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January 04, 2021

Working from Home Defines the New Normal

Changes family life, housing, daycare, climate, and infrastructure needs.

Not everyone can work from home (WFH), of course. But the huge shift to WFH will change life for everyone, even the essential many who still need to commute to their jobs and will be paid more for the extra effort. As new legislatures convene in the new year, they will try to spend billions to restore the old normal and solve problems which WFH is solving for us. We can’t let them do that. There will be new problems of the new normal which do need solutions.

The long-term effects of WFH are:

  • Obviously fuel usage and associated emissions are way down. Gasoline sales are down 13% from 2019 to 2020 according to the US Energy Information Administration. That’s like taking one of eight cars off the road.
  • The combination of WFH and more flexible hours means less rush-hour congestion. Although we have a huge backlog of repair projects for existing roads, bridges, rails, and airports, increasing rush-hour capacity should be on hold. I would’ve sworn the NY metro area needed a third train tunnel from NY to NJ. Maybe it doesn’t. If the Biden Administration passes a huge infrastructure bill, it must be for the priority list of the new normal including universal high-speed broadband.
  • Less rush-hour congestion means that most mass transit systems have more busses, light transit vehicles, and subway cars than they need since they had to have fleets capable of handling rush hour. As people lose their fear of contagion, mass transit can come back by providing better schedules around the clock with the workforce and capacity it already has. Time to cancel orders for the capacity that was needed yesterday.
  • A massive repurposing of real estate will happen. When I commuted to work, I had a house, an office, and frequent hotel rooms I occupied on business trips while both my home and office were vacant. If I were mainly working from homing and Zooming to meetings, many of those offices and hotel rooms would no longer needed. This dislocation can either result in hollowed out downtowns or, with some creativity. the buildings can be repurposed as residences. We’ve seen the start of this during the pandemic with hotels converted to homeless shelters. Government can hurt this effort by bailing out the owners of buildings no longer needed for their original purpose or can help with permissive rezoning to make sure repurposing can happen and there is some market for the stranded assets.
  • Daycare at an affordable price was an Achilles’ heel of our all-parents-working economy. Daycare centers now have vacancies! If parents are working from home, the time they used to spend commuting and communing around the office coffee machine can be used to keep an eye on pre-school kids without loss of productivity. Yes, I know which gender ends up with most of the keeping-an-eye-on chores in most households; but us Dads’ll have less of an excuse when we’re around as much as Mom is. Very seriously, this is a help but not a solution for single working parents. Parents who must still commute to work (most essential workers) will benefit from more availability of daycare. They must be paid more to make daycare and their other commuting expenses affordable. Government should not subsidize no-longer needed daycare slots; that will only hurt the daycare providers who have enough business to prosper.
  • For at least the intermediate term, the world will be way ahead of UN targets for greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction. Not only are people driving less, there will be much less new construction since new rush-hour capacity is no longer needed and because many people will no longer be occupying a home, an office, and many business hotel rooms. Construction, particularly the production of concrete, releases huge amounts of GHGs. Leisure travel will probably come back; business travel probably not very much. Aviation fuel usage will decline. Even under pessimistic scenarios, the doomsday clock has been set back far enough so that longer-term solutions and mitigations for climate change can be more effective at less cost than the many subsidies and mandates of the Green New Deal.

This is a time of enormous challenge and opportunity. We’ll blow it if we try to put the old normal back together again or persist in solving yesterdays’ problems. We’ll certainly blow it if we persist in trying to preserve asset values for the wealthy. Much of what passes for “bipartisan” pandemic relief already looks more like wealthfare than help for those who need it.

There is an automatic WFH bonus for the families who now don’t have to spend time and money paying the expenses of commuting; we will not be able to make minimum wage apply to them; they will be measured by productivity. We need a much higher minimum wage for those commuting workers who’ve just shown how essential they are and who work where hours can be measured. The extra cost of higher wages to essential workers will be a reasonable expense to us in the WFH crowd when we use their services directly and indirectly.

See also:

If There Were No Welfare, There’d be No Need for a Minimum Wage

Celebrate Labor Day and Essential Workers by Substantially Raising Minimum Wage

Forward to a New Normal

#Newnormal: Mass Transit

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