Despite several days of intense negotiation, the Senate has so far failed to pass a bill to infuse over a trillion dollars into the ailing U.S. economy. While there can be no doubt that swift action is vital, too many politicians and policymakers seem to think the goal should be to stimulate the economy back into action.
In fact, stimulating the economy is the wrong prescription. To combat the spread of Covid-19, we need a period of less business activity and less consumer demand. Instead of stimulus, the government should provide what economists call liquidity — a financial cushion to allow businesses and individuals adversely affected by an inevitable decline in economic activity to have enough money to survive the shock.
In recent days, commentators have compared the economy to a patient in a medically induced coma. In order to stem the spread of the virus, the strategy is to keep people inside, to encourage them to work from home and reduce large group activities, all of which mean slowing the economy down, not speeding it up. More economic activity will be desired down the road, but right now the most important consideration is ensuring the survival of workers and businesses adversely affected by reduced business activity. That requires that funds be available to provide liquidity.
The Federal Reserve has already begun to do its part by creating facilities, like the Commercial Paper Lending Facility announced on March 17, which will work to stabilize corporate financial markets that have been are under stress. On Monday, Chairman Jerome Powell made clear the Fed would buy as much government debt as necessary, engage in quantitative easing, aggressively buy up commercial paper (i.e., debt) and make loans where needed to guarantee the smooth functioning of financial markets. These steps are similar to those used in 2008, which demonstrated that the way to end a financial panic is to remove its cause — which is, often, a lack of liquidity.
Now it is Congress’s turn. Whatever legislation comes out of the current round of negotiations, it should be focused on providing short-run support for businesses and individuals during this difficult but temporary period. The most important actions that Congress can take are those that keep business and individuals solvent so that when the crisis period ends, economic structures will be in place to begin a quick recovery. What does that mean? For starters, it means not being overly specific about where the money should be spent.
One lesson of the 2008 financial crisis is that it is difficult to anticipate where future disruptions will occur, and therefore where money will be needed. Instead, Congress needs to authorize funds that can be used by the administration as the need arises. Carte blanche authority is admittedly dangerous; funds can be misused. But the downside of a strictly “targeted” approach is worse. We can identify some of the problem areas right now — for example, airlines — but it is presumptuous to believe that we know which industries will suffer and will need help, even in the near future.
A case in point: In 2008, the Troubled Asset Relief Program, as the name implies, was initially pitched as a program to buy up toxic assets. But it quickly became obvious that financial firms did not want to sell assets that would force them to mark-to-market and reduce the stated value of their portfolios. Nor was there enough money in the TARP to buy up a large enough fraction of outstanding troubled assets. (The White House agency that I headed at the time, the Council of Economic Advisers, estimated that there were over $3 trillion in toxic assets, or almost 10 time the size of the first tranche of the TARP.)
When attempts to buy up toxic assets proved unsuccessful, the TARP had to be repositioned quickly to purchase preferred shares in financial firms. That was the right approach because it gave the financial sector the capital it needed to withstand the shocks that were to come. Fortunately, flexibility written into the TARP legislation allowed that shift to occur.
We’ll need similar flexibility now. In the coming weeks, resources are likely to be needed by large sectors of the economy. Some of this may be a result of the legislation recently passed by the House of Representatives that, among other things, creates a mandate requiring small firms to provide paid sick leave to workers. In return, businesses will be eligible for a refundable tax credit. But even successful small businesses, stressed by declines in activity, might be out of business by the time they collect their tax credits despite the best efforts by Treasury to get the payments out quickly.
This is why a liquidity-based strategy is so important. The Treasury Department or the Fed should be prepared to make loans readily available to efficient businesses that, because of the crisis, may close their doors permanently absent short-run liquidity to buffer the shock. Loans may be difficult to obtain privately if businesses overwhelm capital markets during this crisis.
But in doing do, Congress shouldn’t specify which industries get loans. Right now, the most distressed firms are in travel, leisure and hospitality, but shelter-in-place orders, like those in California and New York, coupled with voluntary restrictions by individuals on shopping and work, will strain many other sectors. It is difficult to foresee in which industries future pressure will be most pronounced.
Workers and their families will also suffer liquidity problems as business activity falls. It is essential to keep them viable as well, and a more aggressive policy of short-term sick pay and unemployment benefits will likely be needed soon. These policies should be designed specifically to get people through this difficult period — not to stimulate them to spend more money.
During typical recessions, the federal government provides funding to lengthen the period over which unemployment benefits can be received. Now the need is to raise the weekly benefits unemployed workers receive so that they can pay their bills and buy necessities during the crisis. Additional approaches that work through a firm’s payroll were successful in Germany during the 2008 recession — the government made payments to companies that partially covered worker salaries and kept employees on the payroll during periods of reduced demand. We should do the same thing now.
Payments to specific workers who suffer layoffs or reduced pay is a better approach than providing cash to all Americans. Checks to give them spending money is actually counterproductive to our efforts to fight the pandemic: We should not be encouraging increased economic activity right now. And in any case, such payments are unlikely to provide much stimulus: Distributions made in the spring of 2008 did little to avert the financial crisis and its effects on the real economy.
When the threat of the virus spread has subsided, stimulus could be considered. The more important and immediate approach should emphasize help for those who suffer pay cuts, providing enough support to tide them over during the difficult period.
Washington should be using every tool at its disposal to support American businesses and citizens economically. But how it does so matters. In a normal recession, monetary and fiscal stimulus might be appropriate. Today, though, our economic policies need to work in concert with our efforts to fight the pandemic. There will be a time for stimulus, but for now, what we need is enough liquidity to help weather the months ahead.
Edward P. Lazear is a professor at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business and a Hoover Institution fellow. He served as chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers from 2006 to 2009.
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Coronavirus lockdowns could ultimately boost the economy – Quartz
As the coronavirus pandemic intensifies, concerns are growing about the economic toll exacted by policies meant to contain it. Research published this week shows that aggressive social distancing measures, while extremely disruptive to commerce in the near term, can result in faster economic growth when the disease subsides.
More than 670,000 people around the world have been infected with the novel coronavirus, and nearly 32,000 of them have died, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. To save lives and slow the spread of Covid-19, a growing number of countries have resorted to lockdowns that are driving millions into unemployment and threatening a wave of bankruptcies. Wealthy countries have committed to spend and lend more than $4 trillion to try to protect their workers and industries from the fallout.
The economic price of widespread quarantines and business closures may not be as great as feared, according to the research from economists at the US Federal Reserve and MIT, titled “Pandemics Depress the Economy, Public Health Interventions Do Not: Evidence from the 1918 Flu.”
The researchers examined US cities during the 1918 flu pandemic. Places hit by the breakout suffered economically, but cities with “early and extensive” containment efforts saved lives, while their economies, measured in terms of manufacturing and bank lending, performed better when the disease abated.
During the 1918 pandemic, speed mattered. Cracking down on the virus’s spread 10 days earlier boosted manufacturing employment by about 5% afterwards, according to the researchers. Keeping in place containment measures—known as non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs)—for an extra 50 days increased that sector’s employment some 6.5% in the period that followed.
“If anything, cities with longer NPIs grow faster in the medium term,” the economists wrote.
The research will add to the debate about how to limit the effects of the coronavirus. Donald Trump has argued that aggressive policies to slow the spread of the virus could be worse than the disease itself. The US president, who is running for re-election in November, has said he would love to have US enterprises open for business again by the middle of April. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board argued that there’s a limit to the economic sacrifice society can make to safeguard public health.
The research from Fed and MIT economists suggests the tradeoff between public health and the economy may be neither as straightforward as it appears, nor as large as feared. “Cities that implemented more rapid and forceful non-pharmaceutical health interventions do not experience worse downturns,” economists Sergio Correia, Stephan Luck, and Emil Verner wrote. “Evidence on manufacturing activity and bank assets suggests that the economy performed better in areas with more aggressive NPIs after the pandemic.”
Iran’s economy a factor in coronavirus response, President Rouhani says – Global News
Iran‘s president on Sunday lashed out at criticism of its lagging response to the worst coronavirus outbreak in the Middle East, saying the government has to weigh economic concerns as it takes measures to contain the pandemic.
Hassan Rouhani said authorities had to consider the effect of mass quarantine efforts on Iran’s beleaguered economy, which is under heavy U.S. sanctions. It’s a dilemma playing out across the globe, as leaders struggle to strike a balance between restricting human contact and keeping their economies from crashing.
“Health is a principle for us, but the production and security of society is also a principle for us,” Rouhani said at a Cabinet meeting. “We must put these principles together to reach a final decision.”
“This is not the time to gather followers,” he added. “This is not a time for political war.”
WHO says world ‘squandered’ its first opportunity to stop the coronavirus outbreak
Even before the pandemic, Rouhani was under fire for the unraveling of the 2015 nuclear deal he concluded with the United States and other world powers. President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the agreement and has imposed crippling sanctions on Iran that prevent it from selling oil on international markets. Iran has rejected U.S. offers of humanitarian aid.
State TV on Sunday reported another 123 deaths, pushing Iran’s overall toll to 2,640 amid 38,309 confirmed cases.
Most people suffer only minor symptoms, such as fever and coughing, and recover within a few weeks. But the virus can cause severe illness and death, especially in elderly patients or those with underlying health problems. It is highly contagious, and can be spread by those showing no symptoms.
In recent days, Iran has ordered the closure of nonessential businesses and banned travel between cities. But those measures came long after other countries in the region imposed more sweeping lockdowns. Many Iranians are still flouting orders to stay home in what could reflect widespread distrust of authorities.
Iran has urged the international community to lift sanctions and is seeking a $5 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund.
Elsewhere in the region, Qatar reported its first death from the new coronavirus late Saturday, saying the total number of reported cases there was at least 590.
Coronavirus outbreak: WHO director announces 1st patients will be enrolled in ‘solidarity’ drug trial
The tiny, energy-rich nation said it flew 31 Bahrainis stranded in Iran into Doha on a state-run Qatar Airways flight. But since Bahrain is one of four Arab countries that have been boycotting Qatar in a political dispute since 2017, Doha said it could not fly the 31 onward to the island kingdom.
“Bahraini officials have said they will send a flight for them at some undefined point in the future,” the Qatari government said in a statement.
Bahrain said it planned a flight Sunday to pick up the stranded passengers. The kingdom said it had its own repatriation flights scheduled for those still stuck in Iran and warned Qatar that it “should stop interfering with these flights.”
In Egypt, at least 1,200 Sudanese are stranded at the border after Sudan closed all its crossings, according to Egyptian officials at one of the crossings. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief media.
Sudan, which is still reeling from the uprising that toppled President Omar al-Bashir last year, has five confirmed cases, including one fatality. It’s one of several countries in the region where the health care system has been degraded by years of war and sanctions. Authorities closed the borders to prevent any further spread.
Sudan’s Information Minister Faisal Saleh said Sudanese authorities are looking for lodging in Egypt for the stranded passengers. He said authorities have quarantined at least 160 undocumented migrants who were sent into Sudan from war-torn Libya earlier this month.
Residents in Egypt’s southern city of Luxor say they are providing shelter to the stranded Sudanese.
“We have provided food and medicine to the Sudanese brothers,” said Mahmoud Abdel-Rahim, a local farmer. “People hosted women, children and elders in their homes.”
© 2020 The Canadian Press
The Lockdown Is an Opportunity to Redefine What Our Economy Is For – Jacobin magazine
COVID-19 has momentarily reversed our collective myopia: it is now easier to imagine the end of capitalism than the end of the world. But Fredric Jameson, to whom this phrase is often attributed, also left us with a warning. Increasingly, he speculated, we see “the attempt to imagine capitalism by way of imagining the end of the world” — in other words, the terminal logic of capitalism is apocalyptic. As the pandemic undoes capitalism’s logic, and the political establishment increasingly fights to preserve it, the future forks into new realms of political possibility. Our response could slingshot the world toward a better future, but it could equally accelerate the conditions for its decline.
Since the outbreak of the crisis, the threat of economic collapse has been the guiding anxiety among the political establishment on both sides of the Atlantic. Stock markets are plunging, airlines are pleading for bailouts, and the price of oil is falling to historical lows. “This feels much worse than 2008,” said Jason Furman, one of Barack Obama’s top economic advisers.
The response has flung wide open the “Overton window” of what is up for discussion. In the United States, Republicans could soon outflank Democrats in providing Social Security: Trump has suspended evictions and foreclosures, a measure that Obama refused to support even as millions were evicted from their homes in the wake of the financial crisis. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel pledged to do “whatever it takes” to rescue crisis-hit companies — echoing former European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi’s infamous vow to rescue the euro at the expense of Greece’s economic sovereignty. In the UK, Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s stimulus package increased twice in the few days this article was being written. “We’ll find ourselves implementing most of Jeremy Corbyn’s program,” one Tory official said.
But as the human toll mounts, the pressing need for a social response is becoming clearer. According to SurveyUSA, by March 19, some 9 percent of working Americans had already been laid off as a result of the virus, and one in four have had their hours reduced. From sick leave to medical bills, rent, and credit payments, many will struggle to see through an extended quarantine. And that’s in the United States. In India, where 90 percent of the workforce is either self-employed or casual labor, the devastation still to come is difficult to imagine.
The coronavirus seems to be setting the bases for a seismic, civilization-defining shift. Ideas that were derided as fanciful just months ago are now rapidly shaping a new common sense — one that privileges people over profit, favors state intervention, and emphasizes the need for global solidarity. “Conventional capitalism is dying,” analysts at the Australian asset management firm Macquarie Asset Management commented, adding that we are headed toward “something that will be closer to a version of communism.”
If this particular claim is a little hyperbolic, this situation clearly is ripe territory for the Left — but one that is also fraught with peril. In the neoliberal imagination, it is precisely moments of exception that legitimize a break with the technocratic norms of economic governance in favor of state intervention. When that moment passes, the status quo ante is not only expected to return — it is set up to return with new vigor as the exceptional crisis measures reinforce established power structures. From the United States to the United Kingdom, the interventionist, right-wing state could usher in a new era of state-led capitalism: a program of public handouts for megacorporations that leaves workers — quite literally — to die, while failing to address the climate and environmental catastrophes that loom on the horizon.
The most urgent task for the Left today is to avoid ceding the narrative of crisis to the Right. We live in crisis every day: under capitalism, Walter Benjamin insisted, the state of emergency “is not the exception but the rule”. And if the Left’s demands are normally oriented toward the rebalancing of power in our political economy, the crisis must amplify those demands — not by competing for who can provide the largest payout to the quarantined, but by contesting the very terrain of exception. The Left’s case must not be that political change is needed as a response to the state of crisis, but that the crisis is itself a product of a system that for decades has privileged the few over the many. In other words, the Left needs to shift from a mode of reaction to a mode of invention — designing the responses that will carry us out of the crisis while planting the seeds for a postcapitalist future.
Toward a Politics of Solidarity
The measures necessary to provide relief to the vulnerable are not difficult to envision. Spain has requisitioned all private hospitals, putting them under the control of regional health authorities. Economic and social measures to support small businesses, independent workers, and the unemployed have been implemented in countries such as France, Belgium, and Italy. In the United States, the implementation of an “emergency Universal Basic Income” (UBI) is seriously being considered to curb the economic impact of the coronavirus on everyday people. Grocery workers in several states are being classified as “emergency workers” to receive benefits such as childcare. We can expect similar policies to appear across the globe.
But these measures are not auguries of a progressive future. Rather, they are expressions of a system structurally incapable of coping with the calamity before it — these are piecemeal emergency measures that struggle to plug gaps in employment, housing, health care provision, logistics chains, stock prices, and so on, without redressing their underlying causes. In other words, they are policies that attempt to redress market failures — not to move beyond the constraints of a market-based economy.
As Karl Polanyi wrote in The Great Transformation, capitalism’s marketization of land and labor disembedded the economy from the principles of social life. But, as COVID-19 makes abundantly clear, society cannot be regulated by markets alone. The frenzied search for total speed under globalization has prioritized the flow of labor, goods, information, and capital over the well-being of workers and the environment. As the wealthy board their private jets, and CEOs of multinational companies continue to stall coronavirus relief bills, those quarantined in their neighborhoods look on from their balconies at the world they have been left with.
Indeed, there is much to learn from looking at those left out of the political response — the homeless, undocumented, or refugee and migrant populations, who are weathering the pandemic without societal support. As the European Union closed its borders, it doomed the refugees in Lesbos to an uncertain fate as they are confined to camps with substandard sanitary conditions. It would take only one case of COVID-19 to spark an uncontrollable string of deaths. In Italy, as shelters are closing, the homeless are being fined for being outside and testing positive for the virus. The pandemic makes tangible the deep friction between the necessity of material equality and a prevailing political ideology that ensures prosperity for the few.
The Left’s response must be to unwind the structures of global inequality that contribute both to the virus’s spread and to its lethality. That response begins by marshalling the new norms established during the state of exception — the wide fiscal space for public spending, the expansion of the social safety net, and the demand for solidarity — toward a recovery that is as just as it is sustainable. As we begin to emerge from quarantine, the most pressing impacts will be on people: months without a job, many will struggle to get by even in countries with robust social safety nets. But if the pandemic strengthens the ability of capital to discipline workers, our response to it must not be to weaken the mechanics of exploitation. It must be to strike at their very heart — permanently dismantling work’s grip on our lives.
The rush for increased automation and robotization of industries adds impetus to this project. Automation already threatens to displace millions of jobs, and has only increased since the COVID-19 crisis: Chinese companies are scrambling to automate production to replace quarantined workers. Others will undoubtedly follow suit.
The first demand for recovery, then, must be to restore the workweek incrementally. As we exit quarantine, workers must force a radical shortening of working hours — building up toward, at most, a four-day week with no reduction in pay. There is ample evidence that a four-day week enhances productivity and well-being, and nations might find themselves with happier citizens and a more vibrant economy as a result. It also cuts emissions through reductions in infrastructure use and travel.
But, as Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams stress in their book, Inventing the Future, the most important benefits are structural. The reduction of working hours strengthens the bargaining power of workers and unions: as working hours go down, so does the supply of labor. The demand for a shorter workweek could then be a key defense against the consolidation of state-backed monopoly capitalism.
As politicians across the aisle recognize the need for a financial safety net during the coronavirus crisis, the precedent has been set for schemes such as UBI to become implemented long-term. One principle behind the UBI is that it contests the disciplining power of wage labor, freeing people to choose jobs that are rewarding over those that are well-paid. It is, then, a corollary to the demand for a shorter workweek. But as our movement has advocated, a Universal Basic Dividend (UBD) offers a more progressive pathway to guaranteeing that we share in the benefits of innovation and technological progress. UBD would be financed by the very companies benefitting from technological change — industries left relatively untouched by the COVID-19 outbreak.
The strengthening of labor’s bargaining power can unlock other demands. As COVID-19 sees states scramble to secure testing, treatment, housing, or other social necessities for their increasingly vulnerable populations, the Left must marshal its organizing power to seal these gains — recognizing them as fundamental rights rather than privileges.
These gains cannot stop at national borders. The COVID-19 outbreak makes clear that we cannot weather a pandemic as long as countries with underdeveloped health care systems — such as the United States — fail to guarantee a basic standard of care for their citizens. So, the Left must cohere around a global care standard, an international commitment for states to dedicate a percentage of their GDP to social security infrastructure: education, housing, and health care. Wealthier nations could contribute an additional amount, which would be used to repair the legacies of colonialism and economic extraction that ravage the Global South. The money could be raised by reducing military spending and defunding the IMF and World Bank, further advancing the goals of peace and prosperity.
Finally, the response must be green. Remember, we are also in the midst of a climate and environmental crisis, with soil depletion, melting ice caps, heating oceans, and mass extinction threatening our futures — and chronic air pollution aggravating the spread and deadliness of COVID-19. The interdependence of equality and social stability expresses itself as much in the domain of health care as in the domain of ecology. As with the pandemic, climate and environmental breakdown hits the poorest and most vulnerable first. Every job lost because of COVID-19 must be replaced with one that repairs, rather than depletes, our natural world. In other words, the pandemic must slingshot proposals like the Green New Deal, which marry economic recovery with principles of social justice. But to bring such proposals to life, the Left will need to pioneer new modes of organization and mobilization — both during the quarantine and beyond.
Building the Revolution
The Left’s ability to organize, mobilize, and fight for a response to this crisis will determine the political terrain for decades to come. But there is a contradiction at the heart of the pandemic. Even as it opens new political horizons, the virus demands social distancing. This makes conventional forms of radical organizing — which depend on social density — all but impossible. But as old sites of social exchange such as bars, universities, and the public square disappear, new ones emerge. Across Europe, balconies have become sites of social, political, and cultural engagement — spaces from which neighbors exercise together, where acts of solidarity or defiance take place, and where music is shared. Like Soviet kitchens, balconies can become forums for political deliberation and social resistance.
The reach and impact of transformative acts of resistance have been further enabled by the proliferation of digital technologies. We can imagine, in our time of isolation, digital strikes and protests, such as social media holidays that cut emissions while depriving platform economies of income; mass strikes in credit or utility payments; or experiments in hacktivism that disrupt economic activity. Such actions could slow the consolidation of monopoly power during the crisis. But to achieve long-term change, they must be coupled with a re-envisioning of the world that must emerge after it.
The project for the quarantined left, then, must be one of counter-hegemony. As we enter our social hibernation, isolated at home with our laptops, books, and worries, we must begin to cohere around a policy response and prepare to fight for it on the other side of the quarantine. This is a task not only for researchers, think tanks, and public intellectuals. The virus, as Iran’s deputy health minister suggested, is democratic; but our response to it isn’t, and neither are the conditions under which it has thrived. Frontline communities everywhere — such as those that have previously been hit with the Ebola outbreak, suffered devastating climate disasters, or simply continue to die from preventable diseases — understand that this crisis is not a “state of exception.” It is the default. Their voices must shape our political response, and their anger will be vital in powering a political transition.
Here, our networked social life can be an advantage during social isolation. Digital organizing overcomes limitations of geography and ability and brings diverse voices into one space. It allows us to organize at various levels of scale: connecting community organizers with ideas that both respond to and transcend local concerns. Equally, the emerging forms of social exchange — the balcony, hallway, or window — can also be harnessed toward the creation of communal digital spaces. In Austria, Fridays for Future has activated a “Neighbor Challenge” — a call for its activists to convene their immediate neighbors in digital assemblies. These structures create highly local networks of solidarity, while engaging people from the same building or street in discussions that link everyday concerns with the tectonics of global politics. Scaled, these spaces of communal political education could become sites for the emergence of new narratives.
A well-organized digital discussion can also give a platform to those who would be drowned out by the dynamics of street protest, where those with the loudest voices or largest platforms often dominate. Digital assemblies can be intersectional, intergenerational, and international. They can sow the seeds of a democratic political transition at the other end of the pandemic by cohering people around a new common sense — and bringing them together in planning for the actions and strikes that will soon give expression to our rage.
When we emerge from quarantine, we will find our economic and political institutions weakened — if not in tatters. This will not be a moment for soft, reformist demands — and mere calls for relief will be insufficient. The promise of a “return to normal” exposes the political establishment as hopelessly naive: What “normal” is there to return to? Conservative and right-wing politicians have betrayed their own illusory claims about the limits of political possibility.
The word “crisis,” in its historical usage, denotes a turning point in a disease — a point of no return that leads either to full recovery or death. COVID-19 comes at the start of the decade that is meant to be our last chance to radically transform our economies to slow climate and environmental breakdown. In other words, this is it — our one shot to envision the end of capitalism, to build the strategies to dismantle it, and to put humanity on a course toward justice and solidarity. We need to start today.
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