Of the Great Cessation and Accountability

Photo by Remy Baudouin on Unsplash

The first Friday of the month is “Jobs Day” in the United States, when employment numbers for the previous month are released by the Labor Department.  A bit out of date for events moving quickly, the report—really for the first part of March when the data were collected—is that there was a net loss of 701,000 jobs.  More recent information from the Labor Department, gathered in the last two weeks of March, was that 9.9 million people filed unemployment insurance claims.

Those are firm, real, and disturbing numbers.  Perhaps you personally know someone tested positive for the virus or even made sick by it.  I feel more confident that you know someone who has lost his job, or whose business has closed, or one way or another is out of work.

Those people were not put out of work by the virus.  Up to this point the virus has reached but a small portion, some 240 thousand, of the 330 million Americans.  Those 9.9 million job losses were caused by government order and the fear spawned by government pronouncements and predictions of what may yet happen.

This unemployment is actual, not a forecast.  Each person of the 9.9 million has a very real story to tell, and it is not a happy one.  Many are tragic.  There are careers that have been disrupted, some only just started and some now ended.  There are businesses closed that will not reopen.  There are painful ongoing worries for people and families over what to do to cope.  None of us dismisses the sorrows involved with those who die, from whatever the cause.  I fear that the real, here and now unemployment wounds are too flippantly disregarded.

At some point, reasonable questions will need to be answered in a calm and deliberative way.  The actions taken and their consequences must be weighed, aside from professed intentions.  And the policies of policymakers will need to be evaluated in light of what they in practice wrought.  Among such questions might be these:

  • Did the realities of the Great Cessation—the sudden orders to stop activity and association, the practicalities of work lost, earnings gone, closed businesses, disrupted human interaction—caused by government decree, do more harm than good?
  • How many of those lost jobs are coming back?  How many of them are career-ending?  How many businesses are closed not to reopen?
  • Which actions ordered are unrelated to the health emergency but rather take opportunistic advantage of public fear and disruption?
  • What scars will remain on the body of our freedoms?

No doubt you also have important questions, calling for some explaining.

Involved officials might respond that the forecasts should not be unnoticed in the review.  Which forecasts?  Certainly good policymaking would rely upon future expectations.  Was a broad picture evaluated of what might likely occur?  How closely did policies applied align with appropriate and realistic forecasts (taken together)?  Which forecasts turned out nearest to what indeed happened?

Shall we go to the current forecasts?  Oxford Economics visualizes the loss of 27.9 million jobs in the U.S.  The most recent government estimates of U.S. virus deaths are between 100 thousand and 240 thousand.  For the full picture, we should include predictions of the fallout from prolonged social disruption and human isolation.  How much harm and how many deaths might those policies cause?  When we tally up the score to see whether it all is worth it, include all of that in the tally.

A deep recession caused by government order has never happened in our history.  Now it has and is part of our story.  Those who ordered it should, with due deference and full fairness, be called upon to justify it.

Of Generations and Economic Life

Photo by Lindy Baker on Unsplash

Consider these items, taken from one of the social media platforms that specializes in brief, non-reflective commentary:

  • The older generation has to realize that life is never going back to the way it was, that it is changing. 
  • Life is more important than economics.

Perhaps you have seen similar comments.  They are currently in fashion.  As with most silly fashions, I am tempted to ignore them and count on change to fade the fashion into fashion’s forgetfulness.  They betray such depths of ignorance, however, that I find them too hard to pass by as nothing of interest to see.  In times of panic and hysteria, even social media mobs can foment danger.

Hence, I will try a more reflective social media platform to add a few comments of my own.  I readily confess that I may be part of that “older generation.”

Beginning then with the first item, the generational point, to call it superficial is to ascribe to it too much depth.  It is intellectually vacuous.  I would suggest that the last group of people whom you need to convince that life is change is older people.  Every day they face changes, some they like, some they do not, and few that offer a chance of “going back to the way it was.”  Each new morning brings something lost, a new pain, a departed friend, a concluded experience, or a disappointment.  There are also happy changes, a new acquaintance, something accomplished, a new delightful member of the family, a wonderful discovery, a pleasant work-saving invention, inspiration, valuable experience.  Older generations cope with it all as well as any other.

That is to say, that this is not exclusive to older people.  It is, in fact, the stuff of life for all, from youngest to oldest.  We all must face change.  It is just that older people have experienced more years of life, filled with change.  I stress that there are many changes in which we rejoice, ways to which we would hate to return.  I am happy I made it through my teen years and would never wish to go back.  I am quite certain that my father had no desire to return to the two wars he had to fight.  I am grateful each day for the evolving prosperity that our society has experienced for so many decades, that so much poverty and illness have been overcome.  My grandfather died of an incurable disease that today is easily cured—he missed the discovery of the cure by just a few years.  I never had to fear it.  I still pray for a change that might have saved my mother from the illness that slowly took her to the world of spirits.  Do let us talk about change, but let it not begin with the absurd notion that one generation welcomes it and another does not.

Now to reflect a bit on the second item, that supposes a difference between life and economics.  The writer is apparently unfamiliar with economics, formed entirely from life.  It is a life science, individually and in groups.  It is an effort to understand what living people do with their lives and why, and how to find ways for living people to get more from their lives.  For hundreds of years, the evolving discoveries we call “economics” have guided people and nations to raise billions of people from poverty and fuel human interaction allowing people across the world to cooperate in expanding prosperity.  It was the living reality of economics that first destroyed the old monarchies and in recent years wrecked such anti-economic despotisms as the old Soviet Union.  The lessons learned from economics have been the transforming engine that displays the day and night difference in human welfare and freedom—life and death—between South and North Korea.

Lessons from economics, properly understood and efficiently applied, are what will allow our economy, currently in sharp decline from government policies, to revive as quickly as possible from the Great Cessation.  People want to live their lives and express their humanity by being at work, developing their talents, providing for their families, going to school, traveling, discovering, inventing, engaging in cultural activities, uplifting others, building, planting, healing, and hundreds of millions of other things—add your list to these economic activities.  Economics teaches us how to do these things in ever increasing and satisfying ways, as more people are experiencing today than ever before.  This is life.  Economics is important, because life is important.

A concluding thought, one which I would enjoy discussing with someone of whatever generation.  There are some things that do not change, and there is danger of the highest order in pretending that they do.

Of Social Disruption & the Great Cessation

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

This is not an alarmist post. It is anti-alarmist.  It is a request for a better way.

Last evening, at the quiet end to a quiet day, I ran the numbers. These are not my numbers, but numbers from oft-quoted sources:  The Johns Hopkins Center for Systems Science and Engineering, the U.S. Census Bureau, and The Wall Street Journal.

I live in a state with 8,500,000 people, not far from the average of 7,000,000 for all 50 states.  As of last night, in our state, just below 300 people were reported infected with the virus, and 9 had died from it.

I ran the numbers.  The percentage of people in my state currently hit by the virus is 0.003%, that is three one-thousandths of a percent.  Very large and very small numbers are hard to visualize.  In visual terms, if you had one hundred people to demonstrate the numbers, have one person step forward.  He would represent the 1%.  If that person weighed 100 pounds, 4.8 ounces of that person would represent the three one-thousandths of a percent.  That is my state, so far.  You can multiply that many times before you get to just 1 person out of the 100.

There is genuine hardship for people infected by disease, and as their neighbors we are concerned for them and wish to help.  Are social disruption—which social distancing has become—and the Great Cessation of business the best way to help?  That is a rational and reasonable question.

What about all the rest of the people in the state?  Unfortunately, our governor has chosen to be alarmist.  Invoking worries fed by extreme scenarios of how bad things could get in the future if this or that happens or does not happen, he has declared that all should be affected today, that 100% social disruption should be applied now.  When you run the numbers, that is truly an abundance of caution.

But it is not an abundance of life. You do not see an abundance in the grocery store, in the churches, in the places of work, on the streets.  You have seen the Great Cessation where you live.  You are recognizing the social consequences of cutting people off from one another, people who are by nature social animals and who need real, genuine social interaction.  You have also seen how our economy rests upon that social interaction, and you are seeing how the Great Cessation is affecting the people—you and me and the millions of people who are that economy.  Ask yourself if this is healthy, personally, and for your neighbors.  It does not feel right, it does not look right, it does not sound right.

We hear that essential businesses and jobs may continue.  Which businesses and jobs are to be labeled “essential” and who decides?  That is another reasonable, rational question.  The answers so far have not been reasonable or rational.  In practice an unflawed answer proves impossible, yet the force of law is being applied anyway.  You have to look away to argue that some jobs are essential and others are non-essential, ignoring the many job roots of each designated “essential” job.  It is a fool’s errand—no matter how well educated or official—to make up such a list.

Tell the man and woman put out of work that their jobs are “non-essential”, and include their children in the discussion.  Tell the small businessman who has been forced to close his doors and receive no revenues to pay his rent, keep his infrastructure, and meet his payroll, that his business is non-essential.  On Monday we went out to eat, the last day that the governor’s edict would allow in-restaurant dining.  I was troubled by the fear that I saw in the eyes of the employees, which their gratitude for our business could not hide.  That is the human perspective, which the officials show little signs of considering in their orders.

As President Trump said this week, in the midst of the national social disruption/Great Cessation experiment, the cure must not be made worse than the problem.  Let cool, rational, and reasonable consideration prevail.  I recommend a Wall Street Journal editorial, “From Shutdown to Coronavirus Phase Two.”  It is a rational and reasonable call for a better way forward.  What we have now is hurting everyone.  There must be a better way.

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