June 5, 2020 Reading Time: 5 minutes

The lockdowns are ending — more, in many places, owing to individual frustration and exhaustion than to a loosening or rollback of orders. Thanks have justifiably been given to medical professionals, business owners, and service providers, all of whom quickly adapted to (or in some cases, defied) the lockdowns to provide goods and services under difficult, in any case unusual, conditions. 

Government mandates which delineate between “essential” and “nonessential” jobs have, among other shortcomings, the effect of distracting from the efforts of less visible (if ubiquitous) jobs. And it’s time that, as we’re increasingly able to see the contours of the COVID-19 outbreak, we consider some of the less appreciated (more often, overlooked) workers and professions. 

Grocery Workers

For many of us, trips to the supermarket were, and perhaps still are, one of the last connections to pre-lockdown life that we have. Grocery employees at all levels have, for months, been dealing with changing schedules, new and shifting directives, and the gambit of customer behaviors ranging from panic to obnoxiousness to utter disregard for their or anyone else’s health. 

While there are many parties worthy of appreciation in the production and distribution of food — farmers, farmhands, truckers, dock workers, stevedores, and so on — the workers who stock shelves, assist customers, and operate registers (they, in particular, having been exposed to nearly every customer coming through the store, and handling items which had been touched uncountable times) are those who are faced with the greatest risk and of whom the most was asked. When I entered a store in March, April, and May, and shelves were bare, I knew it was because supplies were low, not because goods were sitting in the back rotting on pallets. 

For contributing directly, throughout the crisis, to both the appearance and actual maintenance of normalcy: thank you to everyone from the store managers, to the shelf stockers, to the parking lot shopping cart retrievers.

Financial Markets

Everything from the efficient investment of capital, supply chain decisions, corporate management, personal retirement choices, and a wide variety of other, more disparate economic calculations depend critically on the presence of “fair and orderly markets,” within market hours, on the global equity, debt, commodity, and derivative exchanges and markets. 

Stock prices on exchanges reflect the consensus of market participants regarding a publicly-traded firm’s ability to establish and grow a stream of earnings; commodity markets permit producers, hedgers, and speculators to tailor their risk exposure to price fluctuations in the metals, energy, agricultural, livestock, and financial sectors. Derivatives allow for custom-tailored approaches to accomplish all of the aforementioned functions. 

In all of these securities and financial contracts, dealers — specialists and market makers ready to buy and sell at quoted prices — are charged with maintaining fair and orderly markets. And to do so they adjust their prices in response to short-term market conditions, pairing off buyers with sellers and sometimes contributing their firm’s capital to create momentary equilibrium; and thus to a real-time accounting of a firm’s prospects.

During periods of severe economic strain — when, inarguably, the necessity for prices is at its highest — problems tend to arise. During the 1929 and 1987 crashes, the “tape” was often hours behind (slower) transactions actually taking place in the market. More recently, “fat fingererrors, runaway algorithms, rogue high frequency trading strategies, political surprises, and even accidental releases of government economic data have caused tremendous churn in markets around the world. 

Being a dealer in financial markets can be challenging in normal times, when market volatility is low and a vast array of technology and information is available. The outbreak of the coronavirus and COVID-19, and more specifically the impact of the resulting government policies on economies, has whipped up volatility levels not seen in 12 years, and in some cases in many decades – as in the US stock market crash on 16 March 2020, the second largest one-day drop in over 30 years. Added to that, the social distancing and quarantine requirements have led many stock exchanges and financial firms to shutter their trading floors, requiring employees to fulfill their responsibilities at home. 

The results have been impressive. Fostered to no small extent by the experiences of 9/11 and the inexorable pace of financial innovation, during a time period within which there have been profound difficulties, rapidly changing policies, and which have witnessed a wide variety of historical financial anomalies within markets, there have been few major interruptions. The integrity and continuity of market prices for those deploying capital, hedging, or calculating economically in any of an innumerable variety of ways has been preserved despite heavy-handed, indiscriminate policymaking.

The recovery from the government-imposed shutdowns will proceed all the more efficiently aided by liquid markets and accurate prices. Wheat futures affect bread prices; oil markets come to bear on gasoline prices, and so on, into virtually every corner of modern life. So thank you to the stock and commodity exchanges, risk-bearing firms, traders, data providers, and other facilitators of economic calculation. 

Independent Journalism

The coronavirus pandemic has shown, starkly, the media bifurcation which has taken place since the birth of the 24/7 cable news cycle in the early 1980s.

Since COVID-19 infections reached the United States and began spreading, massive multinational news conglomerates have spent the overwhelming majority of their broadcast time and resources not reporting but framing developments politically, while mostly giving voice to only the most hysterical predictions. 

Meanwhile, small and independent news sources were diligently investigating and reporting objective disease information. Much of the initial data on the spread of the virus, uncertainties with respect to contagion dynamics, the predictive shortcomings of popular epidemiological models, and the impact of knee-jerk policy responses on entrepreneurs and established businesses came from small media outlets, independent journalists, and other investigative sources. 

The gathering and dissemination of local, sound, and timely information contributes directly to improved decision-making under rapidly changing conditions; glossy, thinly-veiled political stumping, speculation, and virtue signaling are little more than baubles in a crisis. The former will never attract the tremendous advertising revenue or praise from elites that the massive news media venues do, but it’s likely that in the wake of this there will be shifts in readership toward the less glitzy, vastly less political end of the reporting spectrum. 

Thank you to the small, independent, and apolitical media outlets, independent journalists, local newspapers, and others. 

Gratitude Where it is Earned, not Demanded

The outbreak of civil unrest over the last week is a direct product of not only the heinous murder of a man by Minneapolis cops, but also of pent-up frustrations over having been locked down, and in some cases having lost jobs and economic security along the way. One can’t walk ten blocks in any major city without being told that the police are deserving of endless praise and thanks, and yet thousands of videos made over the last few nights show commercial and nominally public spaces in tens of U.S. cities being ravaged without a single badge or siren in sight. (That should not be especially surprising given recent legal decrees.)

Healthcare professionals, from doctors to orderlies, have been deservedly cited for their efforts in treating the afflicted and thwarting further spread of COVID-19. Lesser mentioned, but integral to the attempts to wrestle life back to some version of the status quo are numerous groups of professionals and workers whose unseen efforts would be both immediately noticed and sorely missed if absent. Thank you to the three mentioned here and to the many of those who are not. 

Peter C. Earle

Peter C. Earle

Peter C. Earle is an economist and writer who joined AIER in 2018. Prior to that he spent over 20 years as a trader and analyst at a number of securities firms and hedge funds in the New York metropolitan area, as well as running a gaming and cryptocurrency consultancy. His research focuses on financial markets, monetary policy, the economics of games, and problems in economic measurement. He has been quoted by the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, Reuters, CNBC, Grant’s Interest Rate Observer, NPR, and in numerous other media outlets and publications. Pete holds an MA in Applied Economics from American University, an MBA (Finance), and a BS in Engineering from the United States Military Academy at West Point. Follow him on Twitter.

Selected Publications

“General Institutional Considerations of Blockchain and Emerging Applications” Co-Authored with David M. Waugh in The Emerald Handbook on Cryptoassets: Investment Opportunities and Challenges (forthcoming), edited by Baker, Benedetti, Nikbakht, and Smith (2022)

“Operation Warp Speed” Co-authored with Edwar Escalante in Pandemics and Liberty (forthcoming), edited by Raymond J. March and Ryan M. Yonk (2022)

“A Virtual Weimar: Hyperinflation in Diablo III” in The Invisible Hand in Virtual Worlds: The Economic Order of Video Games, edited by Matthew McCaffrey (2021)

“The Fickle Science of Lockdowns” Co-authored with Phillip W. Magness, Wall Street Journal (December 2021)

“How Does a Well-Functioning Gold Standard Function?” Co-authored with William J. Luther, SSRN (November 2021)

“Populist Prophets, Public Prophets: Pied Pipers of Lucre, Then and Now” in Financial History (Summer 2021)

“Boston’s Forgotten Lockdowns” in The American Conservative (November 2020)

“Private Governance and Rules for a Flat World” in Creighton Journal of Interdisciplinary Leadership (June 2019)

“’Federal Jobs Guarantee’ Idea Is Costly, Misguided, And Increasingly Popular With Democrats” in Investor’s Business Daily (December 2018)

Books by Peter C. Earle

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