The coronavirus has dominated all of our lives in recent months. Radical paths were taken by politicians in the form of lockdowns to contain the pandemic. But we should recognize that even if the coronavirus is a (major) challenge for us, we always have to keep a holistic view of world events. Just as there are epidemiological factors to consider in this crisis, there are also economic, social, cultural, political and other health factors at play. It is precisely these other factors that are so often forgotten in the panicky reporting, in the constant, manic tracking of the current infection numbers, that we want to take a look at in our series “The Costs of Coronavirus Lockdowns” in the coming weeks.
As we have seen in previous entries of our The Costs of Lockdowns series, lockdowns tend to particularly hurt those who are already in a precarious situation, such as small businesses, children, drug addicts, the poor that are close to starvation. Another group of people that has seen unfortunate consequences from the prevailing Corona politics have been women, who have been much more hurt economically by the drastic measures taken to curb the pandemic than men.
Ronald Coase, the 1991 Nobel Prize laureate in economics, famously wrote: “If you torture the data long enough, it will confess to anything.” Amid the coronavirus pandemic, governments in Europe calculating the unemployment rates have proven Coase right. Indeed, throughout the Coronavirus crisis, true unemployment numbers have been found wanton, as so-called Kurzarbeit – short-term work – schemes have covered up the real repercussions of the lockdown of our economies.
Short-term work schemes date back to 1910 in Germany with the idea of lending a helping hand to those close to being fired from their work in times of crisis. Instead of being laid off, the workers are still employed albeit receiving reduced compensation. Most of this compensation is covered by the government and not by the employer. This way, for example, an employee working half the hours receives far more than half the paycheck and is still (semi-)employed.
The record of the program during the Great Recession of 2008-2009 in Germany prompted the OECD to call it “a possible role model.” The IMF hailed it as “the gold standard of such policies.” Besides keeping people from losing their job in difficult times, the program helps workers avoid atrophy of their skills. Indeed, we have argued that short-time work schemes are a better short-term option to respond to the economic repercussions of COVID lockdowns than simply throwing money around endlessly.
However, the short-time nature of most Kurzarbeit schemes has transformed in a massive program that has been going on for much longer. Money doesn’t fall from the sky and the budget constraints have become larger. Also, depending on the generosity and longevity of the program, it puts a hurdle on future employment during the recovery period. It also creates some degree of deadweight losses by subsidizing jobs that would not have been lost or by propping-up failing firms. Although such firms will eventually fail, many workers will lose valuable time upgrading their skill set.
Even more so, however, it has clouded the picture of how many people are actually more or less at home because of a scarcity of work. In April 2020, Eurostat reported an unemployment rate of 3.5% in Germany, 14.8% in Spain, 6.3% in Italy, and 8.7% in France. In the same period, however, 15% of the workforce in Germany, 21% in Spain, 30% in Italy, and 34% in France was under short-time work scheme.
As the ECB reported, on a European Union level it is estimated that in April 2020 the short-term work schemes involved 32 million people, almost three times the number of unemployed, yet the unemployment rate stood at only 6.6%.
The sharp decline in labor market participation and the exorbitant amount of people under the short-term work schemes hide the real numbers of the unemployed in the European Union, which most likely averaged a two-digit number. For comparison, the unemployment rate in the U.S. – a country without Kurzarbeit – sky-rocketed to 14.7% in April 2020, only to fall down to 6.9% in October, still almost twice as high as before the pandemic hit. Thus, these uncertain times leave us with only one certain thing – European unemployment data has to be taken not with grain but a big spoon of salt.
More Statistics in Our Costs of Coronavirus Lockdowns Series:
Children Hurt Not by Corona – But by Lockdowns: children’s mental-health-related visits to the emergency departments in the U.S. increased by approximately 24% and 31% for children aged 5-11 and 12-17, respectively, compared to the same period in 2019. (CDC)
Record-Breaking Budget Deficit in the U.S.: the U.S. government spent $3.1 trillion more than it collected in 2020. Who is supposed to ever pay back all this money has not been answered yet. (U.S. Department of the Treasury)
Drug Addiction Intensifies: the number of people dying from drug overdose in the U.S.rose by 17% in the last twelve months. This only includes reported cases until May 31, 2020. (CDC)
Governments Grow in Size: in Austria, Germany, France, and Italy government spending has risen dramatically in 2020. (European Commission, Statista, and Handelsblatt)
Stillbirths on the Rise: more than 200.000 additional stillbirths could occur just in the next 12 months, concentrated in low- and middle-income countries. (UNICEF)
The Poor Pay the Higher Lockdowns Price: lockdowns and restrictions have proven to be something that disproportionally affects those already poor, whereas those wealthier are less hurt. (PEW Research Center)
How Women Are More Hurt by Lockdowns Than Men: between the first and second quarter of 2020, on average, women suffered a 6.9 % decline in wages, compared to the 4.7% decline suffered by their male counterparts. (International Labor Organization)
No Work in Europe Thanks to Lockdowns: The sharp decline in labor market participation and the 32 million people under the short-term work schemes hide the real numbers of the unemployed in the European Union, which most likely averaged a two-digit number. (ECB & Eurostat)
Printing Money in Times of Corona: Monetary policy effectiveness has its boundaries. As the Fed has created 39% of all the “dollars” in the economy in 2020, those boundaries might have been reached. (Trading Economics)
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