Those fine folks in Congress have an opportunity to help people weather the economic storm caused by COVID-19 and the responses to it, and so the Senate decided that it was more important by far to spend the last week arguing over pet causes and how much pork they could give to favored beneficiaries. And we are supposed to thank them because once again crumbs have been tossed to the masses. Even then presumably respectable Senators like the honorable Ben Sasse of Nebraska were concerned that the unemployment benefits might be too generous and could disturb “the employer/employee relationship.”
Federal spending is always a decision about values, about what matters, about who matters.
This is the worst game of six degrees of separation ever. Number One Daughter had class with someone who tested positive for COVID-19 virus. She has yet to hear if she is to be tested as well. In the meantime, we wait.
She came home from college over the past weekend so that she could be near her people if anything happened. That was joyful. She’s seen and hugged all of her siblings, her mother, me. Made dinner for her siblings and me the first night she was back; a delicious bowl of rice and beans. She’s now at her mother’s house.
What next? Does she quarantine herself in a room far away like a normal teenager, texting for deliveries of food between naps, or mingle with the rest of the households and everybody else with whom she’s already come into contact?
Do I next see her and the others in two weeks, barring any additional symptoms?
It seems prudent, as I mentioned in a post earlier this month, to take precautions in the face of ignorance, not unlike Pascal’s wager on God: We don’t know and the risks are immeasurable. How is this known unknown so much more terrifying than the previously unknown unknown?
Here’s a purely hypothetical question for you. Let’s suppose you have a certain number of hospital beds and a certain number of ventilators and a certain number of medical staff. Further, let’s suppose that there are more sick people than there are beds, ventilators, and staff. The system has insufficient capacity to meet the need. Or, in economic terms, demand exceeds supply. How do you determine who receives help?
That question of triage, deciding who is to die, is a difficult moral calculus–for some people. For eugenicists or Nazis, it’s not: kill the old and feeble, the physically or mentally deranged, the scum; cull the weak from the herd and improve the species. Or, as Dominic Cummings, aide to Boris Johnson, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, put it: “if that means some pensioners die, too bad.“
Each time the United States argues over a national health care system, someone attempts to assert that socialized medicine leads inevitably to death panels, as if rationing life by one’s ability to pay were more humane than a committee. The thought was that at some point the State would decide it’s just too expensive to keep Granny alive and she would be killed–completely ignoring the fact that Congress funds anything out of nothing more than desire.
Yet somehow refusing to order production of medical equipment or prepare for a pandemic does not rise to the same level of callousness. Somehow seeking to profit from the deaths of thousands is just good business. Those actions cause or exacerbate shortages which lead to deciding who will die.
The response to COVID-19 is in a very real sense a logistics problem, in terms of delivering care to the people who need it. But it’s also one of meeting demand. And in that respect economics can offer some ways to think about it, as the field is, after all, concerned with how finite resources are allocated–the case of surge pricing toilet paper to prevent hoarding comes to mind. Though it seems rather insane for the price of N95-rated masks to have jumped from $0.70 to $7.00 each over the past week, the prices reflect a case of insufficient supply available for the demand. Some people, such as New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo, redirected existing labor to another task: making hand sanitizer. The Army Corps of Engineers are doing what they do. Others are simply volunteering to help, whether in 3-D printing a valve for a ventilator, or providing patent-free CAD designs, or manufacturing, or sewing.
The response to COVID-19 is also an ethical problem. Most people want to help; the rest are outside society.
R. R. Reno, the editor of First Things, has been on a tear recently. He’s very upset that Roman Catholic churches, among others, suspended public celebration of the Eucharist, and argues that the Church could find other ways of adjusting without shutting out the parishioners. (I suspect he might agree with me about locking the sanctuary doors.) There is something quite magical about gathering together, but expecting others to risk their lives so you can receive the Eucharist seems the opposite of courage in the face of death. Perhaps the Catholic churches could find ways to remain open, but they have decided to help prevent the spread of disease by asking their flock to worship at home, not unlike the early Christians. Some non-denominational churches, more arrogant, won’t raise no pansies.
Mr. Reno also worries about the shrinking of our social life:
[R]estrictions on public gatherings have paused institutional life. There are no Boy Scout meetings, no Little League practices, no Rotary Club or Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Most book clubs are suspending their evening discussions, even though these small gatherings are permitted. Closed restaurants dissolve informal coffee klatches. Some institutions, organizations, and fellowships will rebound when the draconian limits on social life are lifted. But some will not. And the longer those limits last, the more will wither and fade away.
But over the past few weeks, I’ve seen many people whose first response to the pending isolation was not to buy more toilet paper but to reach out to their family, to their friends, to others they hadn’t spoken with recently; was not to hide under the covers with a flashlight but to arrange online substitutes for in-person discussions. AT&T thanks you. We are a gregarious species.
I am lucky enough to be salaried. I am lucky enough to already work from home. My routine is not disturbed one bit. Except the Spring soccer season is on hold.
Others are not so lucky. Staying home, or, more precisely, away from work, has immediate costs that they cannot recoup. They have no help. The financial situation of many households is precarious. The financial situation of many businesses is precarious, even larger businesses. We are, the bulk of us, over-extended, living hand to mouth. Cash money is, these days, what we need to live. We may adjust to having less. Or we may die.
The financial markets, despite their formerly rosy numbers, are an illusion. The real economy always involves real people, real joy and real suffering, real living and real dying. What are we doing for real people?
We are all looking for a middle ground here, between the Scylla of mass death and the Charybdis of economic apocalypse. At this stage of the crisis, it looks like there is no middle ground. This is an intolerable thing, but it might well be reality.
Our public library has closed indefinitely, and though I will need to return the large stack of books 📚 I borrowed last month at some point, I do not think I will lack for reading matter if I can manage to tear my eyes away from the slow-moving train wreck that is the world these days: I have many unread books in both the fiction and non-fiction rooms of my own library, which sounds much more grand than it actually is.
This one, however, I’ve read before. According to the receipt inside from Dave’s Comics on Three Chopt Road in Richmond, Virginia, I did so the summer of 1988. It seemed apropos to revisit The Plague.
The language [Rieux] used was that of a man who was sick and tired of the world he lived in—though he had much liking for his fellow men—and had resolved, for his part, to have no truck with injustice and compromises with the truth.
Once there was a devout man who was certain in his faith. All who knew him remarked on his righteousness, for he was constantly thanking God for His great wisdom in making all that was, good or bad.
One day on the evening news this man heard that a terrible storm was coming and that all should evacuate to high ground. “I’ll stay right here,” he said to himself. “The Lord will save me.”
It began to rain.
It rained so much that the creek rose out of its bed, and waves lapped at the foundation of his house. A neighbor paddled by in his canoe and offered to take the righteous man to high ground. “No, thank you. Don’t worry about me. God will save me.”
Still it rained, the waters rose, and the man took refuge on his roof. A helicopter hovered overhead, and a National Guardsman swinging from a rope ladder shouted for him to climb up. “No, thank you. Go; help someone else in need. God will save me.”
Still it rained. And the righteous man drowned.
The man came before God, and asked, “Lord, I’ve been a righteous man all my life. I’ve kept all your commandments. I know in my heart that you are a loving and kind god; I was so sure you would save me. Why did you let me drown?”
And God answered, “I sent the evening news. I sent your neighbor in his canoe. And I sent the National Guard with a helicopter. What more did you need?”
The author has been working from home since 2600 baud modems were a thing, but officially only since 2006. The biggest handicap is lack of routine. The second is lack of people. The greatest benefit is flexibility. The greatest hazard is also flexibility. Establish boundaries for yourself and keep them.
Yes, that means a schedule. And pants.
Working from home, often with indefinite externally-imposed demands, will reveal weaknesses in your time management skills. Until the option presents itself, we are not aware of how much someone else’s clock shapes our day. Consider the difference between children during the school year and vacation. Similarly, athletes, musicians, and others may be accustomed to working with a very limited time budget, but what happens when the infinity of 24 hours presents itself? Initially one may have grand plans for the hour(s) of reclaimed time, but those disappear in a haze. Find tricks to divide personal time from that devoted to your work, and work time from that devoted to care for everything else. Some people use pants, others a change of space, and still others a bell.
It will impose, forcefully, on time you once thought was yours: lunch. Meetings will be scheduled to interrupt breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Set limits early. If you are planning to eat with your family, do so. If you formerly took breaks to chat over coffee, continue. Get away from the desk.
It will remove any exercise you may have been getting during your commute. In my case before I began working from home my commute had changed from walking a mile to the train plus several miles to and from the office each day, to a few feet of walking to my car then to my desk. After I began working from home even that little bit of exercise was reduced to the distance from my bed to my couch. Get up and move.
It will beg you to keep going. Don’t.
Stop. Tomorrow is another day.
Update: Consider this a reminder that working away from the home is an invention of the modern, industrial era. Society changes over time.
Two cats live with me. One, Lily, is 15; she has been with us since she was weaned, adopted with her brother when my daughters were four and two. Her brother passed away two Christmases ago. The other, Maple, is of indeterminate age, and came to live with us five years ago after she was abandoned. They don’t get along.
Lily used to be the queen, but she’s aged, and now Maple can push her around. As a result, she spends most days on edge, tip-toeing around the sleeping bully. She’ll ask politely for food, stand daintily in second position while she waits, and then not eat–because as soon as a rustle or a can is heard, Maple flops off her chair and gallumphs thunderously to the kitchen, elbows her way past Lily, and quickly consumes all there is, regardless of how much is set out.
Maple is moaning piteously outside right now. She claims to be starving to death. How could I be so cruel as to keep her away from all of her food.
When this plague has passed, what will our neighbors remember of us? Will they remember that the Christians took immediate, decisive action to protect the vulnerable, even at great personal and organizational cost?
The challenge ahead is not to rebuild—it’s to build. We can’t restore something that never quite was. We don’t even know what a caring society—the beloved community—might really look like. We’ll have to imagine. So—if your classes are cancelled or your big game is kaput or the office is half-empty, if you don’t know how to wonk or organize, if you’re not a nurse or a public health expert or a social worker, if you’re feeling isolated—well, then, get busy. More time to start the work ahead: imagining the caring society that must come next. This is no thought exercise, this is action, and we can get going now if we haven’t—by determination or due to more visible necessity—started already.
I hope there will be a great coming together of society, as people from all walks of life realize that we are all in this together. We leave the world a better place than we found it.
I fear a few, seeing the opportunity to never let a crisis go to waste, ensure that they profit at the expense of others, that they consolidate their power, turning neighbor against neighbor as the many fight for table scraps dropped by the few.
One might say I’m a pessimist, but I’m afraid that my fears are more likely to come to pass.
Here’s a logic puzzle for you. If testing for COVID-19 only if another test for COVID-19 is positive, when do you ever test?
Answer: you don’t.
Luckily, humans aren’t computers, though rules can make them behave, sometimes, like they are.
The question above was prompted by personal concern. It’s that time of the year when folks, including me, tend to get sick. I’ve had symptoms of the common cold or allergies for a week or so: a dry cough, runny nose. Number One Son presented symptoms of a viral infection on Monday evening: A fever, a dry cough, aches and pains. He did not have trouble breathing. Could be an influenza.
We can test for the flu. The test results came back negative. It’s not the flu. Given the current situation, it could be SARS-CoV-2. We could test for that, if test kits were available. But test kits are unavailable, for a variety of reasons including but not limited to a fragile supply chain. Therefore the Centers for Disease Control has certain recommendations on when to test, in order that the available tests not be used up in a panic.
Decisions on which patients receive testing should be based on the local epidemiology of COVID-19, as well as the clinical course of illness. Most patients with confirmed COVID-19 have developed fever1 and/or symptoms of acute respiratory illness (e.g., cough, difficulty breathing). Clinicians are strongly encouraged to test for other causes of respiratory illness, including infections such as influenza.
Epidemiologic factors that may help guide decisions on whether to test include: any persons, including healthcare workers2, who have had close contact3 with a laboratory-confirmed4 COVID-19 patient within 14 days of symptom onset, or a history of travel from affected geographic areas5 (see below) within 14 days of symptom onset.
All of which means that the very nice map from Johns Hopkins is a picture of the past, and not a clear guide to what’s happening now, in your neighborhood. The same goes for any news reporting. Still, decisions have to be made with incomplete or inaccurate data. And they can be, from knowledge of how diseases spread in general, and boil down to two things: reduce contact and reduce travel. The decisions by many colleges to hold classes online and to send students home is then, in this light, only half right.
We know that we don’t know if we’re infected.
We know that it spreads before symptoms appear.
We know that the symptoms are deceiving.
We know that we aren’t testing.
We know that the virus cannot spread without hosts.
Waiting until we have a confirmed case before acting seems the height of silliness, closing the barn doors after the horse has bolted.
But how easy is it to ask people to stay home for a fortnight? Martial law shouldn’t be necessary: ask folks to stay home and make it possible for them to do so. That’s the difficult part.
First, assume everyone is infected. 80% will be fine. 20% will develop complications. 1% will die. In the United States, that’s ≈3,500,000 people dead. Luckily, we aren’t doing nothing. People do wash their hands and stay apart from each other. We’re just doing practically nothing.
Isn’t it remarkable how the recommendations for what to do if you get sick are basically the same regardless of the cause? Wash your hands. Don’t pick your nose. Cover your mouth (not with your hand) when you cough or sneeze. Clean surfaces. No double dipping. Wash your hands. Stay home. Rest.
The difference with something like SARS-CoV-2 is that, because of its virulence, the population as a whole cannot depend on individuals to wash their hands–or to stay home.
We here in America have a habit of not staying home when we’re sick, for a couple of reasons. One is the obvious: if I don’t go to work, I don’t get paid; if I don’t get paid, I don’t eat. Some people do have paid sick days, though not everybody does, nor does everybody have enough paid sick (or personal or vacation) days to cover being sick more than once. They have no option.
But we’ve also been taught not to take our sick days on Mondays or Fridays because the boss will think that we’re not actually sick. Obviously, we’re goofing off or we drank too much over the weekend. So we go to work. We were taught this in school: attendance is mandatory. Come to school every day unless you have an excuse. Our industrial training has been effective. Long story short, we do not rest: we go out and contaminate the world when we’re sick.
Perhaps after this epidemic runs its course, particularly if it kills enough people, that might change.
Last week, the Federal Reserve and others lowered interest rates in an attempt to counteract the effects of COVID-19 on the economy. Also last week, The Economist optimistically wrote that a recession is unlikely but not impossible:
Yet there is an uneasy feeling that a flurry of rate cuts may not be the solution to this downturn. In part that reflects the fact that they are already so low.
Lowering the prime rate has no effect because it’s not the banks who don’t have enough money: it’s the people. Maybe rate changes would have an effect if the banks changed the interest rate on consumer credit from 25% to -25%, but they won’t. It’s thoroughly irritating how some commentators say there’s too much money in the system when the problem is not how much there is but who has it. We’ve needed a helicopter drop of cash or a debt jubilee for a decade, and a basic income for a century.
In the United States, “full” employment is not having an effect on wages because it’s not full. The labor market is global, or was until yesterday, and global unemployment is roughly 50%, so real wages are still going down. Because employment only counts paid labor–and bears only a passing relation to what work needs to be done–employment is constrained by employers. And there aren’t enough employers, again because of the distribution of money, but also because of a tendency to monopoly: how many paperclip maximizers do we really need? Meanwhile, none of that matters because the system isn’t designed for the public good–or, if you prefer, it’s not designed to maximize marginal benefit for all market participants. Finance capitalism thrives on greed: the world can go to Hell; I’ve got mine.
Besides, it’s not just households who are over-leveraged. Everyone is.
One way the virus hurts the economy is by disrupting the supply of labour, goods and services. People fall ill. Schools close, forcing parents to stay at home. Quarantines might force workplaces to shut entirely. This is accompanied by sizeable demand effects. Some are unavoidable: sick people go out less and buy fewer goods. Public-health measures, too, restrict economic activity. Putting more money into consumers’ hands will do little to offset this drag, unlike your garden-variety downturn. Activity will resume only once the outbreak runs its course.
Then there are nasty spillovers. Both companies and households will face a cash crunch. Consider a sample of 2,000-odd listed American firms. Imagine that their revenues dried up for three months but that they had to continue to pay their fixed costs, because they expected a sharp recovery. A quarter would not have enough spare cash to tide them over, and would have to try to borrow or retrench. Some might go bust. Researchers at the Bank for International Settlements, a club of central banks, find that over 12% of firms in the rich world generate too little income to cover their interest payments.
Many workers do not have big safety buffers either. They risk losing their incomes and their jobs while still having to make mortgage repayments and buy essential goods. More than one in ten American adults would be unable to meet a $400 unexpected expense, equivalent to about two days’ work at average earnings, according to a survey by the Federal Reserve. Fearing a hit to their pockets, people could start to hoard cash rather than spend, further worsening firms’ positions.
The Economist longs for Bretton Woods while they chart some of the attempted remedies. It’s quite possible, however, as some commentators have noted since at least the turn of the century, that the global economy is now too complexly intertwined to be centrally managed, if it ever could have been, or ever could be.
If you’re old enough, you might remember that in 2001 all non-military air traffic was grounded for a couple of days. It’s possible, under extraordinary circumstances, for the wheels of commerce to pause, and be still.
Even the New York Times is feeling apocalyptic, with a nice piece about folks learning primitive skills. There’s an air of novelty about the article, but shouldn’t be. The back-to-the-land counterculture didn’t all turn into Yuppies, and there have been intentional communities, some maintaining older traditions, for centuries. That diversity is good and useful; someone has to remember how to make things.
As Shane Hobel said when No. 1 Daughter and I took his survival course for Girl Scouts, we once were a sophisticated people in a primitive world; now we are a primitive people in a sophisticated world.