As reported widely, the big miss marking last Friday’s official monthly U.S. jobs report (for April) ignited a heated debate among politicians, economists, and many others over why the U.S. economy created so much less new employment that month (266,000 net new positions overall) than generally estimated (in the million neighborhood). At the heart of this debate: Do the many positions employers consistently say they’re struggling to fill amid a continuingly high jobless rate mean that the enhanced unemployment benefits offered throughout the pandemic are discouraging Americans from returning to the workplace?
What I’m not seeing, however, is anyone asking whether this is the right debate. It’s increasingly obvious to me that it’s not.
It’s easy to see why those who answer yes are viewing the issue far too narrowly. Surely some unemployed workers are content to stay at home because they’re currently making more from jobless payments than they were making from their previous employer. That should be clear from the number of businesses raising wages to fill the shortages they’re experiencing. (I’m not saying that these raises are or aren’t long overdue or otherwise deserved; simply that the higher pay and other incentives employers are offering can only be interpreted as companies recognizing that the enhanced benefits have, to a degree, increased the relative attraction of remaining on the employment sidelines versus reentering the job market.)
At the same time, is it reasonable to ignore all the other major reasons for this big labor market anomaly? Like ongoing fears of catching the CCP Virus at the workplace, or the need to stay home with school-age children forced to learn remotely? And don’t forget all the uncertainties created by the sudden stop-start nature of the virus-era lockdowns on the economy.
Yes, a rapid U.S. reopening is taking place now. But all over the world, infection surges are producing new economic curbs. Can you blame workers for wondering whether shortly after they leave the unemployment and benefits rolls, their new workplace will need to close, or cut back on its operations, leaving them in the lurch while they either seek other jobs or file for new benefits?
It’s easy to see that all of these developments and circumstances and uncertainties and outright fears are keeping U.S. labor seemingly scarce. You can also add to the list the likelihood of growing skills mismatches in the American economy – that is, the numbers of jobs requiring more or different skills outgrowing the number of workers possessing these skills, and the numbers of companies replacing low-skill jobs with automation of some kind. Not that the resulting mismatches inevitably will be with the nation forever, or even long term. But they’re unmistakably present now.
So maybe the problem is simply too complicated for government to address? Or we’ll simply need to wait until a stable post-CCP Virus normality returns and labor markets start clearing as usual? It seems reasonable that the purely skills-based mismatches will defy ready solutions – unless America’s education system suddenly gets a lot better at preparing students for the economy they’ll be facing, and businesses get more serious about training and retraining workers, and turn away from needlessly insisting on lofty credentials for jobs that don’t require anything close.
It’s also possible – though that’s the most I’m willing to say – that spreading automation will eventually help businesses become so much more productive that they’ll be able to turn out more products and services, and that this very success will generate all sorts of new jobs whose appearance can’t be predicted with any precision now. (My reservations stem from concerns that the newest forms of automation, especially artificial intelligence and super-sophisticated robotics, are qualitatively more capable of displacing many more kinds of labor than previous technological breakthroughs.)
As long as the federal government and the states remain willing to provide generous unemployment benefits (and other supports), the resulting situation would at least keep most of the jobless adequately fed, clothed, and housed. That’s a big “if,” though, for reasons economic (e.g., maybe Washington can’t keep borrowing and spending massively much longer?) and social and cultural (e.g., maybe ever longer term unemployment will start to produce more in the way of pathological behavior like drug abuse, violent crime, and worse classroom performance from students from families on the dole?).
Consequently, the more progress can be made returning the unemployed to work, the better, and however difficult the challenge of eliminating the purely or largely skills-based mismatches, Americans and their leaders shouldn’t overlook where policy can make a big difference. And the above analysis indicates that one big difference can be made by the U.S. government, and especially its public health authorities.
Specifically, they need finally to stop their CCP Virus alarmism and energetically spread the word that due to a combination of high and mounting degrees of various kinds of immunity, mass vaccinations, and the highly varying nature of the virus’ infectiousness and lethality, normality is unquestionably returning. Further, and crucially, although certain groups of Americans – like the elderly, and those with certain underlying medical conditions – are still too vulnerable and must be protected with special measures, the Biden administration and its health experts should acknowledge that nearly all others can safely return to normal activities because the already low odds of even getting the disease, much less suffering significantly from it, have now plunged to rock bottom.
In other words, Washington should announce that work places are safe to return to, bricks and mortars businesses are now safe to patronize, in-person schooling is just fine for both students and teachers and administrative staff alike, (thus solving the childcare dilemma), and that lockdowns have become a thing of the past.
Instead, of course, you’ve got a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that seems stuck in hyper- (and increasingly unscientific) caution territory, not to mention decimating its own message about vaccines’ effectivness by admitting almost no behavior payoff whatever; and a President and leading figures of his own party continuing to wear facemasks even in settings that “the science” had made crystal clear are as safe as they can be for the fully vaccinated.
To top if off, the President’s chief medical adviser, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, has just taken pains to speculate that Americans may start wearing facemasks to guard against all sorts of respiratory diseases on a seasonal basis. Given this administration’s record so far, it doesn’t seem all that far-fetched to worry that new CDC guidelines along these lines, plus recommendations to resume some forms of social distancing, and even new business curbs, could quickly follow if this kind of Chicken Little-ism isn’t stopped. For now, though, no wonder so many Americans are still scared stiff of the virus.
It’s becoming more and more common to compare President Biden and his ambitious plans for “Building the U.S. Economy Back Better” with Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal programs. (See, e.g., here and here.) But it’s hard to imagine Mr. Biden succeeding to any lasting degree if his CCP Virus policy doesn’t start reflecting one of FDR’s most and most deservedly famous insights: “[T]he only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”