Monday, April 20, 2020

It’s not about the economy versus public health – – more on the framing of the COVID-19 debate

Lots of things are over before they start. John Houston argued that once you had the script and the cast, the movie was mostly finished before filming even began. Something similar happens with journalism. Once the decision has been made what to cover and how to frame it, you have largely decided the outcome of the debate.

The conservative movement was especially good at playing this part of the game. Think back at all of the discussions about the social safety net that were set up in terms of compassion versus fiscal responsibility. The approach was a profoundly dishonest but remarkably effective. For years, it allowed Randians like Paul Ryan to rebrand themselves as the reluctant grownups in the room.

We are seeing something similar but much more dangerous with the debate over the economic cost of social distancing. Establishment conservatives (those who acknowledge that the pandemic is real) are pushing hard to frame this as a choice between the toll the disease will take if allowed to go unchecked and the suffering that would company an economic collapse. It’s worth noting that this is not the way that most economists are likely to approach this question. There appears to be a consensus in both camps that the economic cost of inaction would probably be greater than that of reasonable containment steps. Furthermore, it's not clear how much power governments have to end social distancing.

James Pethokoukis writing for the National Interest.
The economic impact of the Swedish strategy is also unclear. The government certainly thinks it’s going to be pretty bad. According to the National Institute of Economic Research, an agency that reports to the Finance Ministry, its baseline scenario has Swedish real GDP growth declining by 3.4 percent this year, worse than its 2.9 percent forecast for the United States. It also sees a 6 percent contraction in the second quarter, comparable to the annualized US forecasts by Wall Street of a 25 percent to 30 percent contraction here from April through June. From the NIER: “Concern about infection and official advice on limiting social contact are putting a major damper on household demand, and delivery problems are disrupting production in parts of the business sector. … However, there is extreme uncertainty about future developments.” It doesn’t seem the light-touch approach provides immunity from severe economic hardship.

So where does the lives versus jobs framing come from? For a bit of political context, both Trump and the Republicans desperately need Q3 of this year to be as non-terrible as possible. 
Even a dead cat bounce, if the timing were lucky, could considerably improve the prospects of the GOP.


  1. You wrote:

    "There appears to be a consensus in both camps that the economic cost of inaction would probably be greater than that of reasonable containment steps."

    But neither camp knows that, and neither do you or anyone else.

    Anyway, the damage has been done -- we've lost 40,000 people, but 10 million to 20 million are out of work, and some of them won't be back in the labor force for years. When the laid off restaurant worker kills his wife and children and then turns the weapon on himself, he'll definitely say "You know this was all worth it because we now have an ample supply of ventilators."

    And the insane Democrats will be in power because they will blame Trump for whatever happens. Hope everyone's happy!

    1. This is just silly. We know we could remediate layoffs by giving people money to buy food and pay rent. Apparently many Republicans in Congress are eager to give money to big companies (and rich individuals via tax breaks), leaving small companies and the self-employed in the cold. On the other hand, there's no way to remediate death caused by increased exposure to Covid. When and how to turn things back on depends on better knowledge of IFR, and fraction of population non-carriers. See more on this on the Gelman blog.