My wife and I have found silver linings in the COVID lockdown.
We’ve baked bread, ordered gourmet foods online, watched movies, taken walks, shared socially distant drinks with neighbors. I’m a musician and decided that, in case the virus sweeps me away, I would leave a legacy of recordings for family and friends; so I upload one performance a night on Facebook.
My artist/wife, Alanna, paints new works. We’re extremely cautious about the virus, but honestly haven’t lost a moment’s sleep worrying about it. (Our parents trained us well.)
Meanwhile, on the quiet streets around us, the lockdown obliterates dreams and lives.
While Alanna and I bake bread, many within walking distance struggle to buy bread. Neighbors who were happy and prosperous in February are among those leading Henry David Thoreau’s “lives of quiet desperation.”
Or Edward Arlington Robinson’s: “So on we worked, and waited for the light, and went without the meat, and cursed the bread.” For many, the lockdown has swept away the work, too.
The question of when and how a state should allow its businesses to open their doors again is perilously complex. And the truth is, most of the people making the decisions, and pundits offering solemn observations, live like me and less like our neighbors who suffocate beneath the lockdown.
Like the public officials ordering and enforcing the lockdown, and the pundits touting its wisdom, my paychecks roll in unabated. If my employer were to halt paychecks for three months, my financial loss would be predictable (1/4 my annual salary) and, given our savings, manageable.
If you’re a small business owner or employee, the world looks very different to you than it does to me or the public officials or pundits. Let’s imagine a small manufacturer with revenues of $2.7 million and costs of $2.65 million dollars per quarter.
Until early this year, therefore, he pocketed $50,000 in quarterly profits — a decent annual income of $200,000. Now comes a three-month lockdown.
Suppose costs are 25 percent labor and 75 percent fixed costs — land, building and machinery. He lays off his workforce (causing untold misery for employees and their families) but still has nearly $2,000,000 in costs to cover over the quarter.
For me, three months without pay means belt-tightening. For this business owner, it means bankruptcy and ruination. The business is likely gone forever, and the former employees will probably hunt through an economic wasteland for ways to feed their families.
My wife and I are in the over-65, at-risk population. In some narrow way, the lockdown benefits us. Lower infection rates mean less chance that we’ll encounter the virus. But as an economist, I’m trained to take the longer view.
Continued lockdown can be lethal to Alanna and me, as well.
With every additional day the economy is shuttered, more and more employers pass the point of no return. The economics that apply to our hypothetical manufacturer apply as well to clinics and hospitals.
When the lockdown ends, some medical institutions will have vanished, too, along with the life-giving care they provide. One of the prime determinants of individual health is income, and the laid-off workers and the shattered business owners will suffer long-term and sometimes lethal health consequences.
An economic depression will greatly constrict revenues available to federal and state governments to support healthcare and other vital services.
Every additional day of lockdown means additional irreversible damage to Americans’ wealth and, indirectly, Americans’ health. None of this means that reopening should be done recklessly.
My friends, Alex Tabarrok and Puja Ahluwalia Ohlhaver, outlined a smart reopening in their Washington Post piece: “We Could Stop the Pandemic by July 4 if the Government Took These Steps” (By their reckoning, it requires a $74 billion investment in testing, tracing and isolation).
Finally, I’d also recommend two more thoughtful articles on the tradeoffs: Peggy Noonan’s “Scenes from the Class Struggle in Lockdown” in The Wall Street Journal explains, “Those who are anxious to open up the economy have led harder lives than those holding out for safety.”
And Conor Friedersdorf’s “Take the Shutdown Skeptics Seriously” in The Atlantic reveals that the human and economic components of the shutdown aren’t so straightforward.