Thursday, December 24, 2020

American Changes for 2021-2022 – I

A worthy topic is what our country will be like once this pandemic has greatly faded, which it will do over the next two years from some combination of deaths, people immune from vaccines, and people immune from previous infection.  There has been a steady stream of declarations.

The first, David Brooks’s “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake,” was actually pre-COVID, turning up in the March 2020 Atlantic.  Brooks has written books on cultural issues, and here made a 30-page case that our most common three-plus-member family arrangement, relatively new to our species, is not optimal.  A full review of this thoughtful work would take much more than a paragraph, but the main points he made were that extended families better withstand relationship breakups such as divorces, they socialize children more effectively and more representatively, lower-income people would suffer less with them, kinship would be strengthened, and in them loneliness is vastly less of a problem.  We have moved on economically from the Industrial Revolution, when the nuclear family became predominant, and it may be time to do that socially.

The same publication on April 15th featured Olga Khazan’s “How the Coronavirus Could Create a New Working Class.”  It was misnamed, as it was about a new movement, and focused on making a case for better treatment of low-paid, infection-susceptible employees instead of explaining why that might actually happen.  True, “in 2021, the American working class might seize their moment,” but since publication the impetus for that seems to have faded. 

Ravin Jesuthasan, Tracey Malcolm, and Susan Cantrell looked at employment itself in “How the Coronavirus Crisis is Redefining Jobs,” on April 22nd in the Harvard Business Review, suggesting “three ways to shift work, talent, and skills to where and when they are needed most, thereby building the organizational resilience and agility necessary to navigate uncertain times and rebound with strength when the economy recovers”:  they were “make work portable across the organization,” “accelerate automation,” and “share employees in cross-industry talent exchanges.”  All are good, especially with the second suggested as it at least ostensibly “can speed up response times and free agents from transactional tasks so that they can focus on responding with the empathy and emotional intelligence that customers need now more than ever,” and all have surely been practiced more as the pandemic has rolled on.

There’s merit in never saying never, and in forever avoiding the last title word in Derek Thompson’s April 27th The Atlantic “The Pandemic Will Change American Retail Forever.”  Thompson saw “the big acceleration” of trends, such as department stores and the malls they anchor going away, along with “the flattening of the American city” with small business closing, “the end of the golden age of restaurants” especially in the likes of New York where “thin margins require filling every square inch with paying customers,” and “the all-delivery economy” assuming that such utility would continue even when need for it has gone.  I like better his thought that open storefronts and resulting lower rents will let neighborhoods such as Greenwich Village become eccentric again – thirty dollars might never again pay the rent on Bleecker Street, but it might not take $3000 either. 

Uri Friedman’s May 1st The Atlantic “I Have Seen the Future – And It’s Not the Life We Knew” is now obsolete, as it did not consider the effect of vaccines and was written before Denmark and South Korea, which Friedman praised for beating the pandemic, had serious relapses.  This story displayed the dangers of assuming present trends will continue, which in 2020 have not.  David Brooks returned, in the June 25th New York Times, with “America is Facing 5 Epic Crises All at Once” – in addition to “losing the fight against Covid-19,” he named “a rapid education on the burdens African-Americans carry every day” about which “public opinion is shifting with astonishing speed,” a “political realignment” especially around what it means to be Republican, “a quasi-religion” which he named “social justice” “seeking control of America’s cultural institutions” with opinions actually “weapons” meaning “words can thus be a form of violence that has to be regulated,” and that “we could be on the verge of a prolonged economic depression.”  Brooks ended with “the pragmatic spirit of the New Deal is a more apt guide for the years ahead than the spirit of critical theory symbology.”  Well, now that we will soon have a normal president…

David Leonhardt’s July 10th New York Times “It’s 2022.  What Does Life Look Like?” didn’t even attempt to answer that question.  He pointed out the ways Americans went back on track after financial crises (still bought stocks), after Obama’s presidency (no “racial conciliation”), after September 11th (more and more airplane passengers), and after the Vietnam War (“extended foreign wars without a clear mission” became even longer and more common), and then offered only three vague and obvious projections.  Brent Schrotenboer got more specific in the September 22nd USA Today’s “What could our lives be like in 2025?  Futurists think Americans may eat, fly and go to school differently post-COVID.”  He had “restaurant reinvention will follow decay” with emphasis on “smaller, more intimate experiences” and places being “more fluid in their offerings,” “’Frontier Spirit United’ will sort of be a thing” with
fewer brands in general,” “your reality will come by remote control” as organizations continue such practices after pandemic’s end, “air and gold will be sensible investments” with the former pushing demand for purification systems, and, continuing what Thompson wrote, “malls will be for Amazon, golf, pets and kitchens.”  All reasonable.

Finally and most recently, Farhad Manjoo threw a damper on forecasts of a great urban exodus, with “Why Should We Ever Return to Living and Working So Close Together?” in the December 22nd New York Times.  He answered that by saying that cities were “indispensable as engines of economic growth, catalysts of technological and cultural innovation,” as well as being “one of the most environmentally sustainable ways we know of for housing lots of people.”  Manjoo called the coronavirus crisis a chance for change, that it “does not have to kill cities – just our old idea of what cities were, how they worked, and who they were for,” and that “cities created the future” so “now we must secure theirs.”   

On New Year’s Day, what I think will happen and not happen.

Friday, December 18, 2020

A Week Before Christmas: Where We Are Going on Jobs, the Economy, and COVID-19


To start with the worst news, here is yesterday’s New York Times world map of coronavirus infection rates, with purple the highest: 

Our country comes in at 64 new daily cases per 100,000 population, exceeded, around the globe, only by eight in Europe, the most populous Serbia.  The 7-day average of new world infections, again on each individual day, was 631,803, another all-time high, as was the 11,319 deaths.

Back home, we had 935,000 new state unemployment claims filed last week, rising along with infection rates and over four times its consistent pre-pandemic result.  In the December 14th New York Times “What Happens to the Unemployed When the Checks Run Out,” Eduardo Porter cited a Century Foundation study showing that 12 million workers are now poised to lose their jobless benefits the day after Christmas.  However, a rescue is underway, documented in yesterday’s “Closing In on Stimulus Deal, Lawmakers Clash Over Fed’s Role,” by Emily Cochrane and Jeanna Smialek, also in the Times.  Headed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, now choosing to further marginalize the president now doing little other than babbling like a madman about having won reelection, “the emerging package was expected to include direct payments of $600 for American families and children… as well as an extension of more generous unemployment programs… (and) a revival of enhanced federal unemployment benefits,” this time $300 weekly, “along with billions of dollars for small businesses, vaccine distribution and schools.”  Per the title the senators and representatives still have a few bugs to iron out, but since McConnell said “we need to complete this work and complete it right away” and “the Senate is not going anywhere until we have Covid relief out the door,” it’s going to happen.  Kudos to McConnell and the others – legislative focus and horse trading have come back. 

On the vaccine front, progress is brisk.  With approval of Pfizer’s product last week, 2.9 million doses – which according to some reports may actually be well over 3 million – were shipped a week ago and are now being administered.  And yesterday, per Denise Grady et al. in the New York Times, “F.D.A. Panel Endorses Moderna’s Covid-19 Vaccine,” and formal authorization, expected today, “would clear the way for some 5.9 million doses to be shipped around the country starting this weekend.”  The Moderna product “can be stored at normal freezer temperatures” and so “can go to more places.”  There are other vaccines in the pipeline as well.  While I think choosing to participate is clear-cut, according to Simon Romero and Miriam Jordan’s “The Vaccines Are Coming.  A Divided and Distrustful America Awaits,” in the December 11th Times, other objections include possible side effects, the expected conspiracy theories, and even “a crushing guilt in getting a vaccine that my child would not have access to at the same time.”  Well, some concerns are better than others.

We end with good news, for investors anyway.  Still in the Times, Wednesday’s “Wall Street Sees Cold, Hard Cash in Vaccine Storage” by Andrew Ross Sorkin et al. reported that “private equity firms are pouring money into small companies that can store and help transport fragile coronavirus vaccines at required Antarctic temperatures.”  One well-positioned firm is CryoPort, “whose products can store matter at minus 180 degrees Celsius,” vastly colder than even the Pfizer vaccine needs.  When you consider that such a company can also provide household icebox-type capability, you have a fine opportunity – or would have a week or two ago. 

Expect next week’s post on Thursday, Christmas Eve.  Stay close – but not too close.

Friday, December 11, 2020

Small Businesses: Depressing Now, A New Life Later

It’s been sad to see Congressional Republicans putting large firms at the top of their pandemic stimulus bills.  Of all the people and organizations suffering, they probably need help the least, given extra-low interest rates, ample assets usable as loan collateral, and if all else fails great legal latitude in ridding themselves of debt while continuing operations.  Smaller enterprises are much more vulnerable, and employ most Americans, so need at least equal consideration anyway – what has been happening with them?

Many don’t exist anymore, as per Frank Miles’s November 29th Fox Business “Nearly one-third of NY, NJ small businesses reportedly closed in 2020,” which, per the subtitle and first sentence, only includes Covid-19-caused permanent shutterings.  He reported the national average as 29.8%. 

As for crisis payments, “More than half of emergency small-business funds went to larger businesses, new data show” (Washington Post Business Alert, December 1st), with “5 percent of the recipients” getting “more than half of the money from the Treasury Department’s loans for small businesses,” as “about 600 mostly larger companies, including dozens of national chains” got the Paycheck Protection Program’s $10 million maximum.  Alfredo Ortiz recommended extending that plan in the December 4th Fox Business “It’s Defcon 5 for America’s small businesses, this is what has to happen next.”  His statement that ”experts assume that the country will achieve vaccine-induced herd immunity by May,” on which he based the need to renew that program for only “a few more months,” is haywire, and he did not address where its money is going now, but even if it turns out to be for all of 2021 it would be worthwhile.

I don’t think, though, that we need to take the suggestion, “Let’s Talk About Higher Wages,” proposed by the New York Times Editorial Board on November 28th.  Valid points here are that people spending money instead of mainly hoarding it is good for the economy, and that tax cuts would not now be “a simple formula for economic growth,” but a time with many local businesses barely surviving is not one to force across-the-board pay increases.  The board called the stimulus effect of reducing taxes “tired,” but the other ideas they offer to support the vague notion of raising pay deserved that adjective more.

James Langford, in the November 27th Fox Business, forecast that “US economy sprints toward normal in 2021 but with coronavirus scars.”  In the piece, Bank of America’s head U.S. economist Michelle Meyer expected that “the country will welcome back experiences once it is safe, but we do anticipate there will be some scarring,” with the worst of the pandemic soon to follow and gross domestic product possibly now decreasing.  Indeed, there are three reasons why we won’t see March 2020 economic levels for a long time:  people’s reservations about spending money on many things even after the main danger is gone, what might be more than one-third of Americans refusing any vaccine, and yet-unknown changes in habits possibly reducing out-of-home activity.  Although we can project with confidence that most United States residents will be vaccinated in time for normal family holiday gatherings next year, we simply don’t know much more.  These developments would mean more small business failures in the next several months, but a solid chance of better times after that.

Except for the also nearly indisputable proposition that Joe Biden’s election will reduce Covid-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths, what might come from him and his Treasury Secretary nominee Janet Yellen?  Unfortunately, Giovanni Russonello’s November 17th New York Times “Biden’s Economic Plan for the Virus” didn’t offer much beyond that after the president-elect met with them, “C.E.O.’s and the union bosses had had agreed that the government must act boldly to bring the economy back up to speed.”  Since then, Biden has encouraged people to wear masks and practice social distancing but has not proposed any legal requirements, a stance good for small ventures which can set safety standards as they see fit.

In the November 29th Business Insider, Ben Winck’s “Here’s how the US economy could transform under Biden after his appointment of Janet Yellen as Treasury Secretary – starting with sizable stimulus,” offered what might be called educated speculation.  He projected a “multitrillion-dollar” 2021 relief package, better cooperation between governmental financial entities as Yellen, “if confirmed, will be the first person to have run the Treasury, the Fed, and the White House Council of Economic Advisors,” offers more “focus” on her specialty of understanding employment and the labor market, and has shown an attitude of “recovering first and dealing with government debt later.”  She is also likely to keep interest rates low, her bias in the past and especially well justified now.  All of these are favorable for local enterprises.

So how should small business owners view the future?  The ideas in the last three articles are remarkably consistent, pointing toward survival followed by real opportunity.  We have consistently heard from those working with the pandemic that people need to maximize their chances of arriving alive to the post-coronavirus world.  That goes for small businesses as well – it’s what we and our enterprises both need to do.

Friday, December 4, 2020

The November Employment Report: Despite Pandemic Surge, Bad News, With AJSN Showing Latent Job Demand Still at 21 Million


We’re not doing well, folks.

This morning’s Employment Situation Summary had exactly five favorable things.  The seasonally adjusted and unadjusted unemployment rates each improved 0.2% and are now at 6.7% and 6.4%.  Accordingly, the number of jobless came down 400,000 to 10.7 million.  We added 245,000 net new nonfarm payroll positions, which though well below a 450,000 forecast is still positive.  The number of people on temporary layoff fell a similar amount to 2.8 million.

The rest of the report, though, was as bleak as some expect this winter to be.  Those officially jobless for 27 weeks or longer now count 300,000 more, or 3.9 million.  The two statistics showing best how many Americans are working or involuntarily removed from that, the labor force participation rate and the employment-population ratio, dropped 0.2% and 0.1% respectively and are now at 61.5% and 57.3%.  Those working part-time for economic reasons, or looking thus far unsuccessfully for full-time positions while keeping shorter-hours ones, held at 6.7 million.  Average hourly private nonfarm payroll wages, a reverse indicator since its large early-pandemic increase was from lower-paid workers disproportionately losing their jobs, gained another 8 cents per hour to $29.58. 

The American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, the figure showing how many more positions could be filled if all knew they were easy to get, improved 47,000 on official unemployment’s drop barely offsetting rises in almost every category of marginal attachment, in the second through eighth rows below, as follows:

Those claiming no interest in work increased again, as it usually does when jobs are scarce.  The share of the AJSN from legally defined unemployment fell to 44.1%, down 1.4%.  Compared with a year ago, the AJSN has gained almost six million. 

If this side of the jobs-and-pandemic coin was tarnished, the other was smashed up.  Per today’s New York Times, from October 16th to November 16th the 7-day national average of new daily Covid-19 infections jumped 176% to 155,532.  The same for daily deaths went to 1,155, up 66%, and that for the number of hospitalized patients soared 96% to 73,268.  All three have increased further since.

To what does all this add up?  We are sort of holding the line on employment, though the number of people working fell 230,000.  More people are taking refuge in statuses of marginal attachment.  The strange thing is why this set of employment numbers, given the out-of-control coronavirus situation, is as strong as it is.

Clearly our governments are making the wrong choices.  If fewer people were working in harm’s way, losses which could be mitigated by further support and stimulus packages, the pandemic numbers would drop.  Two hundred seventy-six thousand Americans have died from the virus, many while pursuing paychecks, and we’re nowhere near done.  With 2021 vaccine availability almost certain for all living Americans, that is needless.  As for the turtle, he didn’t move and can barely breathe.

Friday, November 27, 2020

Around the Coronavirus Horn, As We Move Toward the End

Now that Thanksgiving is over, if you did not behave yourself with masks and, most important, social distancing, I hope at least you were fortunate.  The near-certainty that we can get a vaccine in us by Christmas 2021 should not fool us into thinking its effects will be retroactive, and we cannot let up now.

Per Wednesday’s New York Times, there are now six vaccines “approved for early or limited use,” with 55 being tested on humans.  Although none yet are “approved for full use,” that is outstanding news.  Per the Times, the current American daily infection rate, with as of Tuesday an all-time-high 174,270 7-day average, is leveling off.  However, the corresponding death rate, which lags new cases, is now 1,621, the highest it has been for over six months.  The national map, with the darkest red-purple counties with over 250 new cases every day per 100,000 population, looked, as of Wednesday, as follows:


All this points up the need to arrive alive for the vaccines when we can get them. 

We have plenty of other useful information.  Per Andrew Taylor in the October 8th USA Today, “COVID-19 relief pushes U.S. budget deficit to a record $3.1T.”  That’s T as in “trillion,” for a total of $3,100,000,000,000, or a one-year shortfall of $9,375 per American.  Still we have no overall choice, though not all of that was due to pandemic relief. 

Although internal quarantine requirements make the vast majority of travel unfeasible even if benign, it is still good to know, as this situation changes, that “Amid airline industry slump, new study shows flying may actually be safer than grocery shopping, indoor dining” (Daniella Genovese, Fox Business, October 29th).  Indeed, I have never perceived that airlines have been lax here. 

As always, “The Latest Vaccine News Doesn’t Tell the Full Story” (Spencer Bokat-Lindell, The New York Times, November 17th).  Further information is that clinical success for both frontrunners Pfizer and Moderna have well exceeded effectiveness expectations, and that both use “genetic vaccine technology, which has been in development for 30 years,” which both companies may have been almost forced to try with the pandemic’s circumstances.

For another wrap-up from probably the best source, we have USA Today’s November 18th “In coronavirus war, hang on, help is on the way with COVID-19 vaccine:  Anthony Fauci Q&A.”  This interview, which printed out to eight pages, hit on “the most important thing for people to do between now and when the cavalry arrives” (Fauci:  “Hang on and implement the public health measures,” which are “uniform wearing of masks; physical distance; avoiding congregate settings, particularly indoors; trying to do things, when the weather allows, outdoors more than indoors; and washing hands,” all of which are more important than being truly locked down); that we need “consistency of message”;  that, “if the first doses of vaccine are available for front-line workers in December and January” the rest of us can expect to get them sometime between April and July;  that it will be effective about one week after the second of the two required doses; and overall, as Fauci put it himself, “Please, folks, hang on to the extent that we can, because help is on the way with a vaccine,” and “this is not going to be an indefinite situation.  It will change, and it will end.”  Heartening if hardly easy.

Much of the same information was in Sarah Zhang’s “The End of the Pandemic is Now in Sight,” published by The Atlantic on the same day.  Other general insights were that what broke the pandemic’s back was that “the scientific uncertainty at the heart of COVID-19 vaccines is resolved,” that “the invention of vaccines against a virus identified only 10 months ago is an extraordinary scientific achievement” making them “the fastest vaccines ever developed, by a margin of years,” that “several more COVID-19 vaccines may soon cross the finish line,” that “no one on Earth, until last week, knew whether” this type of vaccine would actually work in humans, and that, maybe more than anything else, “we were lucky.”  In conclusion, “every infection we prevent now – through masking and social distancing – is an infection that can, eventually, be prevented forever through vaccines.”

We can speculate what employment changes will remain after the coronavirus is gone, but the chief economist and others at Glassdoor, “the job posting and employee review site,” have put together projections that “These 10 jobs could disappear or decline because of COVID-19” (Paul Davidson, USA Today, November 19th).  Openings for each decreased from 25% to 69% from October 2019 to October 2020, and these fields were chosen for expected future weakness as well, “for several years, if not longer.”  The positions are chef, executive assistant, receptionist, accounts payable specialist, HR generalist, product demonstrator, brand ambassador, professor, event coordinator, and architect.  Why the last one?  Because there could be a great drop in the number of new office buildings, which architects design.  There are insights into the other nine as well.  So, hang on, wear that mask, stay six feet away, and prepare for some big celebrations late next year – we will have them.

Friday, November 20, 2020

Good Things Happening with Fast Transportation, But Will We Allow Success?

Despite the pandemic, we’ve had a going-places-quickly news flurry.  But will our overall problem stop these worthy efforts in their metaphorical tracks?

We start with space tourism, in “Virgin Galactic set to begin multimillion-dollar star trek from Spaceport America,” by Paul Best in the November 9th Fox Business.  The actual commercial facility for launching spacecraft, in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, will be used for this company’s “first human test spaceflight,” though confusingly not the first time it has sent people up, within the next two weeks.  It “has already sold 600 tickets to people from 60 different countries at a cost of roughly $250,000 a pop,” and hopes to build up to 400 annual flights and $1 billion annual revenue.  Virgin Galactic does seem to have the capability to fulfill this fine business idea, catering to owners of the trillions of piling-up dollars, and gets points for helping people achieve long-time dreams.  However…

Next, “A Step Forward in the Promise of Ultrafast ‘Hyperloops,’” by Eric A. Taub in the November 8th New York Times, was a successful Virgin Hyperloop test of volunteers “wearing casual street clothes” reaching 107 miles per hour “in a pod levitated by magnets inside a vacuum tube” on the company’s Nevada test track.  One described it as “not that much different than accelerating in a sports car,” and indeed that speed is trivial for today’s vehicles.  In some ways safer, as without “lateral forces,” hyperloops are planned to go almost six times as fast.  We should be glad it worked with no stated problems, so, when the next, six-mile, course is finished, let’s see people go 200 or 300.  All could be clear for this second Virgin venture to achieve commercial viability, but…

An old expected future way of getting around, though not as far along as Galactic or Hyperloop, got notice in “Meet George Jetson?  Orlando Unveils Plans for First Flying-Car Hub in U.S.” (Neil Vigdor, The New York Times, November 11th).  The subairport of sorts, called a vertiport, would be located next to Orlando’s international one, be finished by 2025, and would accommodate “electric-powered aircraft” with about the speed and size of Cessnas, but also, presumably, highway capability.  The project, a joint venture of German aviation firm Lilium and an Orlando development company, has already attracted “more than $800,000 in potential tax rebates” from that city.  Here it’s hard to see how the planes would not fly, so we can forecast success, unless…

Although the moon landing and what led up to it was a great success, there are good reasons why the only agency doing space research and exploration, and moving on to industrialization and colonization, should not be run by the government.  A de facto replacement reached its own milestone last week, as described in “’One Heck of a Ride’:  SpaceX Launches Astronauts into Space,” by Andrea Shalal and Joey Roulette on November 15th by Reuters.  This Elon Musk company is now not only a future thing, as it took  “four astronauts on a flight to the International Space Station,” just what NASA has been unable to do for eight years.  We now have the capability within this country again, and can keep using it, except that…

What are my reservations?  For any of these four to succeed long-term, their developers, the United States people, and our federal and state governments must prove wrong what I wrote here two months ago:

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.

Here’s where the rubber may meet the road.  When a space tourist dies, whether through misbehavior or a technical problem, will that end Virgin Galactic?  As Taub pointed out, a truck hitting a Virgin Hyperloop fixture could prevent it from working – if that happens and passengers are injured or worse, will that company be banned or ostracized into termination?  For flying cars to become widespread, there will be pilots not as capable as the highly-trained ones Lilium will introduce – how many crashes can they have before heeding calls for requiring standards too high for the masses prevents the technology’s wide use?  Eighteen astronauts and cosmonauts have died in spaceflight missions – will the first SpaceX crew that achieves that cause a return to full NASA control?  Reactions to the single Uber driverless-car pedestrian death, which had a highly culpable victim, was probably the largest factor in the collapsing of efforts not only from that company but everywhere.   

We do not need to go back to the days of 96 people dying, as happened while building Hoover Dam.  Yet with huge, ambitious, and frankly dangerous projects, we must accept that sometimes things will go severely wrong.  That means understanding and continuing work when small numbers of accidents occur.  How many is acceptable?  I cannot answer that, but the right figure is more than zero.  Our future prosperity has value, and the prospect of greeting 2050 with few life improvements beyond even better electronic devices is depressing also.  We must decide – the choice is up to us.

Friday, November 13, 2020

The Pandemic: How Dark Now and How Bright Next Year?

The American Covid-19 situation was more than ready to take over the headlines from the same country’s presidential election.  Lost in the stories of slow week-ago vote counting was an alarming infection uptick, which has got even worse since then, shown in yesterday’s New York Times map, with counties having at least 56 new daily cases per 100,000 population in bright red:

The same publication’s cases-against-time chart showed Wednesday’s 7-day average of new daily incidences at 128,096, an all-time high, and a sharply rising recent trend – that number a month before was 52,864, reflecting a 142% rise.  Covid-19 deaths during that time have increased from 714 to 1,067, or 49%.  Per the November 11th New York Times, “U.S. Hospitalizations Top 61,000, a Record,” which are reaching maximum occupancy in some areas.

For the world, average daily case and death counts also continue to set marks, with cases over that time up from 337,002 to 572,894 or 70%, and deaths, from 5,678 to 8,342, up 69%.  Most countries in Europe, but only Jordan outside it, are doing worse than the United States’ overall rate of 39 per 100,000.

How will this pandemic be resolved?  In John M. Barry’s October 19th “What Fans of ‘Herd Immunity’ Don’t Tell You,” also in the Times, we learned that this potential solution, defined here as “the point at which enough people have become immune to the virus that its spread becomes unlikely,” now isn’t one at all.  One problem is harm done to infectees, including that “a significant number, including those with no symptoms, suffer damage to their heart and lungs,” and that “one recent study of 100 recovered adults found that 78 of them showed signs of heart damage.”  Since herd immunity entirely through previous illness would require from 43 percent to 70 percent of people to have been sick with it, up from mid-October’s 10%, that would call for at least one million American deaths.  Overall, herd immunity as a policy objective, with no widely available vaccine, is irresponsible, brutal, and even murderous. 

The near future, though, is another matter.  Monday’s largest news story was “Pfizer’s Early Data Shows Vaccine Is More Than 90% Effective,” by Katie Thomas, David Gelles, and Carl Zimmer in that day’s New York Times and with vast coverage elsewhere.  The official drug maker announcement, paraphrased by the authors, held “that an early analysis of its coronavirus vaccine trial suggested the vaccine was robustly effective in preventing Covid-19,” and that “an analysis found that the vaccine was more than 90 percent effective in preventing the disease among trial volunteers who had no evidence of prior coronavirus infection,” which if confirmed “would put (this product) on par with highly effective childhood vaccines for diseases such as measles.”  Pfizer expected to ask the FDA for emergency-use authorization later this month.  This report was taken seriously enough to be credited with much or more of the Dow Jones Industrial Average’s 1.2 percent or 834-point gain that day.  The article, along with ample background material, also mentioned that ten other vaccines, three American, are also in “late-stage trials.”

Within hours the follow-on pieces came out.  That same day, Carl Zimmer and Katie Thomas published “Pfizer’s Covid Vaccine:  11 Things You Need to Know,” also in the Times, which addressed basic questions of knowledge and safety, along with the not-yet-answerable “Who will get the new vaccine first?” and “When will the general public be able to get it?,” along with “Can we stop wearing masks now?,” to which the authors started their response with “please don’t.”  Quickly the coverage became more incisive, with Arthur Allen’s November 10th Times “Five Questions to Ask About Pfizer’s Covid-19 Vaccine,” including answers informing us that it needed to be stored at about minus 100 degrees Fahrenheit and required two doses, and a conclusion that “still, this is good news.”  Aaron E. Carroll and Nicholas Bagley tried to head off premature slacking off with the same day and publication’s “Don’t Get Too Excited About the Coronavirus Vaccine,” the title seemingly not intended to curb optimism;  per the authors, “a death avoided this winter is a life saved,” “the goal is now no longer to learn to live indefinitely with the virus,” (with the Pfizer announcement, which they described as “unmitigated good news,”) “the case for skipping Thanksgiving becomes much stronger,” and “mask mandates, gathering restrictions and business closures are (now) more tolerable.”  In the last piece, issued November 10th by The Atlantic in newsletters, “Now is a very weird time for a vaccine rollout,” editor Caroline Mimbs Nyce posed questions to well-versed staff writer Sarah Zhang about the effect of our unusually rough transition between presidential administrations.  Zhang concluded that Donald Trump was, right now “just a really loud voice” who could not impede vaccine distribution, even if he continues to refuse to concede the election.

What does all this mean for us?  We need to follow Carroll and Bagley’s advice and, if anything, be more diligent about mask wearing and social distancing.  As for typical indoor multifamily holiday gatherings, we should skip them, as my wife and I elected to do.  We’re best off hoping for smooth sailing and justified FDA approval for Pfizer, but should realize that even if those things do not materialize, there are others close behind.  We need to plan to get the vaccine as soon as we can and be patient about being notified.  We can loosely anticipate traveling and visiting relatives during the fourth quarter of 2021, or, with luck, in the third.  And, more than anything else, let’s keep the faith, hang in there, and know that those waiting for normal life in the early 1940s had to hold off much longer.  We should be optimistic.  As went a World War I-era song, “Horsey, keep your tail up.”

Friday, November 6, 2020

AJSN: Latent Demand for US Jobs Dropped Almost 2 Million in October, Other Employment Numbers Also Show Improvement – But Underclass Forming, and Coronavirus Cases Up 44%


Kudos once again to the economists who, collectively, estimated we would gain 580,000 net new nonfarm positions last month.  Per the Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Situation Summary, it was 638,000, only 10% away.

At first look, most of the remaining report was also favorable.  The marquee adjusted unemployment result was down a full percent to 6.9%, with unadjusted following at 6.6%, off 1.1%.  The total jobless count fell 1.5 million to 11,100,000, with those on temporary layoff improving 1.4 million to 3.2 million, and the two indicators of how common it is for Americans to be working or close to it, the employment-population ratio and the labor force participation rate, up 0.8% and 0.3% respectively to 57.4% and 61.7%. 

The American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, the indicator showing how many new positions could be quickly filled if all knew they were easy to get, improved over 1.9 million to reach the following:

All but about 40,000 of the recovery came from those unemployed and those not having looked for work in the past 12 months.  The count of those claiming no interest in a job dropped 131,000, people calling themselves discouraged added up to 38,000 more, and the “Other” category, inflated since pandemic’s beginning, tacked on 22,000.  The share of the AJSN coming from those officially jobless fell again and is now at 45.5%.  Yet the AJSN is still 6 million higher than a year ago.

So what is the bad news?  Three significant metrics got worse.  Those unemployed 27 weeks or longer was up 1.2 million, 50%, to 3.6 million.  The count of those working part-time for economic reasons or looking but not finding a full-time opportunity while keeping something shorter, which improved greatly last month, lost a chunk of that with its 400,000 worsening to 6.7 million.  Average private nonfarm payroll wages gained 4 cents per hour and are now $29.50, poor since it is up 4.6% over the past year or well over the inflation rate, so reflects people at the bottom of the pay scale not returning.  These three statistics together imply that we are now building a lower class getting the worst of the mostly pandemic-related employment drop and further suffering from unemployment benefits running out along with the lack of any other payment program. 

The other negative outcome was increasing Covid-19 infections.  From September 16th to October 16th, their 7-day daily average soared from 39,064 to 56,340.  Deaths were down 18%, though, from 853 to 697.  In conjunction with the generally good jobs numbers, the infection rate, a better yardstick of pandemic-defense practices as mortality reflects treatment improvements, suggests we are letting the economy run at excessive expense of Americans’ health and lives. 

Jobs and money can change, but deaths, back up to 836 per averaged day as of November 5th, are permanent.  I hope this trend ends soon, and so does the turtle, whose forward movement this time was stopped by illness.

Friday, October 30, 2020

Uber, Lyft, and Airbnb: The Coronavirus, The Law, and Their Future

We’re over seven months past the first Covid-19 business closures, and our ride and place sharing concerns are still going on just fine.  Or are they?

Per Greg Bensinger in the August 19th New York Times, “Uber and Lyft Just Can’t Stop Flouting the Law.”  That may be the wrong verb, as true limits on them are weak, so the firms have been able to pretend they are offering only technology, “a legal strategy” which thus far “has allowed them to label their legions of drivers contract workers, depriving them of company-backed benefits like health care, paid leave and severance pay.”  That, though, took a hit the month before, as “Uber and Lyft Drivers Win Ruling on Unemployment Benefits” (Noam Scheiber, The New York Times, July 28th), as “a federal judge in New York,” finding both employers had perpetrated “an avoidable and inexcusable delay in the payment of unemployment insurance,” pronounced “that the state must promptly begin.”  As well, one in Pennsylvania had three days earlier ruled an Uber driver company-employed, which could precipitate the same verdict there.

Yet on September 22nd, per Scheiber’s “Uber and Lyft Could Gain From U.S. Rule Defining Employment” that day in the same publication, the federal Labor Department announced “a so-called interpretive rule, not a regulation that has the force of law,” considering mainly “the extent to which a company controls how a worker performs a job” and “the opportunity that a worker has to profit in the job based on initiative, rather than simply earning a steady wage.”  Neither seem like overwhelming points in favor of keeping such drivers, who must use vehicles meeting certain standards and whose extra pay from taking more rides can be seen as just bonuses, as contractors, and, for one thing, cannot willfully assure themselves of any wage.

Over to different-line but structurally identical Airbnb, the hotel chain with plenty of rules for providers but thus far exempt from government regulations.  As Elaine Glusac put it in September 24th’s “The Future of Airbnb,” also in the Times, that company will soon go public, and admits to “challenges” associated with the pandemic’s effect on travel patterns.  They are more often renting larger houses in rural settings for more daily money and longer stays.  They are encountering some places restricting short-term rentals, and providers are drawing “complaints by Muslim, transgender (how would they know?) and other groups” for allegedly denying bookings.  More laws are coming, but they may adapt to those as well.

In another Times piece by Scheiber, we saw that “Seattle Passes Minimum Pay Rate for Uber and Lyft Drivers” (September 29th).  That city’s board unanimously passed a January requirement that such workers get, on top of expenses, Seattle’s $16 minimum hourly wage.  When I drove cab it typically was about 10 miles each hour, which, at the current I.R.S. rate of 57.5 cents apiece, would mean a total of $174 for an eight-hour shift.  That means the driver’s share of fares would need to be $21.75 plus everything else they cost, hour out and hour in, for Uber and Lyft to break even.  That’s a lot. 

Further down the coast, these ridesharers didn’t fare any better, per “Appeals Court Says Uber and Lyft Must Treat California Drivers as Employees” (Kate Conger, The New York Times, October 22nd).  Not yet though, as those firms “are sponsoring a state ballot initiative, Proposition 22, to exempt them from the law and allow them to continue classifying drivers as independent contractors, while providing them with limited benefits.”  The next day, a follow-on piece by Conger also appeared in the Times, with the possibly quite accurate title of “It’s a Ballot Fight for Survival for Gig Companies Like Uber.” 

Should these sharing-economy concerns be free of most industry regulations?  There is a good case for yes – people need a chance to make money consistent with modest wants and needs.  Yet, if so, there is no excuse for Hilton and Yellow Cab to be thus fettered.  Even exempt, Uber and Lyft have never been profitable.  I don’t know about the homesharer, which lost $322 million in the first nine months of 2019 though maintaining profitable geographic areas, but the other two, with the virus threatening a year or more to run, are in deeper trouble than ever.  Laws or not, don’t count on them surviving.


Friday, October 23, 2020

Joe Biden for President

In some of the 11 times I have been franchised to contribute, my decision of who to support for the next elected President of the United States has been close.  I have chosen two from small fringe parties, and three apiece from Democrats, Republicans, and Libertarians.  My 2012 judgment was particularly marginal, and I picked Barack Obama over Mitt Romney with two days to spare.  In 1980, 1984, and 2008, though, I had decided months before, choosing and publicizing my favoring of Ed Clark, Ronald Reagan, and Obama. 

This year fits with those three. 

During my life, 12 people have occupied this office.  I have disliked almost all at one point or another, but only three of the first 11 – Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush – have consistently given me that reaction. 

The twelfth has been in a class by himself.  Donald Trump has been catastrophically reprehensible.

There is no mitigating what Trump has said, done, and failed to do during his 45 months in office.  There are no reasonable comparisons to previous presidents, even to Nixon who resigned in disgrace or Clinton who lied under oath to a grand jury. 

I will not attempt to document everything despicable and inappropriate he has perpetrated, as others have already done fine jobs of that.  For example, the October 18th New York Times Editorial Board issued a ten-page section titled “The Case Against Donald Trump.”  Even factoring out some complaints I consider weak or invalid, they documented an Everest-sized mountain of misdeeds, calling him at length on “his unapologetic corruption,” “his demagogy,” “his incompetent statesmanship,” and “his super-spreader (Covid-19) agenda.”  The section’s opening article, “A Man Unworthy of the Office He Holds,” subheaded by “Donald Trump can’t solve the nation’s most pressing problems because he is the nation’s most pressing problem,” started with “Donald Trump’s re-election campaign poses the greatest threat to American democracy since the Second World War,” and, from there, charged him with having “governed on behalf of the wealthy,” having “strained longstanding alliances while embracing dictators like Kim Jong-un and Vladimir Putin,” having “pitted Americans against one another” and having “flouted the rule of law.” He was impeached, unsuccessfully, for “high crimes and misdemeanors.”  His vile verbal style has embarrassed the country internally and worldwide.  He has shown himself to be unprincipled, with his greatest emphasis on helping himself.  The more information we have received about his business success, the weaker it has seemed, and now looks truly lacking.  And, more than anything else, his steady stream of lies, among over 20,000 overall, about the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic, and his failure to take earlier and more measures to protect American public health, has given him real culpability for the 221,000 national covid-19 deaths, 8.3 million cases, and resultant astronomical private and public expenses.  Overall, with few if any significant accomplishments to put against these, Donald Trump has been virtually exclusively destructive.

Yet, as of Wednesday evening, the odds against reelection were only 71 to 40.  How do Trump’s tens of millions of expected voters justify their choice?  Mostly it is symbolic – he represents opposition to the political establishment, to political correctness, to the real or imagined problems caused by immigrants, and to scary national change in general.  As George Will put it, he is a weak man’s idea of what a strong man is like.  Otherwise, his supporters are likely to believe various conspiracy theories, that Biden would install “socialism” (in other words, more adversity benefits than they would prefer), that he has prevented bad things other than those he has done himself from happening, and that nobody else could have bettered his pandemic performance.  Some believe he has, despite data to the contrary, created jobs or helped the economy.  He gets much support from the richest, who hope his policies will help them as well as himself.  Their case is so weak that about 95% of newspaper endorsements, including those from conservative editorial staffs (maybe since he is not a conservative), have gone against him.

I have no expectations that Joe Biden would be a great president.  I do think that he would be good enough to reassure Americans and others that this country is on the way back, as Gerald Ford did so well after Nixon.  Given where we are, that is solidly enough reason to support him.  After the initial recovery, we can rediscover reasonable issue identification, debate, and resolution.  As for additional candidates, they have not only been invisible this time but, for people in states with uncertain electoral outcomes, this is not the year to consider them.  While I encourage all allowed people to vote on or before November 3rd, the choice has never, during my lifetime, been this clear-cut.

Royal Flush Press endorses Joe Biden for president.

Friday, October 16, 2020

Covid-19: Our Situation Evolves – Part 2

 We start with a grim milestone, per Richard Perez-Pena in the September 28th New York Times: “Coronavirus Deaths Pass One Million Worldwide.”  It’s “still growing fast,” and “may already have overtaken tuberculosis and hepatitis as the world’s deadliest infectious disease.”  That took ten months from the pandemic’s very beginning – how long will it be until it doubles?

Citing someone who probably didn’t expect to be discredited by the presidential administration which hired him, “Dr. Anthony Fauci assures Americans they can trust credibility of COVID-19 vaccine process” (Shawn Mulcahy, Yahoo News, October 2nd).  Fauci didn’t like that “so many people are reticent to get a vaccine,” due to “mixed messages that come out of Washington,” and, per unnamed “experts” Mulcahy invoked, “it likely will not be widely available until late 2021.”  It’s been a slow month or so for specific publicized progress steps there, but the vaccine process, before then, seemed on track for sooner.  Leah Groth referenced the same subject in “Dr. Fauci Predicts When Life Will Be ‘Normal’ Again,” in the same publication a day later, where the physician projected that “masks and social distancing are going to be the norm for over a year at least.” 

Our perception of how the virus is most likely to spread has changed since March’s emphasis on frequent handwashing and avoiding touching surfaces, but since then we have learned that these are low priority.  In The Atlantic on September 29th, Zeynep Tufecki took that further in “This Overlooked Variable Is the Key to the Pandemic.”  The author’s rambling 13-page article focused on a scientific finding that “this is an overdispersed pathogen, meaning that it tends to spread in clusters.”  That seemed to translate into avoiding crowded indoor gatherings with poor ventilation “where many people congregate over time – weddings, churches, choirs, gyms, funerals, restaurants and such – especially when there is loud talking or singing without masks.”  The worst known event to date was in a large Korean church, where one person spread the coronavirus to 5,000 others.  That may explain why outdoor events, such as the Sturgis motorcycle festival, have not caused huge numbers of cases.  If it is, indeed, 2022 before we can lose the masks, we may be able to accept seeing more and more people, if we are outdoors.

With the holidays coming up, we would all like to know “How to Tell If Socializing Indoors Is Safe” (Olga Khazan, The Atlantic, October 12th).  The author maintained that such get-togethers, although “no indoor gathering will be perfectly safe,” are much less dangerous in areas with low infection rates, which might be defined as fewer than 10 new cases per day per 100,000 population.  Although Khazan called such data “not widely known,” it is updated daily by county on the front page of the New York Times website, under “U.S. hot spots.”  That also should become more common working knowledge in the potentially bleak year to come.

We end with good news, addressing an ongoing concern peaking recently: “Coronavirus Reinfections Are Real but Very, Very Rare” (Apoorva Mandavilli, October 13th, The New York Times). There are only three such confirmed and 20 such review-awaiting cases in the world, and per article subheads, “in most people, the immune system works as expected,” and “a resurgence of symptoms doesn’t prove reinfection.”  So, although there is plenty to be concerned about with this pandemic, don’t bother about that – once, which is plenty enough, seems to almost always be the limit.  And, as well, “vaccines may be crucial to preventing reinfections.”  We will wait patiently and hope those materialize relatively soon.

Friday, October 9, 2020

Covid-19: Our Situation Evolves – Part 1

 We are still completely into the pandemic.  Here is yesterday morning’s New York Times view of how new cases are concentrated in the US, with the brightest red areas having over 56 per day per 100,000 population:

Nationally, the 7-day average, since bottoming out at September 13th’s 35,073, has increased nearly daily to Wednesday’s 45,660.  Deaths, though, have been drifting down, from 734 to 700.  Wisconsin north of Milwaukee, in and around quality-of-life-survey-winning cities such as Appleton and Green Bay, is a strange place to be getting the worst of it – perhaps this is related to binge drinking and per-capita alcohol consumption.  While most of the rest of the country has gone up and down, the Northeast, where people have consistently worn masks and practiced social distancing and leadership has been quicker to pull back on allowed gatherings when outbreaks pop up, has mostly maintained light colors since April. 

At the same time, new infections worldwide have increased almost day-by-day since the pandemic began, with September 13th and October 7th 271,765 and 312,534 7-day averages.  They have been high in some surprising places, as here with dark red showing places with 14 per 100,000, some of which imply the danger of slacking off:


What other issues are getting attention?

In case anyone has wondered why this headline has faded away, “The Sturgis Biker Rally Did Not Cause 266,796 Cases of COVID-19” (Jennifer Beam Dowd, Slate, September 10th).  Dowd found faulty reasoning causing that early September conclusion, corroborated, as we will see, indirectly by others. 

The New York Times Editorial Board finally addressed our absent governmental agency on September 14th in “Under Trump, OSHA’s Covid-19 Response Is Failing Workers.”  The piece noted that meat processing facilities, in two of which 12 workers died of the infection early, were given small fines, one less than $4,000 per dead employee, and OSHA “has issued only general guidelines based on C.D.C. recommendations that were never mandatory,” neutralizing its mission of keeping workplaces safe.  That same day, that publication released Donald G. McNeil Jr.’s “Gates Offers Grim Global Health Report, and Some Optimism.”  The subject, Bill of course, advocated $4 billion in American aid to poorer countries for the vaccine we hope to get soon, which may seem large to some but is much smaller than George W. Bush’s 2003 $15 billion on AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis. 

The disheartening opinion piece, “Stop Expecting Life to Go Back to Normal Next Year,” by Aaron E. Carroll, appeared September 15th, also in the Times.  Per Carroll, our impatience, both in our national disposition and in our executive branch, has given us “unrealistic optimism,” overestimation of “what a vaccine might do,” and once that drug arrives Americans “will throw themselves back into more normal activities,” which “could lead to big outbreaks, just as winter hits at its hardest.”  He projected the first half of 2021 to require much the same restrictions as now, and reminded us, once more, that “this is a marathon, not a sprint.”  In the meantime, also on September 15th, we expect “South Korea to provide coronavirus vaccines for 60% of population:  report” (Kayla Rivas, Fox News), helped not only by its high national cohesion but its compact, urbanized population.  Seven days later, Peter Doshl and Eric Topol, professors in medicine and pharmacy, doubted vaccine research methods in The New York Times’s “These Coronavirus Trials Don’t Answer the One Question We Need to Know,” namely, if the product will “prevent moderate or severe cases.”  I hope these companies are more aware of that problem then the authors suspect.

Finally for this week we have Sarah Zhang’s “Vaccine Chaos Is Looming,” in the September 27th Atlantic.  Here we get into the same problem I documented several weeks ago, about American will to successfully complete large complicated projects.  Our infrastructure is world-class, there is an ample supply of available skilled workers, we have vehicles galore, our management and organization are well-established, and we know how high the priority is and must be, so why do we need to worry that “millions of doses must travel hundreds of miles from manufacturers to hospitals, doctor’s offices and pharmacies, which in turn must store, track, and eventually get the vaccines to people all across the country”?  Are we wondering if we can complete, per a cited source, “the largest, most complex vaccination program ever attempted in history,” even if “the vaccines are too precious to risk shipping conventionally”?  Can we fix problems such as “Medicare doesn’t cover the costs of emergency-use drugs”?  Do we have what it takes?  If not, why not? 

More next week. 

Friday, October 2, 2020

September’s Economic Data: Unemployment Down to 7.9% with AJSN Showing Latent Demand for 1.3 Million Fewer Jobs, Both Good Numbers with Coronavirus Cases Declining

In some ways, today’s Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Situation Summary may seem disappointing.  The number of net new nonfarm positions, at 661,000, missed its 850,000 published projection.  Seasonally adjusted unemployment fell only 0.5%.  The labor force participation rate, now 61.4%, dropped for the first time since April, and the employment-population ratio improved only 0.1% to 56.6%.  Average hourly private nonfarm payroll earnings held at $29.47, meaning that those with lower pay rates have generally not been those returning to work, and the number of people jobless for 27 weeks or longer, now including those from the pandemic’s beginning, jumped 800,000 to 2.4 million. 

However, one thing was excellent.  The 7-day weighted average of new daily Covid-19 cases fell, from August 16th to September 16th, from 51,603 to 39,964, over 24%.  That means those 661,000 positions were not gained by tolerating more infections.  Other positive outcomes included unadjusted unemployment, down 0.8% to 7.7% (more than the adjusted rate improved, since many go back to work in September), the count of jobless down 1,000,000 to 12.6 million, those on temporary layoff diving from 6.2 million to 4.6 million, and the number working part-time for economic reasons, or looking thus far unsuccessfully for full-time work while keeping some with shorter hours, off 1.3 million to 6.3 million.

The American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, the metric showing how many additional positions could be quickly filled if all knew they were generally easy to get, while 7.8 million higher than a year before, improved substantially to the following:

Almost all the AJSN’s 1.3 million improvement came from lower official unemployment.  The counts of those marginally attached to the labor force, in the second through seventh rows above, fell only about 100,000, the least progress in five months.  The share of the AJSN from those officially jobless is again under 50% at 48.1%.  The AJSN is now 11.3 million below its April pandemic high, over halfway to its best early 2020 result.

What should we make of this morning’s findings?  People seem to be adjusting to the pandemic, including leaving the labor force – over 1.2 million more reported no interest in working than in August – or staying on its edges, if they are not optimistic about their working prospects.  That means the unemployment rates understate more than usual.  But even if we factor them up, we are left with a good jobs gain combined with real coronavirus progress.  That is the combination we need, even if it is slower than we might hope for.  The turtle, then, took another solid step forward.

Friday, September 25, 2020

The American Economy, As It Stands and May Soon Be

This month, we have seen a lot of updates on how business and personal prosperity are doing, along with their immediate prospects.  How does it look?

“A Top Fed Official Warns That Economic Risks Aren’t Over,” by Jeanna Smialek in the September 1st New York Times, related that Federal Reserve governor Lael Brainard claimed “a lot of uncertainty” and that “downside risks continue to be important,” disagreeing that we have already seen the worst from the pandemic.  It also included the information that the Fed, sensibly, “will now aim for 2 percent inflation over time, instead of as a more or less absolute goal,” and expects to keep interest rates as is even if it slightly surpasses that mark.  Although money supplies have shot up since March, it is still not circulating enough to cause that problem.  Per a New York Times article by Justin Wolfers the next day, though, “Inflation Is Higher Than the Numbers Say,” as “people are buying more of those goods whose prices are rising the fastest,” online grocery shopping is more expensive, and “the quality of many services has gotten worse,” the latter including, as examples, restaurant meals, college courses, and therapy sessions.  How we measure inflation will, indeed, either need to change or be accepted as being less accurate. 

Yes, “Americans still spending money despite expiration of $600-a-week unemployment aid” (Fox Business, also September 1st), though more than expected.  A J.P. Morgan economist saw little worsening, let alone a disaster.  I think the difference has been in the general attitude toward Covid-19, that more Americans have accepted that our situation will not be changing soon, and so are not waiting to spend until it does.  There are, of course, exceptions galore, but this is encouraging.

On September 7th, also in the Times, Richard V. Reeves and Christopher Pulliam surprised by telling us about “The Tax Cut for the Rich That Democrats Love.”  Three very prominent members of that party want to end the $10,000 deductions cap, which can cost those in the highest income brackets a great deal.  The authors ended by saying that “it is a shame to see Democrats urging a big tax break for the richest, whitest families, which is arguably the very last thing the country needs right now” – except, perhaps, that bigoted attitude.

Two indications that the economy was stronger than we may have thought were the subject of “Median U.S. household income rises 6.8% to $68,700 in 2019, poverty rate falls for fifth year,” by Paul Davidson in the September 15th USA Today.  I like to see medians, which on such numbers these days are especially valuable, but assessing poverty has long been muddled and controversial, as products fall as well as rise in price and some become newly available.  The data’s keeper, the Census Bureau, however found real respondent bias in that those losing their jobs were less likely to participate, which, if such numbers were compiled today, would be much worse.

The clearest statistic yet I have seen showing such charges are unsustainable was that “9 of Every 10 Restaurants and Bars in N. Y. C. Can’t Pay Full Rent” (Mihir Zaveri and Daniel E. Slotnik, The New York Times, September 22nd).  Allowing indoor dining at 25% of capacity, scheduled for next week, won’t help that much, and sky-high Manhattan payments will need to come down.  Property values will also dive, and the city will come under pressure to reduce taxes.  The free market, which caused these amounts of money to be so large, works both ways, and now it has begun to speak loudly. 

An obvious need and an obvious source of revenue became clear in “Gas tax hikes pile up:  States become desperate for road repair revenue as COVID-19 reduces driving,” (Nathan Bomey, USA Today, September 23rd).  Gasoline averaged $2.18 per gallon, or 49 cents lower than a year before, this week, which means higher levies on it will be less painful – some planned or recently implemented are 9.3 cents per gallon more in New Jersey, 5 cents a gallon higher in Virginia, and smaller hikes in Nebraska, California, South Carolina, and Alabama.  An oil analyst claimed that we are now using about 15% less than “normal,” which, if anything, seems high.

In general, “200,000 dead:  COVID-19 is creating ruinous economic damage that will take years to repair” (Paul Brandus, USA Today, September 22nd) is both an accurate headline and a suitable summary.  Among other concerns, we have lower Social Security intake moving its projected trust fund exhaustion date up to 2031, a loss of many workers from the labor force becoming permanent as they will no longer have the skills to be rehired, and mental health problems becoming more common.  These results, “intertwined and destructive,” will end at various times, most long after vaccine distribution.  But our overall charge is clear – to roll with the punches and be as healthy and ready as we can when the economy, and life, moves on.

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.