Pandemic Journal (# 24): What We Are Learning in the Pandemic

Peggy Noonan, a Wall Street Journal columnist, offers her thoughts on what we are learning in the coronavirus pandemic. Here are her main points along with reactions thereto.

Noonan’s Observations[1]

She says we have learned a lot. “How intertwined and interconnected our economy is, how provisional, how this thing depended on that. And how whisperingly thin were everybody’s profit margins. The well-being of the West Side block depends on human traffic, which depends on restaurants and bars, which depend on the theater being open. It was a George Bailey economy: every man on that transport died. Harry wasn’t there to save them, because you weren’t there to save Harry.” [2] “Every economy is, in the end, and if you’re interested in economics you knew this, but not the way you know it after the business catastrophe of 2020.”

“But the biggest things I suspect we learned were internal. No matter what you do for a living, when you weren’t busy introspection knocked on the door and settled in. Two different men, professionals, both blinked with surprise as they reported, unasked, that they can’t believe they have their college-age kids home again and they’re all together and they have dinner every night and play board games. They were so grateful. They had no idea this was possible, that it would make them so happy. That it had been missing.”

“People have suffered. They’ve been afraid. The ground on which they stand has shifted. Many have been reviewing their lives, thinking not only of ‘what’s important’ or ‘what makes me happy’ but ‘what was I designed to do?’ They’ve been conducting a kind of internal life review, reflecting on the decision that seemed small and turned out to be crucial, wondering about paths not taken, recognizing strokes of luck. They’ve been thinking about their religious faith or lack of it, about their relationships. Phone calls have been longer, love more easily expressed, its lack more admitted.”

“It has been a dramatic time. We have stopped and thought about our lives, and our society’s arrangements. We have applauded together, for the first time, those whose jobs kept our towns up and operating, from nurses to truckers. We’ve rethought not only what is ‘essential’ but who is important. All this will change you as a nation.”

“Here is what I am certain of. We will emerge a plainer people in a plainer country, and maybe a deeper one. Something big inside us shifted.”

“[Y]ou can almost hear people thinking eh, our time is finite, our money limited—maybe that’s not gray[hair]. it’s silver. . . . I like the simplicity of this.”

“The world has admired and imitated America’s crisp chic, but I see an altering of the national style. For reasons economic and existential a new simplicity is coming, glitz leaving.”

“We’re getting pared down. We’re paring ourselves down.”

‘The pioneer genes shall prevail, and women will focus on the essentials: nurturing their children in the arc of safety (homes and schools) providing food (driving to breadlines and food banks) and making do with what is already in the closet. Everything old will be suddenly new again.”

“America is about to become a plainer place. Maybe a deeper one, too. Maybe that’s good.”

Reflections

Do you agree with any of these observations?

Some of her reflections concern individuals and every-day life. I certainly hope that “America is about to become a ‘plainer place’ and ‘a deeper one.’”

Economically we certainly should have learned “how intertwined and interconnected our economy is, how provisional, how this thing depended on that. And how whisperingly thin were everybody’s profit margins.”

Noonan, however, fails to mention the big economic lessons of the pandemic for me and many others: the immense economic inequality in the U.S.; the many ways of racial injustice in the U.S.; and our horrendous health-care system. All of these problems require government action.

That, in turn, raises my concern over the future impact of the many, young, conservative federal judges who recently have been confirmed by the U.S. Senate, some in the midst of the pandemic, pursuant to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s agenda.[3]

More generally, the need for government action emphasizes my belief that many aspects of the U.S. system of government are obsolete: the Electoral College; every state having two senators with equal voting rights regardless of the state’s population; the U.S. Senate’s filibuster rule; the horribly complicated system of voting and its manipulation to suppress voting, including President Trump’s recent rantings against voting by mail.[4]

The Trump Administration’s inconsistent and wavering foreign  policies before and during the pandemic raise the question of what will become of the international system of institutions, treaties and laws that the U.S. helped to create after World War II to foster and preserve peace and human rights. In my opinion, we should be leading the world in reforming and modernizing this system, not tearing at its roots.[5]

All of these larger issues raise the issue of what can one individual do about them.

My answer. Carefully review candidates for office and vote for those who promise to work on these problems. Provide financial support to political parties and candidates as well as organizations that are supporting these reform measures. Advocate for individuals, organizations and policies involved in this effort.  (I choose to do my advocacy with this blog.)

Noonan appropriately mentions many people expressing gratitude for simple things in the midst of the pandemic. I  have gratitude for my wife, sons, their families and I being in good health and for my wife and I are not living in a senior-citizen retirement home. I am grateful for being retired with good savings and thus not worrying about keeping my job or finding a new one or about how I will be able to pay for food or the mortgage.[6]

I also am grateful for friends and family and have made efforts to reconnect with them.[7]

Like Noonan, I hope that people are “reviewing their lives, thinking not only of ‘what’s important’ or ‘what makes me happy’ but ‘what was I designed to do?’ They’ve been conducting a kind of internal life review, reflecting on the decision that seemed small and turned out to be crucial, wondering about paths not taken, recognizing strokes of luck.”

For a Christian, this means discerning your calling for a particular time and place and recognizing that your calling may change over time. This includes forgiving others for their wrongs as well as praying for forgiveness for your own misdeeds.[8]

I trust that I will continue learning about the world during this pandemic. Another of the many subjects I have learned something about are prior pandemics, especially the Flu Pandemic of 1918. [9]

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[1] Noonan, A Plainer People in a Plainer Time, W.S.J. (May 22, 2020).

[2] Noonan apparently refers to brothers George and Harry Bailey, characters in the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.” George was a wealthy banker who suffers various difficulties, including not being present to save his brother from drowning. As  a result, George contemplates suicide before being rescued by his guardian angel and friends. (It’s a Wonderful Life, Wikipedia.)

[3] E.g., Hulse, McConnell Has a Request for Veteran Federal Judges: Pleases Quit, N.Y. Times (Mar. 16, 2020; Hulse, Trump Picks McConnell Protégé for Influential Appeals Court Seat, N.Y. Times (April 3, 2020).

[4] See, e.g., these entries in dwkcommentareis.com: Search: filibusterU.S. Needs More Democratization (Feb. 14, 2020); Responses to Ezra Klein’s Democratization Thesis (Feb. 15, 2020); Open Letter to U.S. Senate from 70 former Senators (Feb. 29, 2020); Pandemic Journal (# 10): Wisconsin’s  Primary Election (April 10, 2020) (and comments thereto).

[5] E.g., Douthat, The End of the New World Order, N.Y. Times (May 23, 2020).

[6] See, e.g., these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: Gratitude I (Mar. 15, 2012);  Gratitude II (April 11, 2012); Gratitude III (April 12, 2014); Another Perspective on Gratitude; (Nov. 23, 2015); Other Thoughts About Gratitude. (Nov. 26, 2015).

[7] Pandemic Journal (# 8): Reconnecting with Family and Friends (April 8, 2020).

[8] See, e.g., these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: The Roads Not Taken (April 27, 2011); My General Thoughts on Vocation (Feb. 6, 2014); Other Scriptural Passages About Vocation (Feb. 17, 2014); My Vocations (Feb. 23, 2014); Why I do Not Want to Die at 75 (Sept. 25, 2014); What Is Your Call Story? (Feb. 28, 2019); My Call Stories (Mar. 4, 2019). See also List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: RELIGION; A Christian-Muslim Conversation About Forgiveness (May 15, 2017).

[9] See, e.g., the following posts to dwkcommentaries.com: Pandemic Journal (# 3): 1918 Flu (Mar. 27, 2020); Pandemic Journal (# 22): Other Reflections on the Flu Pandemic of 1918-1920 (May 17, 2020).

 

 

 

Pandemic Journal (# 13): World Economic Depression

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a global economic depression. Many people have lost their jobs. Stores are closing. Governments are facing huge reductions in tax collections and large deficits.

In the U.S. alone, as of April 18, 33 million people recently have filed applications for unemployment insurance benefits. Moreover, “Some economists expect a fresh surge of claims in future weeks as workers who were previously unable to file because of backlogged state systems are counted, and as states begin to accept applications from people who are newly eligible.” Economists believe that the national unemployment rate for April  could reach 20%.[1]

On April 24, the U.S. Congressional Budget Office forecasted a $3.7 trillion federal government deficit, a 5.6% U.S. economic contraction and an unemployment rate of nearly 12% by year’s end.[2]

“Laid-off workers need money quickly so that they can continue to pay rent, and credit card bills and for groceries. If they can’t, the hole that the larger economy has fallen into ‘gets deeper and deeper, and more difficult to crawl out of.’” As a result, many banks are confronting defaults on  loans and mortgages.

“Pain is everywhere, but it is most widespread among the most vulnerable. For example, 52 percent of low-income households — below $37,500 a year for a family of three — said someone in the household had lost a job because of the coronavirus, compared with 32 percent of upper-income ones (with earnings over $112,600) [while] forty-two percent of families in the middle have been affected as well. Those without a college education have taken a disproportionate hit, as have Hispanics and African-Americans.”

J.P. Morgan “sees GDP in the U.S. falling at an annualized rate of 40% in the three months through June, the eurozone tumbling 45%, with the U.K. economy expected to contract by 59.3% and Japan by 35%. Some forecasts are for a relatively quick rebound, though the outlook depends on how quickly and thoroughly the coronavirus can be contained.”[3]

On April 24, President Trump signed into law for $484 billion of relief for small businesses and hospitals and for expansion of coronavirus testing capacity.[4]

Here is local bit of good news. On April 27, the State of Minnesota will be allowing the opening of manufacturers and offices that don’t have face-to-face interaction with clients and weren’t deemed critical industries that were exempt from the stay-at-home order. Roughly 20,000 companies in this category with 100,000 employees now have the option to reopen if they complete and publicize plans to maintain social distancing, worker hygiene and workspace cleanliness. On the other hand, HealthPartners, a Minnesota-based nonprofit group operating seven hospitals, dozens of clinics and a large health insurance business, announced that it was furloughing 2,600 workers due to suspension of nonemergency surgeries.[5]

Bill Gates, the wealthy co-founder of Microsoft and now co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, has said that the U.S. and other countries would be aided in returning to normal if we were able to make the following innovations. Create coronavirus tests that are self-administered. Adopt consistent standards about who gets tested. Implement consistent, reliable means for contact tracing. Voluntary adoption of digital tools that help one remember where you have been and whom you have contacted. Develop drugs for treating the virus. Develop a vaccine and a fair, effective way for its distribution and use.[6]

Conclusion

While I worry about all of the unemployed, their families and the general condition of the U.S. (and global) economies, I am grateful that I am retired and thus not personally involved in these wrenching struggles.

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[1] Chaney & Guilford, Millions of U.S. Workers Filed for Unemployment Benefits Last Week, W.S.J. (April 23, 2020;); Cohen, Jobless Numbers Are ‘Eye-Watering’ but Understate the Crisis, N.Y. Times (April 23, 2020); Siegel & Van Dam, 4.4 million Americans sought jobless benefits last week, as economic pain continued across the United States, Wash. Post (April 23, 2020); Rugaber, 26 million have sought US jobless aid since virus hit, StarTribune (April 23, 2020).

[2] The federal budget will be nearly $4 trillion in 2020, the C.B.O. says, N.Y. Times (April 24, 2020).

[3] Hannon & Sparshott, Global Economy Hit by Record Collapse of Business Activity, W.S.J.(April 23,2020).

[4] Duehren & Hughes, House Approves $484 Billion bill to Aid Small Business, Hospitals, W.S.J. (April 23, 2020).

[5]  Olson & Horwatt, Restrictions could be lifted on up to 100,000 Minnesota workers by Monday, StarTribune (April 24, 2020); Snowbeck, COVID-19 fallout: HealthPartners to furlough 2,600 workers, StarTribune (April 24, 2020),

[6] Gates, Here are the innovations we need to reopen the economy, Wash. Post (April 23, 2020).

 

Immigrants Come to America to Work

This is the title of a column by Jason Riley of the Wall Street Journal. He concludes that indeed immigrants do come to work, not to go on the dole. He cites several reasons for this conclusion.[1]

First, they do not go to the states with the most generous public benefits like New York and California. Instead, the Brookings Institution’s analysis of census data, between 2010 and 2018 shows that “the five states with the fastest-growing foreign-born populations are North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Delaware and Iowa.” During that same period, South Dakota’s immigrant population grew by 58.2% while New York’s by only 3.5%.

Second, in 2018 the percentage of U.S. workers who were foreign-born reached its highest level since 1996 while its unemployment rate was 3.5%. versus 4% for the native-born. And the labor participation rate for the foreign-born was slightly higher, 65.7% versus 62.3%.This has occurred during a period of record low unemployment, contrary to the concern that immigrants were displacing the native-born.

Third, according to the libertarian Cato Institute, “the native-born make use of means-tested welfare and entitlement programs at significantly higher rates than their foreign-born counterparts.” Moreover, “immigrants are less likely to consume welfare benefits and, when they do, they generally consume a lower dollar value of benefits than native born Americans.”

Fourth, “the assumption that people who arrive poor will stay that way is ahistorical. Immigrants are self-selecting. The poorest of the poor can’t afford the trip, and the ones who do come tend to be more motivated and less risk-averse than nonimmigrants.”

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[1] Riley, Immigrants Come to America to Work, W.S.J. (Jan. 28, 2020).

 

Trump Erroneously Says U.S. Is “Full”   

President Donald Trump at an April 5 roundtable on the border at the U.S. Border Patrol station in Calexico, California addressed arriving Central Americans: “Can’t take you anymore. Can’t take you. Our country is full. Our area is full, the sector is full. Can’t take you anymore. I’m sorry.” Two days later he repeated this message in the following April 7 tweet:

  • “Mexico must apprehend all illegals and not let them make the long march up to the United States, or we will have no other choice than to Close the Border and/or institute Tariffs. Our Country is FULL” (Emphasis added.)  [1] 

Trump, however, was wrong in this assertion.[2]

U.S. Needs More Immigrants

 Immediately after the roundtable, U.S. Representative Rep. Pramila Jayapal (Dem., WA) rejected the contention that the U.S. was “full.” She said, “It’s just a ridiculous statement. We have agriculture industries across the country that desperately need workers. We have construction industries in California and in other places that desperately need workers, and immigration has always been not just a question of immigration policy, but who we are as a country.”

A More complete rejection of Trump’s assertion came in an article in the New York Times. It starts by saying this assertion “ runs counter to the consensus among demographers and economists.” This conclusion was documented by the following:

  • The U.S. is a country “where an aging population and declining birthrates among the native-born population are creating underpopulated cities and towns, vacant housing and troubled public finances. . . . Local officials in many of those places view a shrinking population and work force as an existential problem with few obvious solutions.”
  • “In smaller cities and rural areas, demographic decline is a fundamental fact of life. A recent study by the Economic Innovation Group found that 80 percent of American counties, with a combined population of 149 million, saw a decline in their number of prime working-age adults from 2007 to 2017.. . . Local officials in many of those places view a shrinking population and work force as an existential problem with few obvious solutions.” [3]
  • “Population growth in the United States has now hit its lowest level since 1937, partly because of a record-low fertility rate — the number of children born per woman.”
  • “The Congressional Budget Office foresees the American labor force rising by only 0.5 percent a year over the coming decade, about one-third as fast as from 1950 to 2007. That is a crucial reason that economic growth is forecast to remain well below its late 20th-century levels.”
  • “There are now 2.8 workers for every recipient of Social Security benefits, a rate on track to fall to 2.2 by 2035, according to the program’s trustees. Many state pension plans face even greater demography-induced strains.”
  • John Lettieri, president of the Economic Innovation Group, fears a “declining population, falling home prices and weak public finances will create a vicious cycle that the places losing population could find hard to escape.”

One of the solutions to this U.S. problem is creation of “a program of ‘heartland visas,’ in which skilled immigrants could obtain work visas to the United States on the condition they live in one of the counties facing demographic decline — with troubled countries themselves deciding whether to participate.”

Washington Post Editorial

A Washington Post editorial lambasted Trump for his “full” statement. It points out that only a month before these remarks, Trump said, “‘So we’re going to let a lot of people come in because we need workers. We have to have workers.’ And the day after his ‘full’ assertion, the Department of Homeland Security nearly doubled the number of guest worker visas it would issue this year. [4]

The Post editorial then recited the following facts about why the U.S. needs more immigrants:

  • The U.S. “faces a shrinking native-born labor force as baby boomers retire at a rate of 10,000 daily , unemployment reaches historically low levels, and immigration continues to dwindle from Mexico, a traditional source of cheap documented and undocumented employees. In March, the Labor Department reported there were 7.6 million unfilled jobs and just 6.5 million unemployed people, marking 12 straight months during which job openings have exceeded job seekers.”
  • “The labor shortage is sapping growth as well as state and municipal revenue. Small businesses and major corporations have sounded the alarm as the delivery of goods is delayed by a drastic shortage of truckers, and housing prices in some markets are driven up by an inadequate supply of construction workers.”
  • “The deficit is particularly acute in lower-wage jobs, as more and more Americans attend college and are reluctant to take positions in skilled trades and other jobs requiring manual labor. Home health aides who care for the sick and frail are in extremely short supply, as are workers in retail, restaurants and farms. The problem is exacerbated by a fertility rate — the number of children born per woman — that is the lowest since the 1930s. The impact of that decline until now has been partly offset by immigration.”

In short, the Post says, Trump’s “political strategy is a prescription for long-term economic anemia and declining competitiveness.”

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[1] Kim & Perry, ‘Our country is full . . . . So turn around, Trump warns migrants during border roundtable, Wash. Post  (April  5, 2019); Trump, Tweet (April 7, 2019).

[2] Irwin & Badger, Trump Says the U.S. Is ‘Full.’ Much of the Nation Has the Opposite Problem, N.Y. Times (April  9, 2019). This blog also frequently has discussed the U.S. need for more immigrants.  See, e.g., “America’s Farmers Need Immigrants” (March 22, 2019); Businesses Need More Immigrants (March 24, 2019); U.S. Construction Industry Needs More Immigrants (April 3, 2019).

[3] The Economic Innovation Group has published a report on the facts of U.S. population and its impact on economic growth with fascinating U.S. maps showing various population facts. (Economic Innovation Group, From Managing Decline to Building the Future: Could a Heartland Visa Help Struggling Regions?, at 9-10 (April 2019). )

[4] Editorial, The country isn’t ‘full’—and Trump knows it, Wash. Post (April 12, 2019).

 

U.S. Construction Industry Needs More Immigrants 

Two recent posts have discussed the U.S. need for more immigrants in agriculture and business.[1]

This point was underscored by a New York Times article focusing on the need for more immigrants in the construction industry.[2]

This article states, “Nationwide, the average wage of nonsupervisory workers in residential construction hit $25.34 an hour in January. That’s over 6 percent more than a year earlier, close to the steepest annual increase since the government started keeping track almost 30 years ago. Pay is taking off even among those in less-skilled construction trades.”

This “rising cost of . . . [construction] crews reflects a demographic reality that could hamstring industries besides their own: Their labor force is shrinking. President Trump’s threat to close the Mexican border, a move that would cause damage to both economies, only adds to the pressure.”

In addition, “economic growth in Mexico and the aging of . . . [its] population were reducing the flow of Mexican workers into the United States. The number of undocumented immigrants in America declined to 10.7 million at the end of 2017 from a peak of over 12 million at the height of the housing bubble in 2008, according to the Center for Migration Studies.” This is coupled with projections of “very little growth in the[U.S.] working-age population over the next two decades. If the United States were to cut off the flow of new immigrants, Pew noted, its working population would shrink to 166 million in 2035 from 173 million in 2015.”

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[1] “America’s Farms Need Immigrants,” dwkcommentaries.com (Mar. 22, 2019);  Businesses Need More Immigrants, dwkcommentaries.com (Mar. 24, 2019).

[2] Porter, Short of Workers, U.S. Builders and Farmers Crave More Immigrants, N.Y. Times (April 3, 2019).

 

Other Perspectives on Reinvigorating U.S. Rural Areas

A prior post painted a grim picture of the prospects of reinvigorating rural areas in the U.S. Now Ellen Rosen, a free-lance journalist on business and finance, has a more optimistic view in two articles in the New York Times.

Offering More Perks to New Workers[1]

 Starting with the same problem discussed in the earlier post—manufacturers’ difficulty in finding new workers–Rosen illustrates how two companies combat that problem.

Alexandria Industries in Alexandria, Minnesota (a town of 13,000  population in the west central part of the state) offers a free health clinic within a block of its facility and requires employees to work at least eight hours of overtime per month

Wigwam Mills in Sheboygan, Wisconsin (a town of 49,000 population on the west shore of Lake Michigan, 50 miles north of Milwaukee) offers cash bonuses to employees who bring in new recruits who last at least 60 days and provides wi-fi enabled buses for employees in nearby larger cities.

Other incentives elsewhere include:waiver of state taxes to persons who relocate to rural areas for four years; relief from state and local taxes for businesses that relocate to distressed areas for at least four or five years;; assistance to employees on repayment of student loans; payments to people who relocate to a state and who work remotely for a business located elsewhere; and on-site day care.

Economic Factors Affecting businesses in Rural Areas[2]

Cheaper labor is often seen as an advantage for firms in rural areas. But sometimes, rural labor costs are equivalent or higher to induce people to relocate, and labor costs may represent a smaller portion of total costs of manufacturing a product.

Other relative costs of real estate, energy and taxes affect location of a business. Proximity to suppliers or customers may be important, especially for those dealing with perishable products. Costs of transportation and proximity to transportation hubs may be important.

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[1]  Rosen, Manufacturers Increase Efforts to Woo Workers to Rural Areas, N.Y. Times (Aug. 3, 2018).  This article was reprinted in a special “Technology” section of the hard copy of the December 16 Sunday Times.

[2] Rosen, For Manufacturers, a Complex Mix Can Determine Location, N.Y. Times (July 17, 2018). This article was reprinted in a special “Technology” section of the hard copy of the December 16 Sunday Times.

 

 

Robots Replacing Farm Workers 

Prior posts have described the overall shortage of labor in the U.S. today, especially in agriculture.[1] Now these shortages have prompted several firms in this industry to introduce robots and other automation into their businesses.[2]

For example, Taylor Farms of Salinas, California, one of the world’s largest producers and sellers of fresh-cut vegetables, recently unveiled a fleet of robots designed to replace humans. Its smart machines can assemble 60 to 80 salad bags a minute, double the output of a worker. In the process it creates higher-skilled positions that can attract younger, educated workers.

Other examples are Driscoll’s, the berry titan based in Watsonville, Calif., and Christopher Ranch, a giant producer of garlic. Driscoll’s has invested in several robotic strawberry harvesting start-ups, including Agrobot, which uses imaging technology to assess a berry’s ripeness before it is harvested. Christopher Ranch has started using a 30-foot-tall robot to insert garlic buds into sleeves, the nets into which they are bundled for sale in supermarkets. Yet another is Bartley Walker, a family business that  now offers a robotic hoeing machine with a detection camera capable of identifying the pesky weeds that sprout between row crops like broccoli and cauliflower.

In the background is a 2017 survey of California farmers  that reported 55% with labor shortages and nearly 70% for those depending on seasonal workers.

Ideally, growers say, Congress would pass a bill to legalize undocumented farm workers who are already here and encourage them to stay in the fields, as well as include provisions to ensure a steady flow of seasonal workers who could come and go with relative ease.

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[1] E.g., Federal Reserve Bank Endorses Need for More Immigrants, dwkcommentaries.com (Nov. 17, 2018).

[2]  Jordan, As Immigrant Farm Workers Become More Scarce, Robots Replace Humans, N.Y. Times (Nov. 20, 2018).