Today, I'm joined on episode 68 of the "Let People Prosper" show by Dr. Carlos Carvalho who is a Professor in Statistics at the University of Texas-Austin and Director of the Salem Center.
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1) Economic lessons that Dr. Carvalho learned living in Brazil during the 80s while the nation suffered from hyperinflation and how it relates to current overspending by Congress in the U.S. (see more on this in my episode with Dr. John Cochrane);
2) The importance of federalism and letting markets work; and
3) How the pandemic was mishandled and the importance of understanding tradeoffs.
Lessons Learned from U.S. Pandemic Policies HARMING Poor & Children w Dr. Jay Bhattacharya | Let People Prosper Show Ep. 50
Today, I'm honored to be joined by Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, Professor of Health Policy at Stanford University and a research associate at the National Bureau of Economics Research.
1) How the U.S. policy response to the COVID-19 pandemic harmed the poor, working class, and children and the subsequent side effects those groups continue to grapple with (see his Twitter thread here for more details);
2) Why shutting down the economy and enforcing social distancing is not effective from a health and medicine perspective and a better alternative; and
3) Why Dr. Bhattacharya fears the U.S. would have the same response in the event of another pandemic and his suggestions for how to handle one.
Dr. Bhattacharya’s bio:
Key Point: Americans are suffering under big-government policies as average weekly earnings adjusted for inflation are down for 21 straight months. It's time for pro-growth policies to unleash economic potential to let people prosper.
Overview: The irresponsible “shutdown recession” and subsequent government failures have led to a longer, deeper recession with high inflation that are having persistent consequences for many Americans’ livelihoods. This includes excessive federal spending redistributing scarce private sector resources with deficit spending of more than $7 trillion since January 2020 to reach the new high of $31.4 trillion in national debt—about $95,000 owed per American or $250,000 owed per taxpayer. This new debt has hit its limit and needs to be addressed with spending restraint as the Federal Reserve monetized most of the new debt, leading to a 40-year-high inflation rates. The failed policies of the Biden administration, Congress, and the Fed must be replaced with a liberty-preserving, free-market, pro-growth approach by the new majority by House Republicans so there are more opportunities to let people prosper.
Labor Market: The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics recently released the U.S. jobs report for December 2022. The BLS’s establishment report shows there were 223,000 net nonfarm jobs added last month, with 220,000 added in the private sector. Interestingly, while there have appeared to be a relatively robust number of jobs created, a recent report by the Philadelphia Fed find that if you add up the jobs added in states in Q2:2022 there were just 10,500 net new jobs rather than more than 1 million initially estimated. This further indicates that the recession started in (likely) March 2022 (more on this below).
That expected revision to the establishment report supports the weak data in the BLS’s household survey, which employment increased by 717,000 jobs last month but had declined in four of the last nine months for a total increase of 916,000 jobs since March 2022. This number of net jobs added since then is much lower than the report 2.9 million payroll jobs in the establishment. The official U3 unemployment rate declined slightly to 3.5%, but challenges remain, including: 3.1% decline in average weekly earnings (inflation-adjusted) over the last year, 0.4-percentage point lower prime-age (25–54 years old) employment-population ratio than in February 2020, 0.6-percentage point below prime-age labor force participation rate, and 1.0-percentage-point lower total labor-force participation rate with millions of people out of the labor force.
These data support my warnings for months of stagflation, recession, and a “zombie economy.” This includes “zombie labor” as many workers are sitting on the sidelines and others are “quiet quitting” while there’s a declining number of unfilled jobs than unemployed people to 4.5 million And that demand for labor is likely inflated from many “zombie firms,” which run on debt and could make up at least 20% of the stock market and will likely lay off workers with rising debt costs.
Economic Growth: The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis’ released economic output data for Q4:2022. The following provides data for real total gross domestic product (GDP), measured in chained 2012 dollars, and real private GDP, which excludes government consumption expenditures and gross investment.
The shutdown recession in 2020 had GDP contract at historic annualized rates because of individual responses and government-imposed shutdowns related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Economic activity has had booms and busts thereafter because of inappropriately imposed government COVID-related restrictions in response to the pandemic and poor fiscal policies that severely hurt people’s ability to exchange and work.
Since 2021, the growth in nominal total GDP, measured in current dollars, was dominated by inflation, which distorts economic activity. The GDP implicit price deflator was +6.1% for Q4-over-Q4 2021, representing half of the +12.2% increase in nominal total GDP. This inflation measure was +9.1% in Q2:2022—the highest since Q1:1981—for a +8.5% increase in nominal total GDP that quarter. This made two consecutive declines in real total (and private) GDP, providing a criterion to date recessions every time since at least 1950. In Q3:2022, nominal total GDP was +7.6% and GDP inflation was +4.4% for the +3.2% increase in real total GDP. But if inflation had been as high as it was in the prior two quarters or had the contribution of net exports of goods and services (driven by natural gas exports to Europe) not been 2.9%, real total GDP would have either declined or been essentially flat for a third straight quarter.
In Q4:2022, there was a similar story of weaknesses as nominal total GDP was +6.4% and GDP inflation was +3.5% for the +2.9% increase in real total GDP. But if you consider the +2.9% real total GDP growth was driven by contributions of volatile inventories (+1.5pp), government spending (+0.6pp), and next exports (+0.6pp) which total +2.7pp, the actual growth is quite tepid. For all of 2022, real total GDP growth is reported +2.1% year-over-year but measured by Q4-over-Q4 the growth rate was only +0.96%, which was the slowest Q4-over-Q4 growth for a year since 2009 (last part of Great Recession).
The Atlanta Fed’s early GDPNow projection on January 27, 2023 for real total GDP growth in Q1:2023 was +0.7% based on the latest data available.
The table above also shows the last expansion from June 2009 to February 2020. The earlier part of the expansion had slower real total GDP growth but had faster real private GDP growth. A reason for this difference is higher deficit-spending in the latter period, contributing to crowding-out of the productive private sector. Congress’ excessive spending thereafter led to a massive increase in the national debt that would have led to higher market interest rates. This is yet another example of how there is always an excessive government spending problem as noted in the following figure with federal spending and tax receipts as a share of GDP.
But the Fed monetized much of it to keep rates artificially lower thereby creating higher inflation as there has been too much money chasing too few goods and services as production has been overregulated and overtaxed and workers have been given too many handouts. The Fed’s balance sheet exploded from about $4 trillion, when it was already bloated after the Great Recession, to nearly $9 trillion and is down only about 6% since the record high in April 2022. The Fed will need to cut its balance sheet (see first figure below with total assets over time) more aggressively if it is to stop manipulating so many markets (see second figure with types of assets on its balance sheet) and persistently tame inflation.
The resulting inflation measured by the consumer price index (CPI) has cooled some from the peak of 9.1% in June 2022 but remains hot at 6.5% in December 2022 over the last year, which remains at a 40-year high (highest since June 1982) along with other key measures of inflation (see figure below). After adjusting total earnings in the private sector for CPI inflation, real total earnings are up by only 1.1% since February 2020 as the shutdown recession took a huge hit on total earnings and then higher inflation hindered increased purchasing power.
Just as inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon, high deficits and taxes are always and everywhere a spending problem. The figure below (h/t David Boaz at Cato Institute) shows how this problem is from both Republicans and Democrats.
As the federal debt far exceeds U.S. GDP, and President Biden proposed an irresponsible FY23 budget and Congress never passed one until the ridiculous $1.7 trillion omnibus in December, America needs a fiscal rule like the Responsible American Budget (RAB) with a maximum spending limit based on population growth plus inflation. If Congress had followed this approach from 2002 to 2021, the (updated) $17.7 trillion national debt increase would instead have been a $1.1 trillion decrease (i.e., surplus) for a $18.8 trillion swing to the positive that would have reduced the cost to Americans. The Republican Study Committee recently noted the strength of this type of fiscal rule in its FY 2023 “Blueprint to Save America.” And the Federal Reserve should follow a monetary rule.
Bottom Line: Americans are struggling from bad policies out of D.C., which have resulted in a recession with high inflation. Instead of passing massive spending bills, like passage of the “Inflation Reduction Act” that will result in higher taxes, more inflation, and deeper recession, the path forward should include pro-growth policies. These policies ought to be similar to those that supported historic prosperity from 2017 to 2019 that get government out of the way rather than the progressive policies of more spending, regulating, and taxing. The time is now for limited government with sound fiscal and monetary policy that provides more opportunities for people to work and have more paths out of poverty.
The fact that our nation’s unemployment rate is approaching the low rate of 3.5% that was reached just prior to the pandemic should be a cause for celebration. But for a variety of reasons, the official unemployment number is misleading.
The employment situation is not as rosy as it may seem. There is a wide disparity among the states that can be explained by how much economic freedom they allow, including how severely each state shut down its economy due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Consider that the U.S. remains 1.6 million jobs short of our February 2020 high, just before the pandemic came to our shores. Since then, our population has grown by 3.8 million people but the labor force shrank by 174,000 workers.
The picture diverges for states. As demonstrated in our 2021 study, the states with the worst job recovery also imposed the harshest COVID-19 measures.
For example, two states with the severest lockdowns — California and New York — are also experiencing two of the worst job recoveries, with unemployment rates at least a full percentage point above the national average of 3.6% based on the newly released March 2022 data.
Conversely, Utah and Nebraska, who are among the states with the least severe lockdown policies, are tied with the lowest unemployment rate of 2.0%, well below the national average.
In measuring how states have rebounded, a better metric than the unemployment rate is the recovery in private employment. Only 16 states have recovered all the private jobs lost due to the shutdowns compared to February 2020. But if we account for each state’s pre-pandemic job growth trajectory, our analysis shows that Montana and Utah stand above the rest for exceeding our forecast of their private employment.
Idaho follows closely behind Montana and Utah, and then Wyoming, North Carolina, Mississippi, South Dakota, Arkansas, Maine, and Georgia to round out the top 10 performing states. Except for Maine and North Carolina, each one has a Republican trifecta (GOP controls both chambers of the legislature and the governor’s office).
North Carolina leans Republican, and Maine is the anomaly having a Democrat trifecta.
What about the bottom 10 states in private-sector jobs recovery? They are Hawaii, New York, North Dakota, California, Maryland, Vermont, Minnesota, Oregon, Massachusetts, and Louisiana. Four of those have Democrat trifectas and four lean Democrat. Louisiana, the last state to make the bottom 10, leans Republican.
North Dakota — a Republican trifecta that had one of the least restrictive COVID policies — is a special case due to an unusual economic situation. Its pre-pandemic job growth numbers differed from all other states, and it also relies more heavily on mining and petroleum than any other state. Its petroleum industry went bust in 2014, causing private employment to peak in December 2014 that finally bottomed out in January 2017. Since then, its private job growth has been slow, less than 1% per year.
President Biden’s anti-fossil fuels executive orders, including the cancellation of the Keystone XL Pipeline, have only made matters worse for North Dakota.
Putting this outlier aside, what accounts for this dramatic difference in recoveries between red and blue states? As already indicated, Republican governors were less severe with their lockdown policies.
For another, all Republican governors (with the exception of Louisiana) ended supplemental unemployment payments before they were set to expire last September. These payments contributed to some people receiving more than they would have had they been working. In fact, one study finds that those states that didn’t end these payments early contributed to 3 million fewer people in the labor force.
Underlying the difference is likely the extent of economic freedom in each state. Using the Economic Freedom of North America 2021 report published by the Fraser Institute, which is based on 2019 data, the top 17 states allowing for the most economic freedom either lean Republican or have Republican trifectas. In fact, 14 of them are the trifectas.
Eight of the bottom 10 have Democrat trifectas, with New York leading the pack, followed by California. The other two in the bottom 10 include Vermont that leans Democrat and West Virginia with a Republican trifecta.
The best path to prosperity is a job. Work brings dignity, hope, and purpose to people by allowing them to earn a living, gain skills, and build social capital that endures. Advancing policies that connect people with work, along with reducing barriers for new jobs and opportunities, should be our goal, rather than making a government the first resort for help that disconnects people from what work brings.
The red states are showing the way to achieve this sound policy. Other states should follow while things at the federal level look bleak. But as our founders desired, the system of federalism that breeds a laboratory of competition helps shed light on what works best to let people prosper.
It’s bad enough when politicians enact witless economic policies with huge price tags, but it’s even worse when those policies destroy American lives and livelihoods. New research shows that this will be the pandemic-era legacy of the politicians that forcibly closed businesses, made people stay home, then incentivized millions of out-of-work Americans to give up the opportunity to get their lives back on track.
It’s now clear that half the states kept destructive policies in place even after their devastating effects were known. What should have been a temporary bridge to keep people afloat while America tackled COVID-19 became a nightmare of dependence and depression.
In March of 2020, the federal government began paying weekly “bonuses” known as supplemental insurance to people on unemployment. That meant many people received more money from unemployment insurance than they did while working. It was even expanded to include those who hadn’t paid into the program.
By the fall, the country began emerging from the pandemic, vaccines became available, and business started to open again and look for workers. The speed of American resilience was something to behold. But the government refused to make the transition with the rest of the country and kept paying people to stay home.
Eliminating people’s jobs and paying them to be unemployed was robbing millions of Americans of the dignity that comes with finding purpose and achieving self-sufficiency. It destroyed lives, driving dependency on government, contributing to drug and alcohol addiction, and exacerbating isolation and depression.
These effects of the program were blatantly obvious through the spring of 2021 but that didn’t stop the Biden Administration and Congress from extending the benefits through September. By the summer of 2021, the nation had nearly 11 million unfilled jobs, a spike from just under 7.2 million at the beginning of the year.
That’s why 26 states decided to terminate the unemployment bonuses early instead of letting them expire in September 2021. At the time, some in the media portrayed the move as cruel, ripping critical funds away from those struggling during the pandemic.
But new research from the Texas Public Policy Foundation shows that the states that ended the benefits early had superior job growth, ending the soul-crushing dependency inflicted upon millions by the misguided policy. By the end of 2021, only Texas and three other states that ended the bonuses early had regained all the jobs that they lost during the pandemic.
In the states that continued paying the unemployment bonuses through September 2021, job growth was anemic. Roughly 3 million more people stayed on unemployment in states that maintained the increase in benefits versus the states that ended the program early.
The states that continued this policy deserve particular scorn for going down this fatuous path because they should have known better. The unemployment bonuses were first implemented in 2020 during the depths of the government-imposed restrictions and the disastrous results were known a year later. Yet they pushed forward full throttle irrespective of the harm it was causing to millions of Americans.
There were better solutions.
Early in the pandemic when much wasn’t known, Congress could have eliminated federal payroll taxes. Instead of creating a new disincentive to work, policymakers could have removed an existing disincentive and let workers keep more of what they earned. A July 2020 study found that eliminating payroll taxes would have added 2.7 million jobs in six months.
Later, after we learned more about the pandemic and the costs of shutdowns, the Biden administration should have focused on ending state government-imposed shutdowns. These shutdowns were a failure that did little to nothing to mitigate the pandemic’s effects yet contributed to massive business closures and job losses, along with a host of other problems that will be long-lasting..
The experiment with unemployment “bonuses” should be closed and never opened again. It unnecessarily prolonged the economic devastation brought on the country by the pandemic and slowed the path to recovery for millions of Americans. Job creation proved to be the fastest road to provide help and hope.
Vance Ginn, Ph.D.