I have no formal training in economics. I'm merely a generalist who writes about politics and has been observing economic life since the time of the stock market crash of 1987, which took place during my freshman year of college. Yet that's been enough to plunge me into a barely contained panic about the economy for a solid three weeks now. Back when it started, a slew of analysts far more economically literate than I were predicting a weak second quarter followed by a strong bounce back in the fall, once all this epidemiological nastiness was behind us.
It's been no consolation at all over the intervening weeks to have had my instincts confirmed by reality and by people who are more than mere amateurs on the subject. In fact, it's been pretty damn scary.
It's now clear we are in the early stages of an economic cataclysm the consequences of which (for people's livelihoods, for our politics, for our culture) we cannot begin to anticipate. One week ago, weekly unemployment claims dwarfed anything seen in decades, and this week's claims more than double those. Millions are losing their jobs. Millions more are sure to follow. Flights and hotels are empty. So are the public spaces of entire cities. Restaurants and stores are closed. And there is nowhere on the planet to hide from the economic carnage, which is happening everywhere simultaneously.
When bad things happen, it's natural to look for someone or something to blame. When bad things happen to Americans, they look to blame people in positions of public authority — sometimes for good reasons, but more often because it can be reassuring to have one's default suspicion of politicians confirmed by events. "See, I told you those buffoons were worthless! Look at the mess they've made of things."
Could the Trump administration, from the president on down, have done a better job in handling the pandemic? Absolutely. The same or worse can be said about some governors and mayors and international agencies and foreign governments. There will be plenty of time to investigate and apportion praise and blame for all of this after the virus has run its course. But on the economic side, we've done a lot so far — including Congress passing and the president signing the largest economic aid package in American history — and we're bound to do more. But it is likely to fall quite a bit short of helping us to avert an economic disaster the likes of which we have never endured before.
That's because we're living through a tragedy in the strict sense of the term: terrible things are happening, and there's no way to avoid them. Some, especially on the right, have spent the better part of the past few weeks acting as if we've made a stupid decision in the face of an easy trade off. We could have chosen to keep the economy humming long like normal, let people get sick and die, and then at least we wouldn't be confronting a global depression. Then we'd have just one terrible problem instead of two.
But this is foolishness — a product of people's incapacity to grasp the gravity of what now confronts us. The option was not a pandemic and a self-inflicted economic calamity or a slightly worse pandemic and a healthy economy. The option instead was an economic calamity caused by an intentional sudden stop designed to minimize as much as possible the death toll from a pandemic or a pandemic with millions more dead and the calamity of an economic stop unfolding over a somewhat longer timetable — over weeks and months instead of days.
We need to be clear about what such an alternative scenario would have looked like. This would have been a world in which vastly more people kept going to work and on vacation and to schools and restaurants and stores while they were getting sick and contagious, spreading the virus far more widely. At a certain point, panic would have ensued, as people began displaying symptoms in public places and headlines conveyed word of overwhelmed hospitals rationing care in communities across the country, with friends, family, and other loved ones, not to mention public officials, plus beloved actors, musicians, and other celebrities, succumbing in huge numbers.
Eventually much of the country would be sheltering in place, as they are now, except in this alternative America, it would have happened because workers called in sick or demanded to work from home, with parents withdrawing children from school, but far too late to prevent the spread of illness to vastly more households. Instead of contending with boredom and homeschooling and eye strain from Zoom meetings, families in that panic-stricken world would be facing life-threatening illness and death in their homes and apartments and work-places on a much more massive scale.
Can anyone seriously believe that the economy in such a world would be any less of a wreck than it is in our own? Would those people be buying more, shopping more, eating out more, traveling more, or investing more than we are? Would their businesses be thriving? Hiring workers and expanding? Laying off fewer people? We are living in an economic world weighed down by sickness, anxiety, fear, caution, and pessimism. How much worse would it be if to all of that were added exponentially higher rates of illness, suffering, and death, along with the sense that our elected representatives had failed to take the danger seriously and do far more to protect us from it?
There is no way that the 21st-century global economy could avoid serious harm from a severe pandemic. Our lives, our economies, our travel habits, our trading patterns, and our supply chains are simply too intertwined. We're too mobile, our lives too amped-up with complex interactions, for a sufficiently contagious virus not to spread everywhere — and for our surging economic dynamism not to take a serious hit from the shock.
None of this means we should rejoice about where we find ourselves, as if the act of making a tragic choice between a terrible option and an even worse one were something to cheer. Things are bad, and we don't even have a way to predict or gauge the full extent of its eventual awfulness. Uncertainty is our constant companion on nearly every front. (That's not especially good for the economy either.)
But there's something to be said for refusing to flinch in the face of reality, no matter how bleak it may seem. Fleeing into consoling fantasies and blaming public officials desperately trying to make the best of a dreadful situation is not a solution to our troubles. It's a way of avoiding or denying them.