Your Money, or Your Life?

What the Debate about Lockdown Measures Gets Wrong
A person in New Orleans walks near a building with the words "Capitalism is the virus" April 13, 2020, during the coronavirus pandemic. (CNS photo/Carlos Barria, Reuters)

On the May 13 episode of the daytime talk show The View, one of the “hot topics” taken up by the panel was Sen. Rand Paul’s questioning of Dr. Anthony Fauci at a Senate committee hearing the day before. During their exchange, Paul had declared that lockdown measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus had become too economically burdensome to be worth continuing, and that Fauci, who has consistently supported such measures, was not the “end-all” or the only voice to whom lawmakers should be listening.

After co-hosts Whoopi Goldberg and Sunny Hostin railed against the Kentucky senator for his lack of deference to government scientists and his apparent indifference to the suffering and death that would result if restrictions were lifted prematurely, their colleague Meghan McCain spoke up to defend Sen. Paul’s basic point:

I got more than a few phone calls from friends that are just absolutely despondent. Out of work, can’t work, can’t go anywhere, can’t do anything, and are really looking down the barrel of being unable to pay their mortgage, being unable to feed themselves…. There are a lot of different ways to die from COVID. We’re seeing suicide spikes in unprecedented numbers…. So I think we’re going to have to come to some kind of middle ground because right now there’s a lot of feelings of hopelessness…. We’re going to be sheltering in place, not just to flatten the curve, but…until there are no deaths in America whatsoever. But at the same time we are going to bankrupt this country and not have enough ink and printers to have enough money to get us out of it. 

It was a typical exchange for the show. The View’s center-left view du jour—in this case, that opposition to lockdown measures is mostly the result of right-wing naïveté and hostility to government authority—is ordinarily shared by all but one of the co-hosts, with the only objection to that view almost always coming from a self-described “Never Trump conservative” (usually McCain but sometimes stand-in Ana Navarro). This is especially frustrating when the basis of the objection is obviously true, as it was here. Millions of Americans are indeed suffering terrible economic hardship right now, not only because of the direct costs of the pandemic, such as medical bills or funeral expenses for loved ones who have succumbed to the virus, but also because of involuntary unemployment and loss of income caused by state lockdowns. It is entirely rational for people to resent measures that deprive them of their livelihoods.

But the conclusion that Sen. Paul and Meghan McCain draw from this—that the restrictions should be lifted as soon as possible even if it means the virus begins to sicken and kill more people—is completely wrong. For one thing, the tradeoff between public health and economic vitality implicit in this line of thinking is a false one. COVID-19 deaths are not like traffic fatalities, which we could eliminate only with economically intolerable policies such as a ban on all cars and trucks. As countries from New Zealand to Taiwan have already demonstrated, and as states like Alaska and Vermont are well on their way to demonstrating, the now-familiar toolkit of mask-wearing, physical-distancing, travel restrictions, widespread testing, contact tracing, and isolation of the sick can not only “flatten the curve” but can actually eradicate the virus. Places that have effectively ended transmission have certainly suffered economically, but they have also proven that it can be accomplished without destroying society.

In the short run, we need a much bolder policy response, including, for starters, larger direct payments to individuals that continue until the threat from the virus has truly abated.

Critics of the public-health messaging about curve-flattening, such as freelance researcher Yaneer Bar-Yam, have faulted this rhetoric for giving the impression that the best we can aim for is to slow the rate at which the disease spreads, rather than to stop it from spreading entirely. Instead, Bar-Yam advocates a strategy of “crushing the curve” (i.e. eradication), which would actually be less economically costly in the long run because it would avert the need to indefinitely accommodate an incredibly contagious and terribly lethal disease.

But those who claim that the economic costs of suppressing the pandemic would be too great make another faulty assumption—namely, that restrictions necessarily deprive people of their ability to survive and that many will ultimately starve unless they are permitted to return to their (possibly unsafe, possibly bankrupt) workplace. In reality, the government can step in to guarantee incomes for the duration of the crisis, whether through expanded unemployment insurance, universal payments, grants to businesses to maintain employees on their payrolls, or some combination of the three. So long as production of food and vital supplies can go on with proper safety precautions for essential workers, there is no reason why anyone must starve for lack of a job, or fear that the government will “run out of ink.”

The steps the United States has taken in this regard have been underwhelming, especially when compared to the response in other countries. Denmark, for instance, agreed to spend approximately 13 percent of its gross domestic product to pay most private-sector workers in danger of being laid off three-quarters of their original salaries for three months. In this country, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act did make some halfhearted efforts to pursue all three of the strategies outlined above, but none have proven adequate to the scale of the catastrophe we face.

The one-time stimulus payment of $1,200 (and $500 for each child) provided for by the CARES Act is better than nothing, but it’s also barely more than the national median monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment. A temporary $600-per-week boost to unemployment insurance is set to expire at the end of July, and some states still have not yet implemented so-called Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), which expands unemployment-insurance eligibility to several categories of workers who do not traditionally qualify for benefits. The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), which was designed to encourage businesses to maintain payrolls, has twice run out of funds.

One of the most incisive comments on the defective economic response to the coronavirus has come from Columbia Law professor Jedediah Britton-Purdy, who wrote on Twitter in April that “pressure to ‘reopen the economy’ is the result of political failure to make the isolation period a socially supported joint effort. By leaving economic pressure to survive in place, we’ve made ‘the economy’ a battering ram against society.”

In the short run, we need a much bolder policy response, including, for starters, larger direct payments to individuals that continue until the threat from the virus has truly abated. Congressional Republicans have dragged their feet every step of the way when it comes to providing real relief, and their Democratic counterparts have largely lacked the appetite to confront them as aggressively as they should. So far, the House majority has passed multiple coronavirus bills without insisting that any of them include direct aid to state and local governments to replace lost tax revenues. Absent such aid, devastating budget cuts will become inevitable.

But to really break out of this dynamic in the future will require a sustained political effort to shift our collective understanding of what the economy is. We must stop thinking of it as essentially a complicated machine that we all have to labor to maintain even when public health demands otherwise. We would do well to take on board the long Catholic tradition on these points, summed up in Pope Francis’s pronouncement that “money must serve, not rule,” and cultivate a sense that our current market-based economic system is not a fact of nature but a provisional means for distributing goods and services—one we have the power to supersede when, at times like this, it cannot meet our needs.

Matt Mazewski is a Ph.D. student in economics at Columbia University and rapporteur of the University Seminar on Catholicism, Culture, and Modernity. You can follow him on Twitter at @mattmazewski.

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