Friday, August 28, 2020

Tolerance of Nonconformers: An Ever More Endangered Ideal


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

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

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punishments instead of considered reforms”; as examples, “editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a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

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

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

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

Friday, August 21, 2020

The Latest on Coronavirus – Beyond the Latest on Work


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 14, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 7, 2020

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


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

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

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

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

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