Covid-19 Health Effects Will Keep Reducing Labor Force

(p. A1) As the United States emerges from the pandemic, employers have been desperate to hire. But while demand for goods and services has rebounded, the supply of labor has fallen short, holding back the economy.

. . .

(p. A20) Morning Consult found in August [2022] that prime-age adults who aren’t working cited a variety of often overlapping reasons for not wanting jobs. In a monthly poll of 2,200 people, 40 percent said they believed that they wouldn’t be able to find a job with enough flexibility, while 38 percent were limited by family situations and personal obligations. But the biggest category, at 43 percent, was medical conditions.

Other data suggest some of that is due to long-term complications from Covid-19, although estimates of how many people have been knocked out of the work force by Covid range tremendously.

Katie Bach, a Brookings Institution fellow, put the impact at two million to four million full-time workers, based on her interpretation of the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey and other research. (The total affected may be larger, with many who suffer from long Covid reducing their hours rather than stopping work.) A Federal Reserve economist didn’t specify a number, but observed that even as Covid-related hospitalizations and deaths receded, the share of people saying they were not able to work because of illness or disability had remained elevated in Labor Department data after spiking in early 2021.

Another analysis, in a paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, found that people who’d taken a week off for health-related reasons in 2020 and 2021 were 7 percent less likely to be in the labor force a year later — which equates to about 500,000 workers.

Whatever the magnitude, the effects are likely to be significant and long-lasting. Vaccines provide imperfect protection against getting long Covid, studies suggest, and other post-viral diseases have proven difficult to recover from. “I certainly don’t think the worst is behind us,” Ms. Bach said.

For the full story, see:

Lydia DePillis. “Pool of Labor In U.S. Stays Bafflingly Low.” The New York Times (Saturday, September 13, 2022): A1 & A20.

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

(Note: the online version has the date Sept. 12, 2022, and has the title “Who Are America’s Missing Workers?”)

The NBER paper mentioned above is:

Goda, Gopi Shah, and Evan J. Soltas. “The Impacts of Covid-19 Illnesses on Workers.” National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper No. 30435, Sept. 2022.

NU President Carter May Earn $1.5 Million Per Year by 2023

(p. B1) LINCOLN — The University of Nebraska Board of Regents extended President Ted Carter’s contract by three years on Thursday, potentially keeping the university’s top leader in Nebraska through 2027.

Carter’s new contract, approved unanimously, also raises his base salary by 3% this year and adds a second deferred compensation package to incentivize the president to stay at NU.

In all, Carter’s total compensation could top $1.5 million beginning in 2023.

. . .

Regents also awarded Carter, a former superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy, a $105,000 performance bonus for the (p. B1) 2021-22 academic year.

That amount is less than the $140,000 he was eligible to receive; Carter hit 89% of the benchmarks set for him by the board last year after first- to second-year retention numbers fell at several NU campuses.

For the full story, see:

CHRIS DUNKER, Lincoln Journal Star. “NU President Given Raise, Extension.” The Omaha World-Herald (Friday, August 12, 2022): B1-B2.

(Note: the online version of the story was updated Sept. 18, 2022, and has the title “Regents approve contract extension, pay raise for NU president.”)

Minorities, Disabled, Less-Educated, and Felons Are First Laid Off in a Recession

(p. A1) Black Americans have been hired much more rapidly in the wake of the pandemic shutdowns than after previous recessions. But as the Federal Reserve tries to soften the labor market in a bid to tame inflation, economists worry that Black workers will bear the brunt of a slowdown — and that without federal aid to cushion the blow, the impact could be severe.

Some 3.5 million Black workers lost or left their jobs in March and April 2020. In weeks, the unemployment rate for Black workers soared to 16.8 percent, the same as the peak after the 2008 financial crisis, while the rate for white workers topped out at 14.1 percent.

Since then, the U.S. economy has experienced one of its fastest rebounds ever, one that has extended to workers of all races. The Black unemployment rate was 6 percent last month, just above the record low of late 2019. And in government data collected since the 1990s, wages for Black workers are rising at their fastest pace ever.

Now policymakers at the Fed and in the White House face the challenge of fighting inflation without inducing a recession that would erode or reverse those workplace gains.

Decades of research has found that workers from racial and ethnic minorities — along with those with other barriers to employment, such as disabilities, criminal records or low levels of education — are among the first laid off during a downturn and the last hired during a recovery.

For the full story, see:

Talmon Joseph Smith and Ben Casselman. “Job Gains for Black Workers Could Reverse in a Downturn.” The New York Times (Wednesday, August 24, 2022): A1 & A14.

(Note: the online version of the story has the same date as the print version and has the title “What Will Happen to Black Workers’ Gains if There’s a Recession?”)

Deep-Sea Nodules Are a New Source of Scarce Metals

(p. B11) Companies could start mining the ocean floor for metals used to make electric-vehicle batteries within the next year, a development that could occur despite broad concerns about the environmental impact of deep-sea mining.

The International Seabed Authority, a United Nations observer organization that regulates deep-sea mining in international waters, is drawing up a final regulatory framework for deep-sea mining that all 168 members would need to agree to within the next 12 months. The U.S. isn’t a member of the ISA. With or without the finalized rules, the ISA will permit seabed mining by July 2023, according to people familiar with the matter.

The intent of deep-sea mining is to scrape the ocean floor for polymetallic nodules—tennis-ball-size pieces of rock that contain iron and manganese oxide layers. A seabed in the Pacific Ocean called the Clarion Clipperton Zone, which cover 1.7 million square miles between Mexico and Hawaii, contains a high volume of nodules made of battery metals, such as cobalt, manganese and lithium. The International Seabed Authority in 2010 estimated the zone had roughly 30 billion metric tons of nodules. Cobalt and other metals used in making rechargeable batteries that power products from phones to electric vehicles are in high demand, setting off a race to find and procure them. Prices of these metals are soaring as mining for them comes under scrutiny, curtailing supply.

For the full story see:

Yusuf Khan. “Deep-Sea Mining Nears Reality.” The Wall Street Journal (Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2022): B11.

(Note: as of Sept. 9, 2022, the article was not available online.)

Current Labor Market Seems Robustly Redundant

In Openness to Creative Destruction, I argue for the possibility and desirability of a “robustly redundant labor market” in which workers can usually quickly find an equally good or better job when they lose their current job.

(p. A6) . . . one characteristic of today’s economy is that job cuts at small startups and large companies have yet to dent the overall labor market. Labor demand is still historically strong, offering only faint signs of cooling. There are nearly two job openings for every unemployed person seeking work. That means many workers who are losing their jobs are quickly landing jobs. Some are even weighing multiple offers and accepting positions that pay more and better align with their skills.

. . .

Employers had 10.7 million unfilled jobs in June [2022], down from a record of 11.9 million in March, but still well above the 7 million job openings in February 2020 ahead of the pandemic, when the labor market was also booming.

Job-openings rates across industries are much higher than before the pandemic hit, suggesting companies still need workers even in sectors where company layoffs have been pronounced, such as technology, real estate, finance and insurance.

Longer periods of unemployment can allow job seekers more time to search for roles that match their skill sets, some economists say. But with job opportunities so abundant, many unemployed workers are finding jobs that suit them within a matter of weeks or even days.

For the full story see:

Sarah Chaney Cambon. “Laid-Off Employees Quickly Find New Jobs.” The Wall Street Journal (Thursday, Aug. 25, 2022): A1 & A6.

(Note: ellipses and bracketed year added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date August 24, 2022, and has the title “The Surprise in a Faltering Economy: Laid-Off Workers Are Quickly Finding Jobs.”)

My book mentioned above is:

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

Trang Almost Did Not Perform Simple Experiment Because “People Would Have Known This Already”

(p. D3) A team of scientists has found a cheap, effective way to destroy so-called forever chemicals, a group of compounds that pose a global threat to human health.

The chemicals — known as PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — are found in a spectrum of products and contaminate water and soil around the world. Left on their own, they are remarkably durable, remaining dangerous for generations.

Scientists have been searching for ways to destroy them for years. In a study, published Thursday [Aug. 18, 2022] in the journal Science, a team of researchers rendered PFAS molecules harmless by mixing them with two inexpensive compounds at a low boil. In a matter of hours, the PFAS molecules fell apart.

. . .

At the end of a PFAS molecule’s carbon-fluorine chain, it is capped by a cluster of other atoms. Many types of PFAS molecules have heads made of a carbon atom connected to a pair of oxygen atoms, for example.

Dr. Dichtel came across a study in which chemists at the University of Alberta found an easy way to pry carbon-oxygen heads off other chains. He suggested to his graduate student, Brittany Trang, that she give it a try on PFAS molecules.

Dr. Trang was skeptical. She had tried to pry off carbon-oxygen heads from PFAS molecules for months without any luck. According to the Alberta recipe, all she’d need to do was mix PFAS with a common solvent called dimethyl sulfoxide, or DMSO, and bring it to a boil.

“I didn’t want to try it initially because I thought it was too simple,” Dr. Trang said. “If this happens, people would have known this already.”

An older grad student advised her to give it a shot. To her surprise, the carbon-oxygen head fell off.

It appears that DMSO makes the head fragile by altering the electric field around the PFAS molecule, and without the head, the bonds between the carbon atoms and the fluorine atoms become weak as well. “This oddly simple method worked,” said Dr. Trang, who finished her Ph.D. last month and is now a journalist.

For the full commentary see:

Carl Zimmer. “MATTER; Fighting Forever Chemicals With Chemicals.” The New York Times (Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2022): D3.

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

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date August 18, 2022, and has the title “MATTER; Forever Chemicals No More? PFAS Are Destroyed With New Technique.”)

The research summarized in the passages quoted above was published in:

Trang, Brittany, Yuli Li, Xiao-Song Xue, Mohamed Ateia, K. N. Houk, and William R. Dichtel. “Low-Temperature Mineralization of Perfluorocarboxylic Acids.” Science 377, no. 6608 (Aug. 18, 2022): 839-45.

“No One Wants to Take Mass Transit”

(p. A16) Across almost seven hours Thursday night [Aug. 25, 2022], the speeches grew in volume and intensity — a cacophony of New Yorkers brought together over Zoom to either praise or denounce one of the city’s most contentious transportation projects.

Transit officials held the virtual hearing to collect input on a tolling program to reduce traffic in Manhattan. But the meeting also provided the chance to swing at a favorite New York City punching bag: the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs the subway and bus network and would benefit from the proposal.

. . .

“No one wants to take mass transit. It’s not safe. Jumping turnstiles, shooting, looting, fighting, the list goes on,” Brendan Peo, a schoolteacher who lives in New Jersey, said during the hearing on Thursday. “The suggestion that more people will use mass transit instead of driving when conditions are like this in the subway is asinine.”

For the full story see:

Ana Ley. “Critics Abound at First Hearing on Tolls for Driving Into Manhattan.” The New York Times (Saturday, Aug. 27, 2022): A16.

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

(Note: the online version of the story has the date August 26, 2022, and has the title “At M.T.A.’s First Congestion Pricing Hearing, Critics Abound.”)

Miami Mayor Welcomes Private Enterprise with Public Safety, Low Taxes, and Few Regulations

(p. A15) On one side, we have the socialist model: high taxes, high regulation, less competition and declining public services with government imposing itself as the solver and arbiter of all social problems. On the other side, we have the Miami model: low taxes, low regulation and a commitment to public safety and private enterprise. The models present a stark choice on issues ranging from personal freedom, economic opportunity, public safety and the role of government.

. . .

In Miami, many residents have personally experienced the socialist model along with its symptoms of hyperinflation, class resentment and stagnant growth. Four years ago Miami residents elected me to pursue a different path. We reduced taxes dramatically, and our revenue base doubled. We invested in our police, and our crime rate dropped. And last week we reduced taxes to their lowest level in history—cutting costs for residents and promoting economic growth.

Miami is a place where you can keep what you earn, invest what you save, and own what you build. We are meeting the high demand of rent costs by encouraging public-private partnerships, activating underutilized land through zoning reforms, and harnessing free-market forces to build more. It works, and our new residents from New York and California can confirm it.

For the full commentary see:

Francis X. Suarez. “Miami Takes On the Socialist Model.” The Wall Street Journal (Monday, Aug. 22, 2022): A15.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date August 21, 2022, and has the same title as the print version.)

Wittgenstein Center’s Scenario Has Global Population Peak in 2050 at 8.7 Billion

(p. A2) Since the 1960s, when the global number of people first hit three billion, it has taken a bit over a decade to cross each new billion-person milestone, and so it might seem natural to assume that nine billion humans and then 10 billion are, inexorably, just around the corner. That is exactly what the latest population projections from the U.N. and the U.S. Census Bureau have calculated.

. . .

The U.N.’s projections are the best known. But an alternate set of projections has been gaining attention in recent years, spearheaded by the demographer Wolfgang Lutz, under the auspices of the Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital at the University of Vienna, of which Mr. Lutz is founding director.

. . .

“There’s two big questions,” Mr. Lutz explains, that determine whether his forecasts or the U.N.’s end up closer to the mark. “First, how rapidly fertility will decline in Africa…. The other question is China, and countries with very low fertility, if they will recover and how fast they will recover.”

. . .

The Wittgenstein forecasts, by contrast, look not only at historical patterns, but attempt to ask why birthrates rise and fall. A big factor, not formally included in the U.N.’s models, is education levels. Put simply: As people, especially women, have greater opportunities to pursue education, they have smaller families.

. . .

The U.N. projects Africa’s population will grow from 1.3 billion today to 3.9 billion by century’s end.

Once education is accounted for, Wittgenstein’s baseline scenario projects Africa’s population will rise to 2.9 billion during that time period. In another scenario from Wittgenstein, which it calls the “rapid development” scenario, the population of Africa will only reach 1.7 billion by century’s end.

Wittgenstein’s phrase “rapid development” is revealing: This isn’t a forecast of doom and decline, but rather one in which health and education simply improve, a world with better human well-being, lower mortality, and medium levels of immigration.

. . .

Wittgenstein’s rapid-development scenario has the global population topping out at 8.7 billion in 2050.

For the full commentary see:

Josh Zumbrun. “THE NUMBERS; As Population Nears 8 Billion, Some See Peak.” The Wall Street Journal (Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2022): A2.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date August 12, 2022, and has the title “THE NUMBERS; Global Population Is About to Hit 8 Billion—and Some Argue It Is Near Its Peak.”)

A.I. Cannot Learn What 4-Year-Old Learns From Trial-And-Error Experiments

(p. C3) A few weeks ago a Google engineer got a lot of attention for a dramatic claim: He said that the company’s LaMDA system, an example of what’s known in artificial intelligence as a large language model, had become a sentient, intelligent being.

Large language models like LaMDA or San Francisco-based Open AI’s rival GPT-3 are remarkably good at generating coherent, convincing writing and conversations—convincing enough to fool the engineer. But they use a relatively simple technique to do it: The models see the first part of a text that someone has written and then try to predict which words are likely to come next. If a powerful computer does this billions of times with billions of texts generated by millions of people, the system can eventually produce a grammatical and plausible continuation to a new prompt or a question.

. . .

In what’s known as the classic “Turing test,” Alan Turing in 1950 suggested that if you couldn’t tell the difference in a typed conversation between a person and a computer, the computer might qualify as intelligent. Large language models are getting close. But Turing also proposed a more stringent test: For true intelligence, a computer should not only be able to talk about the world like a human adult—it should be able to learn about the world like a human child.

In my lab we created a new online environment to implement this second Turing test—an equal playing field for children and AI systems. We showed 4-year-olds on-screen machines that would light up when you put some combinations of virtual blocks on them but not others; different machines worked in different ways. The children had to figure out how the machines worked and say what to do to make them light up. The 4-year-olds experimented, and after a few trials they got the right answer. Then we gave state-of-the-art AI systems, including GPT-3 and other large language models, the same problem. The language models got a script that described each event the children saw and then we asked them to answer the same questions we asked the kids.

We thought the AI systems might be able to extract the right answer to this simple problem from all those billions of earlier words. But nobody in those giant text databases had seen our virtual colored-block machines before. In fact, GPT-3 bombed. Some other recent experiments had similar results. GPT-3, for all its articulate speech, can’t seem to solve cause-and-effect problems.

If you want to solve a new problem, googling it or going to the library may be a first step. But ultimately you have to experiment, the way the children did. GPT-3 can tell you what the most likely outcome of a story will be. But innovation, even for 4-year-olds, depends on the surprising and unexpected—on discovering unlikely outcomes, not predictable ones.

For the full commentary see:

Alison Gopnik. “What AI Still Doesn’t Know How To Do.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, July 16, 2022): C3.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date July 15, 2022, and has the same title as the print version.)

Increasing Tax Rates Will Reduce Venture Funding for Cancer Research

(p. A17) In his last year as vice president, Joe Biden launched a “cancer moonshot” to accelerate cures for the disease. It was short-lived, but he did help negotiate an agreement in Congress easing regulation of breakthrough drugs and medical devices.

In February [2022], President Biden revived the initiative, setting a goal of reducing cancer death rates by at least 50% over the next 25 years. It’s ambitious but may be achievable given how rapidly scientific knowledge and treatments are advancing. Other Biden policies, however, are at odds with the goals of this one.

Two pharmaceutical breakthroughs were announced only last week that could save tens of thousands of lives each year and redefine cancer care. Yet the tax hikes and drug-price controls that the Biden administration is pitching would discourage the private investment that has delivered these potential cures.

. . .

Oncologists were blown away by the results reported last week in the New England Journal of Medicine: All 12 patients receiving the drug achieved complete remission after six months of treatment. None needed surgery, chemotherapy or radiation. Although some may relapse, the 100% success rate is unprecedented even for a small trial.

. . .

Last week AstraZeneca in partnership with Daiichi Sankyo reported that Enhertu reduced the risk of death by 36% in patients with metastatic breast cancer with low HER2 and by half for the subset who were hormone-receptor negative. These results blow the outcomes for other metastatic breast-cancer therapies out of the water.

. . .

These treatment breakthroughs aren’t happening because of government programs. They’re happening because pharmaceutical companies have invested decades and hundreds of billions of dollars in drug research and development. It typically takes 10.5 years and $1.3 billion to bring a new drug to market. About 95% of cancer drugs fail.

This is important to keep in mind as Mr. Biden and Democrats in Congress push for Medicare to “negotiate”—i.e., cap—drug prices and raise taxes on corporations and investors. The large profits that drugmakers notch from successful drugs are needed to reward shareholders for their investment risk and encourage future investment. Capital is mobile.

Mr. Biden’s proposal to increase the top marginal individual income-tax rates, including on capital gains, would punish venture capitalists who seed biotech startups, which do most early-stage research on cancer drugs and are often acquired by large drugmakers. At the same time, his proposed corporate global minimum tax would raise costs of intellectual property, which is often taxed at lower rates abroad.

There aren’t many things to celebrate nowadays, but biotech innovation is one. Let’s hope the president doesn’t kill his own cancer moonshot.

For the full commentary see:

Allysia Finley. “Biden May Stop His Cancer Moonshot’s Launch.” The Wall Street Journal (Thursday, June 16, 2022): A17.

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

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date June 15, 2022, and has the same title as the print version.)