Last month I asked if travel was back. Air travel has recovered a lot from the depths of the pandemic, but it was still only about 80-85% of pre-pandemic levels.
Labor markets also plummeted during the worst of the pandemic, and have slowly (and sometimes quickly) clawing their way back. But are we back to pre-pandemic levels?
The national unemployment rate is now under 4%, a level which is rarely reached even in the best of times. But there is considerable variation across states.
The latest BLS release of state unemployment data shows that some states are at their historic lows, with one state standing out: Nebraska currently has the lowest unemployment rate a state has ever recorded at 1.7% in December 2021 (the data go back to 1976). Utah is also just below 2% in December — at 1.9% it’s the 2nd lowest in history (after Nebraska, of course).
Of course, all is not well everywhere. California and Nevada have the highest unemployment rates, at around 6.5%. This is well above their pre-pandemic levels of about 4%, and also well above what you would expect during normal times, other than during and immediately following at recession.
So is the labor market back in Nebraska, Utah, and other similar states? Not so fast.
In the short term, there are only a few million doses of the COVID vaccines available, but well over 100 million adults in the US that want to take the vaccine if offered for free to the consumer. There are also billions worldwide that would like the vaccine.
So who should get it first? In practice in the US, the allocation method has already been determined politically: the federal government will allocate vaccines to the states, and states will allocate them to individuals based on a priority list: health workers and the most vulnerable first, then teachers, etc. The NY Times has a tool that shows you your probable place in line.
But essentially the allocation method being used is central planning.
John Cochrane has proposed a “free market” solution: sell the vaccine to the highest bidder. Or at least, sell some doses to the highest bidder.
As an economist, there is always some appeal in thinking about a free market solution. But there is a problem in this case: there are positive externalities from taking the vaccine. It not only benefits me, but it also benefits others. My willingness to pay only reflects the benefit to me, the private benefit. The social benefit is mostly ignored by a simple auction, and in the aggregate for a vaccine most of the benefits are likely to be social benefits. But positive externalities don’t imply we need to use central planning!
I have one very strong recommendation: Werner Troesken’s 2016 book The Pox of Liberty. Unfortunately the publisher did not foresee the renewed interest in pandemics due to COVID-19, so you might have to settle for an electronic version of the book right now (though you might have better luck with the publisher than Amazon).
Tragically, Troesken passed away two years ago. Many of us would love to hear his thoughts about the current pandemic. The beauty of this book is that we can still learn from him even though he is no longer with us, not only about pandemics of the past, but possibly with lessons for our current health crisis.
Troesken brings his broad knowledge of economics, history, and demography to examine the history of smallpox, typhoid fever, and yellow fever, as well as the policy responses. Broadly Troesken asks: why has the US historically been one of the richest countries in the world, yet so bad at fighting infectious diseases?
I won’t spoil the whole book, but he argues that the answer to both questions can be found in the US Constitution. The liberties protected in the Constitution allowed for the US economy to be among the best performing in the world, but made it hard for the federal and state governments to address pandemics. It’s a trade-off, or rather multiple trade-offs, as Vincent Geloso has put it.
We can see this clearly in the differences between the US and European responses to COVID-19: European countries were able to close their borders which spared many central and eastern European countries from the first wave of the current pandemic (though it does look like this may have been a temporary reprieve, as Czechia, Poland, and others are now seeing dramatic increases in COVID-19 cases). In the US, the virus has slowly spread from state to state, seemingly sparing no one in its path despite varying public policy interventions (including mostly unenforceable travel restrictions). We don’t know what the future holds for COVID, but the constitutional factors at play that Troesken described for smallpox 100 years ago seem to still matter today.
On a personal note, Troesken was a professor of mine in grad school (he spent one year at George Mason University, though most of his career was at Pitt), and he was a big influence on me, especially his teaching style. While I respected his work greatly, I was always puzzled by his interest in infectious diseases. What was the relevance of this topic for understanding the modern world? Well, in 2020, we all found out. And now we miss Werner even more.