Tuesday, 28 July 2020
Written by John Hood
For inveterate optimists, the past several months have been excruciating. A global pandemic has produced great suffering and death. A protest movement that began with righteous anger about the death of George Floyd has devolved in all too many locations into vandalism, looting and violence. Reeling from these blows, economies sank into recession as businesses bled money, shed jobs and, in some cases, shut down for good. Families struggled. Social ties frayed. Partisan divides widened.
To be an inveterate optimist, however, is to reject despair as unhelpful and, in the end, unrealistic. You champion context. You look for unforeseen opportunities. You counsel patience. And you spotlight outcomes that aren’t as bad as worse-case scenarios had predicted.
Consider the latest economic and fiscal trends here in North Carolina. After a combination of consumer behavior and government mandates shoved the state into recession, tens of thousands of North Carolinians lost their jobs in March, followed by hundreds of thousands in April.
Something comparable happened across our region, as well. But during the month of May, most labor markets in the Southeast rebounded more strongly than North Carolina’s did. Indeed, our state’s headline unemployment rate barely changed from April (12.9%) to May (12.8%).
In June, though, North Carolina began to catch up. Employers added back some 173,000 jobs last month — one of the largest monthly gains in employment in state history. Sectors with notably large increases included accommodation and food service (56,000), retail trade (18,000), entertainment and recreation (13,000), health care (11,000) and local government (26,000, including employees of summer camps and other local offerings).
Does Gov. Roy Cooper’s slower approach to phased reopening explain these events? Surely to some extent. In many cases, jobs that other state economies recovered in May, North Carolina’s recovered in June.
But that’s not the whole story. Individuals are also making their own decisions, quite apart from what public officials are doing. In a study just posted by the National Bureau of Economic Research, two University of Notre Dame economists found that the relative importance of the two factors — government regulation and private choice — differ by type and sector. Using GPS tracking, they discovered that stay-at-home orders had a surprisingly small effect on overall mobility, for example, while restrictions on restaurants and retail matter a great deal.
To be sure, one good monthly jobs report does not a recovery make. North Carolina has still lost a net 377,000 jobs since the beginning of the crisis. And while our headline jobless rate for June (7.6%) now compares more favorably with our regional peers, some of the decline in measured unemployment occurred not because jobless North Carolinians found jobs but because they stopped looking. Our labor-force participation rate was 57.4% in June, compared to 61.6% in February. Among the 12 Southeastern states, only Kentucky has experienced a worse decline.
Still, as more North Carolinians manage to get and stay employed, our immediate economic future becomes less gloomy. The same could be said for the fiscal outlook of state and local government.
Another piece of relative good news, to my mind, was that state government’s General Fund revenue for the first 11 months of the 2019-20 fiscal year came in $973 million below what was originally projected. Given the economic devastation of March, April and May, I had expected a larger revenue hit. If the positive economic momentum of June can be sustained into the fall, state and local budget deficits will become more manageable.
The headwinds are daunting, admittedly. People continue to be worried, understandably, about daily reports of COVID-19 cases and deaths. And Cooper’s decision to limit access to public schools, and subsequent decisions by many districts to deliver only online education this semester, will put a substantial strain on parents — potentially forcing some to cut back hours or exit their jobs entirely to care for their children.
North Carolinians will need all their resilience and inventiveness to get through this. As an inveterate optimist, I wouldn’t bet against them.
Tuesday, 28 July 2020
Written by Pitt Dickey
In case you haven’t noticed, it is a bit warm outside. Not just a wee bit toasty. We are talking second circle of hell toasty. Have you been wondering why the heat? Are you tired of saying, “It’s not the heat. It’s the humidity.” Go ahead, say it again. It won’t cool the temperature, but it will make you sound wise to whomever you are trapped inside with during Corona time. Trigger warning: Be careful how often you say it, as you may irritate your housemates into murdering you in your sleep. As only about five people read this column, the loss of even one of my gentle readers would cut my audience by 20%. Please say it sparingly.
If you have gotten this far without throwing up a little bit in your mouth or falling asleep, stick around. The reason for the unseasonably seasonable heat will be laid beneath your feet like a cloak across a mud puddle placed by a gentleman for his lady love. You may have seen the pictures of the sun from NASA’s Parker Solar Probe. The images are spectacular. Kindly absorb some facts: The Solar Probe was launched way back in 2018 B.C. — Before Corona. It is flying at 430,000 miles an hour, which is faster than someone grabbing the last piece of bacon at a Weight Watchers breakfast buffet. The Solar Probe will fly within 4 million miles of the sun. This is the closest a satellite has photographed the sun. The Solar Probe sling shots around Venus and the sun 21 times while getting closer with each orbit. The Solar Probe will fly into the sun’s corona to take a gander at the solar wind and find out what is doing inside the corona.
The reason the sun is so hot is that it is on fire. Fire is hot. The sun is a flaming gasbag of fire, not to be confused with Mitch McConnell speaking in the Senate. The sun is 109 times bigger than the earth. That is enough heat to cook a whole passel of s’mores if you could get close enough. Mr. Science says the sun has been hanging around about 4.6 billion years. It is used to being alone. The sun is getting up in years. Sol is cranky like an old man yelling at the kids, “Get off my lawn!” The Solar Probe is now messing with the sun’s corona.
Some readers may remember the old ad in which Mother Nature is fooled into thinking that Chiffon margarine is actually butter. When Mother Nature finds out it is margarine, she becomes wrathful. She brings on a violent storm yelling, “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature!” Same thing applies to the sun. Unhappy at having his solar corona disturbed by the Solar Probe, old Sol sent the coronavirus to Earth to smite us mere mortals with COVID and excessive heat. It is not an accident. The ancient Egyptians foretold this eventuality with their story of the sun god Ra.
Give me that old-time religion. Ra showed up in the 25th century B.C. as the King of the Egyptian gods. He created humans from his sweat and tears. Egyptians viewed the sky as a giant celestial cow, calling themselves the cattle of Ra. The celestial cow was not a carnation-contented cow. Ra crossed the sky each day on the morning boat the Mandjet and then left at night on the good ship Meseket to travel through the Underworld, only to pop up in the East the next morning. Each night, a giant snake named Apophis would try and fail to stop Ra from showing up the following day. As usual, humankind tried to overthrow Ra. You would not like Ra when he is angry. Feeling betrayed, Ra sent his psychotic daughter Sekhmet in the form of a lion to clamp down on man’s rebellion. Similar to the storm troopers in Portland putting down protesters.
Sekhmet was really good at killing humans. Like eating peanuts, it was hard to stop once she got going. She was the COVID-19 of the 25th century B.C. She was so good at wiping out humankind that Ra became concerned that she might do in all of humanity. Ra was confronted with the existential question, “What good is being a god if all of your worshippers are dead?” This was a conundrum. Ra was upset that man had strayed from his straight and narrow. But it would be pretty boring being a God if there is no one to kiss your feet and offer up a human sacrifice to make sure the Nile flooded on time and the sun came up tomorrow.
What to do?
Ra concluded he didn’t want all of humanity wiped out. So Ra ordered all the beer in Egypt to turn red. Ra had the red beer poured out all over Egypt. Sekhmet, in her killing rage, thought the red beer was blood. She tried to drink it all. She drank so much red beer she got drunk and passed out. The killing stopped. The Egyptians lived happily ever after, at least until the Arab Israeli war of 1967.
So what have we learned today? NASA has its version of the sun’s story. The ancient Egyptians have their version. Teach the controversy. Wear a mask. Wash your hands. Ra is watching. He may have sent the coronavirus with his vengeful daughter Sekhmet to get us.