“Let whoever needs to die, die”:  China’s Abrupt COVID Reopening To Achieve Rapid Herd Immunity and Resumption of Industrial Production, at the Cost of a Million Deaths

I noted a month ago that President Xi and the CCP have taken credit for relatively low (reported) deaths from COVID, due to strict lockdown protocols. By “strict” we mean locking down whole cities and blockading residents in their apartment buildings for months at a stretch. However, public protests rose to an unprecedented level, and so the Chinese government has done a surprising full 180 policy change, towards almost no restrictions.

According to Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel in the Wall Street Journal, the way this policy is being carried out has the makings of a mass human tragedy:

Zero Covid was always untenable and had to be ended. But it could have been done responsibly.

Among other things, that would involve buying Pfizer and Moderna bivalent vaccines and administering them to the elderly and other high-risk people, and purchasing Paxlovid and molnupiravir to treat those who test positive. Supplies of these products are ample. Authorities could continue mask mandates to reduce transmission. And China could institute a rigorous wastewater testing program to identify potential SARS-CoV-2 variants as soon as possible – and commit to sharing the data with the world.

Due to nationalistic pride, China has spurned the purchase of effective mRNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna, pushing instead the less-effective in-house vaccine.

Readers may recall in the early days of COVID spread in the West, masking and social distancing were promoted, not because they would prevent everyone from ultimately becoming infected, but because these measures would “flatten the curve” (i.e. reduce the peak load on hospitals at any one time, but instead spread it out over time). China is headed into a very un-flattened infection curve; some 800 million people (10% of the world’s population) may get COVID in the next 3 months, overwhelming hospitals and leading to over a million deaths. Besides the near-term human costs, this concentration of active COVID cases is likely to lead to a slew of new, even more virulent variants which will affect the rest of the world, along with China. What should help mitigate the situation is that the newer, most virulent variants of COVID may be somewhat less fatal than the original strain.

Why is the Chinese government doing it this way? Well, the sooner the country gets through mass exposure to the virus, the sooner everyone can get back to their factories and start producing stuff again. If in the process a bunch of (mainly older) people die, well, that’s just the price of progress. Let ‘er rip…

From MSN:

[U.S.] Epidemiologist and health economist Dr Eric Feigl-Ding estimate that 60 per cent of China’s population is likely to be infected over the next 90 days. “Deaths likely in the millions—plural,” he added.

According to Eric, bodies were seen piled up in hospitals in Northeast China. “Let whoever needs to be infected infected, let whoever needs to die die. Early infections, early deaths, early peak, early resumption of production,” the epidemiologist said terming it to be summary of Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) current goal.

But don’t expect any acknowledgement of mass death from the official Chinese media. Just as the initial COVID outbreak was denied and censored by the Chinese propaganda machine, so the current surge is being minimized. From Barrons:

On Friday, a party-run newspaper cited an official estimate of half a million daily new cases in the eastern city of Qingdao. By Saturday, the story had been amended to remove the figure, an AFP review of the article showed….

Several posts on the popular Weibo platform purporting to describe Covid-related deaths appeared to have been censored by Friday afternoon, according to a review by AFP journalists.

They included several blanked-out photos ostensibly taken at crematoriums, and a post from an account claiming to belong to the mother of a two-year-old girl who died after contracting the virus.

Posts about medicine shortages and instances of price gouging were also taken down, according to censorship monitor GreatFire.org.

And social media users have posted angry or sardonic comments in response to the perceived taboo around Covid deaths.

Many rounded on a state-linked local news outlet after it reported Wu Guanying — designer of the mascots for the 2008 Beijing Olympics — had died of a “severe cold” at the age of 67.

Perhaps we should not be surprised that the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention just reported zero COVID deaths for December 25 and 26.

Farewell to the First Normal Semester in 3 Years

Today as I gave my last final and took my kids to a huge school party, it struck me that things are finally back to something like 2019 levels of normality.

2020 was a lost cause, of course. I had high hopes for 2021 that vaccines would immediately get us back to normal. They did get my school back to fully in-person by Fall 2021, but not really back to normal, partly thanks to the variants. My students were out sick more than normal, and I was out watching my sick kids more than normal, as every cold meant they would be home until the school was sure it wasn’t Covid. Toward the end of the Spring 2022 semester worries were subsiding, and my state was pretty much fully re-opened, but things still weren’t really back to normal. Student attendance and effort were still way below normal, partly from the lingering effects of Covid, and partly from celebrating its end- partying to make up for lost time (and cheering on a great basketball team).

Fall 2022 finally felt like a basically normal semester. I still see the occasional mask, still hear from the occasional student out with Covid, and still have one kid missing 2 school days with every cough (policies stricter than 2019, but much relaxed from the days when both kids were at schools that could have them miss 5+ days with every non-Covid cough). Overall though student attendance and effort are back to what seem like normal levels. Up to Spring 22 I’d have students just disappear for a few weeks, not in class, not answering e-mails about why they weren’t showing up or completing work, needing lots of help to get on track once they finally reappeared. This Fall that didn’t happen; in my Senior Capstone everyone turned in a quality paper basically on-time and without me having to chase anyone down for it. Also, everyone just seemed happier now that their stress levels are back down to the baseline for college students.

This semester was nothing special- and that was beautiful.

Protests Erupt Across China Over COVID Policy But Lockdowns Continue: Why?

Headlines in today’s financial news include items like “Clashes in Shanghai as COVID protests flare across China“ from Yahoo Finance. There have been widespread protests this week, which are normally a rarity under the authoritarian regime, and are being suppressed by any means necessary. Apple stock is down about 4% in the past two trading days on fears that iPhone shortages will get worse due to worker unrest in the giant Foxconn factory in Zhengzhou. Wall Street keeps hoping the China will loosen up, since the lockdowns on the world’s second-largest economy are a drag on global markets.

China has pursued a “zero-COVID” policy, of strict mass lockdowns to halt any spread of the virus. Residents have been confined to their apartments for over 3 months in some cases. Whole cities with tens of millions of people have been locked down for months at a time whenever a number of cases are spotted. China’s economic growth has stagnated, and unemployment among young people has risen to 20%, which has helped fuel unrest.  Chinese people are aware that the rest of the world has moved on from mass lockdowns, and may be realizing the futility of thinking that lockdowns can stave off the virus indefinitely.

Given its discomfort with widespread discontent and protests, why does the Chinese government persist in this policy? An article in the Atlantic by Michael Shuman answers that question: “Zero COVID Has Outlived Its Usefulness. Here’s Why China Is Still Enforcing It. “  Back in 2020 when COVID first swept through the world, the strict lockdowns (readily enforced in an authoritarian regime) seemed like a big win for the Chinese leadership:

When the outbreak began in Wuhan in early 2020, the virus was unknown, vaccines were unavailable, and China’s poorly equipped health system could have quickly become overwhelmed by a sweeping pandemic. Yet the policy had a political element from the very beginning as well. The Communist Party is adept at sniffing out threats to its rule, and it quickly identified COVID as one of them. A major public-health crisis, with millions dying, would have raised serious doubts about the regime’s competence, which is, in effect, its sole claim to legitimacy.

Worse, the party could have faced a populace that directly blamed it for the outbreak—with good reason. The Chinese authorities at both the national and local levels botched their initial response to the novel coronavirus, suppressing information about its discovery by a Wuhan doctor and acting far too slowly to contain the initial spread. Sensing its potential vulnerability, the party shifted into anti-COVID overdrive, shutting down large swaths of the country, with the result that it did succeed in snuffing out an epidemic in a matter of weeks, even as it spread to the rest of the world.

That success allowed the Communist Party to transform a potential tragedy into a public-relations triumph. Within weeks of the Wuhan outbreak, China’s propaganda machine was touting the wonders of its virus-busting methods. And as the U.S. and other Western countries struggled to contain the disease, Beijing’s big win became even more valuable as evidence that its authoritarian system was more capable and caring than any democratic one. Beijing and its advocates pointed to rising case and death counts in the U.S. as proof of China’s superiority and American decline.

A number of other countries including Australia and New Zealand also implemented strict (stricter than in the U.S.) lockdown measures in 2020, and, like China, experienced far less impact from the virus in that timeframe than seen in the U.S. However, most of these measures were lifted in 2021. The widespread application of mRNA vaccines like those from Pfizer and Moderna in the West has served to mitigate the severity of the viral infection. Also, some measure of herd immunity has been achieved by the widespread exposure to COVID in the population; antibodies persist for at least eight months after contracting the disease. So, what’s up with China?

China has resisted using Western vaccines, relying instead on homegrown vaccines which are less effective, though they do give some measure of protection.  Also, “The additional layers of high-tech surveillance adopted in the name of pandemic prevention can be used to enhance the tracking and monitoring of the populace more generally,” which is another win for the government. However, the major factor is that the Party, and especially President Xi, cannot afford to loosen up now and risk an embarrassing explosion of cases that would overburden the healthcare system and probably lead to millions of deaths:

The victory of zero COVID was claimed not just as the party’s but as Xi Jinping’s in particular. The State Council, China’s highest governing body, declared in a 2020 white paper that Xi had “taken personal command, planned the response, overseen the general situation and acted decisively, pointing the way forward in the fight against the epidemic.”

This narrative became entrenched. If Beijing loosened up and allowed COVID to run amok, the Chinese system would appear no better than those of loser democracies, and Xi would seem like another failing politician, a mere mortal, not the virus-fighting superhero he was painted as. Zero COVID’s failure would be a disaster for the Communist Party’s veneer of infallibility.

So the leadership insists on zero COVID and damn the consequences.

Can You Use an Expired Home COVID Test?

Using a COVID test is a fairly serious matter – the results of such tests drive decisions on staying home and isolating or not, which in turn affect the spread of the virus in the population. I am known to use medicines that maybe expired six months earlier, figuring that the med will still be say 80% effective, but for a COVID test I want it to be as accurate as possible.

We all have on our shelves boxes of rapid COVID tests which were send out by the government in the first half of 2022. Most of these tests had nominal six-month lives, so according to what is stamped on the box, they are expiring right about now.

But wait – – that six-month life was just a (conservative) estimate from back when the tests were manufactured. For about a dozen out of the original 22 approved tests, subsequent data has shown that the tests remain accurate for longer than six months. Typically, the approved life is extended an additional six months or more. So before using or throwing out a box whose stamped expiration date has passed, go to this FDA link. You can quickly find your brand of test. The instructions for using this site are:

To see if the expiration date for your at-home OTC COVID-19 test has been extended, first find the row in the below table that matches the manufacturer and test name shown on the box label of your test.   

  • If the Expiration Date column says that the shelf-life is “extended,” there is a link to “updated expiration dates” where you can find a list of the original expiration dates and the new expiration dates.  Find the original expiration date on the box label of your test and then look for the new expiration date in the “updated expiration dates” table for your test.   
  • If the Expiration Date column does not say the shelf-life is extended, that means the expiration date on the box label of your test is still correct.  The table will say “See box label” instead of having a link to updated expiration dates.  

A couple more notes re COVID Tests:

( 1 ) The tests do detect the omicron BA.5 subvariant, which has driven much of the infections lately. However, if you have been exposed to COVID, the new recommendation is to take three (instead of just two) tests, at least 48 hours apart. (If you take the test too early, not enough antigen has built up to detect, so you might get a false negative).

( 2 ) Although the initial federal program for free tests has expired, there are several ways to still get free tests. Any health insurer will pay for them, as will Medicare. And there are other venues for uninsured or low-income people. See this article.

Is the Bottom Quartile Already in Recession?

I heard on a radio interview that spending by the bottom quartile is way down in 2022, while it is holding up merrily for the upper two quartiles. My mind jumped to the thesis:

“Hmm, the bottom quartile probably (proportionately) felt the benefit of the three COVID stimulus packages more, plus they would have benefited more, proportionately, from the enhanced 2020-2021 unemployment benefits, which (I gathered from anecdotal observations) often paid them more for staying home than they used to receive for working. But…by 2022, all that extra money may be running out.”

I spent some time poking around the internet, trying to find some pre-made figures or tables to support or disprove this thesis. What I found tended to support it, but this is not rigorous data-mining. So, for what it is worth, here are some  charts.

First, about the spending in 2022. This chart indicates that discretionary service spending by the bottom 40% income cohort is indeed down sharply in  2022, and now sits a little lower than a  year ago, while the upper 20% cohort is spending actually more than a year ago.  Spending by the middle 40% trended up in 2H 2021, then back down in 1H 2022, to end about even over the past 12 months:

Discretionary service consumption by income cohort. (I don’t what the units are for the y-axis, but presumably they show the trends). Source: Earnest Research, as of June 30, 2022, as reproduced by Blackrock.

And what about 2020-2021? The next two charts indicate (a) that consumer spending was HIGHER in 2021 that it was pre-COVID for the bottom income quartile, even though (b) their employment in 2021 remained some 20% LOWER than pre-COVID. Looks to me like a lot of spending of stimmie checks was going on in 2021, but (see above) that money has run out in 2022.

Some reader here may have access to a more consistent data set, so I am happy to see this thesis tested further.

Consumer Spending by Income Quartile (Showing higher spending by bottom quartile following stimulus checks and enhanced unemployment payments in 2020-2021)  Source: The Economic Impacts of COVID-19: Evidence from a New Public Database Built Using Private Sector Data, Stepner et al. (2022).

Employment Changes by Wage Quartile ( Showing employment for the bottom quartile in most of 2021 was some 20% lower that pre-COVID)  Source: The Economic Impacts of COVID-19: Evidence from a New Public Database Built Using Private Sector Data, Stepner et al. (2022)   

Market Concentration & Inflation

We are living in volatile times. With covid-19, big federal legislation packages, and the Ruso-Ukrainian conflict disruptions to grain, seed oils, and crude oil, relative prices are reflecting sudden drastic ebbs of supply and demand. I want to make a small but enlightening point that I’ve made in my classes, though I’m not sure that I’ve made it here.

Economists often get a bad rap for being heartless or unempathetic. Sometimes, they are painted as ideologues who just disguise their pre-existing opinions in painfully specific terminology and statistics. Let’s do a litmus test.

Consider two alternative markets. One is a perfect monopoly, the other has perfect competition. All details concerning marginal costs to firms and marginal benefits to consumers are the same. In an erratic world, which market structure will result in greater price volatility for consumers? Try to answer for yourself before you read below. More importantly, what’s your reasoning?

Extreme Market Power

A distinguishing difference between a competitive market and a monopoly concerns prices. While firms maximize profits in both cases, the price that consumers face in a competitive market is equal to the marginal cost that the firms face. There is no profit earned on that last unit produced. In the case of monopoly, the price is above the marginal cost. Profits can be positive or negative, but the consumer will pay a price that is greater than the cost of producing the last unit.

Below are two graphs. Given identical marginal costs of production and benefits that the consumers enjoy, we can see that:

  1. The monopoly price is higher.
  2. The monopoly quantity produced is lower.

But static models only go so far. What about when there is volatility in the world?

Volatile Costs

Oil and gasoline are important inputs for producing many (most?) physical goods. Not only that, they are short-lived, meaning that they disappear once they are used, making them intermediate goods. Therefore, changes in the price of oil constitutes a change in the marginal cost for many firms. If the price of oil rises, or is volatile otherwise, then which type of market will experience greater price and quantity volatility?

Below are two figures that illustrate the same change in the marginal cost. We can see that:

  1. Monopoly price volatility is lower (in absolute terms and percent).
  2. Monopoly quantity produced volatility is lower (in absolute terms, though no different as a percent).

The take-away: While monopoly does constrict supply and elevate prices, Monopoly also reduces price and output volatility when there are changes in the marginal cost.  

Volatile Demand

That covers the costs. But what about volatile demand? A large part of the Covid-19 recession was the huge reallocation of demand away from in-person services and to remote services and goods. What is the effect of market power when people suddenly increase or decrease their demand for goods?

Below are two figures that illustrate the same change in demand. We can see that:

  1. Monopoly price volatility is higher (in absolute terms, though no different as a percent).
  2. Monopoly quantity produced volatility is lower (in absolute terms, though no different as a percent).

Monopolies Don’t Cause Inflation

Economists know that inflation can’t very well be blamed on greed (does less greed beget deflation?). Another problematic story is that market concentration contributes to inflation. But the above illustrations demonstrate that this narrative is also a bit silly. Monopolistic markets cause the price level to be higher, it’s true. But inflation is the change in prices. Changing market concentration might be a long term phenomenon, but can’t explain acute price growth. If demand suddenly rises, monopolies result in no more price growth than perfectly competitive markets. If the marginal cost of production suddenly rises, monopolies result in less price growth.

All of this analysis entirely ignores welfare. Also, no market is perfectly competitive or perfectly monopolistic. They are the extreme cases and particular markets lie somewhere in between.

Did you guess or reason correctly? Many econ students have a bias that monopolies are bad. So, in any side-by-side comparison, students think that “monopolies-bad, competition-good” is a safe mantra. But the above illustrations (which can be demonstrated mathematically) reveal that economic reasoning helps to reveal truths about the world. Economists are not simply a hearty band of kool-aid drinking academics.

Covid-19 Didn’t Break the Supply Chains. You Did.

This is my last post in a series that uses the AS-AD model to describe US consumption during and after the Covid-19 recession. I wrote about US consumption’s broad categories, services, and non-durables. This last one addresses durable consumption.

During the week of thanksgiving in 2020, our thirteen-year-old microwave bit the dust. NBD, I thought. Microwaves are cheap, and I’m willing to spend a little more in order to get one that I think will be of better quality (GE, *cough*-*cough*). So, I filtered through the models on multiple websites and found the right size, brand, and wattage. No matter the retailer, at checkout I learned that regardless of price, I’d be waiting a good two months before my new, entirely standard, and unexceptional microwave oven would arrive. I’d have to wait until the end of January of 2021.

¡Que Ridiculo!

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AS-AD: From Levels to Percent

The aggregate supply & aggregate demand model (AS-AD) is nice because it’s flexible and clear. Often professors will teach it in levels. That is, they teach it with the level of output on one axis, and the price level on the other axis. This presentation is convenient for the equation of exchange, which can be arranged to reflect that aggregate demand (AD) is a hyperbola in (Y, P) space. Graphed below is the AD curve in 2019Q4 and in 2020Q2 using real GDP, NGDP, and the GDP price deflator.

The textbook that I use for Principles of Macroeconomics, instead places inflation (π) on the vertical axis while keeping the level of output on the horizontal axis. The authors motivate the downward slope by asserting that there is a policy reaction function for the Federal Reserve. When people observe high rates of inflation, state the authors, they know that the Fed will increase interest rates and reduce output. Personally, I find this reasoning to be inadequate because it makes a fundamental feature of the AS-AD model – downward sloping demand – contingent on policy context.

At the same time, I do think that it can be useful to put inflation on the vertical axis. Afterall, individuals are forward looking. We expect positive inflation because that’s what has happened previously, and we tend to be correct. So, I tell my students that “for our purposes”, placing inflation on the vertical axis is fine. I tell them that, when they take intermediate macro, they’ll want to express both axes as rates of change. I usually say this, and then go about my business of teaching principles.

But, what does it look like when we do graph in percent-change space?

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Dressed for Recess(ion)

In my previous post, I decomposed consumer expenditures to figure out which service sectors experienced the largest supply-side disruptions due to Covid-19. I illustrated that transportation & recreation services were the only consumer service to experience substantial and persistent supply shocks. Health, food, and accommodation services also experienced supply shocks, but quickly rebounded. Housing, utility, and financial services experienced no supply disruptions whatsoever.

What about non-durables?

Total consumption spending is the largest category of spending in our economy and is composed of services, durable goods, and non-durables. Services are the largest portion and durable goods compose the smallest portion. So, while there were plenty of stories during the Covid-19 pandemic about months-long delivery times for durables, they did not constitute the typical experience for most consumption.

Even though it’s not the largest category, many people think of non-durables when they think of consumption. Below is the break-down of non-durable spending in 2019. The largest singular category of non-durable spending was for food and beverages, followed by pharmaceuticals & medical products, clothing & shoes, and gasoline and other energy goods. Clearly, the larger the proportion that each of these items composes of an individual household budget, the more significant the welfare implications of price changes.

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It’s Still Hard to Find Good Help These Days

Consumption is the largest component of GDP. In 2019, it composed 67.5% of all spending in the US. During the Covid-19 recession, real consumption fell about 18% and took just over a year to recover. But consumption of services, composing 69% of consumption spending, hadn’t recovered almost two years after the 2020 pre-recession peak.  For those keeping up with the math, service consumption composed 46.5% of the economic spending in 2019.

We can decompose service consumption even further. The table below illustrates the breakdown of service consumption expenditures in 2019.

I argued in my previous post that the Covid-19 pandemic was primarily a demand shock insofar as consumption was concerned, though potential output for services may have fallen somewhat. When something is 67.5% of the economy, ‘somewhat’ can be a big deal. So, below I breakdown services into its components to identify which experienced supply or demand shocks. Macroeconomists often get accused of over-reliance on aggregates and I’ll be a monkey’s uncle if I succumb to the trope (I might, in fact be a monkey’s uncle).

Before I start again with the graphs, what should we expect? Let’s consider that the recession was a pandemic recession. We should expect that services which could be provided remotely to experience an initial negative demand shock and to have recovered quickly. We should expect close-proximity services to experience a negative demand and supply shock due to the symmetrical risk of contagion. Finally, we should expect that services with elastic demand to experience the largest demand shocks (If you want additional details for what the above service categories describe, then you can find out more here, pg. 18).

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