Friday, February 26, 2021

The Coronavirus, As February Ends: Where We Are, and Where We Are Going

It’s been an eventful three weeks. 

To start with the good, according to the New York Times tracker, although the ski slope of Covid-19 infections has leveled off, on Wednesday we had a 7-day average of 68,123 new daily cases, down 73% from the January 10th peak.  The same average for daily deaths, 2,188, is off almost 35% from its high on January 12th, and average virus hospitalizations, now 57,306, is 56% lower than its summit that same date.  As of yesterday, 6.5% of Americans have been fully vaccinated, with another 7.5% having only one dose, putting us on a September pace for covering, say, 99% of people who want it.  Around the world, the United States had the 37th-highest per-capita 7-day average, an improvement over recent months, as follows:

Yet, we have reached 500,000 national pandemic deaths, with over 28 million cases, with world figures 2.4 million and 112.5 million. 

Our execution of President Joe Biden’s late-January strategy, though, has been lacking.  Is it true that, per the New York Times Editorial Board on February 7th, “We Know Very Little About America’s Vaccine Debacle,” including large numbers of doses being thrown away from lack of approved recipients?  The major problems are easy to see, though.  First is a lack of project management – there is no good reason why a detailed plan, missing only specific dates, could not have been put together in the summer and fall.  Such an effort would have needed ongoing revisions, as do almost all project plans, but would have been far more effective than what we have used.  With over one million active certified project managers, plus an unknown number of inactive ones including your correspondent, there is no excuse for not having enough people to develop and maintain such an effort.  Second is failure to acquire and commandeer resources all along the line, with a maximum number of rededicated factories, vaccination centers, places for people trained to administer doses, and facilities for extremely fast shipping, strange since from the beginning our home front World War II effort was often invoked for comparison.  Third is limitations on who can get leftover doses – it’s hard to see why, if they would otherwise be discarded, they cannot be offered on a standby basis to anyone needing them.

“We Asked 175 Pediatric Disease Experts if It Was Safe Enough to Open School,” said Claire Cain Miller, Margot Sanger-Katz, and Kevin Quealy in the February 11th New York Times.  The scientists “largely (my italics) agreed that it was safe enough for schools to be open to elementary students for full-time and in-person instruction now.” Good to see guidance here, but the air would have been clearer had they used a stronger word, and if letting small children crash into each other, with or without masks, did not seem so intuitively wrong.  The problem with deciding on school openings is that the interests of the two major forces, parents and teachers, are inherently opposed, with the former wanting their children back in classrooms and the latter wanting maximum safety and a higher vaccination priority than they have thus received.  The issue was also long politicized, with conservatives and Trumpists supporting faster reopenings, and there has been no lack of cases of infected children.  Accordingly, it seems teachers, whether believed safe or not, should not be required to work unvaccinated – and beyond that you and I do not know.

More beneficial news has taken the form of understanding what might happen with the pandemic from here.  On February 16th, per the next day’s “Covid-19 Live Updates:  Biden Suggests All Americans Could Be Offered Vaccines by August” in the Times, we may achieve just that.  Not guaranteed, but a good stake in the ground to tell us roughly where we stand – I project production of that many doses to be completed more like the end of August with second ones administered by mid-October, but that is closer than guessing instead this May or mid-2022. 

This past Monday, Joe Pinsker in The Atlantic wrote “The Most Likely Timeline for Life to Return to Normal,” a longer view projection, which he summarized as “life this spring will not be substantially different from the past year; summer could, miraculously, be close to normal; and next fall and winter could bring either continued improvement or a moderate backslide, followed by a near-certain return to something like pre-pandemic life.”  Summer, though, will be much like now for people not yet fully vaccinated, and everyone will be in vastly better space once they are.  Contrary to someone Pinsker cited, people will not gradually phase back to their pre-pandemic lives but will often jump right into them, except for wearing a mask in public for politeness, as soon as they are safe.  All, otherwise, a plausible view.  Less so is Ross Douthat’s, in “The Covid Emergency Must End,” in the February 23rd New York Times, which presupposes an end to the organizational and logistical problems we have had to get “the era of emergency… over by the Fourth of July,” which would call for about 550 million more vaccine doses to be given in less than four and a half months.  

How about employment?  Jed Kolko reported “The Jobs the Pandemic May Devastate” in the same place on February 22nd, a Bureau of Labor Statistics 2029 forecast with demand for epidemiologists and other medical scientists up over 20%, various computer-related spots (if employers still haven’t discovered that they can get foreigners for a fraction of domestic-workers’ cost) up around 10%, and waitstaff, restaurant hosts, bartenders, hotel desk clerks and the like down 13% or more.  The former are easy, but the latter presuppose lifestyle changes still unknown.

I would have ended here, but got, hot off the New York Times press, “The Coronavirus Is Plotting a Comeback.  Here’s Our Chance to Stop It for Good,” by Apoorva Mandavilli, published 6:30 yesterday evening.  After acknowledging that “the deadly curve of cases, hospitalizations and deaths” have never “plunged so steeply and so fast,” and “the two vaccines authorized in the United States are spectacularly effective” with implementation “picking up momentum,” she stated that, still, “the road back to normalcy is potholed with unknowns.”  Mandavilli was concerned with “a fourth wave,” people living less cautiously, and new Covid-19 strains, but, despite the title, had little advice other than to maintain distancing and step up vaccinations.  Yes, we’ll do those things – and hope.

Friday, February 19, 2021

Jobs and the Economy in February: What’s Happening?

If you look at the Covid-19 statistics, this has been a fine month.  Per the February 18th nytimes.com, the graph of new daily cases has been zooming down like a black-diamond ski slope, with the 7-day average down from 259,571 on its January 8th crest to 146,491 on February 1st to 77,665 two days ago.  The same measure of virus-caused deaths has fallen from 3,352 on January 12th to 3,160 and 2,026 on February 1st and 17th respectively.  The seven-day hospitalization averages also peaked on January 12th, with 131,127, and on the 1st and 17th reached 101,117 and 67,916.  One but not the only contributor of our improvement, vaccinations, have now reached 12% of Americans with one dose and 4.7% fully treated, and, per the title of Tamar Lapin and Ebony Boden’s February 16th New York Post piece, “Biden: COVID-19 vaccine will be ‘available’ to every American by end of July.”  So we now have measures of our progress and at least a tentative timeline.    

Employment is not doing as well.  However, if it was, we might wonder how many people were working unsafely, so the data and commentary here, while well worthwhile, are not now our primary concern.  Given that, though, what do six articles from earlier this month say about it?

As Jim Tankersley put it in the February 1st New York Times, “U.S. Economy Is Healing, but Budget Office Says Workers Have a Long Way to Go.”  Tankersley wrote that the Congressional Budget Office had projected that “the economy will return to its pre-pandemic size by the middle of this year, even if Congress does not approve any more federal money to aid the recovery.”  With Joe Biden’s assessment, that may be a few months optimistic, especially if “it will be years before everyone thrown off the job by the coronavirus is able to return to work,” which seems overly gloomy.  The CBO anticipated 3.7% overall economic growth for 2021, reasonable, but estimates here about full employment not resuming until late this decade are premature.

More pessimistic was Neil Irwin in The New York Times on February 5th, that “The Jobs Crisis Is Broader Than It Seemed.”  I don’t know – some of us thought it was plenty broad.  Irwin documented eleven-month net losses in construction (down 256,000), retail (off 383,000), manufacturing (582,000), business and professional services (825,000 – so much for cubicle workers being safe), education and health (down 1.3 million), and state and local government (the same), as well as leisure and hospitality (minus 3.9 million, and down the past two months).  Some of these positions will simply need to wait until vaccinations reach high levels, and, if few workers in them die, that would be fine.

Another view came from Paul Davidson in the February 11th USA Today: “More temps, more hours:  Signs of an improving economy emerge despite pullback in hiring.”  With the timetable even vaguer eight days ago, many businesses were filling growing needs with temporary workers and giving extra hours to existing ones.  Hiring permanent employees has often been hard, especially for coronavirus-dangerous positions such as the hotel work Davidson cited, and some unemployment benefits now paying more than the jobs they covered has also made it easier for prospective employees to stay out.  All can at least hope for strong business by the end of this year, though, as, per Wells Fargo in this article, “Americans have saved about $1.5 trillion during the crisis.”  Then, it seems safe to predict, companies will hire more permanent workers, and will need them enough to pay what they must to bring them in.

Not all of the unemployed are doing so well, at least according to the New York Times Editorial Board, also on February 11th, in “Many Jobless Workers Aren’t Getting Help,” in which they contended that “most unemployed workers don’t get anything,” largely since “to hold down costs, many states have created obstacle courses of forms and tests and documentation requirements.”  They also related horror stories of backlogs, such as Georgia’s “180,000 applications,” and people spending hours on hold without satisfaction.  I think states can “find programmers who knew how to write code for (New Jersey’s) 40-year-old systems,” but there is no real excuse for those backups.  Hire people to do the work and end the jam.

One ongoing problem is now easing, as, per Nelson D. Schwartz also in the February 11th Times, “Dip in Unemployment Claims Offers Hope as New Virus Cases Ease.”  The week of February 1st’s 813,000 people putting in for benefits is still way, way high, but is down from over a million a few months ago.  There is no good reason for so many jobs to end, though many employers, despite Davidson’s observations above, may be adding them too soon.  Normal pre-Covid-19 figures were around 250,000, so, until we see those again, we will know the economy is still sick.

Finally, one thing not to worry about, if you agree it is correct that “Biden and the Fed Leave 1970s Inflation Fears Behind” (Jim Tankersley and Jeanna Smialek, February 15th, The New York Times.)  Some people who should know better have expressed concern that inflation will take off with a large pandemic stimulus package, but far too little money is moving for real inflation, and even the 3-4% we could have this fall would hardly be devastating.  Loan rates remain almost laughably low, as are CD and savings-account interest – to radically change those, it would take more than even Biden’s original stimulus plan’s $1.9 trillion.  So not to worry, and neither about the economy, as, probably within six months, we will be vaccinated.  But hard times still remain, so, please, do what you can and stay patient.

Friday, February 12, 2021

Five New, and Supposedly New, Work-Related Developments

Over the past month, what has come out about employment?

First, in the January 12th New York Times, Tiffany May and Amy Chang Chien warned us that “Slouch or Slack Off, This ‘Smart’ Office Chair Will Record It.”  Perhaps designed for the same kind of places considering slanted toilets, this seat will “monitor… health, note bad posture as a sign of possible fatigue, measure heart rates and tally minutes spent at work stations.”  After being introduced at “a technology company in eastern China,” “the company’s human resources manager began inquiring about employees’ long breaks and early departure from work.”  Collecting some of this information would be illegal in the United States, with its rules against accessing, requiring, and sharing health histories, yet when there has long been a gap between what personnel departments know and what they admit to knowing, it is unnerving.  On this sort of matter there are large differences between companies – let us hope that most steer clear here.

The second item is positive, as, per Keith Schneider in the same publication and date, “Air Cargo Construction Is Booming, Thanks to Amazon.”  Those of us who don’t think much about what’s in the bottom half of planes when we’re flying may be surprised that it is taking over more of them.  We saw that “Amazon Air, the e-commerce giant’s five-year-old cargo airline, is completing a 798,000-square-foot sorting center, seven-level parking structure and acres of freshly poured concrete to accommodate 20 aircraft” near the Cincinnati airport, to “be the center of Amazon Air’s national air transport network, which now has more than 70 aircraft and hundreds of daily flights to 35 other cities in the United States.”  Unlike passenger travel, air shipping during the coronavirus has not been cut back but has jumped, with similar $500 million and $290 million projects opening recently for other companies and deliverers in general in Anchorage, Alaska and Ontario, California, and plans for Rockford, Illinois’s international airport (yes, there is such a place) to accommodate Boeing 747 freighters.  With indefinite growth in this industry, it all means jobs, jobs, and more jobs.

While Cincinnati, Anchorage, and Ontario are surging, per Derek Thompson in the February 1st Atlantic, “Superstar Cities Are in Trouble.”  Despite the article’s lead-in that “the past year has offered a glimpse of the nowhere-everywhere future of work, and it isn’t optimistic for big cities,” that doesn’t apply to all, as the piece positively mentioned Phoenix, Atlanta, and the Dallas area, but “San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles, Boston, and New York City” are where “rents have fallen fastest.”  A companion piece of sorts by Bob O’Donnell, published also on February 1st in USA Today and titled “Will hybrid work actually work?  What companies and workers should consider in a post-pandemic world,” ignored that jobs split between home and offices, issues for companies on working space (long addressed through “hoteling”), and “the ability to work from virtually anywhere” giving us “new ways of working,” were making 1990s business headlines.  Yet O’Donnell gets points for having “a strong sense that work fear of missing out is going to go though the roof once some people start going back to the office.”  Probably physical face-to-face presence will be big into 2022, followed by a reckoning, with the mid and late-decade norms being established in the months after that.  As for the five coastal cities above, we need to remember that meeting in person still has real strengths, that before Covid-19 many companies were investing heavily in office amenities, and that employer policies will vary drastically.  However, it is a good bet that the mix of arrangements we end up with will include more telecommuting than in 2019, meaning some damage to previously trendy places will be permanent.

We end with an old panacea, from the Brookings Institution’s Up Front blog by Wendy Edelberg and Paige Shevlin on February 4th, “The critical role of workforce training in the labor market recovery.”  My old view that such education helps individual workers but not the set of prospective employees in general, making it a poor public policy priority, was unchanged by anything here, especially by false statements such as the pandemic having “a disparate effect on workers depending on many factors” such as “race and gender” (individual employees lost their jobs, not groups of them, and we lack evidence that anyone was dropped by being black or female).  Our nation was about 15 million jobs short even at its 21st-century low, so training Peter to be a better candidate than Paul may only make Paul the one without work, and fostering inevitable arguments about whether employers or governments should take the lead is nonconstructive.  Let community colleges do what they can, then allow the market to function as well as possible.

We will find out what our working lives will be like when Covid-19 has vastly receded, but we’re not there yet.  To bring about that outcome, please – keep wearing masks, keep staying six feet apart, and, above all, get vaccinated when you can.  Those things may still make the difference. 

Friday, February 5, 2021

January’s Jobs Report: A Bad Month, With AJSN Showing Latent Demand for Work Increased Over Half a Million to 21,800,000

 

This time, the net-new-nonfarm-jobs predictions went well.  I saw one projecting 50,000 in this morning’s Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Situation Summary, and another 100,000.  The actual number was 49,000 – close – although seasonally adjusted unemployment fell from 6.7% to 6.3%.  But what was behind that?

In January, the month of BLS record, fewer people are usually working than in December.  That is why the number of unemployed was 10.1 million adjusted but 10.8 million unadjusted.  Other figures, not changed in this way, revealed mostly improvements:  2.7 million on temporary layoff instead of 3.0 million, still 4.0 million out for 27 weeks or longer, and 200,000 fewer, now 6.0 million, working part-time for economic reasons or maintaining short-hours positions while seeking full-time ones.  The two measures of how common it is for Americans to be working or one step away, the labor force participation rate and the employment-population ratio, were mixed, with the former down 0.1% to 61.4% and the latter up the same amount to 57.5%.  Average private nonfarm payroll earnings increased 15 cents from last month’s report, 9 cents of that from an adjustment, and are now $29.96, meaning that the lower-paying jobs were even more scarce.

The American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, the statistic showing how many new positions could be quickly filled if all knew they would be easy and routine to get, gained 559,000 as follows:


All but about 150,000 of the growth was from higher official joblessness.  Latent demand from those wanting to work but not looking for it for a year or more increased 270,000, meaning that the remaining categories, as a group, shrunk, headed by Other and those wanting a job but being temporarily unavailable for it.  The share of the AJSN from unemployment as such increased almost 1% to 44.9%.  Compared with pre-pandemic January 2020 the AJSN is 5.5 million higher, with over 90% of the difference from those officially jobless and those not pursuing it during the previous year, but the other categories contributing over 400,000 more.

Given that it was an unimpressive month for employment, with new work opportunities not covering population increase and ever more people on the sidelines, did we have offsetting progress with the pandemic?  No, not at all.  Per The New York Times, from December 16th to January 16th the 7-day average of new daily cases gained 6% from 211,008 to 224,499, the same for deaths soared 30% from 2,545 to 3,319, and the number of Covid-hospitalized Americans hiked 17% from 109,972 to 129,008.  Once again, despite the pandemic reaching its worst levels we went nowhere with jobs – let us hope that with more new positions, the virus would have been worse.  We have good news since then, so can expect much lower coronavirus levels matching the February jobs report, but for now the turtle is still reeling backwards.

Friday, January 29, 2021

Biden’s Stimulus Package – Good, Bad, Too Much, Not Enough, and Vastly Better Than Nothing

 

Two weeks ago yesterday the not-yet president proposed a $1.9 trillion effort aimed to help the American economy, and the people in it, recover from the pandemic’s effects.

A good stimulus should do two things.  First, it should help people, perhaps but not necessarily through organizations they need, avoid or mitigate life disasters.  Second, any money it provides for other reasons should be designed to come back, either through taxes or by cutting costs the federal government would otherwise accrue.  If all or almost all of its expense fits in one or both of these categories, it is worthwhile, nearly regardless of how much money is involved. 

Using these standards, how does the proposal measure up?  Taking “A Look at What’s in Biden’s $1.9 Trillion Stimulus Plan” (Jeanna Smialek, The New York Times, January 14th), we see quite a mixed bag. 

First, the scheme calls for “$1,400 per person for those under certain income thresholds, topping off the $600 checks” from December.  That would qualify under both points above if the income limit were low, but it is not.  Per Steven Rattner’s “Biden’s Relief Plan Is a Trojan Horse.  And I’m OK With That,” in the same publication on January 27th, at least part of this amount would go to people with annual family incomes as high as $310,000, “many middle and upper-middle-class Americans have been stashing money away at a ferocious rate,” and “merely putting cash into Americans’ pockets is not what’s needed for the overall economy.”  This line item would cost $465 billion, of which no more than half would be spent quickly.

Second on Smialek’s list, per Biden’s document, is ”a $400 per week unemployment insurance supplement to help hard-hit workers,” through the end of September.  That may be too high and too long, with more of the jobless getting well over what they were earning at work, and strong prospects for a summer economic boom.  This item is not as easy to algorithmically limit as the $1,400 checks, but if there were a way of thinning it out without causing great delays that should be done.

Next, Smialek mentioned payments to “kindergarten-to-eighth-grade” schools to enable them to reopen.  Even if all agree that would be safe enough to pursue, it is not clear why that would cost in the tens of billions, though some of that would return from taxes on higher incomes facilitated by not needing to supervise children at home.  Then her piece moved to the most controversial part, minimum wages to rise to $15 per hour.  That would not be immediate, and there was no timeline.  Per Veronique de Rugy’s January 21st Reason “Joe Biden’s Plan for Big Government,” that would also include an end to restaurants’ “tipped minimum wage,” which can be as little as around $2.50 per hour, causing more problems for an already crippled industry.  That pales, though, with the unsuitability of making broad-based increases to something with substantial local variation.  As shown in this map from “By the numbers:  The impact of the $15 minimum wage,” by Erica Pandey on January 20th in Axios, the “estimated real purchasing power” of $15 varies across the country’s metropolitan areas from $11-$12 (dark red) to $17-$20 (dark blue):

 


Other articles concurred, such as “Here’s how many jobs Biden’s proposed $15 minimum wage could kill, according to the Congressional Budget Office” by Lucas Manfredi in the January 18th Fox Business, which concluded “as many as 3.7 million.”  Since jobs going away helps neither people nor the economy, it has long been my bias to oppose minimum wage hikes, and here we do not have an exception. 

As Smialek continued, the plan would contain $440 billion for “communities” including small businesses, excellent under the second standard above and valuable also for the first.  Mandating paid leave would help the people involved, if not the financial system, and providing refundable tax credits for parents may not be positive, as it duplicates other items here and encourages people to work when it is not safe. 

That leaves, per Smialek, “$160 billion in funding for a national vaccination program, expanded testing, a public health jobs program and other steps meant to fight the virus.”  Although I have long thought of testing as being unresponsive to our situation, keeping vaccinations going is among our nation’s highest priorities.  I do not see why such spending has not been long before approved.

So, is the $1.9 trillion proposal good or bad?  As a rough cut it is certainly favorable.  There needs to be more debate on several of the items, while ensuring minimum vaccination delays.  But for now we must do something.  “Ready, fire, aim” can work for government as well as business, so if this is the best we have, let’s start.



Friday, January 22, 2021

The Coronavirus Status: Better, But Worse Than It Seems

 

As much as I want to focus on other issues, the pandemic has more effect on jobs and the economy than anything else.  It continues to change, so here we go again. 

The leading indicator, whether it should be or not, the 7-day average of number of new United States cases, as of Thursday was 188,110, down a whopping 27% from its all-time peak 13 days before.  Daily deaths measured the same way were 3,078, off 8% from its 9-days-before historic high, and hospitalizations, which also crested on January 12th, now average 124,008 or 5% lower. 

The American map of daily new cases, also from the January 22nd New York Times, has changed a lot.  With darker colors showing the highest rates, Thursday’s data came out thus:


 

The angriest-looking areas have moved from the upper Midwest to California, Arizona, and South Carolina, with Oklahoma, parts of Texas, and New York state not far behind.  The light colors in the former Nynex area in the Northeast, seemingly reflecting better social distancing, are no longer consistent, and Wisconsin, infamous for high drinking and its concurrent gatherings, now does not stand out at all. 

Another issue critical to track is vaccine distribution.  A national map in the January 20th New York Times showed little state-by-state difference – per the same publication and date “about 14.3 million people have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine” and “about 2.2 million people had been fully vaccinated.”  As reported in the January 19th USA Today, almost half of distributed doses, which per the January 20th Times were “about 36 million.”  The lack of overall project management is still scandalous, but we are making progress.

We know that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are the only ones approved for full United States use, but what it the status of the others?  As reported in the January 19th New York Times, eight more – products by Gamaleya, Oxford AstraZeneca, CanSino, Vector Institute, Sinopharm, Sinovac, Sinopharm-Wuhan, and Bharat Biotech – have been approved in some countries for at least emergency use, and 58 others are in various development stages. 

Great further help is on the way, not only with vaccines but with the defensive struggle, as “Biden Unveils National Strategy That Trump Resisted” (Sheryl Gay Stolberg, The New York Times, January 21st), as now we have a president who calls his responsibility a “full-scale wartime effort” and says we are “still in a very serious situation.”  We now have a mask-wearing mandate on “interstate planes, trains and buses” along with “the creation of a national testing board and mandatory quarantines for international travelers arriving in the United States.”

Despite all that is positive, there remain real cautions.  One reason American pandemic numbers have improved is not only people getting vaccinated, but the estimated 1 in 15 who have already had the virus.  Factoring those things in, we are doing better than a week or two ago but not massively.  As before we should not confuse lower infection, death, and hospitalization rates with a safer country.  It is important for all of us to continue our precautions until we are fully protected – then, but only then, we can have those parties, go to large concerts and major sporting events, resume nightclub visits, and, for those without romantic partners, improve that situation.  In the meantime, watch this blog – I will keep you up to date. 



Friday, January 15, 2021

Surveillance and Facial Recognition – Right and Wrong Ways to Deal with Them

With the Capitol insurrection and consequent second impeachment, it may seem like political stability will be the most important long-term American problem as Covid-19 infections, deaths, and hospitalizations come slowly down.  It is now more urgent, but should settle down almost completely by spring.  What we can’t forget are the two issues that loomed largest before the virus spread.

In February, I wrote a three-part series on widespread electronic surveillance, ending by recommending five courses of action.  They were allowing people to opt out from phone tracking and face comparisons, giving cellphone-system data the same legal protection as those from landline telephones, banning location sharing by phone apps, holding a referendum on what electronic information law enforcement agencies may collect and use, and having a public service campaign educating people on the existence of and their control of data-collection sources.  Soon after that, we got two articles furthering this issue – Mona Wang and Gennie Gebhart’s March 7th Truthout “Schools Are Operating as Testbeds for Mass Surveillance,” and John Seabrook’s March 9th New Yorker “Dressing for the Surveillance Age.”  The first, while as much an editorial as a news piece, informed us that some school districts send “”automated alerts” to school administrators, and in some cases, local police” when students explore “sites relating to drugs and violence, as well as terms about mental and sexual health.”  Online searches have long been less private than we, and especially our children, might think.

The second, showing an example of how the market can speak, asked “can stealth streetwear evade electronic eyes?”  Seabrook concluded that yes, at least some of the time with current technology, it can.  As with innocent looking stickers that fool driverless cars, clothing that to human eyes make someone “impossible to miss” has been designed under such names as “invisibility cloak” and “Jammer Coat.”  Incredible as it may seem, the right patterns can make someone seem transparent to artificial intelligence networks, with objects behind them visible as ever.  Unlike the automated-vehicle deterrents, the garments are clearly legal and ethical, but it seems only a matter of time until surveillance technology software catches up. 

News on the other concern, though, did not stop with the coronavirus.  “Even the Machines Are Racist.  Facial Recognition Systems Threaten Black Lives,” by Eisa Nefertari Ulen in Truthout on March 4th, summarized the main objection to use of this knowledge, that it gives erroneous matches more often for nonwhites.  That problem hit to the core, as, on June 9th we saw that “IBM Says It Will Stop Developing Facial Recognition Tech Due to Racial Bias” (Hannah Klein, Slate), and that, one day later, “Amazon Pauses Police Use of Its Facial Recognition Software” (Karen Weise and Natasha Singer, The New York Times).  Both were for the same general reasons, problems with “Asian and black faces” (Klein) and in response to “misidentifying people of color” (Weise and Singer).   

It is possible that such technology has been used more than its level of reliability has justified, though it has had large successes.  The core problem, though, may be something many Americans may not be willing to accept.  While the people we call “whites” have origins all over Europe, the Middle East, and beyond, those we call “African Americans” in this country are mainly only from the western African coast, and were often bred together, and with whites, after that.  The vast majority of Americans of eastern Asian descent are from the ethnic Han areas in Japan, China, and Korea.  It may be that the faces of people in those groups simply vary less than those in others, so will require more work to differentiate. 

Why did IBM not focus on further improvement instead of halting efforts?  Why did Amazon not continue using these tools for groups with which they have been more effective?  Why did I read, in “Facial Recognition Technology Isn’t Good Just Because It’s Used to Arrest Neo-Nazis” (Joan Donovan and Chris Gilliard, Slate, January 12th, 2021), that “those who have looked deeply at the values underlying it see (this capability) as deeply flawed, racist, and a debasement of human rights”?  The reason is that the ability to automatically recognize faces has been pulled into our national racial impasse.  That means, as in too many other areas, that truth in their design and results is no longer universally sought out, accepted, or even primarily valued. 

Where will we go with identification and tracking of people?  We don’t know, and it is important.  Can we get the most from allowing these things without letting them end our privacy forever?  That is something we need to focus on, as soon as politics and Covid-19 calm.  For now, though, we must be aware that letting these issues solve themselves may be the worst resolution we could have.