by Saranna Thornton
I’ve been a plumber for almost thirty years, but the pipes I study—and used to help repair—don’t carry water. They carry money.
As a macroeconomist who used to work for the U.S. Senate Budget Committee and the Federal Reserve Board, I study the flow of money through the economy and how this monetary flow affects economic growth, unemployment, inflation, and other important macroeconomic variables.
Since early January when the news of a coronavirus epidemic spilled forth from China, I’ve been focused on how the spreading disease will affect the U.S. economy. The truth is that almost everything that has happened to the economy in the last three months was entirely predictable.
You needn’t be a journeyman plumber to know what would happen if someone cooked up five pounds of bacon on your stove and then poured the leftover grease down your sink. The pipes would clog, water would cease to flow through the system, and you’d be left holding the plunger.
The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have clearly clogged up the pipes of the U.S. economy.
On February 2, I wrote a quiz question for the students in my ECON 303 Intermediate Macroeconomic Theory class, asking them to analyze the impacts of a large number of quarantined U.S. workers on the labor market.
The answer, as you know from the data on new unemployment claims filed in the last two weeks of March and the first week of April, is 17 million newly unemployed individuals out of the 152 million U.S. workers who were on non-farm payrolls. Adding in unemployed independent contractors who are not eligible to file unemployment claims, the U.S. unemployment rate has most certainly increased to a level not seen since the Great Depression.
Understanding how the pipes of the U.S. economy are connected made it easy to predict the impacts of the novel coronavirus.
Simply, U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is the amount of new goods and services produced within our borders in a given time period. Macroeconomists often categorize GDP based on who is buying it—e.g., individuals, businesses, governments, and foreigners. The consumption component of GDP, or items purchased by individuals, is typically about two-thirds of the total. Spending on services such as tourism, restaurant meals, sporting events, concerts, and medical care accounts for 69 percent of consumption and 47 percent of all GDP.
Significantly, most services are provided in environments that promote the spread of COVID-19 because they do not allow for social distancing. We are suffering in part because our economy produces most of the things we need so efficiently that we are able to spend vast amounts of our incomes on luxury service items such as March Madness, spring break travel, youth sports leagues, and nights on the town.
If we try to live our lives as we did before the pandemic began, we would exponentially increase the number of COVID-19 cases in our communities, overwhelming our hospitals, morgues, and cemeteries, and endangering the lives of millions of health care personnel. The nature of COVID-19 and its drain on health care resources is such that more economic activity now means much more death and morbidity later, with the end result being a vicious cycle of even more economic contraction. The disease is far worse than the cure.