much worse than what we have now.  Also read Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, “A Time for Everything,” even if you are not Christian.

Take care of yourself physically and mentally.  Use extra time and any obligation reduction to help your own situation, and prepare for your future, in any way you can.  Find things to enjoy as well.

Remember that coronavirus vaccine research is, as far as we can tell, going superbly.  We may need that to bail us out in this country, and we may get it – just not today or tomorrow.

Take heart that there are American places that have done as well as elsewhere.  My county, Sullivan in New York (75,000 population), has gone from over 500 active Covid-19 cases to nine, with nobody hospitalized.  It is no coincidence that I almost never see people here maskless or encroaching on others.

Vote on November 3rd, for the presidential candidate you think can best get us back on track.  Vote even, and especially, if you sat out in 2016.

Keep your spirits up!  This too will pass.  And as Vera Lynn, who died last month at 103 sang:
“We'll meet again
Don't know where
Don't know when
But I know we'll meet again some sunny day.”


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 sportsbook.ag, 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 – sportsbook.com, 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.