Benjamin Studebaker

Yet Another Attempt to Make the World a Better Place by Writing Things

Tag: Coronavirus

Why Federal Stimulus is Always Too Small

We never seem to learn anything. The global economic crisis of 2008 should have taught us a lot about how governments cope with major economic shocks, but the level of analysis in 2020 has been abysmal. The Great Recession reduced US economic output by 4.2% and destroyed 8.7 million jobs. To counteract the loses, the federal government injected stimulus, first through the Bush administration’s Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), and then through the Obama administration’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Combined, these two programs provided about $1.2 trillion. That’s about $285 billion per percentage of point of GDP. It wasn’t enough. The economy recovered very slowly, too slowly for the Obama administration to maintain public support. The Democrats lost the House decisively in 2010. Obama tried to get an additional $447 billion in 2011, but the Republicans had no interest in it. Instead, they pushed for deficit reduction. Obama tried to play nice with them, signing the Budget Control Act in August and making one last push for more stimulus in the Fall. They took his cookies. The second stimulus never happened. As the years went by, rural America continued to lose jobs, and grew more and more resentful, setting the stage for Donald Trump in 2016.

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The Quarantine is Failing because Our Institutions Weren’t Built For It

All around us, the quarantine is beginning to die. In the United States, the Southern states are slowly abandoning it and many Midwestern states are planning to follow. But it’s not just Republicans. The European states are bailing too. If you ask Democrats why states are beginning to defect, they will tell you it comes down to greed and stupidity. They’ll tell you the rich Republicans are greedy and the poor Republicans are stupid. But this policy was never a good fit for either the American or European political systems. To work, it needed a lot of economic support from regional authorities, and it never got that support.

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Neoliberalism isn’t Dead Yet

As the coronavirus crisis drags on, it has become popular to declare this to be the death of neoliberalism. If neoliberalism were simply noninterference in the economy, the large stimulus packages passed around the world would seem to signify its end. But neoliberalism was never simply about noninterference. Neoliberalism is characterised by economic integration without political integration. Low trade barriers make states compete with each other for investment and jobs, and that pushes states to lower taxes, cut spending, deregulate, deunionise, and push down wages. By globalising the economy, neoliberalism creates a race to the bottom. It subjects states to a global market without creating a global polity to govern that market. We end up governed by an impersonal market logic which frequently conflicts with our needs and interests.

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Coronavirus and the Fable of the Bees

Coronavirus puts elected governments in a sticky situation. If they appear to fail to solve the public health crisis, they will lose the next election. If, in the process of solving the public health crisis, they create an economic crisis, they will also lose the next election. They’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. It all reminds me of Bernard Mandeville’s “Fable of the Bees”. Mandeville’s bees live luxurious, decadent lives, and their drive for ever greater pleasures pushes them to build an extraordinarily elaborate economy to keep up with their excesses. One day, a divine intervention rids the bees of their vices, leaving them full of modesty and virtue. But this collapses demand and destroys the bees’ economy, annihilating their living standards. The fable serves to highlight one of the paradoxes of capitalism–the welfare of the poor becomes dependent on the vices of the rich. If the rich stop spending money on frivolous nonsense, the poor lose their jobs and go hungry.

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