Our On-Going Covid Pandemic and the Labor Market

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

My previous round-up on Covid and “the economy” focused mainly on macro economic effects like GDP, or the total cost of Long Covid (“17% of pre-COVID US GDP”). In this post, I want to dig deeper into Covid and the labor market. First, in what may look like a diversion, I’ll look briefly at the January jobs report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). (It’s not really a diversion, because I learn by writing, so to master these sources I must write about them. And read your commentary, of course. But please, readers, don’t fix on the jobs report! Move on down to the Covid material.) Finally, since I’m dependent now on the horridly crapified Google, I invite readers with sources I’ve missed to add them in comments. The labor market is a big, big topic, and I’m sure I haven’t got my arms around it yet.[1] Again: “This will in no sense be an exhaustive or even an expert post, but I hope it will serve you to at least create a coherent narrative about where we are, and even, perhaps, what to expect.”

So first, I’ll look at that jobs report, then at two new large studies on Long Covid and labor market participation. Next, I will consider Long Covid as a mass disabling event. Finally, I’ll look at how changes in the labor market affect other aspects of the economy, like commercial real estate (CRE), and conclude.

About That Jobs Report

The BLS report on the “Employment Situation” (“jobs report”) is one of the most highly anticipated document drops in the world. From trading firm Pepperstone:

The Employment Situation report, to use its official name, is by far the most important US, and global, economic indicator released every month. While its impact has waned over time, there is no other indicator to which FX, equities, and bonds typically display such a significant and violent reaction.

And:

The headline measure of the labour market report is the Change in Nonfarm Employment, often shortened simply to NFP. This gauge measures the absolute month-on-month change in employment, thereby representing the number of jobs added to, or lost from, the economy over the past month.

Importantly, NFP excludes agricultural workers, employees of non-profit organisations, and serving military personnel, meaning that the data typically accounts for around 80% of the entire US workforce at a given time. To collate the data, the BLS use the aforementioned establishment survey, surveying around 130k businesses on a monthly basis.

Furthermore, the NFP metric is a seasonally adjusted data point.

Of this month’s jobs report, the Wall Street Journal wrote:

The labor market is in robust health—and that’s scrambling rate-cut expectations. This morning’s jobs report showed an acceleration in hiring, with employers adding a far larger-than-expected 353,000 jobs, a big upward revision to December’s payrolls and unemployment holding at an unexpectedly low 3.7%. That sent investors scurrying to adjust bets on when, and how fast, the Federal Reserve might cut rates. Bond yields soared.

This being an election year, the jobs report is also political. NBC News:

The White House leaned into the numbers, as President Joe Biden seeks re-election this year. Officials view the data as vindication of Biden’s policies….

Or as the Council of Economic Advisors wrote:

So, while we wouldn’t hang our hat on any one monthly number, this morning’s data clearly reveal the continued strength of the US job market, which is at the heart of both the current recovery and Bidenomics!

(About as politicized as you can get. Why not just have Karine Jean-Pierre write something up?) As we saw this morning, however, Brad DeLong, with Paul Krugman and others cited, hang their hats on the entire report[2]. But not everyone does. One sore spot is those pesky “adjustments” that Pepperstone wrote of. CNN, “What’s with all the revisions?”

Friday’s whopper of a jobs number was double expectations, and December’s data was one of several months to get heavily revised. Why are economists’ forecasts frequently so wrong?

It’s nearly impossible to say with certainty how much prices rose or how many people were hired at a given point in time across an entire country’s economy. Finding out how many new hires there were in a given month would involve asking every employer how many people were on their payrolls. That’s why the government and other economic data providers often rely on surveys[3] to make sophisticated estimates.

The BLS, Census Bureau and other government agencies that conduct surveys that inform economic reports do rigorous work to make the best possible estimates with the information they gather. And more often than not they do a tremendous job at it.

But surveys, by nature, are imperfect.

In the same way that election polls don’t always predict the candidate who ends up winning, surveys don’t capture the exact true picture.

Not only was mere data revised this month, but methodology and data structures were revised. From The Hill:

[The BLS] applied its estimation of new business start-ups compared to business failures, the so-called birth-death model that has long been targeted by critics as subject to manipulation and leaps of faith.

In addition, BLS updated the North American Industry Classification System, which shifted about one-tenth of workers into different industries, resulting in “major revisions” to sectors like retail trade and information and less important changes in industries including manufacturing and financial services.

[The BLS also] adjusted “the sample-based payroll jobs numbers based on a census of employment.” As they state in a footnote, the census adjustment resulted in a loss of 266,000 jobs from last year’s March report.

Finally, when you cross-check other BLS data with the jobs report data — not to mention the real world — discrepancies emerge. From alert reader Chris:

So am I wrong in thinking one way to puncture the claims that it’s “just vibes” is to begin with the labor participation rate, then show the current population of working age people, and the follow those with the numbers of people with second jobs? Because that data shows there are roughly 209.3 million working age people in the US, but only 130.8 million are employed or actively seeking work, and about 10.5 million of those have two or more jobs. Which means the tiny variations in the unemployment rate we’re seeing are dwarfed by any shifts in the labor participation rate and the number of people with one or more jobs. We’re trumpeting the statistic that shows 7.8 million people are still trying to get jobs when 10.5 million have two or more jobs in a time when fewer people are working overall, but we’re getting more and more people who need jobs. You need to have a stellar 250k+ jobs on the labor survery every month for a year and to cover the gap between those seeking employment and the multiple employed. So why do they keep insisting that these numbers are great when the last time the labor participation rate was this low, it was 1978, when a little less than 50% of women were working?

Or how about the bizarre contradiction in the data that a family making the median income has more than enough money to afford the median house (assuming they have a 20% downpayment), where the median price of a house is about 420k$, and the median family income is about 95k$, but the places where you’re most likely to earn that median income are also the places where a house costs far more than thecmedian sale price. For example, the median house sale price in California is about 780k$. And that’s before you consider how many people making that median income happen to have 80k$ saved to put towards the downpayment. People can’t afford houses where they live to make enough money to afford a house? This is OK?

My eyes tell me the situation is awful…

We — by which I do not mean the CEA and others of that ilk — sometimes forget that the labor market is not an abstraction, a statistical artifact. The labor market is actual working class people seeking actual jobs doing actual work at actual locations at particular dates and times for a more-or-less set amount of money, all to reproduce their labor power (“feed their families”). I’m a lot more comfortable imaginatively entering into the labor market than I am with BLS statistics, whether pure-in-heart, adjusted, or gamed. And if you want to talk about the labor market and Covid, that’s the approach to use, because most Covid data simply is not tracked, and what little there is not integrated by the BLS to the slightest degree. Which is highly unfortunate, since Long Covid is a mass-disabling event that will affect the labor market for years to come.

And with that, let us move away on from this statistical amuse bouche and enter the world of Covid.

Long Covid and Labor Market Participation

In the previous round-up, I cited two studies. One estimated the total impact of the Covid pandemic at $14 trillion; the other estimated the impact of Long Covid at $3.7 trillion[4]. Today we have two additional studies on Long Covid, the first on disablity in the United States, the second on the labor participation rate in the EU.

1) “Long COVID Disability Burden in US Adults: YLDs and NIH Funding Relative to Other Conditions” (preprint) [medRxiv]. Data from the US Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey (HPS) and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) /Global Burden of Disease (GBD) Long COVID Study Group:

Long COVID represents a mass disabling event of significant public health concern. Long COVID is associated with a 21% loss of health – comparable to traumatic brain injury or complete hearing loss. Among US adults, 5.3% reported having Long COVID in October 2023 and 1-in-4 with Long COVID consistently report significant activity limitations from its symptoms. Across the 12-month sample of n=757,580 US adults, 1.5% (n= 10,401) met our case definition of disabling Long COVID. Their estimated frequency of the population equates to 3,801,986 adults with long term symptoms after COVID that significantly limits daily activity.

(I would tend to equate disabled with being out of the labor market entirely.) 3,801,986 is a lot, especially considering that we’ll keep adding to the total, if current trends continue.

2) “Long COVID: A Tentative Assessment of Its Impact on Labour Market Participation & Potential Economic Effects in the EU” (PDF) [The European Commission].

To the best of our knowledge, so far, no study has explicitly addressed the impact of long COVID on the EU labour market. The present paper provides a tentative assessment using available estimates from surveys, clinical follow-up studies and model simulations of the prevalence of long COVID. This tentative approach yields an estimated prevalence of long COVID cases of around 1.7% of the EU population in 2021 and 2.9% in 2022, resulting in a negative impact on labour supply of 0.2-0.3% in 2021 and 0.3-0.5% in 2022. In person-equivalents, this means long COVID is assumed to have reduced labour supply by 364,000 – 663,000 in 2021 and by 621,000 – 1,112,000 in 2022 – combining the effect of lower productivity, higher sick leaves, lower hours, and increased unemployment or inactivity. … Available labour market data suggest a mixed picture when it comes to the impact of long COVID…. Other indicators suggest that in 2022, health-related issues (COVID-19-related or of other origin) contributed more than in previous years to a reduction in labour supply at the external (i.e. transition into inactivity) and the internal margin (i.e. a reduction in hours). Notably, there has been a sizeable increase in sick leave reported by several EU Member States in 2022, with acute COVID, long COVID and seasonal respiratory illnesses all likely to have been significant contributors. There has also been an increase in people reporting disability or longterm illness, people inactive due to illness or disability and in part-time work due to illness or disability. The timing and distribution of these observations (with women being more severely affected) could mean that long COVID is a contributing factor. Overall, the health impact of long COVID warrants careful monitoring.

2.9% * ~450 million (the EU population in 2022) = 13,050,000 people. That’s a lot, comparable to the 16 million (Brookings) to 19 million (CDC) with Long Covid in the United States.

Now let’s turn to the market itself, looking at issues beyond disability.

Quantity v. Quality in the Labor Market

Covid as a “mass disabling event” was coined by WaPo editor Francis Steadman in 2022 (and super-wierdly framed as an issue of identity politics for the newly disabled). The central issue is that reinfection increases Long Covid risk, and so the size of the disabled mass will keep increasing over time (given the Biden Administration’s maleficent policy of mass infection without mitigation). From the Sloan-Kettering Institute:

A May 26, 2023 op-ed in the Boston Globe by Wes Ely, MD, MPH — an ICU physician and the Chair of the Department of Medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center — discussed the risks humanity is taking with being repeatedly infected with COVID-19, describing what he sees as playing “disability roulette” and that the COVID-19 pandemic has shifted from an emergent infection with significant morbidity and mortality to an “ongoing mass disability event”.

While society yawns, impatient to move on from the COVID-19 pandemic, Americans still play disability roulette. About 1 in 10 of the 110,000 people who catch COVID this week in the United States, many for a second or third time, will be left lastingly ill. Even some vaccinated people; even some young, previously healthy people, after only mild cases.

No longer a mass death event, COVID-19 is an ongoing mass disability event. Every seven days, 25,000 more people join the 10 million in our country suffering memory loss, heart problems, dizziness, extreme fatigue, and more owing to the virus. Globally an estimated 65 million people have this new chronic health condition.

From the University of Nebraska Medical Center:

Since it’s been estimated that over 80% of Americans have been infected with COVID-19 at least once, concern about reinfection is valid. Indeed, a person can get COVID-19 once, twice, three times or more.

A new study analyzed medical records from the Department of Veterans Affairs of nearly 41,000 people who suffered COVID-19 reinfection. For those who had COVID-19 two times or more, the data appeared to show two times increased risk of long COVID and chronic fatigue.

This handy chart from Sloan Kettering gives a visual represenation of the odds of getting Long Covid with repeated infections:

Covid as a mass-disabling event will affect both the quantity and the quality of the labor force. First, quantity. In Germany:

In 2023, sick leave in Germany once again exceeded the record level of 2022, pushing the German economy into recession. This is reported by the “Rheinische Post” with reference to a study by the Association of Research-Based Pharmaceutical Companies (VFA): “Significant work absences led to considerable production losses – without the above-average sick days, the German economy would have grown by almost 0.5 percent,” according to the study, which has not yet been published. As it was, however, the economy shrank by 0.3 percent. “If sick leave had not been so high again, an additional 26 billion euros would have been generated in 2023. Instead of a mild recession, there would have been an increase of just under half a percent in 2023,” write authors Claus Michelsen and Simon Junker, according to the report.

Yes, we must infer the increased sick leave was caused by the Covid pandemic; the causes of sick leave weren’t in scope for the study. Not so in the UK:

As per Long Covid Support’s briefing ahead of tomorrows meeting, Covid-19 continues to have a profound effect on chronic disability in the UK which could be addressed with prevention, treatment, and workplace flexibility: Almost 2M people in the UK had long covid (ONS, 2023)…. Over half of patients with Long Covid reduced their paid work hours, including 17% no longer in paid work. NHS trusts in England lost more than 1.8M working days to Long Covid absences March 2020-Sept 2021.

Covid as a mass disabling event also affects the quality of the work force. In our previous post, we gave several examples of cognitive dysfunction, especially executive function. Studies like those come out so often they’re almost a genre. Here are a few new ones:

1) “Attentional impairment and altered brain activity in healthcare workers after mild COVID-19” [Brain Imaging and Behavior]:

As a core component of cognitive and behavioral processes, attentional function plays a key role in basic and higher functions and has a large impact on daily life and work…. As a high-risk group, healthcare workers (HCWs) are continuously exposed to SARS-COV-2 infection and its consequences during clinical work. Faced with the complex social environment and high workload of pandemic prevention, we believe that even in HCWs with mild SARS-COV-2 infection, impairment of attentional function persists and affects later clinical work. Therefore, we recruited HCWs with mild SARS-COV-2 infection to explore in-depth, attentional network impairments, using ANT, to understand the changes in patients’ levels of attentional function impairments comprehensively…. Our study found varying degrees of reduced efficiency in both the attentional orienting and executive control networks in the patient group. The corresponding neuropsychological background test results also indicated the presence of impairments in general attention and executive function.”

Hence, an HCW who’s had mild Covid is more likely to mix up your pills or misread your chart. Or, extrapolating, forget to bolt on the door to an aircraft. And for the patients–

2) “Factors associated with cognitive impairment in patients with persisting sequelae of Covid-19” [The American Journal of Medicine]:

Patients with PASC [Long Covid] are almost 4 times more likely to evidence cognitive dysfunction compared to normal controls. Forty-four percent of patients with PASC demonstrated cognitive deficits about 7 months from infection.

Hence, truck drivers running red lights, carpenters no long being able to sketch plans, aircraft controllers losing track of their airplanes, and so on.

“Hence” is doing a lot of work in both places. Perhaps we could wait a decade or so for NIH to blow another billion dollars on a useless study. Or we could make reasonable inferences. Remember: Covid is a mass-disabling event. So those two studies affect the entire population, of which those who enter the labor market are a part.

Effect of Changes in the Labor Market

Here’s one[5] knock-on effect of changes that Covid brought about in worker behavior.

1) Commercial Real Estate (CRE). Workers, in the aggregate, changed their preferred location to work. From the Boston Fed, “Lease Expirations and CRE Property Performance“:

The pandemic-induced shift to remote work appears to have led to a large and persistent decline in the demand for office space, especially in central business districts (CBDs). On the other hand, the deterioration in commercial real estate (CRE) loan performance has been relatively modest to date, as long-term leases have shielded commercial-property owners from the effects of diminished demand for space to a fair degree. To shed light on how these properties will perform in the longer term as more leases expire, this paper analyzes how lease expirations have affected property performance historically and investigates how these patterns have changed so far for leases that have expired since the COVID-19 outbreak.

Conclusion

Speaking of the imagination, there’s historical precedent for pandemic-driven labor market upheavals:

A pandemic kills off a chunk of the population, especially the more vulnerable working class. The labor force depletes. The labor of the remaining people who are willing to work is suddenly worth higher wages. People in power pre-pandemic want to deny that labor is suddenly worth more than it was before.

It’s the story of the American labor market in 2021 — and the onset of the “Black Death,” or bubonic plague, in 14th-century Europe.

With over 38 million people leaving their jobs in 2021, the coronavirus pandemic has spawned what some are calling the Great Resignation. Research shows that people want to pursue more fulfilling careers, even without other jobs lined up. Workers seem tired of low-paying, dangerous professions, and want to avoid increased exposure to the pandemic.

And they definitely want more pay.

More bleakly, swaths of the workforce are simply also dying off: line cooks, warehouse employees, and agricultural workers were especially at high risk of death in 2020, according to a study from the University of California, San Francisco.

A new book by English historian Dan Jones makes clear that labor shortages have long followed pandemics, with social unrest not far behind. His “Powers and Thrones,” which looks at roughly 1,000 years of medieval history, includes a discussion of the Wat Tyler rebellion, which he argues was really the working class leveraging its power as a result of the labor shortage that followed the Black Death, or bubonic plague.

It wasn’t just an English phenomenon, either. Thousands of people died in the rebellions that took place throughout Europe during that age, but something else happened — the economy changed forever.

When a pandemic arrived on this scene, the continent eventually lost roughly one in every two people. This was a human tragedy, but it also put labor at a premium. Wages soared as landowners struggled to make sure their crops didn’t die from a lack of harvesters. The sudden decline in the population also meant a decline in land rental prices. Land became dirt cheap, and landlords were desperate for tenants.

More than 800,000 people have died from COVID in the US over 2020 and 2021, and a similar thing is happening on a much smaller scale. Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows that 3 million people are currently missing from the American workforce, while wages have increased significantly for the first time in decades, and set to go even higher in 2022.

According to Jones, the same kind of shift in worker power 600 years ago caused wealthy landowners to panic. They petitioned their rulers to help save them from financial ruin.

In England, King Edward III enacted legislation that made it illegal for workers to claim wages above pre-pandemic rates: the Ordinance and Statute of Labourers. Workers were prescribed wage ceilings depending on their industry, such as masonry or mowing. The ordinance also made it a legal requirement for every able-bodied person under 60 years old to work.

Under the next king, Richard II, these ordinances, along with a slew of new, higher taxes finally triggered what is known as the Peasants’ Revolt, the first great popular rebellion in English history.

Of course, there wasn’t any such thing as “Long Black Death” back in the day; people were either dead, or not. I find it hard to imagine organizing a popular rebellion with a mass of disabled people. Nevertheless….

NOTES

[1] I have toyed with the slogan that “The only market is the labor market,” because, surely, all markets depend on the jobs that human beings do?

[2] From this morning’s Links, container import volumes are up too. So something’s going on out there….

[3] Also from CNN: “The rate at which people are getting recruited for surveys that are used in many of BLS’ monthly reports including employment, Consumer Price Index and Job Openings and Labor Turnover are down sharply from before the pandemic.” Curiously parallel to the problems that election pollsters are having.

[4] In the previous round-up, I did not cite to this article from Nature, though I should have:

The oncoming burden of long COVID faced by patients, health-care providers, governments and economies is so large as to be unfathomable, which is possibly why minimal high-level planning is currently allocated to it. If 10% of acute infections lead to persistent symptoms, it could be predicted that ~400 million individuals globally are in need of support for long COVID.

[5] I wanted to look at productivity and consumption, too, but dang. My sources weren’t good enough. It shouldn’t be hard to show, however, that cognitive dysfunction will have effects on productivity, quality of work, customer satisfaction, and so forth. As for consumption, surely at some point some significant fraction of the population will latch on to the idea that closed, crowded, close-contact spaces are dangerous? Maybe next time.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.

39 comments

    1. chris

      Perhaps because it’s a smaller set of people? Seems like the data shows we have about 106.5 million people in the age bracket of 25-54. So it would be a higher percentage of a smaller population for the labor participation rate, and the age set are people who are more likely to be employed. Kind of like looking car owners on the highway.

      Reply
    2. Objective Ace

      The civilian participation rate is for ages 16 to 99+. The super young and super old tend not to work or be searching for work, hence the 20 percentage point difference

      Reply
    3. ScottB

      Straight from the BLS website for January 2024, labor force participation by age group:

      50-54: 80.2%
      55-59: 73.7%
      60-64: 58.1%
      65-69: 32.6%
      70-74: 19.5%
      75+: 8.3%

      So yes, a steep dropoff over the age of 55.

      Reply
  1. ambrit

    “If 10% of acute infections lead to persistent symptoms, it could be predicted that ~400 million individuals globally are in need of support for long COVID.”
    The answer to that has already been made: “Go Die.”
    When will the Counter Narrative emerge? “Go Kill (The Rich.)” On this question will the future composition of Terran human society depend.

    Reply
    1. JonnyJames

      Good point, the US has private insurance extortion, and does not have a comprehensive health care system, unlike all the rest of the OECD countries. The US has the most expensive “health care” in the world, and the highest number of bankruptcies due to medical “costs”. The US has the worst health outcomes in the OECD, last I checked. “If you die prematurely, don’t take it personal, strictly business”
      The Mafia is more honest.

      Then, our corrupt “elected” officials spend trillions on war, WMD, surveillance, siege warfare, support of genocide, subsidies and giveaways for the oligarchy, etc.

      As George Carlin would say: “They don’t give a fk about you!”

      Reply
  2. Samuel Conner

    The thought occurs that it will become harder and harder for both still-industrialized and de-industrialized countries to wage conventional war. Not enough and not healthy enough people to turn into soldiers, labor shortages in key industries (or in what is left of them), cognitive deficits among a significant proportion of the skilled workers still well enough to report to work. I wonder how sensitive the machine tools at the foundation of industrial economies are to small errors in the implementation of maintenance protocols.

    There is, of course, a great deal of ruin in nations, so perhaps the changes will not be abrupt.

    I suppose that neoliberals will not be too concerned about any of this; The Market can be relied on to sort it out. Sort of an economics analog of anosognosia. Or perhaps neoliberalism is a cause of, a consequence of, or a form of brain damage.

    Reply
    1. eg

      I think your last sentence is correct — neoliberalism is its own sort of slow-burning, spongiform brain damage that induces the infected society to consume itself; a wasting disease in which elements of the body politic loot the rest until systemic collapse sets in such that only the saprophytic survive …

      Reply
    2. Revenant

      Hmm. I don’t think a shortage of soldiers would end war.

      Instead, it would throw the general staff back onto plans for war without soldiers, I.e.. Nuclear attack, even if it meant a peace without victors.

      We should be “grateful” that our bloodthirsty superiors prefer to fight labour intensive wars, rather than capital intensive ones by nuking us into submission.

      Reply
  3. Vicky Cookies

    Your comment on the labor market being composed of the lives of human beings, as opposed to merely being a statistical phenomenon to study and bet on, is appropriate and appreciated. With regard to the unemployment rate (3.7%? Why is anyone complaining? Must be shirkers), the participation rate is a fine tool to help fill in the gaps left by the politicized obscurantism of official economists; another is the employment-to-population ratio. A good rule of thumb might be to take the official number and multiply it by, oh, say, 10.

    A combination of factors helps hide high unemployment, and helps rulers hide from it. One factor is the sheer span of the country, and another is the ‘Bowling Alone’ trend. The civil institutions which would have championed the unemployed have been greatly weakened, and we are too physically separated, by space and by mode of living (screens, cultural hegemony of selfishness and boot-strap mythology) to achieve effective organization. Long Covid sufferers face these and other boundaries, to which you refer.

    Back in the Great Depression, ‘Unemployment Councils’ were set up, with physical headquarters, like a union hall. Folks would hang out, and when a rumor of an eviction taking place was heard, they rushed out to stop it by force; they looted food from groceries, too. Hard to imagine the ‘hustle culture’ generation doing this; it would certainly help.

    Reply
    1. Divadab

      I dunno – there are several recent examples of significant collective action by the youngs:
      – Occupy Wall Street;
      – Black Lives Matter;
      – Anti fa
      – and now Justice for Palestine

      You may argue that these manifestations are not organic, rather top-down, but every movement is led by a vanguard. I really dislike your attitude of sneering at the younger generations.

      Reply
      1. Vicky Cookies

        I’m 30, and have been organizing Palestinian solidarity demonstrations, die-ins, teach-ins, & other actions since October – and before. I look at the past for inspiration, because I think in order to expand our capacity to act, we need to recognize the obstacles to effective, sustained organization, material, ideological, and moral. Nothing informs us of this better than past movements, especially comparing their scope and militancy to those of today. When Spain came under fascist bobardment, ~60,000 people from all over the world went to fight and die to help the Spanish people (of course, they had the ComIntern); for Gaza, we cry, and scream at our leaders. You are of course entitled to dislike my attitude, as you interpret it.

        One frustration I have with my… comrades, you might call them, in the above mentioned movements is that, far from being top-down, inorganic, or superimposed, instead they are often organic to a fault: ad hoc and rudderless. This does not make for good goal-based organizing, where one asks “what can we do, and how do we do it”, developing, first, knowledge, then logistical steps, and the ability to adjust strategically. When looking at the movements you mention within a framework of goals, objectives, were they successful? Did they achieve significant material gains, or were they successfully co-opted or used as justifications for repression?

        Anyways, I think you might enjoy Piven & Cloward’s “Poor People’s Movements”, from which I got much of my information about the unemployment councils, and in which a strong case is made against the vanguard.

        Reply
        1. Divadab

          Hey, Vicky, I’m receiving conflicting messages from your words. On the one hand you lament the organic (=disorganized and ineffective) movements I cited and I don’t disagree- OWS was removed from the scene nationally with ease under Emperor Obama the Mellifluous; BLM was an operation which exploited nihilistic and impressionable youth to act against their own interests; and antifa, like these weird demonstrations of purportedly “white supremacists” are simply faked up police provocations. Cooption or fakery from the start, these things require naive deceived people to function.

          But by “vanguard “ I mean just the people you refer to as necessary to lead goal-based movements- leaders, honest, intelligent, leaders. So Im not sure I understand how you mean that term in the context of Cloward and Piven (thx for the reference) as somehow bad.

          I admit to having been badly burned, canceled, even, by taking a strong political stand against corrupt actors. I’m still hiding out, licking my wounds, resisting the nihilistic impulse. What is virtuous action? How can it be effective? How many brick walls can I hang my head against? Perhaps Epicurus said it all after all. Selfish? Yes. But injustice and oppression cry out for action. Demons must be eliminated by brave people. Petitioning the government or trying to organize sheep is a waste.

          Sorry for the apparent incoherence- perhaps it’s poetry. All love and respect to you.

          Reply
          1. Vicky Cookies

            The Piven & Cloward book describes leadership of movements as a hindrance. It provides the rulers being made demands of with a target for co-optation, and is often highly ideological, while the base of the movement is less so. Piven is an Anarchist, but the study is careful. I’m not sure I agree, at least in some cases.

            Ideally, the cadre organizations would develop in their members serious dedication, self-discipline, a high level of education, and the skills needed for leadership. In practice, however, in organizing fellow members of my generation, this is a struggle, due to some of the barriers I mentioned.

            Most of us who are committed go through cycles of action and hope, rest and doubt. I wrestle with the same questions as you. Wishing you a happy re-charging.

            All writing which springs from a love of common humanity, and a consequent hatred of injustice, is poetry. Thanks for yours!

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            1. Divadab

              Perhaps we’re in a situation, or approaching it, where the solution to oppression is autonomous cells that coordinate sometimes. The tech exists and certainly more and more people have literally nothing to lose. I hate this- I don’t want the system to collapse, it’s comfortable for me and my family, but the level of corruption and elite hostility to the citizenry is off the charts. They keep doubling down on their evil.

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              1. NotThePilot

                Threads like this are part of why I love reading Naked Capitalism. You both have clearly been way more involved in ground-level politics than me. I think it just comes with being an outsider, and exactly like you brought up, Vicky, physical and cultural separation from others. People from my background tend to be extreme cases of it.

                The only demo I’ve ever been to was a BLM march during 2020; I’m really glad I went, and it was educational but also kind of sad. I didn’t find anyone there that individually seemed insincere, but it was very clearly already being co-opted by the Democratic party as a “get out the vote” event (hegemony at work, I guess). There was also a lot of “talking past each other” beneath the surface, and people that seemed locked into stereotypical activist thinking: lots of vocalizing, “full of sound and fury…”, you get the idea.

                Anyways, as an outsider and someone from an unusual background, I would first say don’t give up. But I would also say that maybe some of your frustration comes from expecting human beings to be something they’re not. I wouldn’t want to derail the thread, but would just ask if you’ve considered this paradox: what if a few that will suffer for each other against the whole world are ultimately more forceful than millions that can only gather for the world’s suffering?

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                1. Divadab

                  Well yes- family first, community, sustained by love. Anything much higher in the social order (city, State, nation) more abstract and reliant on created fellow feeling. Propagandized fellow feeling. Which is where a lot of emotion is invested – and usually disappointed! Anyway, won’t be fooled again and hope others likewise!
                  Thx for your thoughts. Yes these threads at nc at the very least allow working things out communally. Often this process is quite inspiring!

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    2. wilroncanada

      There is already a couter-culture to the “hustle culture” I think you speak of. It is happening in most larger cities in Canada, and I would suspect, in the US. That manifests itself in the brazen large scale looting of stores by groups (gangs?) of young or middle-aged men and women. So far the whole phenomenon is being attributed to “those druggies”, you know, the same ones we see in the poorest parts of the cities falling over drunk/stoned–as if they could be part of those gangs. This time it isn’t usually food that is being stolen, it’s shelter, warm clothing, and tools, with which to set up the tent cities in the downtowns, and the shanty towns outside most cities.

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      1. Divadab

        It’s happening all up and down the west coast. Staff are told not to intervene and out roll the thieves. Older staff (my generation talking bout my generation) are just like where are the men putting some muscle into stopping the thieves?

        Anyway Home Depot Lowe’s now do facial scans when you enter the store and when you check out. I don’t like it. I’d rather put up with some disrespect from the local merchants than be frapping scanned like a flipping robot.

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  4. VTDigger

    I can’t help but point out that immigration really took off in late 2019/early 2020 as well…not that I’m foily.

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    1. GM

      At every step of the way those of us concerned about the impact of letting it rip have underestimated what psychopathic monsters our masters really are.

      Early on it was “surely, they are not going to let a SARS virus become endemic, who in their right mind would do that?” and yet that is precisely what they did — they were more than willing to sacrifice some of their own health, betting on being able to reduce the worst of it by always having ready access to the best available treatments, and thus still coming out ahead (because it is a relative outcome game, and if life expectancy for the rich goes down by half a year but it goes down by 5-10 years for everyone else, then the rich are winning big time — that is 5-10 years of resources that won’t be expended on maintaining the plebs alive and can now be redistributed towards an even more luxurious life for the rich), as long as there was never any threat to the socioeconomic status quo (which a proper containment effort once things were allowed to spiral out of control to the extent they had in March 2020 would have inevitably presented — at that point it could simply not be done physically without too much downwards wealth redistribution by paying people to stay at home and not work and too much active government intervention to organize testing and quarantine).

      Then it was “but that will shrink the workforce by countless millions, and what is the economy going to look like with a labor shortage and the burden of supporting all those disabled individuals?”. Well, once again we were hopelessly naive. It turned out none of that is a real problem for our masters.

      Supporting the disabled? LOL. Nobody has any intention of supporting them — getting thrown out on the street is their future (and already current reality for a huge number of people) and then however long they survive there (which won’t be very long) is of nobody’s concern, they are human waste that has already been disposed of as far as the powers that be are concerned.

      Labor shortage? No problem, just open the borders. We can always import healthy migrants from the overflowing with excess humanity lands of the Global South, and when they are too worn out and ready to be disposed of, we will just import more and more. And it wasn’t the labor shortage itself that was the problem, it was the upward pressure on wages it was creating, something simply unacceptable.

      Plus AI will soon take over anyway and we won’t even need real humans to work.

      Again, always underestimating the real monstrosity and inhumanity of the system…

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      1. Glen

        This! Perfectly accurate description complete with the depravity which seems to be a feature not a bug of our neoliberalcon “economy”.

        But model what’s going to happen to the American labor force by imagining it as a somewhat larger, longer term, more skill diverse Ukrainian army caught in a continual fight against an unseen, unchecked relentless foe. A relentless foe that makes you weaker and dumber as you get exposed to it. Add on the stupidity of financializing housing, food, education.

        And stir in the new reality of a multipolar world with competitor countries that both have a larger population base with way more current and future “top end” labor (STEM types, even though I’m beginning to realize that means Slave To Evil Megacorp in the west) along with a ruling elites that may now realize going forward that a middle class workforce is valuable and needs protection.

        Sooner or later even the soulless ghouls that run America are going to realize that de-industrializing, wrecking education, destroying the middle class for profit puts the future of your country on the down express elevator to “how to run your empire into the dirt”. And none of your near peer competitor world powers are going to make that same mistake.

        The next question is if America’s oligarchs even care – they don’t, but their kids, and their kid’s kids do.

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  5. Bazarov

    There was certainly “long black death”–the people that survived the bubo-form of the infection (the classic one with swellings under the skin) were often left scarred and could suffer chronic pain and other problems (including neurological, especially if the infection escalated to meningitis, but I would bet very few survived that).

    From what I recall of my studies, the respiratory-form of black death was pretty much 100 percent fatal. People would come down sick in the morning and be dead by evening. It was insane.

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      1. JonnyJames

        That’s what they say on TV, but: The senile POTUS has nothing to do with the economy. Our economic policy (or lack thereof) is bipartisan institutionalized corruption to the core. The oligarchy/Wall St. plans the economy, not the puppet emperor.

        If you think our economic ills began with JB, you must not have been paying attention for the past 40 years.

        You can “vote” for the other senile crook that our “democracy” shoves in our face, but it aint gonna make any damn difference.

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      2. Revenant

        Chapeau!

        (The French for a shanty town is a bidonville, named after the French for a jerry-can, un bidon, which is the only way to obtain water…).

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      1. Steve H.

        > the tents and shanties everywhere?

        They are not everywhere, they are unevenly distributed. Our back alley is a homeless highway, paralleling the main street through our city (on the order of 100k people). Here’s a reddit on a conflict about half-mile away from us:

        Whats the deal with great harvest church

        Nearby towns of 6k and 3k have no, as in zero, tents and shanties. I don’t fully understand why, tho our city is a destination town with established ngo’s, and confirmation other cities have bussed their citizens here. And we have nothing like the blight zones of Philly and larger cities.

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    1. chukjones

      I like to use the “metric” (data points) for labor market being the increase in the number of people sleeping in doorways and sidewalks. Certainly seems to be increasing in my town. (Think of the airport you wasted time on a layover in the southeast )

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  6. Sub-Boreal

    Since it’s COVID-related, it is duly noted that the documentary on British Columbia’s Public Health Officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, entitled “Our Time to be Kind”, had its world premiere yesterday in Victoria, BC.

    Henry was in the sold-out crowd watching the film. “When they brought her up on stage, the standing ovation was amazing — loud and long,” said the film festival organizer.

    The local constabulary were present at the theatre entrance to keep watch on a crowd of 40-50 protesters who objected to the public health measures imposed earlier in the pandemic. None of the news coverage indicated any protest against Dr. Henry’s advocacy of a vax-only policy, nor her refusal to acknowledge airborne transmission of the virus.

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    1. Divadab

      Very revealing, of the fascist process, this COVID thing. And it persists! Per research into the authoritarian personality, about 30% of people are naturally authoritarian. Add fear to the mix, and it ramps up to 80%, possibly more. And it can be very dangerous to be seen as a twenty percenter- just consider how shunned and demonized the “non-vaccinated” were. Scary stuff, apocalyptic times as in the revealing of what was obscure.

      The worst part is the lionization of people doing evil, like this Henry person. Or Fauci.

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  7. Paul Art

    I doubt if there will ever be a revolt here in the USA. They are shipping in replacements across the border at fantastic rates (5000 per day?) which I am sure are multiple times more than the people dropping out due to Long Covid. I think Globalization also plays a huge part. In India where most of the Engineering and Software jobs took flight to, Doctors don’t even test for Covid. Speaking from some experience it takes maybe 5-10 days to fill a vacant Engineering position in India. As for China I would think it is being mindful of Covid, but if they ever decide to say “Family Blog It!” and treat workers as Covid fodder and start feeding them into the manufacturing machine then we would have an even longer way to go before anything changes. The planet simply has too much stock of the homosapien variety.

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  8. eg

    I am a retired Superintendent (as of July, 2021). In the before times it would be expected that I would return to work replacing school administrators on leave for 50-70 days a year — the upper boundary allowable for those collecting pensions. Over the past 4 years due to an increase in sick leaves along with a shortage of willing substitutes (‘tis a mystery!) that upper boundary has been lifted to 90-110 days a year.

    I have never accepted a request to cover such a leave, nor will I ever do so. I suspect that I am not alone …

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  9. Craig Dempsey

    Don Quixote, in Cervantes’ novel from 400 hundred years ago, laid down the heavy burden of sanity, and took up the quest of being something already obsolete, a knight-errant. In his recent book Breaking Together, Jem Bendell suggests something similar, perhaps more self-conscious than Don Quixote, but equally engaged with nobility in the face of modern overreach; to lay down the heavy burden of hope in progress, to live with true humanity in whatever time we have left. Now Bendell thinks the end of modern society may be right around the corner, and that the first signs of societal collapse are already here. Maybe he is right about that. Even if he is not, I think his strategy may be the best tool we have in the face of overwhelming elites. Be the best human you can find in yourself to be.

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  10. ScottB

    Lambert, a bit late to the game here, and:

    1) besides the Black Plague in the 1300’s, there was the earlier Great Famine. Following a natural climate warming cycle (that put the “Green” in Greenland), there were three years of cold (temperatures stuck in the 40s F) and almost constant rain starting in 1314. Crops failed, farm animals and seeds for planting were eaten instead. Perhaps 10% to 15% percent of the population died.

    2) total appreciate for the estimates of labor market impact of long COVID. I will be quoting them in an upcoming presentation.

    3) “Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows that 3 million people are currently missing from the American workforce” turned out mostly to be people aged 65+ dropping out of the workforce (their participation rate had been growing steadily) due to death, COVID, fear of COVID, taking care of their kids and/or grandkids due to COVID impacts, etc.

    4) I know you didn’t want people teeing off on the opening labor market report, but I’m a little pissed off, hopefully not overreacting, on how you framed it. I just retired from 34+ years as a state labor economist, part of the BLS network that generates all the federal and state labor market info. Some comments:

    First, the Pepperstone quote had two errors. Non-profits ARE included in nonfarm employment (we’d miss a lot of education, hospital and social service jobs if not). And I’m not sure where they got the 80% figure. Workers excluded from NFP: roughly 1.4 million in the armed forces, 2.1 million agricultural workers, and 8.9 million self-employed (although some of these are included in the NFP). So we’ve got roughly 160 million jobs covered in nonfarm, and about 12 million not covered, making it closer to 93% of jobs included.

    Second, of course the monthly report will be touted by whoever is president and their staff, and not just in election years. This has been the case for decades. Witness Ronald Reagan (“misery index”) and Bill Clinton (“it’s about the economy, stupid!”). Not sure what your point is here.

    Third, in reponse to the CNN quote and how you framed it: the BLS published numbers are not a forecast, they’re an estimate. The “expectations” which come from a survey of nameless (Wall Street? Blue Chip?) economists are in fact forecasts and are wrong all the time, because forecasts are wrong all the time. And yet the MSM keep publishing them and interviewing forecasters regardless of their bad track record… take Larry Summers, please!

    The BLS estimates are based on a sample of employers. Employers are not infrequently late in reporting, which will change the sample-based estimate the following month (or months). This has been the case since day one.

    Data and methodology revisions are a “Sore spot?” “Pesky”? It feels like you’re throwing some shade here (as the kids used to say) or raising suspicions. At a minimum, those are not exactly neutral descriptors, and lean negative. If you have worked with BLS data at all, you would know that the revisions mentioned happen on a regular basis, monthly and annually. These are normal, and they are the type of processes that responsible agencies follow. And BLS is completely transparent about them. The NAICS code changes are the only ones that do not happen on a regular basis. These are a pain in the ass to work through, especially historically, but are essential for data analysis over time. They are a result of BLS trying to keep up with shifts in the economy like online shopping.

    In response to the article from The Hill:

    Let’s start with their last point: employment growth from March 2022 to March 2023 was revised downward by 266,000 jobs. The BLS January press release states, “On a not seasonally adjusted basis, the total nonfarm employment level for March 2023 was revised downward by 187,000, or -0.1 percent. Not seasonally adjusted, the absolute average benchmark revision over the past 10 years is 0.1 percent.” In other words, this was a normal-sized revision in a process that happens every year.

    Here’s what the annual revision is based on: about six months after the fact, state and federal employment economists get monthly data from every employer in the state and nation (data comes in on a quarterly basis as part of the payment of unemployment insurance taxes). So BLS once a year adjusts their estimates, from sample-based to the universe of employers. (These universal data are published by BLS as the Quarterly Census of Employment and Payrolls, available here.) Note that the birth-death model, which is used by necessity in the sample-based estimates, is not part of the annual revision, because the universe of data has all the births and all the deaths, no modeling necessary.

    And, since the annual revision was normal-sized, it means the previously-used birth-death model (which did very poorly back in the Great Recession) was not doing too badly, and the new model is likely just the old model tweaked a bit based on some changing rates of births and deaths by industry.

    In regard to Chris’s comments. First, let me be a bit defensive (apologies) for a moment. There’s a difference between the “how good are these numbers” quality-of-data critique and the “what do these numbers mean” interpretation critique. I think the employment data quality is pretty good, especially considering that BLS has been subject to continual budget cuts for years and that survey response rates have been going down.

    In terms of “what do these numbers mean”, a string of good jobs reports is good news. It’s better to have a job than to be unemployed. Full stop. And as others have commented elsewhere, the COVID recovery has been the most equitable recovery from any recession we have the data for. Record or near-record unemployment rates for African Americans and Latinos is a good thing. Of course that does not mean that housing has become more affordable, that the income and wealth inequalities have close in any meaningful way, or that job quality and wages suck, etc. The MSM continue to mostly ignore the 50% increase in corporate profits since COVID hit (responsible for half the increase in prices). But to dismiss positive developments because they didn’t bring the revolution seems to me to be unfair.

    Chris’s point about the labor force participation rate being low requires a nuanced response. The participation rate drops substantially beginning at the age of 55, so you can’t compare one time period with another without accounting for age demographics. In particular, much of the decline in the rate is due to baby boomers nearing retirement. Looking at the participation rate for the “prime age” 25- to 54-year-olds, the latest month was lower than it was in the 1990s, but better than all but a handful of months since then. That said, the participation rate for men under the age of 55 has trended downward for decades and is especially troubling for younger men. Women just hit a record high participation rate (and similarly are a clear majority of those pursuing a college degree). When I’m feeling optimistic (a rare thing) I have hope that the economic situation of young men picks up as infrastructure projects start to become operational and demand for construction workers increases.

    Chris writes, “Which means the tiny variations in the unemployment rate we’re seeing are dwarfed by any shifts in the labor participation rate and the number of people with one or more jobs.” Well, no. They are only dwarfed if the change in one is much larger than the change in another.

    In terms of multiple job-holders: the percentage of workers holding more than one job varied between 4.7% and 5.3% from May 2009 to February 2020 (right before COVID). In January it was 5.1%. This is far less than the variation in the unemployment rate. But there have been some studies suggesting that BLS surveys do not measure gig work very well. One analysis showed that in its household survey, there are people working gig jobs (e.g. Uber shifts) who do not consider that a job, and so answer that they are unemployed or not in the labor force or only work one job, even though BLS would consider them to be employed and/or a multiple job-holder. (Considering that some of these jobs are actually money-losers for the gig worker, maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Snark, by the way.) So the variation may be larger than the published numbers.

    Also concerning (and not mentioned in any of the articles) is the increase in BLS’s broader measure of unemployment, U-6, of half a point in the last year.

    Finally, what evidence do you have that BLS data is “gamed”? That is a damning word, as it implies intentionally making data inaccurate. BLS data is produced by faceless bureaucrats who know that the merest whiff of partisan politics would destroy their credibility. It’s pretty amazing that given all the partisan politics these days, they are still viewed in most quarters as providing credible data and analyses.

    I’ll close with a question for you: how would you suggest that BLS integrate long COVID data into labor market data when the medical establishment cannot even define it, much less measure it? That strikes me as a baseless criticism.

    BLS is not perfect (see above on gig workers, and don’t get me started on how they measure housing inflation), but considering everything, I believe they provide solid labor market data every month.

    Reply

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