FULL EPISODE: 9/19/21 Economist Austan Goolsbee & Slice CEO Ilir Sela on vaccines and COVID’s impact on business

Published: Sep. 18, 2021 at 11:09 PM EDT
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Washington, D.C. – Greta Van Susteren interviewed Austan Goolsbee, an economics professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and former chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers under President Barack Obama, and Ilir Sela, founder and CEO of the pizza delivery platform Slice, on the economic impact of COVID for Gray Television’s “Full Court Press with Greta Van Susteren” airing Sunday, September 19, 2021. The program will also feature a conversation with WWNY-TV (Watertown, NY) anchor Jeff Cole about Lewis County General Hospital’s decision to stop delivering babies after workers resigned rather than get the COVID vaccine.

Goolsbee predicted “the economy would come booming back again” if vaccine rates go up, but said that resistance to the vaccine makes him fear “we’re just going to be in this struggling, barely getting-ahead kind of a frame for a long time.”

Goolsbee also suggested that in the short-run the labor shortage in the U.S. could worsen if employers mandate the vaccine, but said that ultimately, if people don’t get vaccinated, rising rates of disease will make the worker shortage even more dire.

When asked whether the Federal Reserve has been aggressive enough in confronting the economic impacts of COVID, Goolsbee answered: “This is the million-dollar question.” He credited the Fed for “thinking outside the box” but said that now that inflation is here he didn’t think the Federal Reserve “should kind of sprint to the bushes at the first sign of gunfire … they outlined a plan and they owe the public that they’re going to stick to the plan to try to get us out of this.”

Slice Founder and CEO Ilir Sela told Van Susteren that even though his business saw an “incredible acceleration” during the pandemic, “the number one challenge today is access to labor. Part-time labor is almost impossible to find.” Sela blamed the problem on government subsidies, saying they disincentivize people from returning to work, and the loss of immigrant labor during the pandemic.

Goolsbee and Sela excerpts are below.

Austan Goolsbee Highlights

On the economic impact of the COVID vaccine and vaccine mandates

Austan Goolsbee, Former Economic Adviser to President Obama

Both of those are critically important. We saw the rollout of the vaccine was really about the best thing that could have possibly happened to the economy.

Austan Goolsbee, Former Economic Adviser to President Obama

As vaccines started to rise, you saw it [the economy] just came booming back. And then we stall out with the vaccines for a series of reasons that some of which are well understood and some of which we don’t totally understand. And now the mandatory part of the vaccine, if it got the vaccination rate back growing again and it could catch us up back to where the other advanced countries are... We started out well ahead of them in vaccines, and now they’ve all passed us. If we could get back to where they are, I think the economy would come booming back again.

Austan Goolsbee, Former Economic Adviser to President Obama

If the resistance to vaccine mandates leads us to never be able to get to the kind of levels of immunity that we need to slow the disease, I fear we’re just going to be in this struggling, barely getting ahead kind of a frame for a long time. And that’s a nightmare.

On the worker shortage and when we will emerge from it

Austan Goolsbee, Former Economic Adviser to President Obama

Probably not emerging from it in the near future. That kind of scarcity of, “It’s hard to find workers,” for sure is an issue. It’s partly why wages are going up, which that’s the good side of a worker shortage.

Austan Goolsbee, Former Economic Adviser to President Obama

I think the labor shortage is actually quite tied to the virus, that a bunch of people say, “I don’t want to go to work in an environment where I’m going to be face-to-face with people and I can’t tell if I’m going to get sick.” I do think the vaccine mandates if employers start requiring it, that might in the short run make the labor shortage worse because you lose some of the workers who refuse to get a vaccine.

Austan Goolsbee, Former Economic Adviser to President Obama

But I sort of don’t see any way around that, because if you don’t do something to get the vaccination rates up and the disease spreads even more, what we’ve seen again and again is that higher rates of disease make the labor shortage even worse. And so you think you’re relieving that problem by not enforcing a vaccine mandate, but actually in the long run, you’re making that problem worse because the more the disease spreads, the more people say, “I don’t want to go to work because it’s too risky.”

On the impact on downtown and whether we’re in a real estate crisis

Austan Goolsbee, Former Economic Adviser to President Obama

I think in the short run we’re definitely in a real estate crisis. And you can see that on the residential side, they’ve been trying to extend these eviction moratoria, and that’s because everybody knows that there’s a lot of pent-up evictions that are there. And on the commercial real estate side, there are a bunch of people, as you say, they don’t want to go back to the office, there’s a hesitation to go to physical retail and stuff like that. So that’s still going to... There’s still going to be fallout from that.

Austan Goolsbee, Former Economic Adviser to President Obama

Over the longer run, I would just caution people not to conclude much about permanence from what’s happening right now, because right now is a very unusual time. The fact that there’s a massive worker shortage has given very substantial bargaining power to workers that they have not had for 25, 30 years. So maybe it will stay like this, that workers can say, “I don’t want to come to the office. I demand higher wages. I want benefits,” and the employers have to give it to them.

Greta Van Susteren

If they can afford it.

Austan Goolsbee, Former Economic Adviser to President Obama

If they can afford it.

Greta Van Susteren

A small business can’t necessarily do that.

Austan Goolsbee, Former Economic Adviser to President Obama

Ten years from now, if the employers are back to the strength that they were, that they have been for the last several decades, you’re going to see the employers start saying, “No, if you don’t want to come to work, go find somewhere else to work.”

On inflation and supply chain issues

Greta Van Susteren

Have we reached the peak of inflation? Because a lot of people are looking at the gas prices, the prices of groceries, they’re all climbing. Their wages though, the ones who are working, they are not climbing commensurate with the increase in prices, but have we peaked on inflation?

Austan Goolsbee, Former Economic Adviser to President Obama

I think the fact that the inflation has been so concentrated in the pandemic sectors, pandemic affected sectors, and is so closely tied to these supply chain bottleneck problems. That’s why I think we may have reached peak inflation or that this inflation won’t last for a long time. But that’s the key question. I mean, that’s my view, but in fairness, the economists are arguing about that.

Greta Van Susteren

Did we get ourselves in a particular mess by allowing our supply chains to go out of the country in the first place, long before this pandemic?

Austan Goolsbee, Former Economic Adviser to President Obama

A little. There’s two important questions there. One, we’re clearly intertwined with the whole world and so if they’re making low-end computer chips in Malaysia and the virus spreads in Malaysia so the workers can’t go to the factory to make those computer chips, then it turns out that backs up like clogged plumbing or something, and you can’t get a new car. You call over to the car dealers and they don’t have any cars. Why? Because the car manufacturers can’t get the computer chips they need to make the cars. And so then the price of cars goes up and you got that chain going on.

Austan Goolsbee, Former Economic Adviser to President Obama

A lot of these supply chain things that left the United States are low-end, low-priced things. So if they had stayed in the US, the price of cars would be a lot higher. We would have had the inflation already ...

Austan Goolsbee, Former Economic Adviser to President Obama

The other problem is that if everything is within each country, then when something that’s a global problem and is spreading from country to country gets there... That’s sort of what happened with test kits and swabs and things like that. Everybody banned the sending of any COVID-related supplies out of their own country, but then essentially everybody gets into shortage. So there’s problems going both ways on this thing.

On the Federal Reserve

Greta Van Susteren

The Federal Reserve has set interest rates so very low, essentially free money for borrowers. Has the Federal Reserve, in your mind, been aggressive enough and have they confronted the unique problem that COVID created for us, a global pandemic, a global economic problem, and that hit us so fast?

Austan Goolsbee, Former Economic Adviser to President Obama

This is the million-dollar question.

Austan Goolsbee, Former Economic Adviser to President Obama

I think the Fed deserves a ton of credit for thinking outside the box and recognizing that they’re going to apply a slightly different playbook. They said before this began, they said, “We anticipate that there’s going to be some short-run inflation, but we don’t think it’s going to be permanent and we’re not going to overreact to a little bit of inflation.”

Austan Goolsbee, Former Economic Adviser to President Obama

Now the inflation is here, and as you say, it was kind of surprisingly robust inflation numbers for a short period. I don’t think that the Fed should kind of sprint to the bushes at the first sign of gunfire. I kind of think they outlined a plan and they owe the public that they’re going to stick to the plan to try to get us out of this. But all of that comes back to, is this temporary inflation or is this lasting inflation?

Ilir Sela Highlights

About his company

Ilir Sela, Founder and CEO of Slice

I started Slice in 2010 with the realization that the big chains have these incredible advantages and resources in order to digitally transform their businesses and better serve the customer, while the small, family owned businesses were left behind. And when I learned that 75% of those locations were independents, family, mom and pop locations, I realized that there was a really important need in the market for us to bridge that gap and level the playing field.

On the impact of COVID on his business

Ilir Sela, Founder and CEO of Slice

We saw this incredible acceleration and demand from the customer.

Ilir Sela, Founder and CEO of Slice

Customers could no longer walk up to a pizza shop and just order. Every order became an order-ahead order. And so many employees were not able to make it to the pizza shop to be able to answer those phones. And so there was just this immediate shift to e-commerce from most consumers, and we saw the need for the local merchant to immediately adapt. And that’s where we stepped up with, again, an all-in solution around this e-commerce strategy and service.

On the impact of vaccine mandates

Ilir Sela, Founder and CEO of Slice

I don’t think vaccine mandates are going to have an impact on the business. I strongly recommend and urge anyone who’s watching to go in and get vaccinated if you haven’t been. Look, I think for the pizza industry, and these operators, employees, they actually risked their life throughout this entire pandemic to continue to serve their communities. So many operators literally kept showing up every single day. It’s a very gritty and hardworking industry. And we actually have a theme that we call can’t stop pizza, #can’t stop pizza. And so we don’t think anything can really slow it down, but it’s really important for everyone to be safe and do the right thing.

On the labor shortage

Ilir Sela, Founder and CEO of Slice

That is absolutely the number one challenge today is access to labor. Part-time labor is almost impossible to find. I actually have a family member who built a pizza shop and was ready to open about eight months ago, but has not been able to find one employee yet. It’s incredibly challenging.

Ilir Sela/Founder and CEO of Slice

I think it’s twofold. One is that, whether we like it or not, government subsidies are significant enough to incentivize a lot of people who are in the hospitality industry to be more patient with which jobs they go after. So they’re just staying home and being a lot more patient. The other one is, I didn’t think of this, but so much of the hospitality industry depends on immigrant labor, so immigrants who have moved here from different countries in order to come and have a better life. But when those opportunities became incredibly inconsistent where their job was no longer guaranteed during the pandemic, especially the peak days, they ended up moving back. And they’re also being patient and they don’t want to come back until they know for certain that their job will be guaranteed and that the opportunity for success is going to be consistent. I would say those are the two biggest drivers in the hospitality industry.

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About Greta Van Susteren:

Greta Van Susteren is the Chief Political Analyst for Gray Media and host of Full Court Press. Ms. Van Susteren is a veteran of Fox News Channel, MSNBC, and CNN. Her prime-time Fox News Channel Show, “On the Record,” was number 1 in its time slot for 14 1⁄2 years. Before joining Fox News, she hosted CNN’s prime-time news and analysis program, “The Point with Greta Van Susteren,” and co-hosted the network’s daily legal analysis show, “Burden of Proof.” Her legal analysis for CNN’s coverage of Election 2000 earned her the American Bar Association’s Presidential Award for Excellence in Journalism. She continues to host the weekly 30-minute program “Plugged In with Greta Van Susteren” on Voice of America, which broadcasts exclusively outside of the United States.

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