Tuesday, May 5, 2020


The best way to get the public to continue the current restrictions, which, while inconvenient, are saving lives, is not through draconian police enforcement (though that has a role to play) but rather through consistent, credible public health messaging. This messaging is how we have shifted public opinions and practice about seat belts, smoking, and safe sex. We can do it for COVID-19, too, using three simple strategies.
This Chart Explains Why Reopening the Economy Is Still So Risky
I was unaware that wearing seat belts, lowering rates of smoking and being careful when sexually active contributed to the ongoing unemployment of millions of people. I presume that this is just the media that I am most likely to have access to, given my habits, but it seems to me that there is a massive downplaying of the ongoing effects of the current crop of stay at home orders and mandatory business closings. Describing pushing people into a situation where they potentially stand to be unemployed for years is not merely "inconvenient." There's an assumption that "the government" is "taking care" of people, and that those who find themselves furloughed or simply let go have everything they need to continue their lives as usual. The current situation is, in effect, a crappy form of "staycation." Okay, they might not be pulling in their full paychecks, and so they have to tighten their belts a bit, but as long as they don't die (or make some old person sick enough that they die) there will be no lasting harm done. This is not true. A lot of the businesses that have been forced to close are never going to re-open. Their owners simply weren't well-capitalized enough to manage a month or more with zero revenue, but ongoing expenses.

People, in my experience, tend to conceptualize "the economy" in terms of money, rather than goods and services. Therefore, if there's an economic problem, all one has to do is print more money. But while modern economies work on the exchange of money for goods and services, money is not itself a viable substitute for those goods and services. Printing money to make up for a shortfall in actual economic output is simply a driver of inflation. And while the United States is unlikely to find itself in a hyperinflationary spiral, or even return to the high inflation rates of the 1970s, in the near term, that doesn't mean the problem is non-existent. While the quest for a crisis that can repeal the laws of economics is ongoing, I doubt that Coronavirus infectious disease 2019 is the Holy Grail that people are looking for. It doesn't change the fact that people need goods and services to survive. And, in a modern economy, to continue the production of other goods and services. There are very few things that require no inputs other than what a person can supply on their own, and only a very few of those are thought to provide significant value. In this sense, "the current restrictions" are more than simply inconvenient.

If a media outlet is speaking to an audience where "everyone is working from home," they may not see it, and if they're correct in their assessment of their audience, it's unlikely that anyone will call them on it. Because the demands of juggling children, pets and the noises of the neighborhood may be new problems, but in the grand scheme of things, they can be portrayed as a small price to pay for staying healthy.

But for the person who has lost their ability to provide goods and services to trade for necessities, it's something of a time bomb. The American economy was already well past the point of being able to operate and have a significant surplus of labor. As small businesses die off, and larger ones pick up whatever pieces they chose to, that efficiency is going to ratchet down even more tightly. The person who  works for a small retailer that never reopens is unlikely to simply be able to count on demand creating a new role for them at a large chain retailer. Not because there won't be an increase in employment as customers shift to the businesses that survived the enforced shutdown, but large businesses are simply more efficient than small ones in terms of personnel needs.

It is, however, likely that retail workers and the like are not a large part of the audience of media sites like Slate, which strike me as catering more to a young, left-leaning, (sub)urban professional demographic. And there's nothing wrong with addressing articles and commentary specifically to that audience. But they aren't the whole of the set of people impacted by the mitigation measures that have been implemented. And sidestepping the effects that will linger once the immediate impacts are over doesn't do anyone any favors. A lot of people are going to be looking at long-term unemployment in a culture that tends to see that as indicative of a personal failing. The competition for work is going to be intense, and it's going to be an employer's market for the foreseeable future. That's more than simply inconvenient.

No comments: