You can’t separate the healthcare catastrophe from the economic one

By Aaron Rice
March 23, 2020

While we witness the unmatched terror of this health epidemic in our country, it appears as though we will also witness an unmatched economic fallout in America.

Last week’s surge in applications for first-time unemployment benefits was the fourth-biggest jump in jobless claims since 1967. A panel of economists surveyed by the Wall Street Journal project 875,000 new jobless claims for the week, exceeding the 1982 record of 695,000 filed in the first week of October of that year. Some economists are projecting our unemployment rate to go to between 10.5 and 11% by the end of April. The last time our national unemployment rate reached those numbers was in 1982, when it hit 10.8 percent. That’s the highest rate since we began keeping these numbers back in 1948.

Economists also expect us to enter into a national recession this spring, which will mark the end of the longest period of economic expansion in our nation’s history. Just a few short weeks ago, stocks hit record highs, extending an 11-year bull run. We’re now down more than 30 percent since then and likely going further. With crude oil prices down 50 percent for the month, analysts are worried about energy companies with heavy debt loads. This adds pressure to banks and other lenders who are already struggling after the Federal Reserve cut interest rates to near zero.

If there is any fortunate news to the economic catastrophe it is that this happened at a time when most states have been able to build large rainy-day cushions. According to Pew Charitable Trusts, the states collectively have about $75 billion saved. Mississippi presently has roughly $550 million in its rainy-day fund. But given the unknown length and severity of the pandemic, how long will these funds last?

The states need to use money for unemployment insurance and coronavirus-related actions, and to make up for the massive shortfall in tax revenue as a result of virtually all of us being forced to stay home and avoid social activities in a collective attempt to “flatten the curve.” If we were not already aware of how crucial small business is for employment and tax revenue, we are now.

We expected a massive federal stimulus plan to pass out of Congress by Monday, though that is not the case and its fate looks far less certain than it did over the weekend. The particulars of a bipartisan bill are still being negotiated. At minimum, we expect to see most Americans receive a check from the U.S. Treasury. The level of means testing is up for debate but it is likely to be tied to reported income from IRS filings from the 2018 year. If you’re a flight attendant or a hotel manager who made $87,000 then, but might be without a job today, that seems like a completely irrelevant method.

Personally, I’d rather see Congress give each American a check and leave it to each person to determine how to use it. You can buy food, give it to your church, put it in the bank, buy toilet paper, or even stock, if you are really brave. Beyond citizens, Congress will also set aside billions for specific industries, small business loans, and other targeted uses. In total, expect a stimulus in the range of $2 trillion. But if our economy remains shut down for another month, expect another trillion or more to get allocated each month. I’m not sure how long we can play this game? Our resources are not unlimited. At some point, sooner rather than later, we’ll need a pandemic strategy that allows our economy to function while we safeguard public health.

With all of the things our nation is doing today, from private industry’s participation in the healthcare efforts to personal sacrifices citizens are making to slow the spread, I’m confident we’ll defeat this pandemic. Our nation has a remarkable history of meeting its greatest challenges and emerging stronger as a result. When we do eventually wrestle this beast to the ground, we’ll need to plan our comeback strategy. Unlike the current situation, where our government is leading the way, the recovery must be led by private institutions. If we do that, I’m confident in a rebound and a re-emergence of American ingenuity and robust economic growth.

For example, the stock market sell-off has created huge opportunities to buy companies with good management, solid fundamentals, and strong balance sheets. A lot of wealth will be gained from owning equities as our economy comes back. And there will be new companies and categories that offer growth to the investor taking the long-term view. There is a long track record of the wisdom of free markets in the form or public equities.

No matter what calamity has knocked the value of stocks down over our nation’s history, we’ve always recovered and reached unprecedented growth again. It is why the world invests in the American economy. If we get back to trusting free enterprise once we get this crisis under control, we’ll reach new heights again. But, it’s vital that we learn the lessons from this pandemic and stay vigilant to free markets, limited government, and personal responsibility.

While we are all willing to consent to our government’s heavy involvement in the economy during this healthcare emergency, and to give up a certain level of personal liberty, we must make sure that none of these “temporary actions” become permanent. Our nation has a history of approving temporary government actions that later become permanent ones after the threat has passed. We live under the economic burden of much of that today, where more than 70 percent of our federal budget is consumed by entitlement programs and debt service. These programs have trapped generations of families into government dependence and contribute to an ever-growing national debt that our grandchildren will inherit.

The coronavirus is showing us how our immense regulatory system, with extraordinaire levels of bureaucracy and gate-keeping, suppressed creativity, innovation, and service. The message should be heeded that we need to continue to examine all of our administrative regulations. Our government needs to get out of the way of the creative destructionists, the inventors, the entrepreneurs, the venture capitalists, the atypical workers, and the profit-seeking scientists. Trust markets. Trust people. Take the regulatory restrictor plates off of our economy and let competition and consumer choice happen as freely as is possible.

The economist Dan Mitchell shared David Harsanyi’s piece in National Review on his blog this weekend and I thought it perfectly summarized the lessons we should be learning. “...the coronavirus crisis has only strengthened my belief in limited-government conservatism — classical liberalism, libertarianism, whatever you want to call it. Years of government spending and expanding regulation have done nothing to make us safer during this emergency; in fact, our profligate spending during years of prosperity has probably constrained our ability to borrow now. Government does far too much of what it shouldn’t, and is far too incompetent at doing what it should. The CDC, an agency specifically created to prevent the spread of dangerous communicable diseases, has failed. Almost everyone would agree that its core mission should be under the bailiwick of government. Yet, for the past 40 years, its mission kept expanding as it spent billions of dollars and tons of manpower worrying about how much salt you put on your steaks and imploring you to do more jumping jacks. The CDC — and other federal agencies such as the FDA — haven’t just moved too slowly in tapping the expertise of our academic and private sectors to fight COVID-19; they’ve actively impeded such private efforts. The CDC didn’t merely botch the creation of a COVID-19 test, it failed to turn to private companies that could have created a test faster and better. I’d simply like government to do much less much better.”

When this healthcare catastrophe is over, let’s not prolong our economic catastrophe by continuing to rely on government for our solutions. Let’s insist government stay limited to the functions it does well and allow entrepreneurs, competition, and consumer choice to lead the way. We’ll need this leadership more than ever, and so will the rest of the world.

This is the first of a three-part series, Perspectives of a Pandemic.


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