Way back in the time before corona, it was conventional wisdom that shutting down the economy would have dire consequences for the economy. Whether you were on the panic side or the skepticism side, you were sure that locking down the economy was going to be bad for the economy. The stock market losing a third of its value in a week seemed to confirm it. No matter the truth of the virus, the consequences was going to be an unprecedented economic depression.
Here we are four months on and the world does not look like anyone imagined it when this all started. The promised bodies in the streets never materialized. The virus has thus far been a sever flu season hyped up by mass media. The promised depression has not made an appearance. The streets are still mostly empty during the work day and many businesses are still closed. Those that are open have all sorts of restrictions and they seem to have fewer customers.
What we don’t have is people out banging their pots and pans demanding the government do something about the economy. A lifetime ago a handful of white people showed up at state capitols demanding the end of the lock downs, but that soon gave way to swarms of blacks and Antifa promising to burn the cities. Otherwise, the productive portion of society seems to have gone back to sleep. Those working from home, work from home and those not working stay home.
The weekly jobless claims say that 30 million Americans are currently unemployed, but no one seems to notice or believe it. Of course, no one should believe the official statistics from the government and other sources. The only thing true about these numbers is they are constantly revised. We do know that 30 million people are still collecting unemployment benefits at the moment, so at least that many people are not working, but would like to be working.
The virus and the economy are a good example of partisanship. The panic crowd, which overlaps considerably with the anti-Trump, Hamilton listening set, was so sure the virus was a plague sent by the gods because of Trump they are convinced the hospitals are overrun and people are dying in the streets. Similarly, the skeptics of modern economics are so sure the system cannot last, they believe we are in a grinding depression that will explode into civil unrest at any moment.
What we are living through right now is probably one of those times when the partisan framework gives way to a new partisan framework. Perhaps in liberal democracy there needs to be a regular molting of the old partisan skin so a new one can emerge and refresh the debate. After all, forty years ago, the Left was endlessly going on about free speech and the dangers of corporate media. Today, it is the Right that champions speech and opposes corporate media.
Putting that aside, what we are seeing in the economy runs counter to pretty much everything we have been told for generations. The government should not be able to manufacture trillions of dollars without causing hyperinflation. This was something everyone, Left and Right, knew was true not so long ago. Here we are with the US debt at 23 Trillion, a number so large no one can imagine it. So large, no one bothers discuss it anymore. No one cares about the debt.
Similarly, we have been told for generations that the US savings rate was so low that the typical American could not afford to skip a paycheck. Small business was so strapped it could not go a month without business. We’re four months into the lock downs and we don’t have soup lines. Instead, Americans are paying down credit card debt at a record clip. In fact, credit card debt is now the lowest it has been in over a decade and headed for unprecedented lows.
One driver of the credit card debt decline is the collapse in spending. This makes sense, given those empty streets and closed shops. Still, people worried about money tend to hoard cash, rather than pay down debt. You can always tell the credit card company to go screw, but you can’t do that with the landlord, the mortgage company or the grocery store. Contrary to conventional economic wisdom, Americans are choosing to pay down their debts right now.
The weirdness in the economy is just one item. No new movies or television have come out since the panic and no one seems to care very much. Sports entertainment has been shuttered and no one seems to care. All of the spring and summer youth sports have been cancelled. This time of year, kids into baseball, lacrosse, soccer and big-time football would normally be in summer leagues. Their parents would be toting them around the country. None of that is happening.
You can probably spend the better part of day listing the things that used to be a fixed part of daily life that are now gone. More important, they are gone and no one seems to notice or care. Talk to people with kids in the summer sports and they will tell you the kids have quickly adjusted. They are doing other things. Parents with small kids are quickly adjusting to life at home with the kids around all day. Kid sounds are the background music of Zoom sessions.
The point of all this is we are like people who have been dumped out of their canoe in the rapids and we are now being swept down river. All sorts of things are happening to us and around us, but we have no way of getting our bearings. The thought of getting back into canoe has long passed. Now it is just a matter of surviving each minute until the river calms or we bash our head into a boulder. We have no perspective and no way to gain perspective until we reach flat water.
That means we really have no idea where this will all end. Maybe that’s why there is a strange calm over daily life. Maybe that’s why people are instinctively paying down debt and hunkering down. It may not make total sense, but in uncertain times, simplifying the household finances becomes a point of stability. Again, it is hard to know, as we are all just being swept along. Still, the one thing we can know is that we are being swept along by forces outside our control.
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