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.