John Rapley is a Canadian academic, journalist and author based in London. His most recent book is Twilight of the Money Gods: Economics as a Religion and How It All Went Wrong.
On Thursday evenings, millions of people across Britain stand at their windows or on their front steps, balconies or terraces to applaud the country’s emergency workers, thanking them for their service in the fight against COVID-19. Afterward, in my London apartment complex, neighbours who wouldn’t normally have much to do with each other call out greetings across the central courtyard.
These small acts of solidarity have made life under lockdown just a bit more bearable. While the vast majority of Britons approve of the government’s strict measures to contain the pandemic, we all miss normal life. Moreover, many of us have to worry about our livelihood, too.
That trade-off recently entered public debate when President Donald Trump said that if the United States remained closed to business much longer, the country would end up with “probably more death from that than anything that we’re talking about with respect to the virus.” Many then entered the fray, asking if so many should sacrifice their jobs for so few. It’s the kind of moral dilemma that might make a tasty topic in a high-school debate.
Which is probably where it belongs, though. It’s a false dichotomy. Regardless what the government does, jobs will be lost. Even before the government started closing the economy, people had cut back on their shopping and going out for fear of getting sick. And even if everyone returned to work tomorrow, the economy wouldn’t spring to life. Instead, the unchecked spread of the illness would ensure that for the next year or so, a portion of the work force would be regularly off sick while a good many of those who did turn up would be operating below par. Amid the resulting drop in both demand and productivity, the economy would stumble along at best, or slide into a long recession at worst.
So the choice is not really between jobs and lives. It’s more likely between inducing a short sharp recession to return the economy to full health, or letting it play itself out over the next 12 to 18 months. Think of it as the choice you face when you wake up in the morning with a nasty bug. You can either take a day or two off in the hopes of licking it, or you can soldier on at the risk of dragging it out and feeling crummy for weeks. There are sound reasons to opt for the former: One recent study of the flu pandemic a century ago found that areas that induced lockdowns often bounced back more quickly than those that let matters take their natural course.
But wait, argue those who want to reopen for business, recessions cost lives, too, and they cite research showing how rises in unemployment cause upticks in the suicide rate. But while true, there’s more to the story than that. Suicides do go up in recessions. However, in every other respect, the evidence indicates that recessions are actually good for your health. On average, during a downturn people eat better, drink less and exercise more (maybe they’re keeping themselves ready for their next job interview?). There are fewer accidents on the job, fewer deaths on the road and, as just about everybody who lives in a city has noticed these past few weeks, we breathe cleaner air since emissions drop.
As for the notion that a drop in income stirs discontent, curiously, it’s a mixed bag. Despite the widespread belief that higher incomes make us happier, there’s little evidence to support it. In fact, the bulk of research has been unable to find much of a correlation at all, something which is known as the Easterlin paradox (after the economist who found that as societies grew richer, their average level of contentment barely budged).
On the other hand, recent work by Anne Case and Angus Deaton has drawn attention to a plague of “deaths of despair” in the U.S. As traditional industries were decimated in the American rust belt and people lost their jobs, suicides and opiate abuse rose. But digging into the findings reveals something telling. Most of these deaths occurred not during recessions, but while the U.S. economy was scaling ever new heights of prosperity.
What seems to drive the despair is not the loss of a job or income as such. It’s the sense of personal failure and isolation that results from losing one’s job when people around them have kept theirs. It is a crushingly lonely feeling in which one’s standing in the community declines. However, when everyone in the community takes the hit together, as is happening now, that effect is considerably more muted and the positive benefits of a downturn then take over.
Which is why small acts such as going out onto our balconies to applaud together matter so much. They reinforce that sense that we’re not alone and that together, we’ll pull through this. We’d thus do better to spend the next few months worrying less about the stock market and more about those most vulnerable in this time, like the isolated elderly, the homeless, single parents, or those locked in with abusive partners. If we do that, we may find that the better society we have as a result will have been worth a recession.
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