“The economy”—pandemic edition

Posted: 8 April 2020 in Uncategorized
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We’re back at it again: “the economy” has broken down and we’re all being enlisted into the effort to get it back up and working again. As soon as possible.

The Congressional Budget Office has announced that it expects the U.S. economy will contract sharply during the second quarter of 2020:

    • Gross domestic product is expected to decline by more than 7 percent during the second quarter. If that happened, the decline in the annualized growth rate reported by the Bureau of Economic Analysis would be about four times larger and would exceed 28 percent. Those declines could be much larger, however.
    • The unemployment rate is expected to exceed 10 percent during the second quarter, in part reflecting the 3.3 million new unemployment insurance claims reported on March 26 and the 6.6 million new claims reported this morning. (The number of new claims was about 10 times larger this morning than it had been in any single week during the recession from 2007 to 2009.)

Just as in the aftermath of the spectacular crash of 2007-08, the supposedly shared goal is to do whatever is necessary to engineer a recovery so that the economy can start operating normally again.

That presumes, of course, that we were satisfied with the normal workings of the economy before, and that such a state of normality is what we all desire moving forward.

But before I attempt to address that issue, it’s important that we stop and think a bit more about what we mean when we refer to this thing called “the economy.” In a fascinating recent interview, Anat Shenker-Osorio [ht: ja], argues that the economy is often portrayed as an all-powerful, personified entity.*

Previously, we would hear politicians admonish that we can’t pass X policy because it will “hurt the economy” — as if it were a being to which we owe our efforts and loyalties. And now, all the more brazenly, Republicans tell us we must sacrifice ourselves or perhaps our elders to the economy.

Another oft-used metaphor for the economy is the human body.

Conservatives, aided and abetted by progressives who also unwittingly employ the metaphor, tend to talk about the economy as a body. You can hear this expressed in language like “it’s suffering” or “the economy is thriving.” We have a “recovery bill” to get the economy “off life support” and “restore it to health.” What this metaphor suggests is that in grave cases, we must “resuscitate the patient” (perhaps with a stimulus bill.)

It seems to me, there’s a third common metaphor for the economy: a machine. Often, especially in conservative political discourse and neoclassical economic theory, the economy-as-machine is said to be functioning on its own, in a technical manner, with all its parts combining to produce the best possible outcome.** Unless, of course, there’s some kind of monkey wrench thrown into the works, such as a government intervention or natural disaster. However, according to liberal politics and Keynesian economics, the economic machine by itself tends to break down and needs to be regulated and guided, through some kind of government policy or program, so that it gets back to working properly.

As Shenker-Osorio correctly observes, the metaphor of “the economy” that is shared by both sides of mainstream political and economic discourse puts progressives at a distinct disadvantage:

we see progressives attempt to make arguments about how social welfare programs will “grow the economy” in the hopes of sounding like the reasonable adults in the room. This tacitly reaffirms the toxic idea that our purpose ought to be to serve the economy — that the correct evaluation of policy is how it affects the GDP

Much the same argument is made in favor of other liberal or progressive programs: raising minimum wages, extending health insurance, anti-poverty programs, education and job training, and so on. All are justified as contributing to making the economic machine work better, more productively, by including everyone.

So, what’s the alternative? One possibility, which Shenker-Osorio offers, is to reject the existing metaphors and refuse to continue to debate “who loves the economy best” and, instead, force “the far more relevant discussion: What is best for people.”

I don’t disagree with Shenker-Osorio’s goal but I wonder if there might not be another way of proceeding, by teasing out the implications of thinking about the economy as a machine.

If we continue with the machine metaphor then, first, we can demonstrate that the existing machine, in the midst of the novel coronavirus pandemic, is simply not working. It is an unproductive machine. For example, the U.S. economy-as-machine hasn’t been able to protect people’s health, for example, by providing adequate personal protective equipment for nurses and doctors, ventilators for patients, and masks for everyone else. Even more, it has put many people’s health at additional risk, by forcing many workers to continue to labor in unsafe workplaces and to commute to those jobs using perilous public transportation. Finally, it has expelled tens of millions of American workers, through furloughs and layoffs, and thus deprived them of wages and health insurance precisely when they need them most.

Second, we can read the decisions of the Trump administration—both its months-long delay in responding to the pandemic and then its refusal to enact a nationwide shutdown when it finally did admit a health emergency—as precisely enacting the general logic of the economic machine: that nothing should get in the way of production, circulation, and finance. It fell then to individual states to decide whether and when to shutdown parts of the economic machine and to distinguish between “essential” and “nonessential” sectors.

Finally, we can interpret the repeated calls to reopen the economy—not only by Trump and his advisors, but also by a wide variety of others, from Lloyd Blankfein, the billionaire former CEO of Goldman Sachs, to Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin—as a rational but unconvincing gesture, based on no other reason than that the machine needs to keep operating. It expresses the rational irrationality of the existing economy-machine.

All of which leaves us where? It seems to me, their continued reference to the economy as a machine creates the possibility of our demanding, in the first place, that the machine should remain closed down—for health reasons. People’s health should not be put under any further stress as long as the pandemic continues to ravage individual lives and entire communities.

And in second place, it becomes possible to imagine and invent other assemblages of the existing economy-machine, and even other machines, instead of obeying the logic of the current way of organizing economic and social life in the United States. In fact, while many of the changes to people’s lives have been designed to keep the existing machine functioning (for example, by working at home), it is also possible that people are taking advantage of the opportunity to experiment with how they work and live and creating new spaces and activities in their lives.***

If the common refrain these days is that “nothing will be the same” after the pandemic, perhaps one of the outcomes is that the economy-machine will finally be seen as an empty signifier, unmoored from the reality of people’s lives and incapable of organizing their desires.****

Then, maybe, the existing economy-machine will stop functioning. Before it kills any more of us.

 

*As in the episode of South Park, “Margaritaville” (the third episode in the thirteenth season, broadcast in March 2009), which Shenker-Osorio discusses in her 2012 book, Don’t Buy It: The Trouble with Talking Nonsense about the Economy.

**There is also, of course, an ethics of the economy-as-machine. As I explained back in 2018,

According to neoclassical economists, the capitalist distribution of income is fundamentally fair. If every factor of production (e.g., capital and labor) is remunerated according to its marginal contribution to production, and each individual sells to firms the amount of each factor they desire (because of utility-maximization), the resulting distribution represents “just deserts.” It’s fair on an individual level and it represents justice for society as a whole. Let free markets operate, without any external intervention (e.g., by the state), and the result will be both fair and just.

For Keynesian economists, the machine can be made to operate fairly, and therefore in an ethical manner, when the state can step in (e.g., via fiscal and monetary policy) to create full employment.

***I understand, some of those changes may be experienced as losses—of laboring alongside fellow workers, of certain leisure activities, and so on. But people are inventing all kinds of new ways, even at a physical distance, of provisioning, socializing, and much else.

****And, yes, for those who are interested, as I prepared to write this post, I did go back and reread some of the works of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, including AntiOedipusCapitalism and Schizophrenia.

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