Virus shutdowns not sustainable
March 29, 2020
Countries have experienced economic depressions before, but not usually as a matter of choice.
The nationwide coronavirus shutdowns over the past few weeks have ground parts of the country to a halt. We have probably never before in our history seen so much economic activity vaporize so quickly — within days or even hours. The Great Depression and the panics of the 19th century are the only possible analogues.
Goldman Sachs is forecasting a 24% drop in quarterly GDP. Morgan Stanley is anticipating a 30% decline.
These are the top-line numbers of a vastation that will throw millions out of work, stress families and blight personal lives, destroy the dreams of small-business owners and bankrupt industries. This is a tale of human misery, not just of declines in the stock market and in GDP.
The federal government can alleviate some of the damage, but even the biggest, best-designed stimulus bill is no substitute for shuttered storefronts and factories. And how many times can Washington pass $2 trillion bills?
No, this is not sustainable, nor will people stand for it except as a temporary expedient. President Donald Trump is already expressing impatience with his own guidance against gatherings of more than 10 people for the next 15 days.
If that sentiment is understandable, it’d be foolish to give up on the lockdowns before they have much of a chance to, in the cliche of the hour, flatten the curve.
And, it’s important to remember that the disease itself is imposing an economic cost. It would have caused a recession regardless of government policy.
If the disease had been left unchecked, it would have exacted an enormous price, in lives of the infected, in the breakdown of the hospital system, in the follow-on effects on people ill with conditions that would have gone untreated. No matter how bad today’s lockdowns are, imagine if we decided to undertake them at a time when the U.S. already had a million cases and the healthcare system was in deep crisis.
The answer to our current situation doesn’t require downplaying COVID-19, or going about business as usual and hoping for the best. The advantage of the lockdowns is that they make every other public policy option look cautious and inexpensive by comparison. What can be more radical than telling tens of millions of Americans to shelter in place?
Our aim should be to shift from the blunderbuss solution of mass shutdowns to rifle-shot remedies, on the model of what South Korea has done with its widespread testing.
We should focus on the production of tests, ventilators, masks and other protective gear on an industrial scale.
The first priority should obviously be backstopping the hospital system and protecting front-line medical workers. But, as economists Paul Romer and Alan M. Garber argue, we need to widen out from there to create a system of population-wide testing and the distribution of protective gear to workers interacting with the public to protect against the spread, while allowing for ordinary work.
Then, we could begin to return to normal with much less risk, even if vulnerable populations and metropolitan hot spots still require extraordinary precautions.
Rich Lowry can be reached at: