What the Black Death and COVID Have in Common

Having killed as many as 200 million people in Europe, Asia, and North Africa, the Black Death began to lift in the years 1348–49.  Europe had lost between a third and half of its people.  In many cases, entire villages stood empty, having lost their entire population.

The Black Death changed life forever in Western Europe.  With so few inhabitants, the value of labor exploded, and wages shot up.  For those who survived, the following half-century was a period of affluence and technological development, with increasing productivity and advances in printing, weaponry, navigation, and manufacturing.  The optimism of the late 14th century is reflected in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, a work filled with relish for life and adventure.

The recent coronavirus pandemic does not compare with the Black Death in scale — not yet, at least — but a number of similarities do exist.  Scarcity of labor, resulting from government blundering as well as deaths due to disease, has caused huge wage inflation.  Hourly workers find themselves in a much better position, and it is unlikely they will accept lower wages when life returns to normal.  At the same time, with demand returning and more money in circulation, May's prices rose at the fastest rate in thirteen years.  The CPI continued to rise in June and July at 17.75% and 17.36% year-over-year for June and July, respectively.  Those are enormous increases.  The only response from the Biden administration is a mad plan to spend more money, causing even greater inflation.

With 600,000 dead in America alone, most of them elderly, estates have passed sooner than expected to younger persons, and the young have been spared the cost of caring for their elders.  The annual cost savings of supporting just those seniors living in nursing homes who died due to COVID-19 in 2020 is approximately $12 billion, given that 8% of the 1.4 million living in long-term care facilities died of the disease, according to official numbers — which may be too low, as they certainly appear to be in New York.  Though it may sound insensitive to say so, many young people have been spared time and expense caring for the old.

Plus, with 400,000 more beneficiary deaths in 2020 than in 2019, and many thousands more in 2021 as well, Social Security will be paying out in excess of $6.4 billion less in future years than it would otherwise have done, as will other annuity payors.  This is a drop in the bucket of federal spending, and no decent person would wish to see anyone suffer and die, but from a fiscal perspective, fewer recipients mean less burden on the system.

Though on a much smaller scale, the same forces are at work as existed following the Black Death.  Inflation hurts those living on fixed incomes — those with savings — but favors borrowers (including government at all levels) and workers with rapidly rising wages, as well as those who inherit.  Normally, the years following any sort of cataclysm, whether an economic depression, war, natural disaster, or pandemic, are years of rapid growth and mass affluence as increased volume and velocity of capital spur trade and innovation.

Those medieval survivors were lucky not to have Biden since he is doing everything he can to derail the natural recovery.  The supply chain has been seriously disrupted by disease-related shutdowns, and Biden's federal unemployment benefits, which Democrats talk of extending past September, have caused huge labor shortages.  School shutdowns supported by Democrats play an important role in worker shortage as parents stay home to care for their children.  The normal forces of economic recovery favoring higher wages and greater investment in capital spending will be further undermined if Biden gets his way with $6.9 trillion in "emergency" spending — much of it spending that reduces the incentive to work — on top of a "normal" $6-trillion annual budget.  This $13 trillion in spending, in addition to the normal economic pressures associated with recovery, is highly inflationary despite anything the Federal Reserve says about "transitory inflation."

After the Black Death ended, the post-plague years witnessed social tensions as newly rich classes made their way and, with the declining value of rents, the landed aristocracy declined.  Technology played an important role in the rise of urban manufacturing and the consequent expansion of urban populations.  Trade and exploration increased, and the volume of traffic on land and sea routes rose.  It is not accidental that the dramatic achievements of Vasco de Gama and Columbus followed not long after the end of the Black Death.

Similar factors are at work today.  Entrepreneurs are outpacing investors, and wealth is increasingly concentrated in urban areas associated with technology.  At the same time, food and other goods that should be cheaper given an expanding economy have become more expensive, or temporarily unavailable, due to the impact on the supply chain of failed government policies.

The normal course for an economy following a cataclysm is strong recovery, but only if markets are allowed to operate freely or relatively freely. Following the Great Influenza of 1918–19 and the severe recession that followed both the pandemic and the war, the Harding/Coolidge administrations practiced restraint, and the Roaring Twenties took off.  After the lingering stagflation and recession of 1974–82, Reagan and his Federal Reserve chair Paul Volcker imposed economic discipline, and the greatest bull market in American history ensued.  So far, following COVID-19, a strong recovery has begun — due to the fact that President Trump's policies of lower taxes and regulation are still in place.  Biden's plans for "equity," his code word for socialism, will end that recovery and harm every American.

It's not the first time liberal policies have wrecked an economic recovery.  FDR managed to transform what should have been a brief though severe recession into the Great Depression of 1929–41.  LBJ's wartime and social spending contributed to the lost decade of the 1970s (LBJ left office in 1969, but the damage of excessive government spending lingers).  Now we have a President intent on spending one hundred times what LBJ spent on the Great Society (Biden's proposed $12 trillion in 2021 vs. $118 billion in 1965).

The lessons of the Black Death are clear.  Pandemics are painful and disruptive, but, if left on its own, the economy finds ways to adjust and recover.  But administrations that attempt to impose control of the economy, such as those of Wilson, FDR, LBJ, Carter, Obama, and Biden, only make matters worse, often in the form of inflation or slowed economic growth or both.  Biden seems profoundly ignorant of these facts, and he is doubling down on the folly of his Democrat predecessors.

The Black Death was followed by a half-century of growth and innovation.  Biden's response to the COVID-19 pandemic is guaranteed to cause decades of misery and lost opportunity.  A peasant who survived the Black Death must have felt considerable optimism and relief, to say the least.  Those of us who have survived COVID-19 and witnessed Biden's spending plans cannot share that optimism.  We are facing inflation, decades of subpar growth, and potential economic collapse.

Jeffrey Folks is the author of many books and articles on American culture including Heartland of the Imagination (2011).

Image: qimono via Pixabay, Pixabay License.

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