Recession, Depression, or Service Interruption?

A few weeks ago, when COVID-19 was just beginning to look like a serious problem in the U.S., I saw a gloating op-ed by a left-winger on the Sunday “left vs. right” op-ed page of my local paper. The thrust of the lefty’s op-ed was that COVID-19 would push the U.S. into recession or depression, and that Trump wouldn’t be able to brag about the strength of the economy during his presidency.

Sick, sick, sick. But there’s a lot of that kind of sickness going around on the left. In yesterday’s NYT, for example, there was a piece by Robert Sharma under the headline “This Is How the Coronavirus Will Destroy the Economy“. Sharma’s piece makes some sense (as I will come to), but it is telling that the leftists at the Times chose to showcase it.

What is it with leftists and doom-saying? Well, doom-saying serves the purpose of justifying more and bigger government. And doom saying comes naturally to leftists, because they are neurotics. (See the section on Psychology at my “Leftism” page.)

In any event, are Sharma and his ilk right, or even close to right, about the economic effects of COVID-19? Sharma hangs his hat on the burden of debt, which will push many businesses and persons into bankruptcy if economic activity is depressed for very much longer. But in this era of government-backed student loans, relaxed standards for low-income and minority mortgagors, and bailouts in general it seems likely that the U.S. government will intervene to prevent defaults by businesses and persons meeting certain criteria for pre-coronavirus solvency. (Bailing out an already-bankrupt business or person would be out-of-bounds but not unthinkable for the political class.)

I therefore assume that the problem of indebtedness will handled in a way that prevents a “black hole” of insolvency from swallowing a large share of the economy. Similarly, “relief checks” will help to replenish the ready cash of persons whose paychecks are reduced or eliminated during the national lock-down.

That leaves the question of what happens when (not if) the coronavirus threat is tamed and Americans return to somewhat normal living and working habits.

The answer to the question lies, I believe, in the resemblance of the national lock-down to a long vacation taken simultaneously by a large fraction of Americans. But in this case almost everyone who was “on vacation” — either as a producer or consumer — will be eager to go back to work and eager to resume mundane activities. The situation will be more like the game of statues and less like the kind of dislocation that occurs when there is a financial panic (e.g., 1929, 2008) or a major industry (e.g., housing) craters because of over-investment (triggered by bad government policies).

This isn’t to say that there won’t be some dislocations and resulting unemployment. Even if every American  comes out of the crisis as solvent as he went into it, there will be some shifts in consumption patterns that require shifts in production patterns. And some productive capacity will be lost (e.g., small businesses — especially non-chain restaurants) and won’t be restored quickly.

The extent of dislocations and unemployment will depend partly on the length of the crisis and the effect that it has on producers. There will also be an effect on the demand side, as consumers shift their spending habits in response to the crisis. The new habits will include, for example, less travel (especially ocean cruises), less time spent in crowded venues (from stadiums and arenas to concert halls to restaurants), even more online shopping, and a shift of purchases (in the next months and years, at least) toward the accumulation and maintenance of stocks of non-perishable and frozen foods, cleaning products, and personal-hygiene products.

But, on the whole, I expect nothing like the Great Recession (unless the crisis drags on for more than another few months) and something on the order of the mild recession of 1990-91. It spanned only 4 quarters and saw real GDP dip by less than 2 percentage points.

What’s amazing to me is the overreaction to the COVID-19 pandemic, which (as yet) isn’t nearly as devastating in the U.S. as the swine-flu pandemic of 2009-10. There were 59,000,000 (that’s 59 million) cases of swine flu in the U.S., as against the current tally of 6,400 cases of coronavirus, and there were 12,000 swine-flu deaths as against the current tally of 108 coronavirus deaths. Yet, despite the disparity, there was nothing like the kind of panic that is now evident. In fact, I didn’t remember the swine-flu pandemic until it was mentioned recently, in the same context — panicky over-reaction to COVID-19.

The U.S. has changed a lot in the last 10 years, not least in the determination of the media to push “social democracy” and “wokeness”. The U.S. probably will survive COVID-19 with little economic damage — though the media will do its best to maximize that damage. But the U.S. will not long survive the media, that is, not as a relatively free and prosperous nation.