Star Ford

Essays on lots of things since 1989.

Pandemiconomics: Economic lessons of a pandemic

The pre-pandemic world was a kind of health and economic bubble where a false sense of stability reigned since about the 1940s. During that long stability, global travel was on the rise year after year, so it was only a question of when contagious disease would catch up. Ever since the dawn of life, disease has regularly destroyed whole communities but rarely reached global scale because travel was rare.

Those times are over. We are now in a pandemic era, and even if this particular one “blows over”, it is the new reality – actually the all-time reality, but we can see it clearly now that the bubble has popped.

We can organize appropriately, and be stronger and more resilient. Since humans are a social species, we must have physical communities; we won’t survive being virtual, touchless. But those communities need geographical definition and separation as it was in the ancient world, such that if an infection sweeps through one, its communication to other communities would be restricted. This is a great opportunity to build on the Jeffersonian town halls and ideas of local participation and belonging: imagine being a “member” of your neighborhood, officially listed on a roster, in a way that promotes us all looking out for each other. It’s an opportunity to align the schools and representative districts with all other districting so there is a sense of place and coordination. It’s an opportunity to revitalize local culture and end the colonial-minded trend towards sameness across the world.

One of the best potential outcomes of this crisis (possibly second to learning to wash hands and doorknobs) is the US becoming less me-first and more communitarian, as the species is meant to be. Me-first-ism is an aberration of history, not its peak development.

So what about trade and travel? We will need free travel within the community units, but barriers to travel between units. Those barriers can shift with the collection of known threats at the time, but could be as strict as requiring health testing and quarantine routinely for all travelers. The cost of air travel should include all that, and it can become the new norm. With higher costs, excessive travel for salespeople and other routine business travel can be cut way back, while tourism will still be allowed with the precautions in place. It may sound draconian to our current in-the-bubble way of thinking, but it could be a way to flourish economically and in health and culture too.

The reality now highlights the absurdities of state capitalism, by which I mean the power structures protecting the accumulation of wealth over human needs. Even Republicans are saying in these times, we must pull together and centrally coordinate the economy, in stark contrast to their academically stated principles; this makes me wonder if they actually believe in those principles. The central aspect of the absurdity is the false equivalence of speculation and value, as revealed by the sentiment that “I lost 30% of my money because the market crashed.” Speculation is not value. If we care about the market for investment more than the market for goods related to human needs, we won’t be good at meeting our needs.

A corollary absurdity is the notion of not being able to afford what people need. We only get to that notion because of policies in place that protect extreme inequality, but with equalizing measures like universal basic income, we can continue to have stable markets for goods and we will be able to afford everything we need. We still have the same number of hours available, and the same ingenuity, so there is no need for an economic crisis at all.

One shock to the economy has been the obliteration of the sports and entertainment sectors. While all those people’s livelihoods matter, it’s important to remember that those sectors are not at the bottom of the human needs pyramid, and they can be reinvented. Meanwhile we could use universal income to make it easy for that to happen without disruption of basic needs. Schools and other places where people are herded in large groups can be reinvented too, since herding like that is not a real need that people have; it’s just a top-down decision from power centers.

I always try to remember that people are happy when their actual needs are being met – needs for food, shelter, connection, health, learning, and expression. They are never happy simply because they travel a lot or go to concerts or have electronics. The things we cannot do in this pandemic are not barriers to happiness, and we should not try to resurrect the bubble and go back to the time of false stability. Instead we can reinvent everything to align with real conditions better and meet our needs better than we ever have before.