Urban economists talk a lot about “agglomeration effects,” the extra economic benefits that can be generated simply by living close to other people. Agglomeration effects are why populations around the world began shifting from farms to cities as soon as science conquered diseases such as cholera and dysentery that had formerly turned cities into death traps.
A normal recession attacks some of these wealth-creating connections — depressing demand, throwing people out of work, pushing businesses into bankruptcy. Covid-19 is attacking the act of connection itself. Suddenly, we’ve got another deadly disease that likes urban agglomerations, and it is making it hard for any of us to come together in groups to make or do things for other people.
The government doesn’t know how to fix that — at least, other than by fixing covid-19, which it obviously also doesn’t yet know how to do.
Over the past century, policymakers and academics have refined a set of tools for addressing economic crises. In the rich world, that tool kit involves central bankers loosening the money supply, regulators stabilizing the banking system and governments using borrowed money to stimulate demand, either through new spending or through tax cuts that put money in consumer hands. In extreme situations, such as the 2008 financial crisis, they may have to get quite creative in finding ways to stimulate or stabilize, but these are mostly variations on a theme, not entirely new compositions.
At their most fundamental level, all these tools work to give individuals and businesses either money or hope or both. The money helps keep the unemployed fed and warm, and staves off cascades of insolvency, which can set back an economy by years.
The hope convinces the people who still have jobs that it’s safe to spend.
There is some scope for this kind of stimulus in our current situation. We have many millions of unemployed who need an injection of cash into their household budgets, and many more millions who are afraid they might be laid off next. Many viable businesses have watched their revenue decline toward zero. Fiscal and monetary stimulus can’t make people shop like it’s Feb. 18 again, but it can cushion the worst of the decline.
But just think of how much of a household’s usual spending now falls into one of four categories: “unnecessary,” “impossible,” “unattractive” or “unsafe.”
No amount of government aid is going to persuade many people to buy work clothes they don’t need, eat at a recently shuttered restaurant, enjoy an exercise class wearing a mask or take a long trip. That spending hasn’t been replaced by alternatives; it’s just gone, and it will be a long time coming back to where it was in February. In some cases, it never will.
Because of that, it’s clear that no matter what the government does, it will be quite some time before a majority of Americans can consume what they did three months ago. At best, the government can redistribute some of the pain.
In this bad news, there are two pieces of less bad news, though I wouldn’t go so far as to call them “good.”
The first is that we entered this crisis very rich. America’s per-capita gross domestic product stood at $58,392 in the fourth quarter of 2019. If that were to decline by a third, that would put our per-capita income back to roughly where it was at the end of 1993. Needless to say, 1993 was not a Hobbesian dystopia where lives were nasty, brutish and short.
The second is that even such a steep decline is apt to sharply reverse if covid-19 is conquered. Most recessions are amplified by uncertainty — people hunker down atop their savings because they have no way of knowing when the bad times will end. With covid-19, we have a very clear marker: If we develop an effective treatment or vaccine, we can all come out of our houses and resume what we were doing.
True, this recession will have hastened the decline of dying firms in industries such as retail. And a restaurant that has gone out of business won’t be there the moment the first covid-free crowds are ready to go out and play. But we should still expect a swifter-than-normal economic recovery if we can get the virus under control.
Until then, however, we are all going to have to learn to live with a lot less than we’re used to.