Summary: A recession is certain. Unless the epidemic breaks soon, a depression seems likely. Lessons from history tell us how to fight it. But much of our experience is irrelevant and we must improvise. Here is the brief.
Before looking at our current ills, let us remember the dismal odds accepted and surmounted by the Founding Fathers. See this praise John Hancock gave to George Washington in his letter of 9 October 1777, following the battle of Germantown. It appeared in one of the Founders’ favorite plays, “Cato: A Tragedy” by Joseph Addison. Let our actions today deserve such praise.
“Something must still be left to Fortune. It is not in Mortals to command Success. But permit me to say, Sir, you have done more on this Occasion, You have deserved it.”
We do not know what lies ahead because we do not know the current state of infection in the US, due to the lack of testing kits. Neither expert judgment nor computer models can provide answers when we lack this basic information. Furthermore, I doubt if models or judgment can adequately reflect the results of the changing patchwork of responses to the epidemic. Then there are larger unknowns. Will COVID-19 sweep through the Third World like a scythe, as WHO fears? Will the epidemic fade with the coming of summer, as influenza does? Nobody knows.
So most of our leaders have chosen to take drastic steps to prevent worst-case scenarios that might put America itself at risk. Here is a good status report: “The Best-Case Outcome for the Coronavirus, and the Worst” by Nicholas Kristof at the NYT – “Will we endure 2.2 million deaths? Or will we manage to turn things around?”
One thing is clear: we are spiraling into a depression. How could we not, with so much of America shut down by government order, people just staying home, and both people and businesses conserving their savings? Business slows down. Businesses stop paying employees. Employees spend less. Businesses slow down. Prices drop, pushing more businesses into collapse. Repeat until people and businesses cannot make their loan payments. Then we get debt deflation (described here), which begins a steeper decline phase. This process can accelerate and quickly wreck an economy.
I wrote about this in January and February. It took a while, but suddenly everybody sees the abyss that lies ahead.
- Another optimist in the early days: “How America Can Beat COVID-19” by James K. Galbraith at Project Syndicate, March 4 – “Compared to a world war, the COVID-19 epidemic is a fairly manageable problem, provided that the US government can rise to the challenge. But without a mass mobilization to secure critical supplies and prevent a panic, the crisis could easily spin out of control.” He does not even consider the possibility of a recession, let alone depression, from the effects of COVID-19.
- Still optimistic: “How does the coronavirus pandemic compare to the Great Recession, and what should fiscal policy do now?” by Louise Sheiner at Brookings, March 12. All she sees is an “economic slowdown – and possible recession.”
- Great map gifs showing 3 scenarios: “Coronavirus Could Overwhelm U.S. Without Urgent Action, Estimates Say” in the NYT, March 20.
- “Denmark’s Idea Could Help the World Avoid a Great Depression” by Derek Thompson at The Atlantic, March 21 – They are doing a big stimulus and doing it now.
- “The Economic Devastation Is Going to Be Worse Than You Think” by Russell Berman at The Atlantic, March 21 – “The coronavirus’s overwhelming toll on jobs and businesses has only just begun.”
- “How the Covid-19 recession could become a depression.” by Ezra Klein at Vox, March 23.
- Recommended: “Covid-19’s Economic Pain Is Universal. But Relief? Depends on Where You Live.” by Matt Apuzzo and Monika Pronczuk at the NYT – “In some countries, workers will have 90% of lost wages covered. In others, residents fear eviction. Nation to nation, rescue plans reflect conflicting ideas of government’s role in a crisis.” This disunity can prevent essential fast action.
Goldman Sach’s March 24 research note provides the details.
“The global economy is not just experiencing a recession, but a sudden stop without precedent in postwar history, says Goldman Sachs Chief Economist Jan Hatzius. Unlike the more gradual effects of the global financial crisis, lockdowns and social distancing present a physical constraint (especially in face-to-face services) with more immediate economic consequences. Goldman Sachs Research now forecasts a sharp contraction in developed economies in Q2, including a 24% drop in US GDP – twice as large as the previous postwar record.”
Our leaders in Washington have heard economists’ warnings, and are discussing large and larger stimulus packages. The Fed is implementing bold monetary policies and preparing larger and bolder ones. None of these measures well fit the current crisis. That would have required planning that should have begun in January or early February. So we must muddle through – falling forward to what is hopefully a quick recovery.
Here’s the problem
First, there is a common misunderstanding of fiscal and monetary stimulus. They provide first aid to stabilize the economy at a viable level. In other words, they keep the patient alive. Hence the ignorance of right-wing guru’s announcements that stimulus “won’t cure” downturns. That is not their role. They do not maintain prosperity; they reduce the pain and preserve the economy’s core for its eventual recovery.
Next, the bad news. The standard measures are designed to keep people employed. People complain when the government funds existing programs that are frivolous in an emergency. Such as arts and education programs. Pushing money into existing programs is fast and effective, and broadly distributes the stimulus. Building bridges is nice, but funding plays by an existing community theater groups is faster. The standard stimulus keeps people at work so that they can keep spending at baseball games and restaurants.
None of that works well in an epidemic. There are many possible ways to stimulate investment during COVID-19, but such subtleties are for the future. The goal instead is to keep people and institutions from going broke and provide essential services (including medical care) to all. This has always been the government’s role during an epidemic. Always some of the rich complain of this kindness to the poor.
It can help to remember that these problems have been successfully dealt with in the past by societies with little of our knowledge or resources. I recommend reading Florence Under Siege: Surviving Plague in an Early Modern City by John Henderson (professor of Italian renaissance history at U of London). He describes how Florence was one of the most successful cities of Italy at managing the plague of 1629. See this fascinating review of it in the London Review of Books. Here is an excerpt.
“The Sanità arranged the delivery of food, wine and firewood to the homes of the quarantined (30,452 of them). Each quarantined person received a daily allowance of two loaves of bread and half a boccale (around a pint) of wine. On Sundays, Mondays and Thursdays, they were given meat. On Tuesdays, they got a sausage seasoned with pepper, fennel and rosemary. On Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, rice and cheese were delivered; on Friday, a salad of sweet and bitter herbs. The Sanità spent an enormous amount of money on food because they thought that the diet of the poor made them especially vulnerable to infection, but not everyone thought it was a good idea. Rondinelli recorded that some elite Florentines worried that quarantine ‘would give [the poor] the opportunity to be lazy and lose the desire to work, having for forty days been provided abundantly for all their needs’.
“The provision of medicine was also expensive. Every morning, hundreds of people in the lazaretti were prescribed theriac concoctions, liquors mixed with ground pearls or crushed scorpions, and bitter lemon cordials. The Sanità did devolve some tasks to the city’s confraternities. The brothers of San Michele Arcangelo conducted a housing survey to identify possible sources of contagion; the members of the Archconfraternity of the Misericordia transported the sick in perfumed willow biers from their homes to the lazaretti. But mostly, the city government footed the bill. Historians now interpret this extensive spending on public health as evidence of the state’s benevolence: if tracts like Righi’s brim over with intolerance towards the poor, the account books of the Sanità tell an unflashy story of good intentions.”
But surviving a plague requires more from the community than medicine and economics. Breaking quarantines puts the community at risk, and so is a serious crime.
“But the Sanità – making use of its own police force, court and prison – also punished those who broke quarantine. Its court heard 566 cases between September 1630 and July 1631, with the majority of offenders – 60% – arrested, imprisoned, and later released without a fine. A further 11% were imprisoned and fined. On the one hand, the majority of offenders were spared the harshest penalties, of corporal punishment or exile. On the other, being imprisoned in the middle of a plague epidemic was potentially lethal; and the fines levied contributed to the operational budget of the public health system.”
We have the machinery to do all this today on a larger and more effective scale. Combinations of welfare, social security, Medicare, Medicaid, and unemployment insurance can provide a safety net for Americans, drastically enlarged from that required in a purely economic downturn. It can work quickly if we loosen the usual procedures.
Supporting our businesses is a more complex problem. As we saw in the Great Recession, corporate leaders will use their political power to enrich themselves and extend the reach of their companies. Life support and gifts to the rich and powerful look alike in press releases. Managing this will require strong pressure from the public, which might not happen during this crisis. If not, we should expect the government to be looted. For more about this, see Matt Stoller’s “Stop the Coronavirus Corporate Coup.”
Another component of a solution
Surviving an epidemic is more than a technocratic program. Maintaining the intangible essentials is also essential: morale, confidence in our leaders, and social cohesion. Lose any one of these and society can fragment in an eye-blick, as history goes. That’s why bipartisanship is essential, as is clear and consistent communication from our elected leaders. Both are missing today in America today. The fracturing of society likely if this epidemic continues to spread will make these things both more important and more difficult to find.
We can help by requiring better behavior from our leaders and putting pressure on those who put America at risk for their own needs.
Epidemics, depressions, and wars are natural aspects of life. If we become weak, one of these ills eventually will destroy our society. For America to survive, each of us must stay connected and committed to our communities and nation. As the Director-General of WHO has said since the beginning, we can survive this well if we support each other. We have the resources. We need only the standard virtues of compassion and courage plus some wit and willpower.
It’s easy to follow the COVID-19 story
The World Health Organization provides daily information, from highly technical information to news for the general public. These are the best sources of information.
- There is their daily situation report, with detailed numbers.
- The Director-General of WHO gives frequent briefings, which are quite insightful.
- Their daily press briefings have more information. An audio goes up afterwads. They post a transcript the next day.
Posts about effects of COVID-19
- Hidden news about the epidemic sweeping across America! – Fake news drives out good news.
- A devastating epidemic spreads across America – An epidemic of panic and ignorance.
- Soon we’ll see if the US can defend itself again COVID-19.
- COVID-19 will hit the world economy hard. Here’s how.
- Seeing what went wrong can help us beat COVID-19.
- COVID-19 shows the new center of the world.
- Prepare now in case they close the stock market.
- The key to surviving the COVID-19 pandemic.
- The info superhighway makes us stupid about COVID-19.
For More Information
- See the ugly cost of the next big flu pandemic. We can do more to prepare.
- Stratfor: The superbugs are coming. We have time to prepare.
- Posts debunking the hysteria about the 2009 swine flu in America.
- Posts debunking the hysteria about the 2015 ebola epidemic in America.
- Important: A vaccine against the fears that make us weak.
A medieval city defeats a plague
By John Henderson (2019), professor of Italian renaissance history at U of London.
I strongly recommend reading this fascinating review of it in the London Review of Books, with its great excerpts. From the publisher …
“Plague remains the paradigm against which reactions to many epidemics are often judged. Here, John Henderson examines how a major city fought, suffered, and survived the impact of plague. Going beyond traditional oppositions between rich and poor, this book provides a nuanced and more compassionate interpretation of government policies in practice, by recreating the very human reactions and survival strategies of families and individuals.
“From the evocation of the overcrowded conditions in isolation hospitals to the splendor of religious processions, Henderson analyzes Florentine reactions within a wider European context to assess the effect of state policies on the city, street, and family. Writing in a vivid and approachable way, this book unearths the forgotten stories of doctors and administrators struggling to cope with the sick and dying, and of those who were left bereft and confused by the sudden loss of relatives.”