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Archive for April 15th, 2020

I’ve shared plenty of jokes about how America is getting a trial run of life under socialism thanks to the coronavirus.

But, as discussed in this interview, there are some very serious issues relating to economic policy during a pandemic.

I started the interview by stating that we’re in uncharted territory. And I openly acknowledge I’m not an expert on epidemiology in general or the coronavirus in particular. (And neither are the politicians and pundits who dominate Washington, even if they pretend otherwise.)

Which is why, in this list of four takeaways from the interview, I start with the need for more information.

1. Testing is key – We desperately need to get the economy going again, but that’s not going to happen until we know the extent of the disease. Without that information, I suspect it won’t matter whether politicians officially lift the lockdowns. Many individuals won’t go back to work because of concerns about personal safety and many businesses won’t reopen because of concerns about things such as liability and profitability.

2. The FDA and CDC have failed – As I stated in the interview (and as I’ve repeatedly stated in my columns), the Washington bureaucracies have hindered an effective and rapid response to the coronavirus. We need to get rid of the rules and red tape that prevent the private sector from responding to the demand for tests.

3. Be concerned about a long-run expansion in the burden government – I’m extremely worried about the coronavirus being the pretext for a permanent expansion in Washington’s power over the private sector.

A column in today’s Wall Street Journal by former Senator Phil Gramm, along with Mike Solon, echoes my fears.

…even in a time of bitter partisanship, consensus can almost always be found in a crisis to spend a large sum of taxpayer money. …politicians and interest groups have…sought to use the crisis to expand permanently government spending and the role government plays in the aftermath. …Based on the massive programs already adopted and the decision to use the Fed as a crisis lender, the role of government in post-coronavirus America will be significantly expanded. …the capacity of private businesses and banks to lead the recovery could be smothered. …The government would direct the recovery and the Fed would allocate credit. Is that a future most Americans want to fight for?

4. An extended economic shutdown is bad for health outcomes – I wrote about this issue last month, explaining that a weak economy leads to adverse consequences for health and longevity.

Andrew Sullivan succinctly captured this painful tradeoff in his column for New York.

There are costs to this collective exercise in empathy and compassion. You contemplate the rising chances of a long and devastating global depression. You look ahead to months and months more of quarantine, empty streets, crippled businesses, shrinking retirement savings, and rising poverty. And you realize that our choice for life over wealth is a little more complicated. There will come a point at which we will have to risk some lives to reopen and save the economy. …in principle, at some point, there will be a crossover moment when quarantine and lockdown cease to have the net-positive impact they are now having.

If you want more information, click on any of these stories and tweets and you’ll learn more about why there is a very legitimate concern.

Let’s close with excerpts from a column by Tim Worstall for the U.K.-based CapX.

…there are no solutions, only trade-offs. There are costs to everything just as there are benefits and the task is to balance them… This is not to make the mistake of claiming that money, share prices and asset values outweigh lives. Rather, it’s to point that GDP is the sum of economic activity, production, incomes and consumption. If that falls 15% that means we are are all significantly poorer – and that poverty will kill people as surely as the virus is doing. …It’s also why the NHS limits access to treatments to those which cost less than £30,000 (or £50,000 for some diseases) per quality adjusted life year gained. …healthcare is something society spends more of its income upon as incomes rise. Naturally, a richer country will spend a higher portion of GDP on health care than a poorer one. …The optimal point is to balance spending on maintaining human life, while avoiding the damage to those same lives caused by a slump in economic activity. …The aim now is to…minimise overall deaths from all causes. To my mind, a six month shutdown risks missing that target by tipping the world into a depression that is more damaging than the disease itself.

Tim is right.

If politicians impose too many restrictions on the economy, we can lose more lives in the long run.

Which is why this Venn Diagram accurately shows where I am. And hopefully where everyone is.

P.S. This lesson about tradeoffs applies to all types of government policy, not just the coronavirus (cleverly captured in the Remy video at the end of this column).

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