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, 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.