Chair of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers Worries that the Huge Covid Stimulus Spending Is Causing “Permanently Higher Inflation”

Jason Furman, quoted below, was the Chair of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors. He is now a professor of economics at Harvard.

(p. B1) The United States spent more aggressively to protect its economy from the pandemic than many global peers, a strategy that has helped to foment more rapid inflation — but also a faster economic rebound and brisk job gains.

Now, though, America is grappling with what many economists see as an unsustainable worker shortage that threatens to keep inflation high and may necessitate a firm response by the Federal Reserve. Yet U.S. employment has not recovered as fully as in Europe and some other advanced economies. That reality is prodding some economists to ask: Was America’s spending spree worth it?

. . .

“I’m worried that we traded a temporary growth gain for permanently higher inflation,” said Jason Furman, an economist at Harvard University and a former economic official in the Obama administration. His concern, he said, is that “inflation could stay higher, or the Fed could control it by lowering output in the future.”

For the full story, see:

Jeanna Smialek and Ben Casselman. “Same Relief Goal, Different Costs.” The New York Times (Wednesday, April 27, 2022): B1 & B3.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date April 25, 2022, and has the title “Rapid Inflation, Lower Employment: How the U.S. Pandemic Response Measures Up.”)

Warren Harding Fostered Economic Growth by Reducing Government

(p. A15) Poor Warren G. Harding, burdened with the distinction of being America’s pre-eminent presidential bottom-dweller. In surveys on White House performance, Harding invariably ranks dead last, with almost no prospect that he will ever climb the rankings as others have done—Dwight D. Eisenhower, for example, or Ulysses S. Grant.

Historians have variously described Harding as “a prime example of incompetence, sloth, and feeble good nature,” “the most inept president” of his century, “lazy,” “a black mark in American history” and “quite the bumbler.” Is this an accurate appraisal? Ryan S. Walters answers with a defiant no. In “The Jazz Age President: Defending Warren G. Harding,” the author even indulges in a few flights of outrage at what he considers the “rumors, lies, smears, and innuendo” that have been “used to wreck” Harding’s reputation.

. . .

When Harding became president in 1921, the nation was struggling through one of its greatest crisis periods, beset by soaring inflation followed by debilitating deflation, bloody racial and labor strife, ominous episodes of domestic terrorism, and the fallout from Woodrow Wilson’s harsh wartime assaults on civil liberties. Harding’s first priority was the economy—the gross national product was down 17%, stock values were cut nearly in half, unemployment was at 12% and farmers were devastated by plunging prices. Harding reduced government spending, slashed individual taxes (the marginal rate had reached a high of 77%), increased tariff rates, and shrank the size and intrusiveness of the federal government.

All this flouted the progressivism that had dominated American politics since Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency of 1901-09. But Harding’s efforts worked, setting in motion a decade of economic expansion unequaled in American history. The economy grew at an average of 7% a year between 1922 and 1927, and the nation’s wealth soared to $103 billion in 1929 from $70 billion in 1921.

. . .

Harding was a man of little intellectual sophistication, with a gentle nature, hardly any pretense and almost no guile—in other words, the kind of man who is often underestimated and easily ridiculed. But he harbored serious convictions and a degree of common sense that served him well.

For the full review, see:

Robert W. Merry. “BOOKSHELF; A President Revisited.” The Wall Street Journal (Monday, April 4, 2022): A15.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date April 3, 2022, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; ‘The Jazz Age President’ Review: Correcting the Record.”)

The book under review is:

Walters, Ryan S. The Jazz Age President: Defending Warren G. Harding. Washington, D.C.: Regnery History, 2022.

Federal Covid-19 Stimulus Subsidies Reduced Labor Force Participation

(p. A2) . . ., home prices and stocks have soared, in part because of stimulus from the Fed. From the start of 2020 through Sept. 30 this year, U.S. households’ total assets soared 22% to nearly $163 trillion, Fed data show.

At the same time, the labor-force participation rate fell sharply and has remained stubbornly low. At 61.8% in November [2021], it was 1.5 percentage points below its pre-pandemic level. Many older workers retired early. But even among prime-age workers—those between 25 and 54—participation remains down more than a percentage point.

Some economists believe the extra cash is one reason for this. In part, that is based on research showing declines in wealth seem to have had the opposite effect. Falling housing and stock values from 2006 and 2010 led many who otherwise would have fallen out of the labor force to stay in, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. The study found that participation was 0.7 percentage point higher than otherwise as a result.

Families that win at least $30,000 in the lottery tend to earn less in the next five years, according to a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper released in July by four University of Chicago scholars. The more a person wins, the bigger the effect that the award has on earnings and employment, the paper found. Upper-income winners are more likely to reduce their hours, while lower-income winners are more likely to drop out of the labor market entirely, the paper found.

In Austria, workers who received severance payments worth two months of pay were far less likely to find a job within 20 weeks compared with those who received no such lump sum, according to a 2006 paper released by the NBER. The researchers also found a similar effect among workers whose unemployment benefits were extended from 20 weeks to 30 weeks.

For the full commentary, see:

Josh Mitchell. ” THE OUTLOOK; New Hope for Easing Labor Shortage.” The Wall Street Journal (Monday, Dec. 20, 2021): A2.

(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date December 19, 2021, and has the title ” THE OUTLOOK; Vast Household Wealth Could Be a Factor Behind U.S. Labor Shortage.”)

The July 2021 NBER working paper mentioned above is:

Golosov, Mikhail, Michael Graber, Magne Mogstad, and David Novgorodsky. “How Americans Respond to Idiosyncratic and Exogenous Changes in Household Wealth and Unearned Income.” National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper #29000, July 2021.

The published version of the 2006 NBER working paper mentioned above is:

Card, David, Raj Chetty, and Andrea Weber. “Cash-on-Hand and Competing Models of Intertemporal Behavior: New Evidence from the Labor Market.” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 122, no. 4 (Nov. 2007): 1511-60.

“Americans Think the Economy Is in Rough Shape Because the Economy Is in Rough Shape”

(p. A12) Offices remain eerily empty. Airlines have canceled thousands of flights. Subways and buses are running less often. Schools sometimes call off entire days of class. Consumers waste time waiting in store lines. Annual inflation has reached its highest level in three decades.

Does this sound like a healthy economy to you?

In recent weeks, economists and pundits have been asking why Americans feel grouchy about the economy when many indicators — like G.D.P. growth, stock prices and the unemployment rate — look strong.

But I think the answer to this supposed paradox is that it’s not really a paradox: Americans think the economy is in rough shape because the economy is in rough shape.

Sure, some major statistics look good, and they reflect true economic strengths, including the state of families’ finances. But the economy is more than a household balance sheet; it is the combined experience of working, shopping and interacting in society. Americans evidently understand the distinction: In an Associated Press poll, 64 percent describe their personal finances as good — and only 35 percent describe the national economy as good.

There are plenty of reasons. Many services don’t function as well as they used to, largely because of supply-chain problems and labor shortages. Rising prices are cutting into paychecks, especially for working-class households. People spend less time socializing. The unending nature of the pandemic — the masks, Covid tests, Zoom meetings and anxiety-producing runny noses — is wearying.

For the full commentary, see:

David Leonhardt. “The Economy Looks Healthy, but Americans Know It’s Rough Out There.” The New York Times (Saturday, December 11, 2021): A12.

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Dec. 10, 2021, and has the title “Covid Malaise.”)

Solve Future Crises by Allowing the Nimble to Innovate

Donald Boudreaux, on his Café Hayek blog, quotes a passage from my Openness book, saying that the best way to prepare for unknown future crises is to sustain a society where nimble innovators are allowed to nimbly innovate. Donald posted the quote on Mon., Dec. 6, 2021.

My book is:

Diamond, Arthur M., Jr. Openness to Creative Destruction: Sustaining Innovative Dynamism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019.

Higher Demand and Lower Supply Cause Higher Electric Bike Prices

(p. A1) For a glimpse at why inflationary pressures aren’t likely to ease anytime soon, consider the bicycle.

Bike prices in the U.S. and Europe rose sharply at the start of the pandemic because of booming consumer spending and snarl-ups in global supply chains that meant long delays and higher costs for manufacturers.

Now, manufacturers are working on building bikes for 2022 in a continuing environment of economic uncertainty—with more questions added recently by the emergence of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus. Today’s rampant demand and strangled supply are already pushing next year’s prices higher.

“The cost of our product is not going down,” says Richard Thorpe, chief executive of Karbon Kinetics Ltd., which sells Gocycle electric bikes world-wide from its base in Chessington, southern England. “If that is inflation, I wouldn’t call it transitory.”

. . .

(p. A12) Mr. Thorpe resisted pushing up prices for Gocycles in 2021 because he spent a chunk of the year explaining to unhappy customers why supply-chain disruptions meant there would be delays to their orders.  . . .

He says he is pressing ahead with price increases for 2022 because he doesn’t expect these supply-chain issues to get much better. He estimates the cost to the company of producing a single bike has shot up by 20% to 25% compared with the cost before the pandemic, as competition between manufacturers for common parts pushes prices skyward.

Seatpost prices have gone up 20% in the past 12 months. So have prices for the cranks the rider turns when pedaling. Handlebars are up 11%. Brake levers and calipers are up 14%. Chain prices are up 17%, and reflectors are up 50%, according to Karbon Kinetics.

Mr. Thorpe learned by email Wednesday that higher prices for magnesium—used in Gocycle wheels—mean future shipments of wheels will be 17% more expensive than they are now.

Multiple industries are competing for the batteries, semiconductor chips and tiny electronic components Gocycle uses for its dashboard displays, power management systems and charging ports.

. . .

Shipping a container full of parts from China costs him around $20,000, Mr. Thorpe says. It used to cost $4,000. Shortages of pallets and blockages at ports mean he can’t be certain when shipments will arrive. He estimates shipping costs for a single bike have effectively doubled, on average, depending on where exactly it is destined.

The flood of demand for bikes as the pandemic arrived took the industry by surprise, executives say, an example of how unprepared the global economy was for the mass switch in consumption to goods from services as the pandemic forced people to stay home.

. . .

Part of the explanation for consumer demand for bikes is a Covid-19-related trend that is pushing up prices for all sorts of manufactured goods. The pandemic has meant people are less able to spend their income on eating out, overseas travel and other services, so have been splashing out on gadgets and recreational products instead.

Retailers say consumer demand pushing up bicycle prices is still intense. Some bike buyers are seeking ways to avoid traffic or public transport as they return to the regular commute, a trend that is fueling adoption of pricey electric bikes in particular. Some retailers say they are seeing recent converts to cycling upgrade basic models for more expensive rides.

For the full story, see:

Jason Douglas. “Bicycle Makers Offer Clues on the Persistence of Inflation.” The Wall Street Journal (Thursday, Dec. 02, 2021): A1 & A12.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date December 1, 2021, and has the title “Is Inflation Sticking Around? Bicycle Makers Offer Some Clues.”)

Firms Nimbly Pivot to Build Innovative Products That Use Fewer Chips

(p. A1) Manufacturers struggling with a shortage of semiconductor chips are finding workarounds, executives said, redesigning products, shipping uncompleted units and focusing on older, lower-tech models.

. . .

Boss Products typically used hand-held controls with computer chips to angle snow truck blades. The company, which is owned by Toro Co., hasn’t been able to find enough chips. So employees started looking for ways to use fewer of them. Some remembered that joysticks, without computer chips, were used to control these features until electronics became affordable and commonplace.

“Let’s go back to the old design,” said Rick Rodier, a Toro executive. “It still does the job. It was done this way for 30 years. It was reliable. It was fine. It was just a little more cumbersome to build and assemble.”

. . .

(p. A6) T3 Motion, which makes electric stand-up vehicles for airport and university security officers, is redesigning its products to use fewer computer chips and electronics.

William Tsumpes, the company’s CEO, said instead of multiple components to control features like batteries, lighting and sirens, the redesigned vehicle will use a centralized, integrated board with a single processor to control all the parts of the vehicle. This move will eliminate the other five individual circuit boards, he said. Mr. Tsumpes said it was tough to quickly execute the redesign, but the moves, and an engine change, will lead to increased vehicle range.

“It’s spurring innovation,” Mr. Tsumpes said.

For the full story, see:

Austen Hufford. “Chip Shortage Leads to Redesigned Products.” The Wall Street Journal (Monday, Nov. 15, 2021): A1 & A6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date November 14, 2021, and has the title “Chip Shortage Sees Manufacturers Pitch Lower-Tech Models.”)

California Labor and Environment Policies Reduce Nimble Response to Supply Chain Backups

(p. A17) The backup of container ships at the Long Beach and Los Angeles ports has grown in recent weeks despite President Biden’s intervention to get terminal operators to move goods 24/7.

. . .

The two Southern California ports handle only about 40% of containers entering the U.S., mostly from Asia. Yet ports in other states seem to be handling the surge better. Gov. Ron DeSantis said last month that Florida’s seaports had open capacity. So what’s the matter with California? State labor and environmental policies.

Some 20 business groups recently asked Gov. Gavin Newsom to declare a state of emergency and suspend labor and environmental laws that are interfering with the movement of goods. Opening the Port of Los Angeles 24 hours a day “alone will do little without immediate action from the state to address other barriers that have created bottlenecks at the ports, warehouses, trucking, rail, and the entire supply chain,” they wrote.

One barrier is a law known as AB5. Before its enactment in 2019, tens of thousands of truck drivers worked as independent contractors, which gave them more autonomy and flexibility than if they were employees. As contractors, truck drivers can work for multiple companies, which allows them to nimbly respond to surges in demand.

. . .

Another problem: a shortage of storage space. “There is absolutely no available capacity in the warehousing sector due to the difficulty in developing any new capacity,” the businesses noted in their letter. The vacancy rate for warehouses near the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports was a mere 1%, compared with 3.6% nationwide.

If warehouses don’t have space in their facilities or parking lots to unload goods, drivers can’t make deliveries. Some truck drivers are leaving container boxes along with the chassis outside storage facilities and are picking them up later, but that results in a shortage of chassis at the ports. (About half of chassis are leased to truckers from a common pool supplied by private companies.)

. . .

. . . in California warehouse growth ignited opposition from environmental groups, which complain of pollution and noise. Many cities have limited new logistics facilities.

For the full commentary, see:

Allysia Finley. “California Is the Supply Chain’s Weakest Link.” The Wall Street Journal (Friday, Nov. 5, 2021): A17.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date November 4, 2021, and has the same title as the print version.)

Shifting to Small Ports Requires Also Finding Containers, Trucks, and Storage at Small Ports

(p. B1) When Flexport Inc. learned in the past month that an ocean carrier planned to shift cargo from the congested operations at the Port of Los Angeles to little Port Hueneme some 80 miles up the California coast, the freight forwarder found that trucking companies weren’t ready to go along with the changing direction of the imports.

“We talked to trucking carriers throughout the market in L.A. and Oakland and the sense was that they could not support the volume if it moved through Port Hueneme,” said Jason Parker, the company’s head of trucking.

The San Francisco-based company shifted gears, pulling 200 containers from the ocean booking and instead routing many of them to Los Angeles despite a likely longer wait there to offload goods.

“The two-week delay coming to Los Angeles versus the Hueneme routing was going to cause less headache for the customers,” Mr. Parker said.

. . .

(p. B2) Sailing to alternative ports can add weeks to the time it takes to get goods from Asia to the U.S., however, and can pile on new costs and complications.

Rachel Rowell, a spokeswoman for freight middleman C.H. Robinson Worldwide Inc., said shifting the flow of goods requires container availability, space on a vessel, truck capacity and equipment including the chassis that attaches to trucks to allow them to carry containers. All of those may be in short supply.

“Shifting entire chains is a more challenging ordeal than a cab shifting which street it takes, which is why shifting ports is not often a preferred option and why it is difficult to do last-minute,” she said.

For the full story, see:

Paul Berger. “Smaller Ports Handicap Shippers.” The Wall Street Journal (Monday, October 25, 2021): B1-B2.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date October 24, 2021, and has the title “Shippers Find New Supply-Chain Hurdles at Alternate Ports.”)

Higher Stock Market and Unemployment Benefits Allow Many Workers to “Be More Picky About the Jobs They Take”

(p. A1) Fall was meant to mark the beginning of the end of the labor shortage that has held back the nation’s economic recovery. Expanded unemployment benefits were ending. Schools were reopening, freeing up many caregivers. Surely, economists and business owners reasoned, a flood of workers would follow.

Instead, the labor force shrank in September. There are five million fewer people working than before the pandemic began, and three million fewer even looking for work.

The slow return of workers is causing headaches for the Biden administration, which was counting on a strong economic rebound to give momentum to its political agenda. Forecasters were largely blindsided by the problem and don’t know how long it will last.

. . .

(p. A13) Ms. Eager, who is vaccinated, said that she had always been careful with money and that she built savings this year by staying home and socking away unemployment benefits and other aid. “My financial situation is OK, and I think that is 99 percent of the reason that I can be choosy about my job prospects,” she said.

Americans have saved trillions of dollars since the pandemic began. Much of that wealth is concentrated among high earners, who mostly kept their jobs, reduced spending on dining and vacations, and benefited from a soaring stock market. But many lower-income Americans, too, were able to set aside money thanks to the government’s multitrillion-dollar response to the pandemic, which included not only direct cash assistance but also increased food aid, forbearance on mortgages and student loans and an eviction moratorium.

Economists said the extra savings alone aren’t necessarily keeping people out of the labor force. But the cushion is letting people be more picky about the jobs they take, when many have good reasons to be picky.

In addition to health concerns, child care issues remain a factor. Most schools have resumed in-person classes, but parents in many districts have had to grapple with quarantines or temporary returns to remote learning. And many parents of younger children are struggling to find day care, in part because that industry is dealing with its own staffing crisis.

. . .

When Danielle Miess, 30, lost her job at a Philadelphia-area travel agency at the start of the pandemic, it was in some ways a blessing. Some time away helped her realize how bad the job had been for her mental health, and for her finances — her bank balance was negative on the day she was laid off. With federally supplemented unemployment benefits providing more than she made on the job, she said, she gained a measure of financial stability.

Ms. Miess’s unemployment benefits ran out in September, but she isn’t looking for another office job. Instead, she is cobbling together a living from a variety of gigs. She is trying to build a business as an independent travel agent, while also doing house sitting, dog sitting and selling clothes online. She estimates she is earning somewhat more than the roughly $36,000 a year she made before the pandemic, and although she is working as many hours as ever, she enjoys the flexibility.

“The thought of going to an office job 40 hours a week and clocking in at the exact time, it sounds incredibly difficult,” she said. “The rigidity of doing that job, feeling like I’m being watched like a hawk, it just doesn’t sound fun. I really don’t want to go back to that.”

For the full story, see:

Ben Casselman. “Economic Gains Hobbled As Labor Market Shrinks.” The New York Times (Wednesday, October 20, 2021): A1 & A13.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date October 19, 2021, and has the title “The Economic Rebound Is Still Waiting for Workers.”)