Friday, May 7, 2021

April Jobs Data: Nonfarm Payroll Employment Up 266,000 But 660,000 More Working Total – AJSN Latent Demand Down 700,000 to Less Than 19.8 Million

A confusing title perhaps, but this morning’s Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Situation Summary was as well.  It started with 266,000 net new nonfarm payroll jobs, about 700,000 lower than the only projection I saw, but more broadly the report played like 660,000 or so more were on the job.  That was the difference between March’s and April’s “number employed,” meaning that we added about 400,000 net positions either on farms or not on payrolls.  Some of the other metrics reflected a strong month, with the labor force participation rate and employment-population ratio, now 61.7% and 57.9%, up 0.2% and 0.1% respectively, seasonally unadjusted unemployment off 0.4% to 5.7%, and the count of those working part-time for economic reasons, or holding short-hours positions while thus far unsuccessfully seeking longer ones, crashed almost 600,000 to 5.2 million.  The number of those out for 27 weeks or longer stayed at 4.2 million.  Figures getting worse included the adjusted unemployment rate up from 6.0% to 6.1%, the tally of those jobless up 100,000 to 9.8 million, and the number of people on temporary layoff increasing the same to 2.1 million.  The hardest to interpret was “average hourly earnings for all employees on private nonfarm payrolls” up 21 cents to $30.17 – such gains have lately been bad, as they have reflected lower-paid people disproportionally losing their jobs, but this time it may mean higher pay in general. 

The American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, the measure showing how many new positions could be quickly filled if all knew they were truly available, had a large decline to the following:




Almost 80% of the improvement from March came from lower official unemployment, but the count of people not searching for work for a year or more contributed over 100,000.  The year-over-year comparison, with the worst employment month of the pandemic, showed a 14.5 million improvement from 34.3 million, with over 2½ million of that from statuses other than straight joblessness.  The share of the AJSN from unemployment was 42.0 percent, down 1.9%. 

On the coronavirus side, numbers were also mixed.  The 7-day average of new daily American cases gained 28% to 70,075, and that of people hospitalized rose 8% to 44,950.  The average of daily deaths, though, plummeted 43% to 749, while the total of vaccine doses administered each day gained a robust 38% to 3,349,306. 

How can we sort all of this out?  For one thing, we are no longer improving across the board.  We’re reaching limits both on people accepting vaccinations and on employers’ willingness to pay more.  We are nowhere near herd immunity, however you define that, and will not get there until our share of fully vaccinated people, still only 33%, more than doubles.  Legal reopenings, such as the one authorized for later this month in New York City, will help, but only to the extent that customers return.  The rest of the year, then, is murkier than I thought it was a year ago, and does not look as spectacular.  For now, though, the turtle did take a real step forward.

Friday, April 30, 2021

The Pandemic: Where Are We Now, and How Can We End It?

On this topic, my objectivity is limited by the milestone I reached yesterday.  It’s now two weeks since my last coronavirus vaccination, so the chance of my getting infected is minimal.  Almost all other American adults can choose to join me. 

How encouraging are our recent Covid-19 statistics?  Looking at the charts of 7-day averages of new cases, deaths, and hospitalizations, on the New York Times website, we see different shapes.  The count of new cases stopped drastically declining on February 21st with 66,439, wiggled around mostly downwards, and this past Wednesday reached 52,605.  Hospitalizations bottomed out on March 25th with 39,903 and have been sloping up ever since, with the most recent figure, Tuesday’s, 44,015.  Deaths ended their steady decrease on April 12th with 721, and have been slowly dropping since, to 712 on Wednesday.  Vaccination doses administered went up sort of a craggy mountain to summit April 13th at 3,384,387, and have subsequently been falling, to reach 2,630,407 yesterday.  All of these numbers show a maturing, so to speak, of the recovery, with disease results down but not out and the tally of vaccinations, including the Times’s figures (conflicting with others who say it is higher, claiming 43% with at least one dose but 13% more needing another) indicating that we are beginning to run out of customers. 

Worldwide, we are only now reaching all-time highs in new daily cases, and are almost at that level with daily deaths.  As of yesterday, the map looked like this, with darker colors meaning higher new per-capita infections: 



As you can see, Europe and South America are generally doing the worst. We have read about India setting national records, but yesterday’s 349,378 all-time-high average daily new cases there is barely one-third of the highest United States percentage.  The American vaccination rate, even if it levels off, should assure that our country will continue to improve.

Otherwise, what’s in the coronavirus news?  Per Rebecca Robbins in the April 25th New York Times, “Millions Are Skipping Their Second Doses of Covid Vaccines.”  A discouraging piece, with the major causes being concern about side effects, snags with places running out of specific products between doses, and decisions that the second shot was unnecessary.  The good part is that 92% of people having  one Pfizer or Moderna dose have returned for the second, but 8% not is still too high.

One idea to get vaccination rates higher was presented by Ben Mathis-Lilley in the April 23rd Slate: “There Is a Glaringly Obvious Way to Get Everyone to Take the Vaccine.”  Per the subtitle, “it’s money.”  An Oxford professor and a Democratic presidential candidate endorsed payments of $1,000 and $1,500 respectively.  The author bounced around the idea, ultimately agreeing with it, but two of his counterpoints, that it would encourage people to wait for payments for such things in the future and that it could get them thinking it is riskier than it actually is, along with concern about stiffing or going through $100-$150 billion for each 100 million Americans already vaccinated, carry the day.

Now is the right time for “As Virus Rages Abroad, Biden Promises to Ship Millions of Vaccine Doses” (Sheryl Gay Stolberg, The New York Times, April 26th.)  Already our production capability is way beyond the number of doses we need, so we can and should continue making them for free export.  We can’t be expected to provide all of the vaccine other countries need, appeals to guilt are inappropriate, and whining about sending less being like “showing up to a four-alarm fire with an eyedropper full of water” is grotesquely inaccurate, but we can make a massive difference, by saving possibly millions of lives, just by keeping the factories going. 

My clear answer to Aaron E. Carroll’s April 27th New York Times question, “When Can We Declare the Pandemic Over?”, is that it will end for us individually.  Per Carroll, “normal has never meant “perfectly safe,”” “a safer world will likely still have Covid-19 in it,” and “if we can get the pandemic to a point that a vast majority of people who become sick get well, that the number of people who are hospitalized and dying is low and that this really isn’t any worse than your average seasonal respiratory virus, then it’s time to start seriously relaxing our restrictions.”  We should expect and encourage a falling-away of government regulations, with individual businesses choosing what rules to have and, of course, consumers doing what they think is right. 

And as for us?  In all, if you are not getting vaccinated because of religious beliefs, that is the price you pay for them.  If you are holding back because you believe some sort of conspiracy, such as a recurrence of the generations-ago Tuskegee abuses, you are a fool.  If you think one dose is enough, you are practicing medicine without a license.  If logistical problems have stopped you from getting your second shot, you need to aggressively overcome them.  If you fear general side effects, you have the cart in front of the horse.  If you are waiting for some kind of herd immunity, you are misguided.  If you think that because our last president did not take the pandemic seriously you do not need to be protected, you are worse than that.  If you have a true medical reason, you have my sympathy.  The pandemic is over for me – will it soon be over for you?


Friday, April 23, 2021

What Should and Shouldn’t Our Government Do? Nine Possible Policy Changes Briefly Assessed

 A year’s worth of Covid-19 has given us at least a year’s worth of proposals.  What are they and how good would they be?

In the August 11th New York Times, per Lauren Frias, “It’s time to implement a 4-day workweek, Andrew Yang says.  The pandemic has made it important now more than ever.”  From a former Democratic presidential candidate and current one for New York City mayor, this thought, now in its second half-century, would only have a chance if each day would be ten hours or more, as businesses are getting thoroughly acclimated to unpaid extra time from their fearful cubicle workers.  That isn’t worth as much money to them than they think, but it’s too beneficial to them to agree to relinquish.

From the same source, we have a thought of more recent vintage (“Andrew Yang Wants You to Own and Sell Your Data,” Hannah Klein, Slate.com, June 23rd) that may get traction someday.  It’s hardly nonexistent now, as in 2020 “Facebook paid some of its users $5 for voice recordings in order to improve its speech recognition technology.”  That general idea was formally proposed in Congress the previous year by a Republican, one John Kennedy of Louisiana, so if bipartisanism were more valued we could hear more on it.  It also has plenty of merit, and could well end up law.

“How Can Biden Bring Back Manufacturing Jobs?  Weaken the Dollar,” posed Noam Scheiber in the March 1st New York Times.  Sure, that would get us there, but at the cost of more expensive imports and lower overall prosperity.  Each political side has its own detrimental subconstituencies, and this one, rooting for a return to the 1950s and 1960s, is harmful to the party now in power.  Helping a small minority of Americans at the expense of the majority, by propping up otherwise noncompetitive businesses, is not what we need.

Another losing Democratic idea was well and fairly debunked by George F. Will’s “Will:  Student loan forgiveness is a gift to the well-off,” reprinted in The Roanoke Times on February 11th.  Aside from insulting this blogger, who chose to pay off his five-figure university obligation twelve years ago and worked during previous college and graduate school experiences to prevent more of that, this intensely proposed notion would help those with higher income (as 56% of such debt “is owed by those with masters or professional degrees, and almost 35 percent of loan balances are owed by individuals in the top 20 percent of income distribution”), and, beyond that, would work to worsen our situation where “the nation is overproducing college graduates.”  Let “the typical college graduate with debt ($28,500) … retire it in 20 years with $181 monthly payments.”  Most of such people can, and I suspect the doctors and lawyers could handle that as well.

“Who Will Pay to Get America Back on Its Feet?,” asked Kara Swisher in the January 27th New York Times, and answered it with “an immediate, one-time “wealth tax” covering the last year.”  A direct if crude and grabby way of using the pools of money in private and corporate hands, it is tempting, as it would let us, when during the pandemic “those who have sacrificed the most so far are the disadvantaged,” “flip that script,” but is it right?  Debatable – and, with the merit here, we should do just that.

Easy to agree with on the surface is “Bernie Sanders supporters call for postal banking,” by Brittany De Lea in the December 8th Fox Business.  In such a system, here from 1911 to 1967 and in place in France, Germany, and a dozen or more countries worldwide, “local Post Office locations would be authorized to provide financial services,” possibly including “low-interest loans, checking and savings accounts, debit cards, check cashing, bill payment, ATM services, online banking services and electronic money transfers.”  It is a true populist idea, and would help numerous unwanted-by-banks people now subject to high fees and rates get personal business done locally.  It has, though, two large downsides:  the expense, as such would not be profitable, and conflict with probable removal or consolidation of small local post offices.  Once again, a worthy idea that could be explored and appropriately accepted or rejected.

“Should the Feds Guarantee You a Job”?  This question, here from Eduardo Porter in the February 18th New York Times, has been asked for most of the past century, and its best answer is still “no.”  Our government is marginally extended at best with much less massive and dauntingly complicated efforts, which would need to deal with such matters as promotions, poor workers, and transfers as well as establishing and maintaining tens of millions of constructive assignments.  There are better ways, even those in place now, of keeping people working.

We can all see the existence of “America’s Amazon Problems” (Ross Douthat, The New York Times, April 20th), but can we agree on what they are?  Douthat tried to show how what is really an antitrust issue is fundamentally different from those before and didn’t quite get there, leaving us with the unsettling prospect of punishing a company for superbly providing what its customers wanted.  We’re never going back to using dozens of online vendors for routine products, let alone widespread in-person shopping on old-fashioned Main Streets, and trying to legislatively accomplish either is futile and damaging.  Perhaps Amazon should be broken up by separating its online hosting services from its interest-conflicting product offerings, but not because it has been too successful.

That brings us back to Andrew Yang, and to his signature policy change proposal.  Early in the coronavirus era, Ishaan Tharoor maintained in The Washington Post that “The pandemic strengthens the cast for universal basic income” (April 10, 2020), though that has now faded.  Three weeks later, Chris Hughes sought to explain in The New York Times “Why Americans Need a Guaranteed Income,” but had little new.  On March 3rd we had Paul Davidson’s USA Today “Is universal income closer to reality?  Cities from Stockton to St. Paul are already testing monthly checks for residents.”  We wouldn’t know from these efforts, as they, being directed to people with lower income, are not guaranteed income but welfare.  We can argue the merits of giving more money to those who need it, but “universal” means just that.  A real test, perhaps by randomly choosing a zip code and giving all residents, say, $1,000 per month, would take more political will than we have seen.  Otherwise, it’s still too early for universal basic income, but not to soon to discuss and socialize it – we may discover within our lifetimes that we must decide, like it or not.  The same goes, though to a lesser extent, for the other policy changes described here – so let’s move along. 

Friday, April 16, 2021

The American Jobs Plan, With Some Infrastructure Too – Where from Here?

We can’t accuse our president of not trying to do enough.  His first 100 days were barely two-thirds over when he proposed what Peter W. Stevenson called in The Washington Post’s April 1st “The Five-Minute Fix” his “second proposal for a signature piece of legislation – this time focusing on more than $2 trillion in proposed spending on infrastructure and jobs.”  But is it the bill we had expected, and why is it so cluttered?

Per Stevenson’s graphic, the bill’s “transportation infrastructure” section includes $115 billion for “highways, bridges, and roads” and $42 billion for “airports, water transit and ports,” adding up to $157 billion or about 7%.  If we add the $85 billion for “public transit,” we’re still less than 11%, and would need almost half of the $80 billion intended for “passenger and freight rail” for heavy infrastructure to make up one-eighth of what Joe Biden wants to spend.  It’s reasonable to add, under Stevenson’s “infrastructure at home” category, the “clean drinking water” ($111 billion), “high-speed broadband” ($100 billion), and “electrical infrastructure” (also $100 billion), to reach $592.375 billion or 26.3%. 

The rest is projects of different kinds.  The bill offers $174 billion for “electric vehicles,” which would be marginally acceptable if our federal government, subsidizing and otherwise pushing them for over 40 years with only 4% of auto sales, including hybrids, to show for it, finally gave up if those numbers didn’t greatly change by, say, 2030.  I see $50 billion for “infrastructure resilience” (suspiciously vague), $45 billion for “transportation inequities” (subsidies for largely black neighborhoods?), and $30 billion for “other,” but no true infrastructure there.  The “at home” section also includes $28 billion of “other,” and extends infrastructure’s meaning to include “affordable and sustainable housing” ($213 billion), “public schools, early-learning centers and community colleges” for $137 billion (perhaps worthy, but in an infrastructure bill?).  The same can be said for the remaining four items, “research and development” ($180 billion), “manufacturing and small business” ($300 billion), “workforce development” ($100 billion), and “home and community-based care for elderly and disabled people” ($400 billion).

There is no problem with paying for maintenance we need, but the $1,658,625,000,000 proposed for other things works out to more than $5,000 per American.  I can see why it could be the best technique to bundle things together, to allow congresspeople to vote only once and assure enactment of the parts of the bill they like, but is it the fairest to our citizens?

Here we have several different schemes.  The core infrastructure proposal, that almost $600 billion, could, after some tweaking, get true bipartisan support and could remind us of the days when legislation often passed with healthy majorities.  The others could each stand alone, where Biden would need to choose whether to force them through with little or no Republican support or to soften their content.  That could, at least potentially, give us some idea on what is really important to our representatives and, hopefully by extension, to ourselves.  It also would prevent people from being required to accept, for example, yet more Amtrak subsidies, about which late columnist Charley Reese said a quarter-century ago “either there is a market for intercity trains or there isn’t,” in order to get clearly needed bridge repairs.  It would also let Congress assess the relative value of social programs, and adjust the dollars involved, as they determined which is more important for the 2020s United States, such as more care for older people or better local schools.  It could also facilitate some well-needed debate about how much the jobs required should pay.  All of this work could be bolstered by comments from constituents as well as by more incisive editorializing. 

Separating the ideas seems most logical and effective to me.  If I am wrong, what am I not understanding?  Please let me know. 

Friday, April 9, 2021

Banks, the Stock Market, Interest Rates, the National Debt, Inflation, Taxes, Bonds, and the Fed – What’s Happening?

It’s time to take a look at what might be called the large factors and institutions in our economy.  Here are a series of articles which may, or may not, give you insight.

One, “The Looming Bank Collapse” by Frank Partnoy in the July/August 2020 Atlantic, made a case for a new vulnerability.  Before “the financial crisis of 2008,” which “was about home mortgages,” “hundreds of billions of dollars in loans to home buyers were repackaged into securities called collateralized debt obligations, or CDOs.”  These instruments contained paper for mortgages of varying qualities, ranging from those solid and current to others on which no more money would ever be paid.  After “Lehman Brothers went under, taking the economy with it,” these CDOs “fell out of favor,” but “demand” for them shifted to “the CLO, or collateralized loan obligation,” each example of which includes “loans made to businesses – troubled businesses.”  If these instruments collapse in large numbers, per Partnoy they could take the rest of the economy along.

Something we have long implicitly known was articulated in “The Hutchins Roundup,” issued by Brookings on October 15th, namely that the “Stock market is less representative of the economy than it was in the 1970s.”  Two researchers found that publicly traded companies’ shares of total nonfarm payroll employment dropped from 41% in 1973 to 29% in 2019, a cause of fewer people below the top 1% holding securities.  That also may be a root of the market’s strength, as those accumulating more and more money have less need than others to sell.

Maybe I’m missing something, but isn’t “The Puzzle of Low Interest Rates” (N. Gregory Mankiw, The New York Times, December 4th) easy to solve?  The author found six “hypotheses” which “might explain the decline in the natural rate of interest,” five of which with merit, but only grazed the main explanation, that we are awash with capital, and that, combined with low business interest in large projects, means money usually sits in place with low demand.  This situation may change if taxes dramatically increase, and the upcoming infrastructure effort creates millions of jobs, but for now don’t be surprised if the Dow Jones Industrial Average continues to go up more in a typical month than balances in money-market savings accounts rise in a year.

“How much should we worry today about the rising federal debt?,” asked David Wessel in a December 14th Brookings report.  Not much, he said, as our government is paying less than 1% interest on its 10-year obligations.  It would do well though to follow the prudent individual spending practice and “pay for things today that we consume today” such as defense, Social Security payments, and most salaries, but that “we should not hesitate to borrow at today’s very low interest rates for public investments that will pay off in the future,” including infrastructure and human development.  However, low borrowing costs only “buy us some time,” and eventually we will need a reckoning.

Is it true that we have seen “Biden and the Fed Leave 1970s Inflation Fears Behind” (Jim Tankersley and Jeanna Smialek, The New York Times, February 15th)?  Yes, and that was the right thing to do.  As a corollary to money pooling up, inflation is much less of a risk than it was 40 years ago, and rates of 3% to 4% would hardly be disastrous.  With pent-up demand soon to explode, and, per “Janet Yellen Drops Hints” by Andrew Ross Sorkin et al. in the same publication on February 23rd we can expect further stimuli, we’re facing a real test of this theory, but we have a long way to go to see a real problem. 

How are bond prices doing, and can we see “What the Bond Market Is Telling Us About the Biden Economy” (The New York Times, February 23rd)?  Per author Neil Irwin, bond returns are not well, as many pay below inflation.  With our presidential administration carefully watching them we can expect generally freer spending, but “the line between too hot and just right is a narrow one,” meaning Washington’s willingness to fund more things may quickly change – if rates do indeed increase.

As for the Federal Reserve itself, we saw that chair “Jerome Powell Promises Not to Take Away the Punch Bowl” (by Neil Irwin, also in the Times, March 17th).  Powell denied the central bank would let forecasts alone, such as what Irwin called “a veritable boom” later this year, stop its monthly $80 billion bond purchases, but would “wait to see actual data.”  That is another optimistic indicator – so let’s get ready to party hearty!  In the meantime, we need to stay safe until our coronavirus independence days – two weeks after our last vaccinations – have arrived.

Friday, April 2, 2021

Fine Progress in March, as Almost All Employment and Coronavirus Numbers Improve Including AJSN, Down Over 700,000 To a Deficiency of 20.5 Million Jobs

This morning’s Employment Situation Summary from the Bureau of Labor Statistics was easy to assess.  We did far better than the forecasted 650,000 net new nonfarm payroll positions with 916,000.  Seasonally adjusted and unadjusted joblessness improved 0.2% and 0.4% respectively to 6.0% and 6.2%.  There were 9.7 million unemployed people, or 300,000 fewer than a month before.  The reduced count of those on temporary layoff included 200,000 of those and is now at 2.0 million.  The two best measures of how many Americans are either working or officially jobless, the employment-population ratio and the labor force participation rate, grew 0.2% and 0.1% and are now at 57.8% and 61.5%.  The number of those working part-time for economic reasons, or keeping short-hours propositions while looking thus far unsuccessfully for full-time ones, lost 300,000 to 5.8 million.  The figure which we now want to get worse, since its height means many low-paying jobs have gone away, average private nonfarm payroll earnings, lost 5 cents to $29.96 per hour.  The sole major statistic not to improve in March, the count of those technically unemployed for 27 weeks or longer, rose 100,000 to 4.1 million.

The American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, the metric showing how many positions, on top of those now open, could be quickly filled if all knew they could get them, had a good month as well, as follows:

 

 

Two-thirds of the AJSN’s 765,000 improvement over February was from lower unemployment, with over 80% of the rest from a reduced count of those wanting work but not looking for it for a year or more.  The share of the AJSN from those officially jobless, 43.6%, was down 0.9%. 

On the Covid-19 front we made superb headway as well, even though the numbers here do not reflect the full effect of massively greater dose manufacturing and distribution.  Per The New York Times, from February 16th to March 16th, the seven-day average of new American cases fell 32% from 81,217 to 54,959, while that for deaths was off from 2,183 to 1,303 or 40%, and hospitalizations lost 43% from 73,187 to 41,660.  The same average of daily vaccinations gained 42% from 1,716,311 to 2,435,037. 

It all looks like a great month, and it was, but what’s the catch?  It’s that we can’t forget how far behind we still are.  Compared with March 2020, when the pandemic had already added almost two million to the AJSN, we are still 3.1 million higher, and the difference is broad-based.  Other employment measures, such as the naggingly high new weekly jobless claims most recently at 719,000 or triple a typical pre-pandemic reading, would still be out of place as recently as early last year.  We are doing the job admirably on both fronts, but we have a long way to go.  Accordingly, the turtle, while taking a tendon-taxing step forward, can still see way in front of him territory he already passed through.

 

Thursday, March 25, 2021

No Post This Week

 Due to a serious family problem, I will not be posting this week.  Expect me back with the AJSN on April 2nd.

Friday, March 19, 2021

The Pandemic: Three Whirlwind Weeks, and Where We Are Now

This topic does not allow articles, updates, and blog posts a long life.  I posted with accuracy on it on February 26th, but most of that is now obsolete.  Why?

The first reason is that, per Noah Welland and Sharon LaFraniere in the February 27th New York Times, “F.D.A. Clears Johnson & Johnson’s Shot, the Third Vaccine for U.S.”  This American-Belgian product only requires one application per person, and, as of the article’s date, its consortium “has pledged to provide the United States with 100 million doses by the end of June,” allowing, by July 31st, “more than enough shots to cover any American adult who wants one.”  Three days later we heard from Elliot Hannon in Slate that “Merck Will Reportedly Start Manufacturing Johnson & Johnson Coronavirus Vaccine,” including sequestering “two facilities,” one of which will be dedicated to making the drug, with people at the other providing ““fill-finish” services, the last stage of the production process during which the vaccine substance is placed in vials and packaged for distribution.”  This kind of cooperation is exactly what seemed to be missing in December and January, and will make a huge difference in both quality and saving of lives.  A noble move. 

The result of these two news items, written by Sheryl Gay Stolberg et al. in The New York Times, also on March 2nd, was that “Biden Vows Enough Vaccine ‘for Every Adult American’ by End of May.”  The president Joe, knowing what he did about the supply of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna products as well as the new one, made what then looked like an aggressive statement or stretch objective but, in the time since, has seemed increasingly realistic.  The first two vaccine manufacturers “pledged last month to deliver together enough to cover 200 million Americans by that date,” and the U.S. has committed to buy 600 million doses from these two companies alone. 

Almost immediately after it was approved, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine got into a controversy.  The Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech drugs were rated at 94 and 95 percent “efficacy,” whereas Johnson & Johnson’s came in at only 72 percent.  As a result, probably also due to this product’s requiring only one dose, people started saying it was inferior.  Not so, said Hilda Bastian in a well-documented seven-plus-page March 7th exposition in The Atlantic.  Bastian’s main points were that first, the American-approved drugs are “essentially perfect when it comes to preventing the gravest outcomes,” with “zero cases of hospitalization or death in clinical trials for all (three) of these vaccines” (italics hers); second, the products do vary in “preventing illness” and frequency of “adverse reactions”; third, the rates of bad outcomes have been so tiny that in some cases adding only one infected test subject would have dramatically changed that vaccine’s published numbers;  and fourth, despite failure rates being microscopic for all of them we cannot be assured that will continue forever, but the three are all superb.

Two other recent articles were noteworthy.  In “The Pandemic Economy and the Rise of the ‘Noxious Contract,’” in the March 9th New York Times, David Grusky discussed how we could compensate people choosing to work in dangerous settings.  With the federal government’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) almost invisible, many environments, perhaps sources of the majority of the American total of 29.6 million coronavirus cases so far, have been unacceptably risky.  Biden is working to fix that through the Labor Department and by “trying to ensure that workers who turn down health-jeopardizing employment can still qualify for unemployment insurance,” and Grusky suggested other measures, particularly a “new G.I. Bill” allowing workers in infection-hazardous jobs military veteran’s benefits and subsidized housing qualification.  Katherine J. Wu’s “You’re Not Fully Vaccinated the Day of Your Last Dose” (The Atlantic, March 17th) reminded us, backed up with a description of how vaccines work, that two weeks need to elapse after that.

What are the latest American pandemic statistics?  On the New York Times website for March 17th, the 7-day averages of daily new cases, daily deaths, and number of people hospitalized were 55,001, 1,260, and 41,275 respectively.  Twelve percent of Americans have now been fully vaccinated, with another 11% having received one dose and needing another.  As of yesterday, the 7-day average of people getting vaccines each day was 2,503,771.  Compared with the worst overall day of the pandemic, January 9th, the four average numbers above are, in order, down 78%, down 60%, down 70%, and up 611%.  Here is a map, rather changed since the last one I posted, of average new daily cases by county, with those in white showing none, those with the lightest color otherwise less than 10 per day per 100,000 population, and the most intense over 250 per 100,000:

            

These figures show that we are doing the Covid-stopping job in all respects.  As long as we stay the course with getting vaccinated, practicing social distancing, and wearing masks, we will most likely be out of this by early summer.  Let’s get there!

Friday, March 12, 2021

Eleven Brutal Truths on Office Design and Working from Home

Our pandemic, which has cut back workers’ on-site hours in amounts varying with time and organization, has caused differing reactions from employees and their management.  Three articles have shown that – “July Is the New January:  More Companies Delay Return to the Office” by Gillian Friedman and Kellen Browning in the October 13th New York Times, “Has the Pandemic Transformed the Office Forever?” by John Seabrook in the February 1st New Yorker, and “When will office workers return?”, by Bartleby in the February 20th Economist.  They all have valuable insights, particularly the Seabrook effort, a panoramic view of both title subjects.

There seems still to be, however, a failure of too many people to look at the actual effects of what was once called “telecommuting” and how offices are configured.  With AT&T, Dictaphone, and others, along with related MBA and management Ph.D. study, from 1989 to 2008 I had a ringside seat for pertinent trends, attitudes, and results.  From the three articles above and my accumulated knowledge and experience, I offer eleven unfashionable but valid ideas.

First, some employees, especially those with a tendency to underwork in the office, will ease up more if they are at home.  While many do better there, it does not make sense that people with trouble focusing in an environment designed for productivity turn into hard workers when in a place they have created for their own relaxation and distraction.

Second, as was consistently the situation in my AT&T groups, to a great extent the very people a supervisor would trust least to be effective at home are the ones wanting to work there the most.  That forces managers, who often prefer to think of employees as being identically productive, to choose between evaluating their charges more incisively and taking real production losses. 

Third, in a time where management has been so conscious of economic differences between workers that Zoom has been criticized for showing employee-residence backgrounds, working from home exacerbates those disparities, as not all people have equally compatible family arrangements or highly suitable work areas. 

Fourth, since about 1990 a pendulum has swung back and forth twice between working remotely and in offices.  As described by Friedman and Browning as well as by Seabrook, just before Covid-19 became widespread, management preference had shifted away from home offices, and they influenced employee behavior with both carrots (the likes of onsite yoga rooms, sushi bars, and free beverages and snacks) and sticks (IBM’s 2017 edict that, per Seabrook, “everyone must return to the office or leave the company,” and a similar measure by Yahoo).  That was a 180-degree change from IBM’s Smarter Workforce Institute proclaiming eight years earlier that those working from home “were highly engaged, more likely to consider their workplaces as innovative, happier about their job prospects and less stressed than their more traditional, office-bound colleagues,” and was not too similar to Bartleby’s observation that “employees have become less loyal as the pandemic has progressed,” as “workers are spending more time looking for other jobs and updating their LinkedIn profiles.” 

Fifth, consistent with many of Seabrook’s examples along with these corporate decisions to end it, when working at home the social side of employment and the ability of people to work closely together are each impeded at best and crushed at worst. 

Sixth, the choice between working at home or in a company office, if companies accept that, would still, if nothing else, be useful as an employee perquisite, as ultimately that is what it would be.

Seventh, in many cases real estate expenses saved by companies from more people working at home are only transferred to the workers themselves.  Per Seabrook, office space for each employee in San Francisco can cost $20,000 per year – someone feeling obliged to upgrade from, say, a one-bedroom apartment to a place with two can end up absorbing much of that $1,667 monthly difference.

Eighth, office design factors intended to encourage workers to put in extra hours, as shown by examples in the first two articles, are, whatever they happen to be, at best marginally ethical.

Ninth, forced “collaboration,” as Seabrook put it, created by requiring people to work in public spaces, is as much of a failure now as it was when it first became popular in the 1990s. 

Tenth, a pendulum has also swung between preferred office designs, from cubicles to desks in open rooms and back again, with an entertaining example, found by Seabrook, of a company conjuring up “” focus pods” that resembled three-sided restaurant booths” and “could be made higher, so they are more like an enclosed-booth experience.”  As the author pointed out, those are cubicles.  Out of style as they are, cubicles may still be the best office arrangement, as they offer much privacy and relative quiet with only short walks to coworkers and meeting areas. 

Eleventh, while business publications have long been notorious for rediscovering ideas and labeling them innovations, in nowhere other than in the combined area of working at home and designing offices is it clearer that, as per a song title from the 1974 movie All That Jazz, “everything old is new again.”  Offices were around before the days of Bob Cratchit’s perch in A Christmas Carol, and we are approaching 30 years of widespread remote-work-enabling Internet access.  It is time to look more at business history, with emphasis on what has been successful and what has not.  In the meantime, nobody should be surprised if old tactics, especially if forgotten, get us the same results.

Friday, March 5, 2021

Today’s Jobs Report: Strong Total Increase, Latent Demand Down 564,000 to 21.2 Million, Otherwise Indifferent – With Coronavirus Progress, That’s Fine

 

I didn’t know what to expect in this morning’s Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Situation Summary.  The only estimate I saw on net new nonfarm positions was 182,000, and knew the pandemic had eased considerably, taking pressure off any need for employment progress.  So what happened?

We came in at 379,000 new positions as above, more than double the often highly accurate Fox News projection.  The other results were indifferent.  Seasonally adjusted unemployment edged down from 6.3% to 6.2%, with the unadjusted version, showing we are in a generally below average month for work, fell from 6.8% to 6.6%.  As of mid-February we had 10.0 million officially jobless, down 100,000, but the share of people on temporary layoff was off 500,000 to 2.2 million, meaning that those unemployed without that status actually numbered 400,000 more.  Those out for 27 weeks or longer rose 100,000 to 4.1 million, and those working part-time for economic reasons, or keeping short-hours positions while thus far unsuccessfully seeking longer-hours ones, gained the same amount and is now 6.1 million.  The two measures of how common it is for Americans to be working or one step away, the labor force participation rate and the employment-population ratio, held and gained 0.1% respectively to reach 61.4% and 57.6%.  Average hourly earnings for all employees on private nonfarm payrolls, a reverse indicator in these economic conditions since higher pay means fewer low-end jobs, gained 5 cents per hour, a hair above inflation, to $30.01. 

The American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, the indicator showing how many new positions could be quickly filled if all knew they would be easy to get, improved from 21,792,000 as follows:


Most of this month’s drop was from lower official unemployment, with about 100,000 apiece from reduced numbers of people claiming discouragement and wanting work but not looking for it for at least a year.  Over the past 12 months, though, the AJSN, pre-pandemic, was more than 5.3 million lower.  The share of the AJSN from official unemployment dropped 0.4% and is now 44.5%.

As for Covid-19 relief, we had a tremendous month.  From January 16th to February 16th, per The New York Times, the 7-day average of new daily cases fell from 224,298 to 81,200 or 64%.  Daily deaths, measured the same way, were off from 3,319 to 2,183 or 34%, and the same measure of hospitalizations came down 46% from 129,008 to 69,856.  The 7-day average of vaccinations given increased 115% then, from 798,707 to 1,716,311.

How can we rate the February employment situation?  Given that our coronavirus progress has been so strong, a so-so economic month is no problem.  Progress on vaccinations has been real but too piecemeal, with most or many people receiving full doses in families with others who have not and thus unable to enjoy events freely with their primary group, for real economic advancement, and that shows in this morning’s results.  But our focus was well-chosen.  It may be several months before unemployment gets below 5.5%, or monthly net new jobs exceeds half a million, but as long as we do generally well with masks and social distancing, and keep increasing our vaccination rate, they will.  The turtle feels a lot better, and, accordingly, managed a full step forward. 

Friday, February 26, 2021

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

It’s been an eventful three weeks. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, February 19, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, February 12, 2021

Five New, and Supposedly New, Work-Related Developments

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, February 5, 2021

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

 

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

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

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


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

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

Friday, January 29, 2021

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

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

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

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



Friday, January 22, 2021

The Coronavirus Status: Better, But Worse Than It Seems

 

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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



Friday, January 15, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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