Trump is missing the big picture on the economy

March 25th, 2020

As an economist, I am normally enthusiastic when presidents or other political leaders emphasize the economic aspect of public policy issues. I am all for economic growth, cost benefit analyses, trade agreements, more flexible markets and prudent deregulation. Yet I am appalled by President Trump’s invocation of economic arguments as a basis for overriding the judgments of public health experts about battling the coronavirus pandemic.

In fact, as a matter of pure economics — even leaving aside moral considerations that should be taken into account — the president’s arguments are flatly wrong. When Trump tweets and says things like “we cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself” or “you can destroy a country by closing it down” and raises the prospect of reversing measures taken to promote social distancing, he misunderstands the fundamental economic problem posed by the pandemic, as well as the most rational, economically sensible way to address it. In the end, economic growth and well-being would be harmed, not helped, by the course he is advocating.

It is an elementary confusion to believe that lost growth and lost jobs are primarily a consequence of social-distancing measures rather than the pandemic itself. There are currently more than 50,000 diagnosed cases in the United States; the number is doubling every few days. Perhaps some people would be traveling, shopping and eating out as usual if there were no prohibitions. But does anyone believe that ordinary life will continue if millions of Americans have the virus and our hospitals are overflowing? This is where we surely will be in a few weeks if we abandon social distancing.

I recovered over the past year from ruptured quadriceps tendon. At a certain point, sick of the braces that kept my knees rigid, I pressed my physicians to take them off. They responded by pointing out that taking them off prematurely would put at risk all the progress I had made. If I ruptured the tendons again, they said, I would have to start the whole process over — and from a worse starting point. Fortunately, I saw their point, managed my impatience and am doing well today.

The same logic applies to social-distancing policies. Prematurely abandoning or relaxing social distancing will be disastrous on both economic and health grounds. If restrictions are lifted prematurely, the result will be a follow-on pandemic surge. More people will die. What will the policy choice be then? If it is a return to restriction, starting from a much less favorable point and much more disease spread, then the cumulative economic loss will be greatly magnified. The costs we have already borne will have been totally in vain.

Indeed, as a matter of logic, overly temporary social distancing represents the worst of all policy alternatives. In the view of almost all experts, it would be a grave mistake to accept the full and rapid spread of coronavirus as inevitable. But if this is to be our strategy, there is no reason not to get on with it, rather than suffer the additional burden of temporary distancing.

Ending restrictions too soon and allowing a further disease spike carry a range of collateral risks and costs. When it is safe to take up old habits, will the public trust the advice of authorities who misled them? What extra uncertainty cost will be baked into all financial markets when it becomes clear that the federal government has offered false assurances on safety? Will other countries be willing to buy our goods when the United States has turned itself unnecessarily and against the advice of experts into an exporter of products?

The president has compared the challenge of pandemic to the challenge of war. But Americans do not fight wars for our freedom saying we can only keep going for another few weeks and then we will give up. Elevating temporary economic expedience over the long run health of the citizenry is a dangerous strategy. And we deserve better from our business community than demands to go back to selling when disease counts are still rising.

The president and the business leaders who urge him to abandon a public health orientation to pandemic policy are nonetheless correct to want to move through the current difficult period rapidly as possible. The right focus is not on false hopes. It is on realistic strategies that permit a targeted approach to reducing transmission. That means more testing, more contact tracing, and more and better facilities for those who need to be separated from others or treated.

There will come a time when we can gradually let up on current restrictions and help the economy in the process. It will be the moment when new case counts are no longer accelerating; when we have adequate measures in place to quickly catch and contain new outbreaks; and when we are confident that we are not endangering hard-won progress by impetuous actions.