What the Pandemic Shows Us About the Economy

By Nancy Jane Moore

            Every day I eventually read the pandemic news. It always makes me angry and sometimes scares me, but I have to read it. I have to know what’s going on. 

            Checking that news on the last day in November, I saw this (from an LA Times report) in the Cal Matters newsletter: “Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn‘I am not convinced that shutting down, reopening and shutting down again is effective.’” She is right, though not, I think, in the way she meant. Los Angeles, like most places in this country, has never had the kind of successful numbers that would justify reopening. One has only to look at what was done in the state of Victoria in Australia, where they put in effect a hard shut down for two months and got their cases to zero, where they’ve now been for a month. They decided to do it when they hit a daily total of 191 cases. By comparison, Los Angeles County has been averaging about 4,500 cases per day for the last couple of weeks. 

No wonder nothing has changed in Los Angeles. Clearly, neither the state of California nor the county supervisors in Los Angeles have taken the pandemic seriously. Of course, the incompetent and venal U.S. federal government deserves most of the blame, but both the state and the county could have done much, much more. While the two areas are not directly comparable – Victoria has about 6.3 million residents while Los Angeles county has 10.4 million – the difference in reaction to case numbers is large enough to make the population numbers unimportant. 191 is not 60 percent of 4,500.

            The U.S. reaction to the pandemic shines a spotlight on the destructive lie that undergirds our economic system: that we cannot “afford” to shut things down, even in a crisis. Since the beginning of the pandemic, government officials have been making decisions on reopening based on political pressure and worries about “the economy,” not on public health. Efforts to help people affected by the shutdowns have been minimal; instead, the push has been to reopen dangerous activities.

Our core economy is dangerously unhealthy. A healthy economy is one in which most activity can be paused in a crisis without adding to our suffering. Ours apparently cannot.

            A hurricane. A wildfire. A tornado. A worldwide pandemic. If we developed our economic systems properly – complexly, with an understanding that everything is in balance, that some things will shift in crisis, and that redundancies can be valuable in difficult times – we would not compound the disasters by wreaking financial havoc on those who are directly affected.  Of course, we must also be aware that the complexity of many disasters is compounded by the way we relate to nature. Fires will not be as bad if we go back to the way the Indigenous Californians or the Indigenous Australians managed fire. Recognizing that barrier islands are there for protection, not development, will make hurricanes less destructive. And so on.

            We are dealing with a core lie here, one that is regularly used to block efforts to build a better world: we must choose between a healthy economy and taking care of everyone in a pandemic. Or, in more normal times, we must choose between a healthy economy and a healthy environment. Or even, we must choose between a healthy economy and social justice.

            It is quite possible to build a healthy economy that takes care of people and the planet and that can be paused without great harm in times of crisis. What those lies mean by a healthy economy is the stock market or the ability of the ultrarich to get richer; they do not mean that people get what they need.

            I suspect most of the people who repeat the lie that we can’t afford to have a healthy and fair life for everyone really believe it. It is rooted in yet another widely believed lie: that the components of a good life are scarce. That is not true now and perhaps was never really true on this planet of marvels. 

            What happens if we build an economy with the idea that everything except the most basic elements – water, food, shelter, care for those who need it, emergency response – can be paused when necessary? What happens if we build an economy that is based on the well-being of all people and the planet as a whole? What happens when our economy includes social justice, human well-being, and a planet in balance?

            I don’t know. I’ve never lived in a place like that. I’d like to find out.

3 thoughts on “What the Pandemic Shows Us About the Economy

  1. When I think about an economy such as you describe–a healthy one that allows for “contingencies” like pandemics or natural disasters–I wonder how we get from where we are to where we need to be. Valuing the lives of all citizens equally would be a start… But after that my brain breaks and my imagination fails. And yet, I’m not sure our species can survive if we don’t figure this out.

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    1. The problem I have is seeing how to do it fast. I’ve been watching my sweetheart work for years with a variety of people to make heat pump water heaters — an efficient electric system that, paired with renewable electricity, would make us use less natural gas — the standard in California. It’s a great idea and people are all for it, but manufacturers aren’t going to make them unless they’re sure they will sell them, the switch from gas to electric means a change in systems in most households, the state isn’t ready to regulate yet, and the cost is hard on lower income folks. So years to do one thing that would make a difference.

      Likewise, the work here in California to establish public banking (such as they have in North Dakota) has taken years to get to the point where we might start setting things up. And it’s a huge amount of effort that takes years to develop some resident-owned cooperative housing — I did this in DC for years and each project took a great deal of work to pull together, even though in the end, the housing was affordable for average people.

      But there are a lot of people working in this direction and I think there are some established things are are going to crash badly — like the fossil fuel industry — making it imperative to move faster. So there is some hope.

      I recommend Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics as a well-laid-out and very readable introduction to solutions. More info on that here https://www.kateraworth.com/ and https://doughnuteconomics.org/about-doughnut-economics.

      For right now, just shifting the attitudes about what is possible will move us a long way. I hope.

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