Economy, as the etymologists remind us, means “management of home.” How we keep our home is, at its core, a question about our fundamental values. In other words, values have been central to the economic enterprise for millennia. And yet, when we discuss the economy in our society, we tend to see only the dollar signs. All too often, we ignore the human beings who live behind those dollar signs.
It is hard to believe, but only a month ago, the Dow Jones index exceeded 29,000, and even 36,000—a number blithely thrown out 20 years ago in a book that is widely derided as one of the worst investing books ever—seemed like it might finally be in reach.
Of course, in the past month, the stock market, instead of rising another 7,000 points, has fallen by more than 8,000 points. In addition to creating a world health crisis, a nontrivial side effect of the coronavirus has been what will most surely be a global economic recession, if not an outright depression. It could hardly be otherwise. Our home, simply put, is not well.
The pandemic is the most immediate threat, but it is not the only one. And the question remains: will the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 come to be seen as a momentary interruption, or will it compel us to rethink how we organize our society and economy?
And, by the way, for all of our sakes, let’s hope that the coronavirus does prove to be of very limited duration. The silver lining, perhaps, is that a crisis of short duration is not an altogether unreasonable expectation. After all, China, where the pandemic began, now is seeing a decline in new cases months after the pandemic started. While each country will surely differ in the path the pandemic takes, cases in the US could conceivably follow a similar pattern as in China, which would mean, if we are lucky, that we might reach a peak as early as mid-spring and then see declining caseloads.
In any case, what we do know is that after the crisis ends, how society responds remains highly unpredictable. We have heard before the mantra “everything changed.” But such claims, so often, have proven to be overblown. For example, how many times have we been told that “everything changed” after the 9/11 attacks? And yet, if we are honest with ourselves, not so much really did.
Nor did “everything change” after the 1918 influenza pandemic. That pandemic killed tens of millions worldwide and an estimated 675,000 Americans. The political reaction at home: a 1920 landslide victory of Republican Warren Harding on the political slogan of a return to so-called (white) “normalcy” and a retreat into isolation—including notably harsh race-based immigration restrictions and a national revival of the Ku Klux Klan. It was only after the Great Depression and World War II that the role of the public sector and the nonprofit sector inexorably changed, and we began, as a nation, to move in the direction of civil rights and greater racial equality…and very slowly at that, until the 1960s.
So, our expectations that everything will change after the current crisis should be met with equal caution. What we can look at, however, is the short-term economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, as well as some of the long-term fissures in our social structure that the crisis has revealed to all who care to look.
First, the short-term impacts. These fall in two areas; first, there is the matter of ensuring that people who get sick have coverage. In most countries, this would be a non-issue. Indeed, a recent public radio story noted that 179 countries in the world have paid sick leave. That’s basically everyone but the United States.
There are all sorts of reasons why the US should have sick leave. As Dr. Jody Heymann, founding director of the WORLD Policy Analysis Center (WORLD) and former dean of the University of California, Los Angeles’ Fielding School of Public Health, points out,