The 2021 Robert B. Menschel Economics Symposium discusses how behavioral economics can help explain decision-making during a pandemic. The full agenda is available here.
The Robert B. Menschel Economics Symposium, presented by the Maurice R. Greenberg Center for Geoeconomic Studies, is made possible through the generous support of Robert B. Menschel.
PORTER: Hi, everybody. Welcome to today's Council on Foreign Relations virtual Robert B. Menschel Economic Symposium with keynote speaker Professor Richard Thaler. I'm Eduardo Porter. I'm an economics reporter at the New York Times, and I'll be presiding over today's discussion. This symposium is presented by the Maurice R. Greenberg Center for Geoeconomic Studies, and it's made possible through the generous support of Robert B. Menschel. Now, I don't think I need to introduce Professor Thaler to you. I'll just throw in there, as most of you probably know that he won the Nobel Prize for economics. And he is the author of the very, very popular book Nudge, about how to nudge people's behavior in a way that we might want for policy reasons. Hi, Professor Thaler, I'm really happy that you're here with us.
THALER: Thanks, Eduardo. Happy to see you. Sort of.
PORTER: Sort of right? So listen, let me the kind of like, the subject that we're trying to get our heads around is, you know, how we are dealing with this pandemic? What things might we do better? What have we done well, or have we fallen a bit short? And I wanted to start this. My question to you is, is thinking about vaccines about, the vaccination process in the United States, which is now, I think, front of everybody's mind. And so the thought is out there is could we be doing this faster? And it seems that the supply constraint is easing, but there still seems to be a bunch of distribution bottlenecks. And now, you've written really famously about nudges, how to make it easy for people to do what we want them to do. But I understand that in the latest edition of your book Nudge, which is coming out shortly with Cass Sunstein, you also write about sludge, which is kind of like the opposite, right? It's the many ways in which rules can kind of gum up the works. So thinking of nudges and sludge, I would love to hear your insights about how we are going about this process of vaccination, you know, navigating the trade off between equity and speed, and maybe share some ideas about how we might do this better.
THALER: Sure, thanks, Eduardo. It's certainly the case that the initial rollout has had lots of bottlenecks. And I think in many cases, we've made it harder on ourselves—so the government has made it harder on themselves and in this case the state governments—by setting up all kinds of criteria. And that makes the interfaces that you have to log on to more complicated and makes the check-ins more complicated if they're bothering to check, which the impression I have is that they're not. And we have lots of variation across states and within states and within cities. A friend of mine, who lives in Chicago just told me he got an appointment in a Western suburb that is known as an outlier Republican-leaning town. In the western suburbs. I don't know whether that reflects the political antipathy to the vaccine in some segments. But I think we certainly could have done this better. Though, all signs are that it's ramping up. I proposed in our favorite newspaper a few months ago, that we consider possibly radical suggestion of taking a small number of doses and auctioning them off. And using the proceeds for some good cause, and there are so many good causes. There would be no shortage. I didn't really think there was any chance that this idea would be adopted. But my argument was, we know that the rich and famous are going to work the system, why not at least get some money from them? And my vague impression is that the first part of that premise has more or less played out. And it's like everything in the world, the smart and educated and wealthy know how to work the system better than other people. And that works to their advantage. But where we're going now, the main nudge I would like, is I would like us to create some kind of electronic COVID passport that certifies that you've been vaccinated. And if you have been vaccinated, you know, you get a high-tech—17th-century high-tech—technology, which is a piece of paper that someone has written your name and when you got vaccinated. And if you don't lose that, it might get you somewhere. Although it seems trivially easy to forget—I think all you need is a Xerox machine or your home scanner—so I would like something on your phone that shows your photo ID and some QR code that indicates that you've been vaccinated, and as soon as everyone who wants to be vaccinated has, then start using that, for admission to things like sporting events, and airlines and bars and anyone who wants to use that as a criteria for getting it. So that's my nudge.
PORTER: Presumably, that would also help as a big incentive for people to actually get vaccinated in the first place. Right?
THALER: Exactly. The people who don't want to be vaccinated do want to go to bars and baseball games. So if they have to sacrifice and get a shot in the arm to do what they want to do, let's help that.
PORTER: Yeah, I mean, one wonders if this can overcome this kind of like reluctance to, to have the government know stuff about us, this privacy concern that we seem to have about government intrusion and knowing about us, which somehow we don't seem to have when it's credit card companies knowing about us or Facebook knowing about us or whatever.
THALER: Yeah, I think Americans are oddly paranoid about privacy in ways that make no sense. So it's the case that if you have a smartphone, somebody knows where you are, all the time. And we all wonder about how much the smart speaker is listening to our conversations, but they certainly know where you are. And there have been some interesting academic papers written in the last year or so. Because the companies that own this data, have been giving them to academics to play with, mostly to track COVID kinds of issues. But there's a very amusing finding, which is that Thanksgiving dinners where family members came from red and blue districts for dinner, the dinners lasted 45 minutes less. So anyway, I think everything would have been easier. I have a friend in Israel, who as we know, did the vaccine in record speed, and one of the reasons is they don't have single payer, but they have small number of payers and national health care. And so your health care provider got in touch with you. And it was very fast and efficient.
THALER: So I don't know why we don't have a national ID card. It's not—I'd be happy to have one. Yeah, we almost all of us have a passport and their driver's license. But anyway, these are the times where our unwillingness to do that costs us.
PORTER: Yeah, yeah. On the paradox that you're just mentioning about privacy. We, the Times, ran a story within the last year I'm thinking, where we actually tracked where President Trump had been through his cell phone. And we also tracked a bunch of Congressional leaders. I mean, you know, to a scary level of precision here, would one think that would remind people about, you know, the power of these, these data, right? But anyway, I was interested in hearing, what kind of feedback did you get from your op-ed suggesting that we, you know, sell some doses to the rich? I mean, it strikes me as on the one hand, extremely rational because we can get something pro-social out of it. But I could see how lots of people wouldn't really like that.
THALER: You know, I didn't get as much pushback, as I expected. And maybe it's because people thought it was such a ridiculous idea that it wasn't even worth objecting to. So yeah. I think, by the way, I think overcoming this "last mile" problem of the various groups that are hesitant, I do think that there will be an important role for celebrities and catering to the groups that follow them. So, that was one of the things I thought might happen. If LeBron gets his shot publicly, and hands over 10 grand for the privilege, that that might start a movement. We're not going to do that. But we can still have—we had four of the five most recent presidents do that ad where they all got vaccines. And I think that's the sort of thing that we haven't needed that much now because we're pretty much at capacity. Yeah, but I think within a month, fingers crossed, we'll be at the stage where we're trying to get people to come. And so give them a carrot, like my passport, and give them role models and make it easy. Go to the neighborhoods. Don't need appointments. Show up.
PORTER: Yeah, yeah. It's really interesting. I read somewhere about people exhorting President Trump to actually do the same, take the vaccine and make it very public. Because apparently the group, the kind of like racial and political group that's most reluctant to take vaccines are Republican voters, quite Republican voters, I think are the most skeptical about vaccinations.
THALER: White Republican male voters.
PORTER: Okay. Yeah. So that would help. Right?
THALER: That would help. And, again, we can, I'm sure we could find people other than President Trump, who that group admire, maybe NASCAR drivers or, I don't know, Fox News broadcasters. So, anyway, yeah, role models. There's a reason why advertisers pay celebrities to endorse their products, for sure.
PORTER: For sure. So listen, just broadening a bit out of vaccines. And looking back over this past year of pandemic, I would really appreciate your thoughts about how we've handled this public health crisis because behavior and managing behavior has been so important here, you know, to do things like social distancing, and getting people to wear masks and, and not coughing on their neighbors or whoever comes in serves and food. I wonder, what's your assessment of how well we've done in a word, are there tools there that we could have used better or that we might still deploy?
THALER: Well, you know, I think it's very easy to second guess the first few months, but I think I'm willing to give us all a pass on that because we didn't know everything about, so, you know, I think we have at home you know, a lifetime supply of sanitary wipes that turned out not to be all that important. And certainly mask wearing early would have helped. And again, role models would've helped. I think the biggest policy mistake, I would say, for the Trump administration, other than sort of the denial was, look, they were good on the vaccine development, though, how much effect they had on that, I don't know. Because we know, Pfizer and Moderna happened to have exactly the right science available. And that was lucky. It was possible that we could be where we are now, with no vaccines. Remember, there's no HIV vaccine. And the flu vaccines are 40 percent effective? Something like that. So it's a miracle that we've got these great vaccines. And, and the government helped some on that. But it doesn't seem like they were thinking the next step ahead. And which is okay, once we have them, how are we going to get them into arms? And, you know, I think more generally, you know, I saw somewhere on the internet, somebody posted, an op-ed, President Obama had written about planning for the next pandemic. And we know that the Obama administration left a briefing book on "here's something you guys need to be worried about." And it's not like they knew anything at the time. Except that this, this could happen. You know, my friend, Danny Kahneman has a phrase he likes, he calls it a "pre mortem." And he borrowed it from a friend of his, so we're all stealing from each other. But the idea is, we're all good at post mortems. You know, when the dinner gets burned, my wife and I are equally good at blaming the other for forgetting to take it out of the oven. Pre mortems are you sit down and think about "what's the worst thing that could happen and how can we plan to deal with it?" So just before this call started, somebody was suggesting "well, in the case that all of a sudden you lose connection, get out your cell phone and call? And I said, “no, you have my cell phone number. If that happens, you call me. That will be faster than me finding the place on my computer, where the alternative call-in numbers, right?" So we can all do better at anticipating things that can go wrong, and then preparing for them. And we didn't do that. And I hope that a year from now, fingers crossed, we're more or less done with this, that we won't stop thinking about the next pandemic. Because it won't be like this one, we'll have to solve different problems. And what steps should we be taking now to take the proper precautions? And nobody ever wants to do that? Because it seems like you're spending money for something that probably won't happen. Yeah, but it might happen. And that's the job of leaders -- public and private sector. Every firm has to be thinking about what kind of catastrophe could befall us. You know, Netflix offered to sell themselves to Blockbuster for I think $50 million dollars and Blockbuster said no. There's one Blockbuster store left. And there's you know, lots of these stories. Kodak invented digital photography. So you have to think about "okay, you know, yeah, film is really cool. But what if this other thing works? Maybe we should hedge?"
PORTER: Yeah. Lore has it that Google offered a chunk of itself to the New York Times back in 2003 or so. And we said no.
THALER: I think you're in good company. So, yeah, the Google boys had to do it themselves. You know?
PORTER: I hope we don't go the way of Kodak.
THALER: Right. I hope so, too.
PORTER: But listen, let me ask you, as you were laying this out, I was wondering, it's, I mean, this is a kind of a wishy-washy question here. But in some ways, it seems like the policy response was excellent. I mean, you know, the money for the Warp Speed stuff for vaccines seems to have been a really good exercise in incentive design for pharma companies. You could argue, arguably, the CARES Act passed in the spring of last year did a really, really good job at preventing a spike in poverty and kind of like ensuring that median incomes kind of hung in there, despite this, and then another respects, it seems like it was a disaster. It's kind of like all this other maybe softer kind of signaling about how to respond to the pandemic. I wonder, is this just like, maybe it's just, it's random, right? You get some right, you get some wrong but or is there some systematic way of looking at this and what you can get right and what you can get wrong? Because it's not like the CARES Act is an obvious thing that U.S. has never done anything on that scale, or at least not since FDR's day?
THALER: Well, there was there was a bill in 2008-2009. Not as comprehensive. But, yes, the response was unprecedented. And you can certainly quibble about lots of aspects of it. And, you know, again, what we were talking about before, like the, what was it the PPP that was going to small businesses, again, the smart canny business owners had bankers, and they were able to get right to the head of the line. And yeah, I think we can, you know my mantra, the nudge mantra is "make it easy." And so, you know, one thing, one of the things that handicaps the government, is they have an unbelievably archaic information technology system. And so if you think about all these laws, they're passing about what income makes you eligible for what payments? What are they basing that up? Is it on 2020 income or 2019 income? Well, 2019 income, is 2019 is the last tax return they have unless you have filed early. So this screws us up in all kinds of economic situations. We don't know who's unemployed unless they go through a lot of sludge. So we see people standing in line at some unemployment office. Now, in principle, the employer pays Social Security tax, every pay period. We the government could know in real time when you stop getting a paycheck. We it goes back to the privacy thing here. It's both privacy and ancient computer systems. But Obamacare, the ACA, has problems because of this. And, you know, even the fact that you apply in November, Biden offered a new sign up in February, I think February through April. It would be much better if the whole Obamacare signup occurred after taxes have been filed. Because right now you sign on based on an ancient income. And then it all gets settled up a year-and-a-half later when you file your taxes. This is a crazy system. And the people who are most in need of health insurance are people who are in and out of the market. So the strongest argument for having—it doesn't have to be single payer—but having a public option. That would work best if you were automatically enrolled in that every time you lost your job. So now you have these COBRA things. So if you decide to switch and go to work for the Wall Street Journal, and you'll switch or you know, suppose you decided to become a freelancer, "oh, my God, what am I going to do about my health insurance?" All these people that lost their jobs who were gig workers and everything, we just need to make the whole system function better, and get rid of the sludge?
PORTER: Yeah, I mean, interestingly, I, as I hear you, I think that a lot of these things might be politically complicated, because setting all these defaults in a way that are, you know, more effective, might also be portrayed as a loss of individual freedoms. I wonder if you've encountered that with your arguments for nudges?
THALER: Yeah, although it's almost always a misguided critique. So, you know, we call our philosophy libertarian paternalism, a phrase that was intended to antagonize everyone, which is a strategy that has served me well as an academic, but probably, that phrase wasn't chosen to win friends. But every policy we advocate has opt out. So if there is an option to be automatically enrolled in the public health insurance the day, you lose your health insurance from your employer, and you don't want that time? But isn't that better than having to fill out fifty forms? And, you know, why is it when I got my vaccine, I had to fill out a bunch of forms? It's crazy, that they don't have this basic information. I get a flu shot every year. Why should they be relying on my memory as to whether I ever had an adverse reaction? Yeah, it ought to be in the system. But healthcare records were the most paranoid about that. And, and that imposes costs.
PORTER: Yeah, for sure. For sure. Listen, I'm about to open this up to questions from the public but I just want from members, excuse me, I just wanted to ask you before we go to, because I just learned, or recently learned that you did your PhD thesis on techniques to put the dollar value on life? And I find that a fascinating, you know, general corner of economics, it's a topic which non-economists often find really uncomfortable, but it can make a really big difference for policy, you know, whether one tries to preserve lives or years of life might change strategies for vaccines or anything else. And I was wondering if you thought that this kind of thinking this idea of putting a monetary value in life would help us think through some of the tradeoffs that we have, and do better policy?
THALER: Well, you know, here's what I would say is that all the policies we devised, have those sorts of valuations implied. And so for example, I've benefited from the fact that old geezers like me got to go at the head of the line. But you can imagine that there's a tradeoff between how many lives you save and how many years you save. Now, it turned out in this case, the old people were so much more subject to getting this disease that going for them first. And we obviously, in hindsight should have been spending a lot more care in the nursing homes. But generally, the idea that you can't put a value on a human life is wrong, because we do it every day. And, you know, we've all been making decisions about how much social interaction we take, and that's putting a value. How, how much time should I be spending with my grandchildren? We make these tradeoffs all the time, whether we like, we don't like thinking about it. I remember once having a conversation with my coauthor Cass Sunstein, back when we were colleagues at the University of Chicago, and I asked him how much more he had demanded from the University of Chicago to compensate him for the slightly higher risk his teenage daughter was bearing because she was living in Hyde Park, as opposed to Ithaca, if he had taken a job at Cornell, where I had formerly taught. And he just got mad at me for even asking him that question.
PORTER: Yeah, well, and here, I remember in the whole debate over let's open the economy, because the closed economy imposes costs versus well, there's an enormous cost in lives and health from allowing everybody out on the streets. So that trade off was really there. But it seemed like nobody was kind of like trying to look at it in an analytical, you know, kind of like, quantitative way.
THALER: Right. And they don't because it would be politically unpopular to say it out loud.
PORTER: Yeah. Yeah. That's—
THALER: You're allowed to think these things, you're not allowed to say them. Unless you're just an academic like me, and it doesn't matter if you make people mad.
PORTER: Yeah. So thank you, listen, so I would like to open the floor for members to ask questions. Um, it's just to remind you, it's this is on the record, which means that at some point, whatever you say, is going to surface on the internet somehow. The operator Laura will remind you how to join the question queue. But if you will, please go ahead.
STAFF: (Gives queuing instructions). We'll take the first question from Robert Klitzman.
Q: Yes. Hi, thank you, Robert Klitzman from Columbia University. Two questions, if I may. We as a society have not done good with planning for future epidemics and prevention, we let stockpiles of ventilators go down. What kind of nudges would you think it might make sense to create to overcome that? And secondly, you mentioned passports about vaccines, which makes sense, but vaccines may not work against variants, it may occur mutations, there only 95 percent and Johnson and Johnson's case had only 85 percent effective, will that lead to sort of a false sense of security if we have such passports? And thank you.
THALER: Sure, thanks. So first of all, in our book, we have in the footnote, a very important footnote, where we quote William Sapphire on the correct pronunciation of the title of our book. And which is Nudge which rhymes with judge. Not to be confused with nudge. So a nudge is this. It's a gentle push in a helpful direction. And a nudge just somebody who does that a bit too often. So that said, how, how can we encourage this kind of planning? It's difficult. And as I was saying, even in the private sector, where there's billions of dollars at stake, we don't see enough of it. And I think it has to be a discipline. And in the private sector it's the job of top management to be the worrier in chief. And in companies I've been involved in as either my own little company or companies, I've advised, I always use this pre mortem idea. Let's set aside some time to worry about what is the worst that can happen? And then how can we prevent it? And in the government, I don't have a quick way of doing that, because there's no reward for it. But certainly the people who are in the current administration that I know, I'll be nudging them to do more of that. You know, as to whether the passport would encourage more risk-taking behavior. I think there's a danger in— and David Leonhard in his daily newsletter brought this up recently—I think there's a danger in people be doing too much scare mongering. And, yes, it's possible that, as somebody who's been vaccinated twice, that I'm still carrying, or that there will be some variant that it won't work for. But you know, we went about our business when there was a flu. And if the risks are back down to levels of flu, then that's the way we ought to be behaving. And I don't think we're going to have to wear masks for the rest of our lives. Now, when should we make the switchover? I'll let Tony Fauci decided on that, but I don't think we should, I don't think we should overreact. And I think we want to give people a light at the end of the tunnel and a reward for getting vaccinated and then behave sensibly.
PORTER: Yeah, thanks. Thank you, Laura. Can we have the next question?
STAFF: We'll take the next question from Christopher Graves.
Q: Hi there Professor Thaler, thanks very much. I'm Chris Graves with the Ogilvy Center for Behavioral Science, along with my colleague Rory Sutherland in the UK. Quick question about mortality salience. Prior to the pandemic, behavioral science studies and mortality salience, when an entire population is threatened with an existential threat begins to act as a kind of caricature of its prior worldview, defense prior self, they become more extreme nationalists if they were slightly nationalistic, for example. And so you become less tolerant about groups. But a weird thing apparently happens as well, which is a kind of binge spending as you begin to come out of it and to offset some of that doom. And I just wondering if you're tracking this in this pandemic, any effects of mortality salience?
THALER: Well, I don't know whether there's certainly a lot of weird behavior going on. But I don't know to what extent we can attribute any specific thing to this cause. There certainly is a lot of weird behavior going on with the stock market. And financial markets more generally. You know, these meme stocks and the rise of Bitcoin and it I don't know, of any financial economist who thinks they understand what's going on. And there's these new NFTs that are completely bizarre. So I think what is true is it's well-documented that there's been a big increase in personal investing in individual securities. And that had been very popular in the late 1990s, during the tech bubble, and then it kind of had gone away, not completely, but had gotten much less popular. And now there's been a resurgence. My own explanation for that was people were bored, especially in April, May. You know how you'd run out of things to binge on streaming. And there was no sporting events to bet on. And people who maintained their jobs have more money than ever. Living at home is pretty cheap. You can't go out to eat. And anyway, there was no way to spend any money. So, you know, one of the cool things about this pandemic has been that it's really hammered the bottom quarter, and the top three quarters, you know, the biggest problem has been boredom and parents are getting hammered. So, anybody with small children is getting hammered, but, but they may, everybody else has got more money than they used to. And they started investing in it in a kind of very risk-taking way. And some of them made a lot of money. The market for the past year, I mean, we had the sharp downturn, the first couple of months, but then it's just been going up and up. And in the market like that, it's very easy to convince yourself, you're a brilliant investor. And come and tell me about how good an investor you are, after the market has gone back down. And it will go down at some point, I assure you. I have no idea when. I can't predict these things. So there's lots of mysteries, and but whether it has anything to do with being afraid you're going to die, I don't know.
PORTER: To the point of being spending, I mean, I've read estimates of an enormous amount of excess savings relative to trend lines, like $2 trillion worth, and enormous pent-up demand to spend on services that we haven't been spending on. So I think a kind of like a big uptick in, in consumer demand is pretty much expected on the cards as soon as we kind of like get vaccinated and get this behind us, right. But I'm not sure that it would be associated with fear of dying and more like, well, this kind of like financial disequilibrium that then gets worked out.
THALER: Yeah, whatever your favorite form of travel is, book early.
PORTER: Yeah. So thank you. So Laura, could we have the next question, please.
STAFF: (Gives queuing instructions). We'll take the next question from Stanley Black.
Q: Yes, this is Stanley Black at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. And we have seem to as a society, most of us anyway, accepted that we need to protect all of us for us to be safe. In other words, we need to get everybody vaccinated, we need to wear masks, and so forth. However, we don't seem to have extended this internationally and it's still true there. Could you comment on the fact that we're now hoarding the Astra Zeneca vaccine and refusing to export it to countries that need it?
THALER: Well, there is a general problem about vaccines, something that I've been thinking about four years, and we have the following dilemma. The vaccines are worth trillions of dollars to us. But we don't think that drug companies should be making trillions of dollars from selling them. And "we," meaning society, if the drug companies were charging $1,000 per vaccine, there would be hell to pay. And several drug company CEOs have told me that that they don't expect to make a lot of money from this directly. That the best-case scenario is that they get cut some slack from regulators down the road. Now, the question of whether we're hoarding the vaccines. I can understand why President Biden feels like he doesn't want to be sending them vaccines around the world while there's people clamoring to get shots, but I am confident that the U.S. will do its share in paying for vaccines. And so I think the inequality will be that the rich countries will go first. But I, maybe I'm overly optimistic. But I'm pretty confident that the world will be supplied with vaccine fairly expeditiously and inexpensively. And we've been kind of lucky that Africa has mysteriously not been hit very hard. So we may get cut some slack on that front. But I think every country will be able to get vaccine cheaply. And if they needed, will get it for essentially free. So I think that's going to happen. And it'll all get made in India, which is where they are the low-cost manufacturer of drugs. So I'm not so worried about that.
PORTER: This point, I have the question of whether adding manufacturing capacity might turn out to be, you know, the next chunk of manufacturing capacity, we need to supply the world, is going to be perhaps more expensive than the first bit of manufacturing capacity that we put in place, because it was maybe already there making other vaccines and whatnot. So if this is not an argument for kind of like increasing their per unit payment that we promised pharma companies, because they're you know, they're, even though maybe their risk will be lower, because they have a guaranteed market, there is, you know, there's an income and additional cost to bringing new kind of production capacity on.
THALER: Well, again, I don't know what the constraint is. We're starting to produce vaccines pretty rapidly. I think, if we're good, let's look forward a little. The problem that I referred to earlier, let's suppose that the next pandemic is more like Ebola, so or AIDS, so not affecting everybody, but disproportionately affecting some people. There's not, the solution that Michael Kremer, Nobel Prize winner in economics a year and a half ago with Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee, he has advocated for years—something I've also advocated—which is creating prizes for discovering cures or vaccines for diseases that affect a small number of people. Because there's no money in it. And Bill Gates has been involved in this. And if it affects a small enough people, then somebody like Gates may have enough money to just do it himself. But if, you know, if we have to vaccinate a billion people, then even Bill Gates can't afford that. And we do need, we need to fund the WHO. And we need them to be a well-functioning organization. And I would like to see a prize and a formula going back to the value of a life question. So I don't know how much money Pfizer and Moderna are going to make from these great vaccines they created. They certainly will make some money, but they deserve more.
PORTER: Yeah, sure. That's right. Well, thank you. And Laura, could you please ask for the next question?
STAFF: We'll take the next question from Peter Gourevitch.
Q: Hi, I'm Peter Gourevitch at UC San Diego. Thanks for this. I wonder if you could talk more about stockpiling? How can we think about what items we need to stockpile on? I will talking a little bit about overseas production. That worries me much less than not having enough that are stockpiled. You mentioned it earlier. How do we think about it? What do we need a theory of stockpiling? How do we decide what items to be stockpiled and how much we need of them?
THALER: Yeah, I don't know. I mean, this is a sort of medical science plus logistics question.
Q: No, I get my money. I'm just thinking, no, how do we raise the money? How do we decide how much money we need? You said earlier as a problem of politicians, and I was wondering can economics help and give us ideas about how to justify it? And that's not so much asking the scientists' help we need. How do we develop the public and the private finance like you said earlier? How do we, how do you justify investing the money? Because it's a risk situation? You'll never know, how do you justify it?
THALER: So I think, again, me, I tend to be optimistic, and my wife says foolish, so. But I think that you can develop the sensitivity for that, I don't think it's trivial to know what it is we should be stockpiling. So, you know, certainly, PPE for the healthcare workers, it was criminal, that something that is as low cost to make as masks, the fact that we didn't have enough of those is crazy. Part of it is there's sludge involved in that as well, Eduardo, because you, in many cases, you need to, there are regulations, to sell a certain kind of mask, and it has to be made in a certain kind of way. And there was all kinds of sludge early on about who was allowed to do what kinds of medical tasks. So, you know, a huge part of the medical profession was shut down. Because there were no hospital beds, and nobody wanted to go to the hospital for elective surgery. So you have all these doctors that, you know, could be trained to do whatever needed to be done. And it's only recently that dentists have been approved to administer vaccines. Now, dentists give shots every day. They know how to do it. So there are all these regulatory features about who can do what and it varies from state to state. I have a friend here who has an MD, but he doesn't have a local license to practice medicine. And, you know, there are thousands of people like that in every city in the country and we could have used their help, and it was an insurmountable amount of sludge in order to volunteer to give your services.
PORTER: Well, Thanks, Laura. could we have the next question, please?
STAFF: We'll take the next question from Mark Finley.
Q: Well, Mark Finley from Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy. Thanks to both of you for a great conversation today. Professor Thaler as someone who has literally written the book on what it takes to get people to change their behaviors, I'd be curious in your thoughts about what behaviors have you observed from people that you think are likely to stick going forward, and which ones are likely to prove transient? I'm thinking about, you know, working from home, people moving out into, you know, suburbs, etc. If not, at least how should I think about what's likely to stick and what's not?
THALER: Yeah, I mean, so I don't know. And I'm not a fortune teller. I mean, an interesting question is what's going to happen to travel? And so I divide my time between Chicago and Berkeley. And I have behavioral economist friends in both places. And back in August, I got the idea. Why don't we create a new behavioral economics workshop series? That's a Berkeley-Chicago workshop series. Because it's virtual, right? It doesn't matter where any of us are. And it's been great. I was, we had one this morning. And now, it's not quite the same as somebody coming and spending a day at your home institution, and going out for dinner, and so forth and so on. On the other hand, it's so easy to do. No one has turned us down. You know? Can you spare an hour and fifteen minutes? Now that I mean, the same is true of this conversation. If somebody had said, "Can you come to Washington to give a talk?" we would have had to find a day that works for everybody. And if it's a part of the year that I'm on the West coast, that's a long flight. So how much of the kind of things we used to travel to do, will we still do that way? I don't know. Certainly less. How much will people be going to work in the office? Certainly less. Much, Eduardo much of what you do, you can do just as well, maybe even better, in your home study. Now, at the university level, something that I cherish, at the University of Chicago is there's a very strong culture that people come to the office. And, in fact, when we were building a new building for the business school, the thing I lobbied for the most was underground parking garage. Because in the winter in Chicago, if you can avoid a 200-meter hike in the snow, and then going back and scraping your car off. So anyway, you go to the office, and everyone is there. And people show up at the workshops, and they go to lunch, and argue all the time. And it's the most intense intellectual environment I've ever been in, for better or for worse. I would hate to lose that. So what? And will these, you know, will the American Economic Association annual meeting be in person ever again? I don't know. I hope so. On the other hand, I don't know whether you've you, you've surely gone to some of those Eduardo. They're the first weekend in January, and in god awful places. And if I never have to go to one of those again, it won't be the end of the world for me.
PORTER: Yeah, the choice is always "do I spend the last week of Christmas vacation at the beach? Or do I go to the AEA meeting?" You know, right.
THALER: Oh, yeah. Yeah. I'll meet you at the beach.
PORTER: So listen, Professor Thaler, thank you so much. This was really brilliant. Very, very interesting. I'm very grateful that you spent this time for us. And thank you all, for coming to this virtual meeting to listen to Professor Thaler. Just as a reminder, we hope that you can join us tomorrow for the second session of the virtual Menschel symposium -- "Economic Behavior in a Pandemic" -- tomorrow, it's Tuesday, March 16, from 3:00 to 4:00 p.m. eastern. So again, thank you very much all for being here. And good afternoon.
THALER: Thank you, Eduardo. Thanks, everybody.
BABCOCK-LUMISH: Welcome everyone to today's Council on Foreign Relations virtual Robert B. Menschel Economics Symposium session: Economic Behavior in a Pandemic with Ravi Dhar, Wendy Edelberg, and Fiona Greig. I am Terry Babcock-Lumish executive secretary of the Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation, and I'll be presiding over today's discussion. This symposium presented by the Maurice R. Greenberg Center for Geoeconomic Studies is made possible by the generous support of Robert B. Menschel.
Ravi, let's go ahead and begin with you. This last year we have all witnessed consumers reacting in ways some might consider curious, we could certainly argue whether they're rational or irrational, from hoarding toilet paper and Lysol wipes, this thing that they won't order Corona beer. But let's go ahead and break it down given your work, I thought it was particularly vivid to learn from you that 75 percent, that's amazing, 75 percent of consumers have tried a new store, brand, or different way of shopping during the pandemic. Could you perhaps kick us off by providing a snapshot of the ways in which consumer behaviors and choices have changed? Dovetailing on Professor Thaler's keynote yesterday, we have a remarkable panel assembled to discuss how the pandemic has altered consumer decision-making and economic behavior, how these trends affect the U.S. and global economy, and ultimately, how behavioral economics can help us understand these shifts. Our psychologist Ravi Dhar is the George Rogers Clark professor of management and marketing and directs Yale's Center for Customer Insights. A widely respected macroeconomist, Wendy Edelberg, is joining us from Brookings' Hamilton Project. She previously served as the CBO's chief economist. And Fiona Greig is the managing director and copresident of the JPMorgan Chase Institute. As we want to make sure we're understanding this past year's economic shifts from global to the very local, I particularly appreciate that Fiona comes to us with a local government experience of having served as Philadelphia's deputy budget director.
DHAR: Yes, thank you Terry. When you look at behavior changes, you can look at what I call the "four Ws," if you like. The first "W" could be what are they buying? You mentioned toilet paper and beer. Some of it is not particularly insightful here, right? No one had much reason to travel, go to theaters, or sports, obviously, not much of that ticket sales are happening. So that's one "W" you can get into. And if you look at it in a nuanced way, like apparel was down, but if you look at sleepwear, or pajamas, or casual stuff that went up massively, but stuff you wear when you go out for parties went down dramatically. So that's one "W" that people look at—what are people buying? The second I think we'll get into a little later, which is who is doing the buying, given that income inequality. Who's actually doing the buying if you start looking at more granular things?
I actually want to start with the third "W" which is, where is this behavior happening? So if you look at the two big points we measure, is the point of purchase and point of consumption. So not surprisingly, if you look at point of purchase, there has been a big flight to digital. If you look at e-commerce, a lot of benefit has gone to the big retailers, big stores that had an e-commerce capability, the small retailers, small stores did not have it. But there's also something interesting here when I looked at the data. If you look at something like McDonald's or quick service restaurants, most of the buying happened in drive-throughs, not at home. Why was that the case? I think people already used drive-throughs, they were familiar with it, you drive there in your car and you felt safe. So drive-through sales were as high as 90 percent and at-home sales were around 5-to-10 percent for this quick service restaurant, which surprised me compared to many other places where a lot of the delivery was happening at home. Even when you break it down by curbside versus home delivery, curbside went up quite a bit. It's almost as if people wanted to get the hell out of home somewhere and pick up their groceries. So that's about the point of purchase.
You can also look at point of consumption—where is it happening? Not surprisingly, since you couldn't go to work, you couldn't go to restaurants, most of the consumption was happening at home. So no TGIF, no eating breakfast on the fly. So if you look at places like McDonald's they found that breakfast sales went down because people were not having breakfast on the fly or a coffee on the fly. Whereas lunch and dinner sales actually went up for these places, but even more than places like McDonald's, it went up for pizza. Why? Because pizza can be shared with the family, you can buy for the whole family and McDonald's had to really scramble to make this family size kind of meals because they were not setup traditionally to do that.
So when you start looking very granularly, you start seeing winners and losers. Winners in e-commerce were really the large, familiar brands with supply chain sufficient inventory, who actually were doing pretty bad before the COVID hit like Campbell's, Kellogg's, the Bud Lights because people wanted to try the niche brands. But once it moved online rapidly, the small niche brands did not really have the inventory, the supply chain, or the direct-to-consumer model that they could benefit with. So it's very fascinating that when you start looking at it very granularly you start noticing these differences. Even in telemedicine, for example, what you find is telemedicine started taking off only when the consumer saw a benefit in it. When I talked to the companies before the COVID crisis and they were telling me, "Ravi, help me do behavior change. Help me drive people to telemedicine." And at that time the consumer's reaction or the patient's reaction was, "Why should I do this? This benefits you. It lowers your cost. It doesn't give me any benefits." So ironically, some of these same things prior to the pandemic, people thought, "There's no reason for me to change my behavior, all the benefit and the cost savings goes to the HMO." But suddenly telemedicine became very popular post-COVID, because people saw the benefit of these things. So if I look at the third "W," where is this all happening? I think that's where a lot of exciting stuff is happening, the point of purchase and point of consumption.
BABCOCK-LUMISH: Fascinating. I just want to follow-up very briefly because behavioral insights help us understand how people respond when they don't feel that they have control over risk and really we know that emotional response then is amplified. Can you just give us a little bit more texture here? Because I think you're nibbling at it and we know you have some real insight into how we have managed risk or manage, perhaps, our feeling as if we're managing.
DHAR: Right, so I think there are two issues here, one is the beliefs. What do people believe about, you know, what is my belief about e-commerce or what are you telling me to purchase? In general, consumers believe that you want me to change my behavior so that it benefits you. So when I talked to the banking industry and banking industry was driving people to use e-commerce, or financial instruments, you know, financial services. Payments company, let's call them, one of the two big ones, they were trying to drive people to contactless or digital wallets and most people who think, "Nah, you know, it works pretty well, that card does pretty well. Why do I need contactless, right?" And similarly, when they found, when you try to change behaviors, people have a reaction that "I'm losing control and you're doing it for your benefit." And when the pandemic hit suddenly the benefit of contactless was pretty obvious to the consumer, "I don't want to touch somebody. I don't want my card to be touched by somebody else." And suddenly there was this big opportunity and if you look at what happened in the payment businesses, a lot of the people who are providing that digital services went up dramatically. So I think more generally not only consumers have more control, but the field, the attribution that they make for the change in behavior is for their own benefit. I suppose to the benefit of the seller here and that's really what drove some of the changes.
BABCOCK-LUMISH: Makes solid sense, for sure. Fiona, let's get you in here. You and your colleagues have had an extraordinary window into household spending and savings behavior this last year. So could you help us understand from your own findings on the direct effects of the pandemic, as well as those resulting labor market disruptions?
GREIG: Yeah, certainly. Well, one of the things that we all know about this pandemic is that it has disproportionately impacted low-income families in terms of where the job losses occurred, disproportionately among Black and Hispanic families, workers, women. And at the same time we've seen one of the largest fiscal expansions our country has ever seen, right? Enormous packages, now three of them, that not only put tons of cash in the hands of families in the form of stimulus payments but also expanded unemployment insurance to historic levels. Actually 7 percent of total income in July came from unemployment insurance alone, when never before had that budged above 2 percent, even in prior recessions. And a couple of things have been remarkable as we kind of trace the impacts of both the job losses and the fiscal supports through the economy. The first is that actually labor income fell the most for low-income families, but total income was up and that's because unemployment insurance with those $600 supplements and then $300 supplements more than replaced pre-job loss earnings for most workers. And so with that additional support, we actually saw that spending recovered most quickly for low-income families, precisely the families who had been experiencing job loss. Those are the families for whom we observed spending increasing the most. And what was remarkable is that their spending was increasing above their own baseline, at a time when the spending of the employed had dropped dramatically. Right, we saw spending dropped by 30, 40 percentage points and yet, the spending of people who had lost their job and received unemployment insurance had been boosted by 10-or-so percent above their own baseline. So in many ways, it's the spending of jobless workers who were fueling our economy.
And from a behavioral standpoint, it was number one noteworthy that their spending was above their own baseline. Number two, it was noteworthy that those increases were durable. Durable, in the sense that even with stimulus, with unemployment insurance, we also saw their cash balances increased quite a bit. So at year-end, cash balances were up by 30, 40 percent year-over-year. And we saw that family spending increased to an increase of jobless benefits when the $300 came out, even when their liquidity levels were high. Normally, we think that marginal propensity to consume is highest when people are most cash poor, when they are most liquidity constrained is when we would expect people to exhibit a high marginal propensity to consume. And yet we saw this high marginal propensity to consume time and time again throughout the year, even as those cash balances were increasing as a result of that generous support. We saw them very responsive to the $300 supplements in unemployment insurance, we're seeing again a high responsiveness to the January stimulus. So number one, we're seeing people be very responsive to this stimulus in terms of their spending response, even when they have liquidity.
The second thing that we've seen is that one of the big concerns with very generous jobless benefits is that you might incur moral hazard. You might see that people would be deterred from working or they might stay unemployed for longer if unemployment benefits are generous in both level and duration. And yet, what we observed is very little impact of the supplemental benefits on work. So when we measured people going back to work by virtue of exits out of unemployment insurance, we saw that, actually, if you just focus on the people who received those $600 supplements, UI supplements, more than half of them exited before those supplements expired. They expired at the end of July and, in fact, more than half of those jobless workers had already gone back to work. So they weren't waiting for those generous benefits to expire, they went back to work before that. And we only saw a very, very temporary increase in returning to work when those jobless benefits and then when that $600 supplement expired. So that suggests that either people obviously prefer to work, than cash in hand. Working generates experience, it generates less risk, obviously, than even a generous jobless benefit. But it may also imply that the costs associated with searching for a job during a pandemic were very high. It's hard to network on Zoom, it's hard to do coffee chats, it's hard to do all the normal things that go along with a job search. So those are a couple of the key trends, is just this big boost in spending to low-income workers by virtue of this fiscal support, very little impact on job search that we might have otherwise been worried about. And I think as we look into 2021, we saw already cash balances were quite elevated again they were going into the end of 2020. Of course, with the January stimulus, they're going to be elevated again. Tax time puts another big boost into people's cash balances. And yet it does seem like probably the thing that's going to make people come out and spend even more, aside from this cash which does seem to stimulate people's spending, is the vaccines. So those are a few reflections, Terry.
BABCOCK-LUMISH: Which are fantastic, Fiona. Thank you so much. We're definitely going to explore this some more. But Wendy, I want to come to you next because your and your colleagues' work on the pandemic induced changes to our economy. It's just particularly relevant here as we consider these tectonic shifts. And Fiona spoke to some of this, as has Ravi, in terms of consumption, but also in our workplaces, where we're working, how we're working, the stark realities of how Americans have experienced this last year's pandemic in a very different way. So let me just begin with the very basic question of how is this recession been different?
EDELBERG: Oh, I mean, how has it not been different? But one of the critical ways that has been different relating to what we've all been talking about, is the different kinds of spending that have been most affected. So, what's remarkable is that putting aside the increases in or the maintaining of spending at takeout restaurants, that I think Ravi focused on a little bit, much of the spending increases that we've seen since the beginning of the pandemic have actually come in the form of durables, which is extraordinarily unusual for a recession. Usually, what we see during times when the whole economy is in recession, or for particular household when they're experiencing financial stress, is that they postpone the big-ticket purchases. You can make the refrigerator work for a little bit longer, or if you're going to buy a replacement car, you're going to buy a cheaper replacement car and buy a used car because you're worried about your family's finances. And then on the flip side what we see about those same durables purchases is that when the economy is coming out of recession and where we look for with spending booms is particularly for a surge in spending on durables. Well, everything is flipped now in the current recession. Where we're seeing remarkable increases in spending is exactly on durables. Durables as a share of GDP is right now over 8 percent, it's been over 8 percent through the entire second half, on average, of 2020. That's actually the highest that it's been since 2007. So we've seen just remarkable strength in durable spending.
Okay, so where have we seen weakness in spending? Perhaps this won't surprise anybody that it has been in services, and particularly in services that require face-to-face interaction. So here's some numbers that I have on my screen. So recreation services is down 30 percent since pre-pandemic, transportation is down 25 percent, food services so people eating inside restaurants primarily that's down 20 percent. And what might be a little bit more surprising for folks is that healthcare services are down 5 percent, that's a lot less, but that category is actually quite large and comprises a very large share of household spending. So we have basically, as a society, postponed just about any kind of health care expenditure, or health care service, that we can possibly postpone. So those are exactly the places where we are looking for strength and spending over the next year as we come out of the pandemic, and as people spend the money that they've saved over the past year.
So with the Biden package in hand, with having enacted the $1.9 trillion package, my projection is that the economy is poised to rise about 8 percent over the course of 2021. That is a remarkably fast pace of growth and actually will get GDP above where we would have expected it to be pre-pandemic at the end of 2021. And we will continue to see pretty remarkable strength in the economy through the end of 2021 and through early 2022. So again, I think much of that is going to come in the form of spending on services which will probably create all sorts of difficult composition effects, as restaurants manage the incredible increase in demand that they face, as healthcare providers manage the incredible surge in demand that they face. So we will probably see some inflation spikes in some categories and some bottlenecks there.
And then thinking then longer term, how do we expect the composition of our economy to change post-pandemic? Well, so many of the things that we've been talking about today, like so many of the technological changes that Ravi was talking about, we're not going to forget those technological changes. We're not going to forget how to have virtual conferences, just like the ones we're having right now. And as a result, we're going to see pretty remarkable changes, I think, in the way we do business. So we're going to see fewer people commuting into downtown business districts to do face-to-face interaction during the course of a business day. That's going to have important and disruptive changes on the people who work in the service sectors that provide services to those folks who worked in downtown business districts. We're going to see changes in how grocery stores operate, we're going to see changes in the way healthcare services are offered. And I do worry that we don't have the policies in place right now, to make those transitions less painful. They're going to be painful. People are going to return to what appears to be a very strong labor market, but there won't be jobs that fit their skill set from before the pandemic. That's going to be painful, it's going to be disruptive, but there's a lot that policy can do to try to mitigate that pain.
BABCOCK-LUMISH: And I think we want to speak to the potential cushioning effects and how we navigate that. Before we do that, though, I think we just need to explore this a little bit further because certainly long before 2020 we've been concerned about increasing inequities and we've seen this throughout our economy. These then have been expedited, exacerbated particularly for minorities during COVID. We've seen widespread bankruptcies potentially changing our economic landscape, acceleration in automation, productions, and labor force participation. We've seen this amongst older people, younger people, working moms. So, let's go ahead Wendy and explore this because I think this might be where we need to kind of give ourselves a little bit more texture as we think about potential cushions
EDELBERG: You know as you've been saying and as I think most of the listeners know, we came into this recession with extraordinary wealth inequality. That inequality is starkest and probably most structural when we think about racial inequities in wealth and who came into this recession with home equity, with financial wealth, and who didn't. And what that means if you don't have wealth whether through liquid financial wealth, or equity in your home, you have far fewer resources to fall back on when times are difficult, you have far less of a cushion. It's one of the reasons why I am extraordinarily gratified by the large steps that policymakers took at the beginning of the pandemic and just recently. Because we know that the COVID-19 recession was particularly affecting the families that we knew had very few resources to fall back on. So I'm immensely gratified that we got them financial resources, through checks, through unemployment insurance. And yet we still know that way too many people fell through the cracks. We know that these inequities continued to create financial instability all through the course of 2020. The numbers on food insecurity were continually alarming. We still see food insecurity among children at twice the levels that we saw pre-pandemic. It's very frustrating. The package that was just passed, the $1.9 trillion dollars, goes a long way to alleviate child poverty, it's going to cut child poverty in half. Again, quite gratifying, but it's not going to create systemic change going forward. We need to make sure that households come into recessions, because there will be recessions in the future, we need to make sure that households come into recessions with more financial stability, and we need to make sure that the safety net is better able to reach those families without ad hoc changes by policymakers.
BABCOCK-LUMISH: Fiona, do you want to get on this one, too?
GREIG: Well, yeah, a couple of comments to build on Wendy's great points. So first of all, take unemployment insurance, for example, one of the big expansions of that program came through the creation of the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, which extended eligibility to people who were otherwise self-employed, or had limited work histories who before COVID wouldn't have been eligible for unemployment insurance. And so a big policy question that's looming now that program has been extended until September is going to be, well, what's going to happen with this PUA program? And unemployment insurance reform more broadly. Should we think about adapting our social safety net systems and policies like that to the workforce of the future? I think a lot of people, just as Wendy was talking about dislocation sector to sector, I think there's also likely to have been some dislocation between sort of being a W-2 worker to being a contingent or self-employed worker through the pandemic. Only expanding the universe of people for whom something like the PUA program, the unemployment insurance program for self-employed is ever more important. So that's one example. Another example, I would say is throughout this pandemic two of the groups that we actually compared were renters versus mortgage holders. Mortgage holders, one of the things the CARES Act did was to provide forbearance and to give people who own homes another release valve if they needed or another source of financial relief if they were unable to make that payment. Renters, in contrast, not until the second and third rounds of the programs of the relief packages, did they have some kind of additional relief like that. Rental relief was very patchwork and there was some eviction cancellations and things like that, but it was a very patchwork of support for people who are renters. And so that's just the kind of a different kind of segmentation of the population with which we can think about these inequities.
BABCOCK-LUMISH: You know, it's also easy for us to have this conversation as we're talking about the national stimulus package, as if the American economy is a monolith. And obviously, we've seen tremendously different experiences with and responses to the pandemic state by state. So Ravi, I'm going to come to you next because one need only look at New York and California versus Florida and Texas, as I think many of us are seeing people excited to emerge for spring break, whether that's a good idea or not, we could certainly debate. But I'd love to know from your colleagues and your research, what you anticipate for how we see ourselves emerging from a consumer standpoint, as we look to the latter half of 2021 into 2022.
DHAR: I was on mute. I'm not sure if behavioral science has as much to offer as if you think about some proverbs. I think it was Bertrand Russell who said about proverbs they kind of hedge them, they seem like wise words, but they have one for each side. So if you look at the pandemic one way to think about this is out of sight out of mind. So Wendy mentioned 30, 40 percent of the stuff you're not doing today, is it going to come back with a vengeance? Many companies hope so. Which is the opposite problem, absence makes the heart grow fonder, right? So which is it, out of sight out of mind or absence makes the heart grow fonder? So one thing I do teach in behavioral economics is that often our beliefs drive our behaviors. So the reason people didn't try virtual exercising is they had the belief, "this is not going to be fun, doing exercising on a video on a Peloton looking at staring at somebody," or Zoom calls for that matter and telemedicine for that same matter. And my favorite on that is, for me, is the cruise industry. Cruise industry is interesting, half the people are like me who have never taken a cruise and have no intention of taking one. And the reaction is, "what the hell do you do on a ship like eat all day?" And the other half tell me who love it, "you have no idea how much fun it is and what you can do on a ship these days." So fundamentally, we have beliefs about these things that drives our behavior, but the behaviors also drive the belief. So during the pandemic, our behavior has changed. We tried telemedicine, we tried digital exercising, and we tried happy hours virtual ones. So some of these things will stick if we enjoyed them. Why did we go every Friday night out for a drink? It was not a rational choice, it was a habit. Like you know, it's Friday, it's the week. If you thought about it rationally, you would have done twenty other things than go out for a drink and people got into the habit of a TGIF. That habit is now broken. Does it mean it won't come back? It can come back if whatever replaced it in the meantime is not seen as satisfactory enough in the way to do that. E-commerce is not exactly going away. I know a lot of people who are seventy-five, eighty-year-old who had never shopped online. They were forced to do it and now they say, "This is pretty good. Doesn't mean I won't go to the store; I just won't go as frequently as I used to before."
So fundamentally, I think Wendy is right, some of these things will come back. The predictions on this are going to be very hard because asking consumers will give you the wrong answers because consumers don't really know what they will end up doing. You're better off looking at other countries where the markets have opened up, like China. What's happened, even now, China's been open for a while many of the cities. What seems to be coming back? What's not coming back? The U.S. is obviously not the same as China, but you learn about habits that get disrupted and then which of them are likely to stick and which ones are going to return is going to be a really fascinating journey. And it's going to happen at a relatively granular level, not at a very high level. I'll give you a simple example of granularity, if you look at chewing gum sales, they dropped dramatically initially because one of the reasons people chew gum is when they go out on certain occasions for breath, right? Nobody was going out so that it was a big drop in sales. On the other hand, candy sales went up. You're sitting at home and having chocolate, you're stressed or whatever, any excuse, you can find to have a chocolate works, so chocolate sales went up. But as soon as people started gaming, the video games, suddenly the gum sales started coming back because people like to chew gum and focus. So fundamentally the reasons that were driving the consumption potentially also changed. And then it became how does a company assign their product to the specific new behaviors that people are engaging in? So to me, the big question for companies is are you monitoring the behavior change at a relatively granular level? To then sort of understand from a bottom-up process, what the macro-level consumption implication will be because all of these seem like relatively small things happening, but they add up to a big change in how people are consuming and buying products.
BABCOCK-LUMISH: Indeed, and I feel very seen right now by the chocolate consumption discussion. So thank you for that. Let's go ahead and open this up. At this time, I'd like to invite our members to join the conversation with their questions. I'm also going to remind everyone that this meeting is indeed on the record, and the operator is going to remind you how to join the question queue.
STAFF: (Gives queuing instructions.)
We'll take the first question from Peter Gourevitch.
Q: Hi, thank you for these fabulous comments. My question is, how do you target? You were talking about general macro things and there are pockets in the country that are regions, I think, or types of people that are severely impacted and I wonder what ideas you might have? Regions that are in trouble or types of people? What ideas do you all have for how we target? Everything is macro, how do we micro? How do we get granular, as Ravi Dhar says, or the others of you say, what are your suggestions?
DHAR: Well, I can start, and others can jump in. So as far as it depends on who's doing the targeting, the government versus let's talk about companies. Companies have been targeting all the time, so it's very easy for them to know at the zip-code level or at the level of demographics, families, what income with Facebook and Google, so that different drivers of targeting are not that hard to access. The question is, are you targeting on the right variables that's going to drive impact for whatever it is that you're trying to do? Whether it's delivering message on the vaccine. Let's say hypothetically, you have data showing that low-income, underrepresented minorities are unlikely to show up for taking the vaccine. Let's call it hypothetical, though there might be some truth in that. Then the question becomes for the government, how do I systematically reach out to them? And we know all the people are on smartphones or on social media and so there are ways to do that. The question really, for my mind, which I'm not aware of, is if the government is really set up to do this micro-targeting? We know our two political parties are, they do a pretty good job of micro-targeting, but I don't have good understanding of what the government does in this area. Companies certainly do targeting a lot.
GREIG: Two other thoughts. One of the things that we didn't touch on was the extraordinary toll on parents. And if you just take the labor force participation rate of men and women depending on whether they're parents or not. Labor force participation of female parents had a double dip. Initially, everybody fell out of the labor force in April but then mothers disproportionately fell out of the labor force, again, double dip, in September, when schools opened back up. And so some of the genius, I would say, of the latest round of the $1.9 trillion relief package is to expand a lot of the relief to parents through child tax credits and the stimulus checks themselves, making them a multiplier of the number of people in the family regardless of child or adult. Because we know that this country has been far behind other OECD countries, in terms of general family supports, and has a long way to catch up, but certainly in the pandemic that has been felt. So that's one.
I think some of the income targeting, generally, given just the disproportionate impacts of job loss and dislocation in the labor market for low wage jobs, low-income sectors, that's a very feasible and helpful targeting mechanism. But there's also been quite disparate impacts across geographies and if you just look at state tax revenues it fell dramatically in places like Alaska, Florida, Texas, Hawaii, and North Dakota, And it was basically either is your economy entirely reliant on tourism or the oil and gas industry. Like that was sort of the two unifying theories I can come up with to try and figure out like which states really suffered the most. So, obviously, there are certain sectors that have been dramatically impacted, travel and leisure in particular.
EDELBERG: And I think we'll have to do more with targeting going forward on targeting workforce development. So like my expectation is that the business travel sector, does not come back to where it was pre-pandemic. I suspect that business travel is permanently changed. I think that there will be a number of sectors that face those sorts of changes. And I think that we will need policy to do a lot more with targeting which skills are valuable, which workers need more training, and which people are so negatively affected by the disruptions in the labor market, the persistent disruptions in the labor market going forward, that they need long-term fiscal support to weather that. So I think policymakers are going to have to very carefully target who, over the next several years, sees persistent negative effects from the pandemic.
BABCOCK-LUMISH: Thanks, Wendy. I think I want to continue on this theme a little bit because we know policymakers and the private sector alike are really focused on pushing the economy back to its full potential and cushioning those most harmed. As we've touched kind of on the wave tops of experiences for working moms and we do sit in Women's History Month of March, we know full well that the adverse effects that we've had after tremendous gains are very vivid and very real. And so I would just love to hear from anyone on the panel, what are some of the best practices maybe we can learn from what's worked throughout Europe that actually could be applicable within the U.S.? Or perhaps there are other ideas too.
EDELBERG: I am by no means an expert on Europe, and I have actually been a little taken aback at despite how incredibly frustrated I am with how things have gone in the United States, that on many fronts we are doing a better job at keeping the virus under control, and distributing the vaccine, and doing as much economic activity as we're doing, in some cases safely. How we've done all of those things in many ways better than what we've seen in Europe, but we can learn a lot from the way Europe values its safety net. And that many of the countries in Europe, particularly Western Europe, have a stronger safety net and had to make fewer ad hoc changes to make sure that people were supported, families were supported, young parents were supported than we've seen in the U.S. So for sure in terms of structural changes going forward, I think that there's a lot we can learn. It is mind-boggling that we do not have federally supported paid leave, that we do not have federally supported childcare in this country, or beyond the childcare tax credit with all of its regressive features. We saw a lot of good changes that move along these lines and in the package that was just passed but of course they are all temporary. So yes, I do think that there's a lot we can learn in terms of supporting people across the income distribution, and supporting families, and getting a stronger safety net. There's a lot we can learn from Europe.
GREIG: Just one other thought. So much of what Zoom life has done is obviously expose our backgrounds to our workplaces and our colleagues and we've sort of been forced to bring our whole selves to work, our dogs, our kids, everything. And so if we think of the long trajectory of closing the women's wealth gap, closing the income gap, closing the participation gap, some of the places where it's been hardest to close those gaps has been at the top. We still see a larger unexplained gap in male to female earnings ratios at the top of the income distribution than elsewhere. And part of that can be due to so-called greedy jobs. Jobs for which a household can't have two of them because one is greedy and consumes more than its fair share. And so I sort of wonder in the context of employer norms, I think employers have become more cognizant of the mental health, the cognitive loads of our jobs, the things that we are juggling at the same time through the course of the pandemic. I hope that those sort of "ahas" become embedded in our firm ways of working and norms. One thing I'm watching out for and sort of urging my firm, my employer to kind of think about is, as we return to work eventually it may take a new form. As Ravi says, we may never unlearn how to work from home and of course, our firms will never unlearn how just how productive we can be when we are working from home and so sure enough, many of them are downsizing their real estate footprints and trying to take advantage of this in a medium, longer term way. Maybe that's good for women and more inclusive workforces because now... I was a consultant in a prior life like it became untenable to do that and have kids. So maybe the fact that some of that business travel won't come back will be good. And at the same time, I do worry about who's going to be going into the office? And who's not? Who's going to exercise the option to not? And is it going to be people who have care responsibilities, people who live on the outer perimeter of the city, who have a longer commute? And so are we going to end up with certain people, women, people of color, more likely to take advantage of virtual and others more likely to be in person? And are we going to kind of reinforce some of the inequities that our workforces have been trying to kind of stamp out? It's hard to say whether the good will outweigh the potential risks, as we continue to sort of innovate and firmly adopt some of the dislocations that have taken place during the pandemic.
BABCOCK-LUMISH: Ravi, you're muted.
DHAR: I just want to add a little bit on the technology side—that it's not going to be static, right? So whatever your Zoom experience right now, companies are already working that in the next two-to-five years, it'll be like holograms, virtual augmented reality, so it's as if you're in the office. Right now, it's not quite like being the office, for sure. So there's a lot of stuff happening in Silicon Valley right now which is trying to speed up the whole process of this virtual and what that experience will look like. I remember talking to some CEOs and they said, "You know, I used to go and fly across the continent and meet another CEO for dinner and essentially come back. You know, relationship meetings." And a lot of business travel, again, if you start looking granularly like why that happens, a big part of it is sales meetings. Some of it is just like glad-handing and showing up. The CFO has seen in the last twelve months, "Hey, my sales didn't drop that much, and my travel budget dropped by 90 percent." That CFO, he or she, is not going to give all your money back next year because the pandemic is gone, so you better get used to working with a far smaller amount. And frankly, a lot of people are saying they were tired of traveling anyway, so we'll see what the equilibrium here is. And maybe if your competitors are traveling and you're not then you're forced to travel anyway, defensively as opposed to offensively. So there's a lot of fascinating stuff. The role of technology that's going to change how the budgeting will happen given that the CFO has now gotten used to saving all this money. I mean, travel is a big part of most Fortune 500 companies profit and loss and suddenly they saved a lot of money here and I don't think that it's about to be given back to all the divisions next year.
BABCOCK-LUMISH: We have time for a few more questions.
STAFF: (Gives queuing instructions.)
We'll take the next question from Chris Tuttle. Chris, please accept the unmute now button. It looks like we're having some difficulty with that line.
We will take the next question from Paul Sheard.
Q: Thank you very much. Paul Sheard, Harvard Kennedy School. I'd like to come back to the central business districts and how they're going to change. I'm living in a big city like Manhattan at the moment. How radically transformed do you see central business districts? What's going to happen to all of this real estate, this high-rise real estate, as companies do downsize their real estate footprints, which was, of course, something they were trying to do even before COVID.
EDELBERG: So my intuition is that the changes won't be obvious to the naked eye. And the reason that's my intuition is that working in a central business district, or having your company in a central business district, has always been an extraordinarily expensive proposition and, as a result, companies have for decades, for centuries have figured out ways of efficiently working outside of a central business district in order to save that money. And yet obviously, central business districts still work, people still find that working together in big groups and those network effects are still very valuable. So my guess is that we will largely go back to wanting to be within some close proximity to each other. I mean, there's a reason that real estate around the White House is actually increasingly expensive, literally, as you get closer and closer, the feet. I'm being inarticulate. Like the blocks that you get closer to the White House, the real estate becomes more expensive. Proximity matters and proximity is always going to matter. But what I want to caution in terms of thinking about the consequences of this is that changes don't have to be visible to the naked eye to have extraordinarily disruptive consequences for labor markets. So central business districts only have to be 5 percent smaller than they would have been otherwise, in order for that to have really disruptive effects on labor markets and businesses that serve those districts. So, that that's my intuition. Obviously, it could be wrong in either direction, but that's my guess.
BABCOCK-LUMISH: Thanks, Paul. And I think we're going to have a lot of economic geographers considering these agglomeration questions too. Let's take our next question.
STAFF: We'll take the next question from Lilia Ramirez.
Q: Yes, this is Lilia Ramirez. I was wondering if you have analyzed the impact of the pandemic on entertainment, whether it be the movie theaters, or the theater districts in major cities because obviously they were impacted. But I wonder if there's going to be a new paradigm on how people either go to the theater or see movies?
BABCOCK-LUMISH: It's a great question, Lilia. I think we saw about seventy-five million for the NEA and other venues, so I don't know. Ravi do you want to take this one?
DHAR: Yeah, I mean I can start. I think entertainment is such a broad category, so if you separate out the movies from theater and other things in places like New York City. I think a lot of these are tourist dependent, setting aside the movie piece. And I think the leisure travel is going to come back, it's already coming back at a much faster rate than business travel is. The problem for airlines is leisure travel pays for the gas, business travel pays for the profit. People who sit in the front seats versus back of the plane, which is where most leisure travelers sit. So fundamentally, even if it bounces back to, let's say, 80 percent, it is not going to be very profitable for the airline industry, unless business travel bounces back. So going back to the entertainment industry. I think tourism dependent, I'm actually optimistic that tourism is going to come back relatively fast. When people travel for tourism, leisure reasons, as opposed to business reasons. That's going to comeback. The movie industry, on the other hand. I think the streaming, and this has been going on before the pandemic, the increase in the amount of Netflix and watching movies on streaming and alternative platforms has been increasing. And that's rapidly changed even more so in the pandemic. It has changed the business models for the studios. How they launch movies simultaneously potentially releasing on the platforms both in the movie theaters. So that is certainly going to have an impact on the movie industry which I would treat separately for what it means for Broadway or the museums. Because I think that is very much dependent on both tourists and solid, small but loyal groups, and I think those will be fundamentally more secure. But the movie industry is going to be much more volatile.
BABCOCK-LUMISH: Thanks, Ravi. How about this, we have a few minutes left. Let's go ahead and do a quick maybe round robin before we wrap. We know COVID has just changed our routines, our decisions, our behaviors in so many ways that's been across geographies, across demographics at unprecedented speeds. So some of these changes will outlast the pandemic, some we will be happy to dispatch in a brighter, more vaccinated future. So how about this, let me ask each of our panelists to offer the most helpful or meaningful or hopeful change you hope will sustain. So if you can name one thing that you hope we will keep after we are at herd immunity, what would it be?
EDELBERG: Telehealth! —(Laughs.)
GREIG: —Telehealth! Yes!
DHAR: You know, I would say spending time with the people you're close to. It's something that got reinforced and when the pandemic started people said, "Hey, the divorce rates have gone up a little bit," but fundamentally, you find that people enjoy spending time with the people they're close to and they've been doing a lot of that. Partly they were forced to do that but on the positive side, I think it's increased people's overall wellbeing and happiness.
BABCOCK-LUMISH: Anything else you want to add? We got telehealth, we've got meaningful time with one another. I certainly enjoyed spending this time with all of you. Anything else for the good of the order?
GREIG: Less business travel.
BABCOCK-LUMISH: I'll second that emotion for sure. All right, well, an hour goes quickly. Thank you so much, everyone for joining today's virtual meeting. Thank you to Ravi, Wendy, and Fiona. The video and transcript of both this session as well as the Robert B. Menschel symposium, the full symposium, including yesterday's discussion with Richard Thaler and Eduardo Porter will be posted to CFR's website. With that, thank you so much everyone. Stay well. This concludes today's program.