A Post-COVID Return to Normal

The calendar flipped to May and, in my world at least, folks began to party like it’s 2019.

In the past week, I’ve been to a restaurant where the waiters didn’t wear masks, a 40th birthday party with people who (gasp!) I didn’t even know, and a dinner event with a few dozen people. All credit to the warp-speed vaccines and the companies that developed them.

Now, if you live in many parts of Georgia not called Atlanta, you may wonder what took so long. I have many friends whose communities have been like this for months.

But there’s another cohort clinging to quarantine. An article this past week in The Atlantic called them “the liberals who can’t quit lockdown”:

“Lurking among the jubilant Americans venturing back out to bars and planning their summer-wedding travel,” writes journalist Emma Green, “is a different group: liberals who aren’t quite ready to let go of pandemic restrictions. For this subset, diligence against COVID-19 remains an expression of political identity—even when that means overestimating the disease’s risks or setting limits far more strict than what public-health guidelines permit.”

Green explains this isn’t so prevalent among those who are merely liberal or moderate, but rather among the self-described “very liberal.” And here, perhaps, lies an explanation for what’s keeping the economy from getting fully back on track.

On Friday, the federal government reported only 266,000 jobs were added in April, compared to a forecast of 1 million. While Georgia and more than a dozen other states are approaching a 4% jobless rate – considered “full employment” – the nation at large seems to have plateaued.

It’s not as if jobs are unavailable. The Wall Street Journal this past week reported a private measure of job openings was 34% higher than it had been in January 2020 – but job applications were 13% lower.

There’s a disconnect here, and bad policy helps explain why.

Some of the jobless still fear COVID-19, despite the availability of vaccines. But others, particularly mothers, are held back by school districts that still aren’t offering in-person classes five days a week. That’s a policy decision made locally, but enabled federally when Congress declined to condition educational funding on offering in-person instruction. The Biden administration, according to news reports, also allowed teacher unions to pressure the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention into watering down reopening guidance.

Other Americans remain incentivized not to return to their jobs by extended unemployment benefits. But broadly speaking, the U.S. labor market has passed the point when extra jobless benefits could be justified because jobs hadn’t returned.

Help wanted signs are rampant. Even more telling, wages are rising sharply in many sectors, including among lower-paid positions in the leisure and hospitality industry – one of the hardest-hit by the pandemic and recession.
Wages usually don’t rise while joblessness remains high, and the national unemployment rate still exceeds 6%. They’re rising now because employers are forced to compete with federal jobless benefits for workers.

Is it a coincidence that federal policy today is being made by people who, like those who “can’t quit lockdown,” are “very liberal”? I doubt it. It’s more likely that the same set of people who can’t see how the rest of the world is returning to normal, who still debate about wearing masks (or double masks) while outdoors with others who are also vaccinated, are inspiring their ideological sympathizers in government to continue lockdown economics far longer than is justified, if it ever was.

We also began to see the backlash this past week. South Carolina’s governor said his state would stop paying out extra jobless benefits at the end of next month instead of early September, as Congress has authorized. Montana’s governor went even further, not only stopping the extra benefits next month but offering one-time, $1,200 bonuses to those who return to work. Given the decline in joblessness here, Georgia should consider doing the same.

If you want things to go back to normal, you have to stop acting like they aren’t.

« Previous Next »