We Can Work and Chew Gum at the Same Time

Inasmuch as most Americans in this time of national lockdown have not had to resort to cannibalism, we can conclude that significant portions of the workforce are still busy at work. I refer of course to the food industry, which encompasses quite a bit more than just agriculture and groceries; there’s trucking, packaging, and much else. Also, pharmaceuticals and drugstores are still operating. Ditto for gas stations, the police, the U.S. mail, and our heroic doctors and nurses. And let’s not forget the magnificent work our military is doing. So, much of America is still working, even during a pandemic.

File photo by Mike Mozart

When I venture out from my bunker here in the heartland to go to Walmart or Price Chopper for sustenance, I notice that the shelves are again stocked with the sugary breakfast cereals kids are addicted to. And there’s plenty of milk, meat, produce, and all manner of edibles (I don’t see my chicken gumbo soup nor my favorite cheesecake, but maybe next time). The grocery business, which has always been a marginal sector with low profit margins, is thriving during the outbreak. Walmart and Amazon are even hiring. Money’s being made. Things aren’t all bad.

Before the outbreak, this writer might have guessed that Purell® was a shampoo. But the other day, and for the first time ever, I mydamnself used the Purell wipes at the door to Walmart. I even have a bottle of a generic Purell knockoff that I’m carrying in my car, so there’s hope for all of the uninfected.

If you venture out from your bunker to the grocery or drugstore, do notice that the shelf stockers and other employees are using appropriate PPE, such as gloves and masks, to protect themselves. So, if shelf stockers and cashiers are smart enough to be able to both work and avoid COVID-19 at the same time, what about the rest of us? Are government-idled workers so stupid that they, unlike the shelf stockers at groceries, can’t work while also abiding by the new safety protocols?

Last week I wrote a very short little blog that was mainly a pointer to a terrific monologue by Steve Hilton headlined “Flatten the curve, not the economy.” Mr. Hilton followed up with another fine monologue the following week, and it had another catchy catchphrase: “Open where possible, closed where necessary.” Again, I urge folks to watch or read Steve’s excellent commentaries.

When the lockdown is lifted, what kind of economy will America come back to? The St. Louis Fed warns that due to the lockdown, America might suffer a 32 percent unemployment rate. What does that tell us? Well I’ll tell you one thing it tells us: a huge part of the American workforce is employed in nonessential businesses. And many of those businesses will need to stay locked down longer than others because they involve the exact opposite of “social distancing.” These include professional sports that pack indoor arenas, theatres, cinema, rock concerts, saloons, health clubs, and other enterprises where individuals are in close contact with others. Folks can wear masks and gloves to see a Broadway play, but that doesn’t seem feasible for hanging out at bars.

Users of public transportation, especially airlines, may be particularly vulnerable to picking up diseases. And forget about cruise ships. Even before the coronavirus reared its ugly head, cruise ships were known as floating cauldrons of contagion. One business that the coronavirus may well kill off is nail salons and hairdressers. You may have noticed that the hosts on Fox News don’t look quite as attractive as usual, and that’s because they’re doing their own hair and makeup.

Although a Fox News loyalist, I’ve recently started watching Tipping Point with Liz Wheeler on OAN, (One America News). I probably started watching Liz because she’s easy to look at, (she must still be using her makeup artist, despite the lockdown). Even so, Liz is quite good. She cites any number of studies by medical authorities that cast doubt on the need for the draconian measures the government has been forcing on us. She’s also a pretty decent logician. If you think we need to keep the lockdown going into the summer, tune into Liz.

The lockdown is a classic illustration of the economic issue of “trade-offs.” On March 26, Chicago Booth Review ran “Don’t fall for the false trade-offs of COVID-19 policy” by economist Neale Mahoney:

Trade-offs are central to economics. Many of our canonical models are designed to illustrate them, and economists are quick to point out trade-offs, or “unintended consequences,” when they are ignored by policy makers. […]

Over the coming weeks, we will see many policy arguments, and often they will be couched in the language of economic trade-offs. While there are real economic trade-offs, and economists should participate in debates about them, we should also be on the lookout for politicians dressing up bad ideas in such language -- and call them out when they do.

Mr. Mahoney’s article needs to be read carefully; it seems a mixed bag. Is a ruined economy an acceptable trade-off for saving the lives of obese elderly diabetes patients? And what about saving those who have chosen to be vulnerable, such as tobacco smokers; are prudent non-smokers supposed to destroy their futures for them? Or is that an example of a “false trade-off”?

What’s an acceptable level of risk for reopening government-shuttered businesses and restarting the economy? Lest we forget, COVID-19 isn’t the only thing one can die of. Just as from the coronavirus, one can die from despair.

On March 31, Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, an M.D. and an economist, clarified the trade-off issue to Peter Robinson in this fascinating interview from Hoover Institute. If one distrusts the conventional wisdom on the lockdown, and is looking for contrarian opinions, listen to the interview. The good doctor characterizes the trade-off as: “It’s not just dollars to lives; it’s lives to lives. A global economic collapse would cost lives of, I believe, millions of people.”

This kid believes that Steve Hilton resolves the trade-off conundrum with an elegant, six-word jingle: “Open where possible, closed where necessary.” Surely Wyoming, our least populous state, can reopen. Hell’s bells, I bet they’re so smart and competent out there in Wyoming (The Equality State) that they can go back to work, avoid the virus, and chew gum all at the same time… and so can the rest of us.

Jon N. Hall of ULTRACON OPINION is a programmer from Kansas City.