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Pandemics and Economics
Rick Garlikov


As the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic has grown in America and throughout the world, articles about the economic problems and proposed fixes for them have started to appear and multiply.  Here I want to put into a broader philosophical and ethical perspective the economics of pandemics.  Many economists have the specifics correct, but there is more to it than those specifics.  And it is particularly important to understand all this now because  many people are more fearful about the economy than is necessary and because arguments are starting to appear from politicians that we are allegedly going to have to choose between saving lives and saving the economy, and that saving the economy is more important.  President Trump has started to complain that we can't just close down the economy of the country, and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick of Texas is reported to have said grandparents like him would be willing to risk dying from the pandemic instead of sacrificing their grandchildren's economic future by a long term shutdown of the economy.  I want to show that is a false dilemma and that the long term economy is not at risk from any necessary shutdown that saves lives, if reasonable monetary or financial actions are taken.  Wrongful economic actions however can wreak more havoc and also be extremely unfair.  The initial bailout corona plan by the U.S. Senate seems to be both insufficiently helpful and also unfair, which is not a good combination.


In my free online book
Ethical and Philosophical Foundations of Economics, I explain that economic systems are ways to try to maximize the availability of necessary and desired products and labor in, ideally (but not often or always in practice), the fairest and most reasonable ways through everyone’s trading with each other (an excess of) what they can produce.  For any given amount of work that needs to be done, generally the more people who contribute to doing it by being a part of the economic system, either 1) the less each person has to do and the more leisure everyone can have and/or 2) the more conveniences and luxuries can be produced along with the necessities. All else being equal, a larger or expanded economy has more people in the economic (i.e., working and trading) system, and makes available more goods, services, and/or leisure.  Oppositely, in a shrunken or contracted economic system, there are fewer people working and thus there is less goods, services, or leisure.  But it will likely not always be the case that "all else is equal", and I will discuss some of the relevant ramifications of that near the end of this essay.  


Wars, natural disasters, and other large scale emergencies disrupt trade and economic systems, often in uneven ways by putting some people, but not others, out of work, and expose and magnify problems that are often ignored or dismissed when they occur on a smaller scale or affect only a relative few people whose ‘loss to overall trade’ is considered (often mistakenly) to be insignificant.  Pandemics are one kind of disruption of trade and the economic system, though with a particular feature that makes them different from other disruptions.  Apart from the people who are actually harmed by the diseases and those who depend on their work, pandemics also (and often mostly) affect (i.e.,  hinder or prevent) work that involves people congregating together in proximity or enclosed spaces where disease-causing microbes or other kinds of toxins can  be transmitted.  And they do this on a wider scale, and in a longer lasting time-frame, than does something  like a tornado, flood, or earthquake  which physically prevent people from getting together for a  short period of time in a specific geographical location, but often leave the rest of the economy and trade in a larger area, such as a state or country, able to function and also to lend assistance.  Like any natural disaster, deadly pandemics disrupt trade by killing or disabling people they come into direct contact with.  But the prevention of the spread of pandemics for which there is not yet a vaccine or reliable predictability of who is at risk, requires social isolation or social distancing -- to keep people from spreading the disease exponentially -- and so it also indirectly disrupts businesses that require workers or customers /consumers to congregate, even when there are no physical barriers (such as flood water, impassable roads due to earthquake, large fires, etc.) to prevent their getting together: sporting events in large arenas, particularly enclosed ones, commercial airlines, subways, buses, factories, schools/classrooms, theaters, restaurants, etc.  This prevents even currently healthy, able, mobile workers from doing jobs that require contact with people who might be or become infected. They affect less, or not at all, work that can be done in relative isolation, even if requiring collaboration -- online teaching and learning or any other work that can be done remotely (via Internet or by phone, mail, shipping, etc.), television and streaming services, outdoor work not done in that close proximity to others, automated work, etc. And they don't affect workers who are immunized by vaccine or from any naturally acquired antibodies from previously having the disease.


Social distancing to prevent spread of a deadly or disabling disease takes out all but the most necessary non-immune workers who work in close proximity with others from the economic system, and thus many people without the disease are still unable to work.  That creates a trade or economic problem over and above any physically caused shortages of goods or services due to actually ill (or dead) workers or impossible travel conditions.  And it makes it appear necessarily to harm the economy as the price of stopping contagion and saving lives.  I want to address the economics part and argue that social distancing that disrupts commerce does not have to ruin the economy for future generations or even for the current generation during the shutdown, but first it also needs to be pointed out that if a pandemic is both extremely contagious and also very deadly, ending social distancing would kill a whole lot more people and still potentially ruin the economy for future generations. Ending social distancing while a pandemic is still growing or able to reinvigorate will likely not save the economy as intended.  And it is unnecessary to end it in order to save the economy. The apparent choice between social distancing in the United States today to save lives and ending social distancing to save the economy, is a false dichotomy, a false dilemma, and an unnecessary choice.


If pandemics or other disruptions to the economy affected everyone reasonably reasonably proportionally, fewer adjustments would have to be made than in the normal case where some kinds of work are disrupted (far more than others) and where some is not disrupted at all.  Apart from people who are incapacitated or killed by the illness, people whose jobs can be done in isolation or by telecommunication can continue to work.  And people whose work does require proximity of workers or customers, but which though desirable and helpful, is not necessary for other people's survival, can be dispensed with until after the danger passes -- except that since they will still have expenses, but no usual source of income (unless they can adapt to do work that can continue).  People whose work is unnecessary and unable to be continued in a group with the advent of social distancing, will need to be supported in a way that lets them meet their expenses insofar as they don't have savings they can fall back on -- either 1) by reducing, eliminating, or putting on hold in an affordable way, payments for those expenses, or 2) by giving them sufficient income to meet them.  I will be arguing there is sufficient money available to do either or both those things and that is why the economy need not be in the kind of dire circumstances it may seem, and may not require the kinds of sacrifice some believe.  It is the disruption of incomes and bills or expenditures, particularly in uneven, unequal, or disproportionate ways that causes the economic problems in society over and above whatever material or physical shortages are caused.  But there are possible ways to deal with the disrupted incomes and monetary flow interruption effectively and fairly when the problem is fully understood.

Because economic disruptions force people out of the economic system, the number of people in the system shrinks or contracts, and that causes there to be fewer goods and services available (or less leisure available), and available to fewer people (and the 'economy' is said to have contracted).  As long as the curtailed or lost goods and services are not necessities, the people still working can survive just fine on those which are available, though maybe less happily, in a contracted or shrunk, less productive, economy, but the people cast out of work by the disruption need help because they still need money (or other way to trade) to survive unless they are self sufficient in some way (like farmers possibly). Even though they don't get to make a normal daily contribution or receive benefits tied to a job, they still need money to survive till they can earn it themselves by returning into the economic process as soon as possible.  So they need help in the form of reduced expenses and/or new work and retraining if necessary and possible. Ideally they also will find work to do that helps out during the pandemic, even if they cannot be paid for it and may need simply to volunteer.  Or they need to be able to get paying work at something not otherwise being done or not being done enough, or they need to give more leisure (or an otherwise eased workload) to people still working, by helping them do that work for fair pay. In some cases, to promote fairness and shared risk and burden in a pandemic, those displaced from unnecessary work that requires group proximity, should help out with necessary work that requires some proximity, such as helping stock grocery shelves, provide family child care for people who have to work outside the home (or who need help with childcare while working from home), etc.

Notice also that pandemics  are disruptive in proportion, not only to the probability of people congregating even if they know they are ill, but to the length of time between infection and detection, because isolation has to allow for unknown contagion by people who would not knowingly congregate with others if they knew they were a carrier.  In other words, if we could 1) know immediately when someone is ill, and 2) count on them self-isolating, disruptions would be less because work done by, and/or serving, healthy people together would not be problematic.But insofar as people can be contagious before they know they are ill, and insofar as ill people feel they have to work even if ill, pandemics requiring untargeted, nonspecific, imprecise social distancing are more economically disruptive.

One of the early efforts in the United States to contain the COVID-19 pandemic was to try to minimize or eliminate people from going to work with others when they know they are ill, by giving everyone sick leave pay so that they can afford to miss work and self-isolate.  Many other countries already had that policy in place (and so the bigger problem for them was people congregating without yet knowing they were infected and contagious).  Sick leave is one economic mechanism to minimize the economic harms of pandemics over and above those caused by death and incapacitation of workers.  Another, partially economic, partially social, partially medical method to try to allow the economy to function but preventing contagion was the monitoring of passengers  for fevers or other signs of COVID-19 infection before they could board flights.  But this only prevented those with clear signs or symptoms from infecting others after they were detected, not before (e.g., while waiting in line at the airport to have their temperature taken), and it did nothing to prevent contagious people without signs or symptoms yet from infecting the others on the flight.  That is the problem with a lag between contagious infection and actual detection of the disease, as mentioned before.

The reason I am writing this is because there are other such mechanisms that are needed and possible to overcome the primarily economic harms of pandemics, as opposed to the medical, physical ones.  As of this writing, economic disruptions are at least as big a concern as are the medical ones, and economic solutions need to be found while medical ones are still being sought, and may need to be found even after medical ones are.  If a cure or prevention of the spread for pandemic were found, the economy could get back to normal if disruptions are properly prevented from being fatal to businesses.  But such a cure or vaccine is not expected to be able to be employed soon, and so people need to be protected and treated medically and also financially or economically.


Economic Solutions and the Rationale Behind Them
The first principle should be understanding that we are all in this together and that it is somewhat pure chance not only who will become infected by the disease, but whose kind of work will be become disrupted by isolation or 'social distancing' needed to combat the spread of it. To some extent there is a reversal of fortune between those most successful in normal times and those most  adversely affected by pandemics, not just because those who have gained the most (or who have the most invested to begin or to continue to gain) have the most to lose, but because much wealth accrues from crowds in stadiums, arenas, theaters, restaurants, etc. and/or from an aggregation  of people working in the same location together.  Those jobs are the first affected by pandemics requiring social distance to combat.  

[Related to this, I must say here that I am perplexed by the suspension of major professional sporting events, given that most of the revenue for them comes from TV, rather than arena/stadium crowds. I don’t see, for example, why the NCAA basketball tournament, i.e., “March Madness” was canceled, as opposed to just being played in empty arenas.   While that might be somewhat weird for players and fans watching on TV, it would not be that weird because 1) many fans turn off the sound while watching a sport on TV anyway so they won’t have to listen to announcers they don’t like, and 2) players who grew up playing on playgrounds, tennis courts, golf courses, etc. by themselves played perfectly well for years without people watching, cheering, or exhorting them to try harder, etc. 3) Players also generally practice in relatively empty arenas or stadiums.  It is not like you can't catch a football or tackle someone, throw or hit a baseball, shoot a puck or kick a ball into a net, or make a basket if there is no crowd.]

Once it is realized that we are all in this together and that chance plays a role in whose work is disrupted and whose is not, we should be willing to ‘self-insure’ each other as a society so that no one is more economically unreasonably harmed by a disruption than we can collectively prevent.  Insurance works by people who are not harmed paying in large part for the harms or damage done to those who are harmed.  Normally that requires that everyone insured pays premiums, which are used to pay for those who collect benefits from authorized, hopefully legitimate, claims.  We don't know in advance who will be harmed and who will not be.  In the case of pandemics the 'self-insurance' will be in large part retroactive, in that the plan was not available beforehand and so premiums were not previously collected from which benefits could be paid.  Instead, other sources of funding the benefits will have to be utilized after the harms are determined.  To some extent we know ahead of times which businesses will be harmed by 'social distancing' and which will not, but we don't know when pandemics or epidemics will strike or which populations or subsets of populations will be affected (most).  Moreover the kind of self-insurance for large scale disruptions includes disasters besides medical or biological ones, which may affect different people.   I believe that societal economic self-insurance 'after the fact' is a fair and reasonable way to prevent tragedies from economic disruptions.


Theoretically (and this is theoretically only because extremely difficult to put into practice, but the basic principle is most important to understand because it needs to underlie any practical attempted financial remedy), the economy would, in a purely financial or monetary way, not be harmed at all by a pandemic if people paid for the products and services they would have purchased but couldn't and didn't. (This is apart from deaths of any key person whose skills are necessary and could not easily be replaced by someone else, and it is apart from the loss or postponement of innovations that would improve productivity.  I am talking now only about loss of work by those who are idled by social distancing and by actual temporary illness during the pandemic, not by death or permanent inability to return to their work.) That is because the money lost by those unable to work is money saved by those who would have otherwise paid for their services or products.  It is not that there is less money in the society during a pandemic, but that money is not circulating to the extent it was.  It circulates among fewer people -- those still able to work and those with incomes guaranteed by people or institutions that still have money available to pay it, such as Social Security or loan repayments, retirement funds, etc.  And it is not circulating in ways it normally needs to in order for all people to be included in the economy and for products and services to be produced, traded, and utilized.  So if people who would have traveled but couldn't because of the pandemic still paid the airlines for flights they didn't take and paid the hotels for rooms they didn't use, and restaurants for food they didn't order, paid for the gas they didn't use, the 'economy' would go on as it does normally, and everyone would be able to pay their bills as they had prior to the pandemic.  Of course, the obvious problem with that is it seems stupid and pointless to pay for something you don't get or use. 


However, in actual fact that is what insurance premiums do for things where insurance is available, and particularly where it is common.  Insurance premiums paid by those who don't have to make claims or collect benefits pay for the benefits of those who have insured harms befall them.  They pay for things never ordered and never received by the insured person who never makes a claim.  If this were flight or hotel cancellation insurance, it would basically be what I just described in theory -- paying for trips one never takes.  My standard joke when returning a rental car for which I took out (additional) rental insurance is "Since I didn't have any accidents, can I get my insurance premium back please, since I didn't use the insurance?"  That would make sense only if premiums were simply a pre-payment that covered the cost all by itself of any damage from an accident.  But that isn't what premiums are -- they are one's share of money pooled to pay for work done and replacement items for the people who do have accidents or insured losses.  If you don't have an accident or loss, you are paying for a service you don't use.  If, during a pandemic, people paid for hotel rooms, airline trips, etc. which they didn't utilize, it would be the same thing, and actually less expensive because it would not require paying the incomes of insurance company investors and employees besides paying for the work needed.  Now I realize "economic disruption self-insurance" by a country is a strange enough idea, but it is far more likely to happen or make sense to people than telling everyone to pay for the things they would have bought if they could have, but didn't buy because they now couldn't or shouldn't.  And I realize the latter is not going to happen, but it would be the simplest way to keep the economy going, and it does show that the economic problem of monetary disruption and loss of unnecessary goods and services
is in some way artificial (as opposed to the actual diminished supply or loss of necessary goods and services).  And it would be the fairest way to pay for the losses of revenue by businesses that couldn't operate, because it would replace the money they lost from their inability to provide services or products with the money saved by those who would have otherwise spent it.  The  money lost would be paid by the money gained or kept; i.e., the money not spent which would have been spent. What would be lost by paying for a trip to Disney World one doesn't take, compared with paying for a trip one does take, is, of course the enjoyment of Disney World.  But if that joy was replaced by a different one, perhaps a free or relatively, equally great one or better, during the social distancing time, it wouldn't matter, and it would keep the travel industry open for future trips.  In this last regard, the point of paying for something you don't use now is to allow it to survive for when you can and do want to use it in the future, once the (pandemic) disruption has passed.  One can recover from not having a convenience or luxury one doesn't really need; but it is far more difficult to recover from loss of a career, health, home, or business due to lack of income that was needed to pay a mortgage, purchase food, medicine, personal and environmental hygiene, or keep a company able to operate or recover from having been (temporarily) suspended.  If children, for example, enjoy putting puzzles together, watching TV, doing science experiments, reading good books from the Internet, communicating and doing things together online (like playing music together and recording it) they haven't really lost anything by going to Disneyland.


And remember, this is different from a very real problem of not having sufficient necessary goods and services available, such as medical care or important flights or other services, goods, or events, in an acute pandemic, that no amount of money would be able to alleviate anyway in the time frame necessary.  I am only talking about the monetary economic parts of the economy.  There are really two issues in the pandemic: the monetary circulation one and unavoidable losses of goods and services that cannot be reconstituted, replenished, or made up for by future, post-pandemic efforts, due to disabilities caused by the pandemic, loss of life, or loss of perishable goods necessary for time-sensitive productivity. For example, if there is cattle feed available but no money to purchase it, cows can still be fed by the feed being donated by those who have it or by someone else's paying for it on behalf of farmers through gifts, loans, etc.; but if a pandemic wipes out cattle workers, cattle, feed, or those who produce feed, then that diminishes the future availability of dairy or beef products.   If seed for crops is not available at the proper time, those crops will be lost for that year.  In this regard money is different from material and biological things because the money doesn't disappear.  Money in the stock market is often said to disappear during downturns, but I will address that later; it is not really money disappearing.


What happens in any large scale economic disruption, whether due to a pandemic or recession or depression, widespread natural disaster, or anything else, is that money pools up in ways that do not line up with unused, available labor and work that needs to be done. It is a misalignment of money and labor, not a deficiency of people to do the work (apart from deaths and permanent disabilities caused by the disruption), but lack of a mechanism to bring together those who could do the work, those who need the work, and those who can pay for it. It is not dissimilar to the problem of barter where someone with an extra cow needs a horse, but the person with the extra horse doesn't need a cow.  If the person with the extra horse can find an intermediary person who wants the horse and can trade something for it -- say, an inherited piano that is never played -- that would be wanted by the person with the extra cow, the three-way trade can occur to let the person get rid of his extra horse in exchange for the piano and then trade the piano for the cow he wanted, while the person who had the extra cow gets the piano he wants.  It will all work out.  In a fully functioning monetary economy there is not that exact same problem because money serves as a universal intermediary trading medium.  So if the person can sell his extra cow to someone who pays him money for it that he then uses to buy the horse with; and that person can then use that money, if he wants, to buy a used piano. Or GM has cars they want to sell but NBC doesn't need all those cars, though they have TV shows that GM doesn't really need.  But NBC can sell advertising time to GM who then gains customers who want to buy their cars they saw advertised during a comedy or a sporting event they watched for free on NBC. 


But the same sort of trading problem does arise in a monetary economy when people with the needs don't have money though they have services or products to offer to people who have money but don't need (or can't use) those particular products or services.  In normal circumstances money and labor become aligned (to various degrees if at all) over time as businesses try to adapt to meet new demands (such as Internet, large flat screen TVs, computers, cell phones, grocery stores, lawn care services, new sports, new styles of music, social media "influencers", etc.) and people seek work, or develop new skills, they know they can make money from to meet their needs.  In some cases that means borrowing money to begin with that will be paid back over time as labor and money realign. 


But in a major, acute disruption, normal channels for getting money and labor realigned take too long and people can lose their homes, health care, food, etc., and even their lives, in the duration.  The advent of fifty zillion cable channels and Internet streaming entertainment subtracts from NBC's viewing audience and makes GM's advertising on NBC less rewarding to them, disrupting to at least some extent this trading circle.  When the Soviet Union collapsed, that fostered the closing of military bases considered no longer necessary, and disrupted the economy of the areas who depended on them for sales.  If the Star Trek transporter were invented and available inexpensively, it would probably destroy the automobile industry and collapse the economy unless some way could be found to put back into the trading system all those who work in the auto industry in some capacity or other.  If all diseases could be prevented, it would put the medical establishment out of business.  We are good at including into the economic system unemployed people by putting them to work when new needs are discovered or created, but we are horrible at knowing how to keep people in the economic system when their work is no longer needed or (in the case of the pandemic, cannot be done).  We know how to distribute work easily enough, but not how to distribute leisure.  We know how to combine work with money easily enough, but not how to combine money with leisure, except over time by decreasing the hours of the work week or by increasing paid vacation time, number of paid holidays, etc as fewer hours of human labor are needed to meet human needs and desires.  This is the same problem that we will have as human labor is able to be replaced by robots, since the work of the displaced humans will not be needed, but they still need to be able to trade to earn the necessities, conveniences, and luxuries being produced.  Ideally as robots replace humans, those humans would share the work of humans who robots cannot replace, and everyone would have more leisure.  But that is difficult to work out in practice because some work is too difficult or too time-consuming to learn.


In some cases, we even have difficulty putting people to work to meet needs, such as research for rare ("orphan") diseases or labor intensive services for poor people, even in a healthy, vibrant, normally functioning economy there are no normal trade ways to channel some labor where necessary, because the scale of the work needed does not match the scale of the number of people who need it and the money they have to pay for it.  In those cases, it requires charitable monetary donations, voluntary labor, and/or taxation if they are to be done at all.  And in some cases it is difficult to figure out how to monetize a worthy service to make it profitable.  Sometimes the reverse is true, and a fairly ultimately worthless, or even harmful, service or product can make a lot of money.  In an ideal economic society, however, all needs and benefits that can be produced will be available and distributed to all who need them or who would benefit from them, and in turn those who received the benefits will contribute benefit for others by their own production of useful products or services.  And there will be mechanisms that allow that to work through simple monetary exchanges (or sometimes barter) where possible, and through more convoluted or complicated ones when not. In such a society or even in a normal economically functioning society, large scale economic disruptions which are not easily restored before permanent physical harm is done, need to employ non-standard methods to get labor employed to meet the needs of everyone to the greatest possible extent.  When monetary trade cannot produce the goods or services people want or need, non-trade mechanisms are utilized: taxation, monetary gifts and donations, insurance, lotteries and other forms of gambling all separate to some degree or the flow of money from the flow of labor and products of labor. 


Insurance itself is a form of gambling.  Another form is a lottery or a raffle.  In a lottery tickets are bought to try to win money; in a raffle tickets are bought to win some specific service or product.  And there is an old joke that particularly illustrates how something like a raffle separates the exchange of money from the exchange of goods and services. A farmer's mule dies and he doesn't have enough money to buy a new one.  A new mule would cost him $500.  And he needs a mule.  So he has raffle tickets printed up that he sells for $2 each and they are raffle tickets to win a mule.  He just doesn't say that the mule that will be won is his dead mule.  He sells 1000 tickets, and buys his new mule, leaving him a profit of nearly $1500 over and above the cost of the mule and the cost of having the raffle tickets printed.  Of course, when the winner comes to pick up his mule, he balks at the fact that it is dead.  The farmer doesn't want the winner to be unhappy, so he gives him his back his $2.  For my purposes here, we could remove the absurd humorous part and say that the farmer bought two new mules with the proceeds of the raffle and gave one of them to the winner.  Either way, a lot of money has exchanged that didn't give the buyers anything but the hope or fantasy of getting a mule for $2, and didn't require the farmer to do any real labor to earn.  Basically, there are instances possible in a monetary economic system which separate the flow of money from the flow of equivalent goods and services.  It is easy to see that fraud, welshing, bankruptcy, etc. are ways labor can be done without getting money for it, and it is easy to see that theft is a way for money to change hands without giving up a product or labor.  It is not as obvious that there are many other ways to separate money from the equivalent labor, ways we often take for granted as not doing that and as being fair or normal, whether it is not paying people what their labor should really be worth to you because you can exploit their being in dire circumstances that make them agree to be paid little, whether it is losing or making money via an investment, or a loan at too high or too low an interest rate for the changing value of money through time (inflation or deflation), whether it is through being able to afford to buy in bulk or economize in some other way, whether it is through artificial loan instruments like the mortgage-backed securities and collateralized debt obligations of the subprime mortgage crisis that fostered the great recession beginning in 2007 and blossoming in 2008.  Even normal commerce can lead to dislocations of money and labor if money is hoarded instead of spent, or if great amounts of money are wasted in any of various ways that don't get it back into the hands of those who need or do useful and important work.


Since the flow of money doesn't always coincide naturally with the flow of good and useful products and services, it seems to me that since that is often harmful and yet accepted, that it should be at least as accepted to separate the two in ways that actually benefit society in fair and reasonable ways.   And one of those would be some fair, effective, efficient, and reasonable form or other of retroactive widespread economic disruption insurance that is targeted to benefit only those actually harmed by the economic disruption, which the recently passed 2 trillion dollar 'rescue' or 'bailout' package does not do.  It will pay some people or businesses too much and others too little.  It will pay some people whose incomes have not been affected at all the same amount it pays those who lost their income totally during the social distancing period.  The people and businesses that are beneficiaries of the money should be those that deserve it and the amount should be fair and reasonable.  The places from which the money is taken should be fair and reasonable too.  That all needs to be worked out in detail and may need some corrections over time.  The two trillion dollar government bailout or 'rescue' plan is too blunt an instrument insufficiently benefiting those who need and deserve it and unfairly and unreasonably putting it into the hands of those who don't.  Plus it is not clear whether it will be taken from those who made or saved money because of social distancing from those who lost it, which seems to me to be at least one important consideration.


Pandemics Magnify the Problems of 'Normal' Economic Disruptions
Disruptions that put people outside the economy happen to unemployed people during normal times, and many of them have at least some sort of safety net, but others don't and are too often ignored.  Once the same problem reaches the magnitude and number of people affected by it in a pandemic, the victims can no longer be ignored.  But they shouldn't have been ignored before when there numbers were smaller either.  Serious or large scale pathologies in any kind of system often shed light on the normal functioning within the system by exposing their weaknesses and flaws that were previously largely unnoticed by most people.  In the case of economic systems, for example, people in government and in the general population are often unaware of the failings of normal trade to include people whose plights are recognized or understood only by them and the relatively few who advocate for them. When only a few are affected, their problems are often dismissed as unavoidable or likely their own fault, but once far more are affected, particularly people who are clearly good, deserving people, the problem cannot be dismissed in those ways.


Failure of the normal means of realigning labor and money requires using
mechanisms outside the normal economic ways of distributing money, in order to shift resources and money to do the most good during, and immediately after, the disruptions of the pandemic.  We often do this voluntarily in localized, short term emergencies, as explained in “The Intersection of Ethics and Economics”, and/or by invoking pre-established ‘declared emergency’ laws.  Farmers throughout the country often self-insure in a broad sense by sending feed to areas affected by excessive drought or flooding, etc., knowing that if or when the circumstances are reversed, they will be helped.  Many people volunteer their labor to help clear snow or fallen trees or other debris, use their 4-wheel drive vehicles or boats to transport their fellow citizens, stock up or serve at food kitchens, etc.  State governments invoke emergency decrees which, among other things, prohibit price gouging, hoarding, and which may require rationing of some things to insure the most people can get what they need, etc. Unfortunately, not everyone is fair, reasonable, kind, or generous.  Businesses with lobbyists, for example, apparently lined up to have money for their companies or industries favored in bailout funds, whether they need or deserve it or not.  Selfishness and greed serve instead of kindness and generosity.

[Whether some of the good mechanisms outside the normal ones should remain in play or be expanded to cover the 'normal' failures in the system, after the pandemic is an ethical, social, economic, political decision for later.  E.g., during WW II on the home front women were able to do jobs, because of the emergency need, they were previously excluded from, and often then subsequently excluded from again -- except that they now had not only more of a desire to hold such jobs and other kinds of difficult jobs, but demonstrable knowledge they could do them successfully.  That added to women’s employment opportunities eventually, although in the United States women and minorities still lag behind white males in economic opportunities in many ways in general.  The point is that pandemics and other emergencies sometimes offer insights for fairer and more productive economic practices during normal times, and those should be seen from a broader perspective not only during the emergency but prior to emergencies and subsequent to their successful ending.  World War II led to the GI Bill of Rights that allowed many soldiers to go to college who otherwise would not have been able to, and made the economy eventually more productive.  But today we have homeless vets on the streets who clearly need more or a different kind of help.  They deserve it for their service and what their service cost them; and it would be better for all of us if they could succeed and be contributing members of society instead of having to squander their potential talents barely existing.]

Self-insuring against the economic disruptions of pandemics or other large scale disasters or changes (such as when many U.S. military bases closed after the Soviet Union broke up) requires 1) as far as possible putting to work in necessary fields those who are displaced from their normal work, particularly those displaced from work that is in some sense arguably less necessary, 2) giving financial assistance to those who cannot find paid work while their own field is disrupted, and 3) putting disrupted industries (schools, sports, factory work, etc.) as much as possible into a kind of economic suspended animation that allows them to be revived when the pandemic abates or ends. If possible to avoid as a society, no one should (permanently) lose a home or business or anything of importance because of a temporary disruption of their work and economic trade that is no fault of their own. And no one should remain idle from work that needs to be done -- such as more personalized child care for children who would otherwise be in school, and individualized tutoring (particularly by remote means where possible), working in a plant to make masks, while wearing masks to stay safe while making others, or helping put up temporary hospital units, or doing any of the other numerous medical or ‘pre-medical’ things that could be taught to lay people or health care students -- the hospital and medical equivalents of Habitat for Humanity model.  Keep necessary productivity going as much as possible by utilizing those people whose normal less necessary work is disrupted, and sort out all the payment issues as much as possible first, but later if necessary to correct or modify them.  Mobilize the work force and existing manufacturing facilities as much as possible and reasonable as one does during a military war for survival, where in WWII people and auto plants and other industries were put to work making tanks, planes, other military vehicles, etc. As of this writing during the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, many people are volunteering help of all sorts and volunteering their labor wherever it is needed and can be used.  At least one restaurant in New York City is feeding everyone who cannot afford food, and the owner said he will do that as long as he is able.  People like him need money channeled to him so he can buy the food he needs to serve to others.  A disruption in the flow of money and the normal trading mechanisms of society should not cause people to starve to death when there is food available and people available to prepare and distribute it.  In another example, one including innovation, a company that makes scuba gear has converted to making home ventilators. One or more car manufacturers offered to retool to make ventilators. Some clothing manufactures are converting to making masks.  Some people figured out a design to make ventilator parts or other needed medical equipment using a 3D printer, and have made the plans available to for free to everyone with a 3D printer.  All kinds of people whose work is idled by the economic disruption are putting their time, energy, and sometimes expertise, into trying to reduce the physical harms and important material deprivations of the pandemic.   Society should ensure they are not economically deprived now or later, especially if they had to use their own money to do the good they are contributing.  Financial institutions are suspending or modifying rent, mortgage, car loan and other loan repayments, in some cases as much as they can, to help people have money for food or medicine.

The third point in the above paragraph includes some attempt to make up for lost productivity and/or revenue where possible, and to sustain people in those businesses after the pandemic where necessary because some losses due to lost time cannot be made up and are permanent.  Some losses can be made up.  E.g., sporting events can be rescheduled for after the pandemic, missed school days can be made up, lost manufacturing productivity can sometimes be made up by overtime production, etc.  But this might mean paying people like teachers, in advance while they are not working, the money they would be paid while not working during the summer.  In other words, pay them now for work they will do later and just swap paid vacation time and work time.

But some losses cannot be made up, such as permanent harms caused by unavailability of medical resources, losses of perishable items that cannot be sold during the pandemic (one major flower distributor in Birmingham has given away all his fresh flowers so that they don't go to waste even though he cannot remain open to sell them), incomes based on work that cannot be doubled up on later, such as restaurant work or nursing care, hotel bookings, airline wages for flights not made, or any kind of job that is exhausting during normal times.  Even rescheduling some sporting events can cause irreparable disruptions, such as rescheduling the Olympics for two years later, since athletes at their peak presently may not be as competitive then, which causes them a loss, though what they lose is  potentially gained by others instead (in terms of victories, but not necessarily in terms of individual records, such as winning medals in consecutive Olympics or most career Olympic medals, etc).   What constitutes a permanent loss that is fair to be compensated for is open to individual evidence and reasoning, much like distribution of reparations to businesses harmed by an oil spill, though without as much red tape if possible.

But money is something that doesn’t necessarily have to be lost, as pointed out throughout Ethical and Philosophical Foundations of Economics.  There should be a relationship between money and labor that is not always met by existing business practices or by normal government practices that try to correct some of them.  One example is the loss of perishable food by those who have it while others may be going hungry because they don’t have a means to buy or get food, such as free or reduced cost school lunches.  If ways can be found to distribute the food before it spoils to those who need it, the payment for that food can be worked out somehow.  The important thing is to get the work done, and then paid for as soon as possible, not necessarily at the time of the transaction if that cannot be worked out by that time.  One example is that some telecommunication companies are providing free Internet services (such as unlimited data, or connections for students) during the pandemic to help people stay connected and to help students still be in school.  That is an admirable act and a great example of individuals and companies voluntarily contributing what they know they can that might not have been thought of by a governmental or other centralized planning agency, and that might have been less fair (or at least less palatable) to require than to be done voluntarily.

Oppositely, price gouging and unfair profiteering should not be allowed where possible to prevent.  As of this writing, Amazon, eBay, and other companies have tried to stop that by suspending the sale of overpriced items, especially those that were hoarded in attempts to corner markets for them, as in the case of the people who bought up all the hand sanitizer they could get in order to sell it for ten or more times the price later.  Even just hoarding needs to be prevented where possible, in order to keep those who buy early from getting more than they need for themselves while denying others access to necessities because of it.  Sam’s Club, for example, limited purchases of cases of bottled water to two per customer when a run on bottled water started.  Some companies are limiting the purchases of other items, such as toilet paper, that people have been panic buying.  This is clearly a suspension of the normal business practices of selling people whatever they are willing to buy at the price being charged.

Moreover, clearly some businesses profiting early, but fairly, from the pandemic, need to save those profits for later when they cannot sell what people have already stocked up on and don’t any longer need to purchase for a while.  The current runs on toilet paper and hand sanitizer, for example, generate legitimate profits that those manufacturers will need to ‘coast on’ after the pandemic because people won’t need to buy toilet paper and hand sanitizer until their current supplies run out.  One cartoon gave a future news report something like "December 12, 2062:  Tom Evans yesterday used the last of the toilet paper his grandparents had bought for the coronavirus pandemic in 2020."  And although the rate of use of toilet paper may be a constant, the rate of use of hand sanitizer will probably diminish after the pandemic passes.   It will take people the normal usual time to use up toilet paper, but will take them longer to run through all the bottles of hand sanitizer later.  The Sam's Club I use that was extremely busy two weeks ago with wall to wall people with full carts, was almost empty two days ago and the few people who were just getting a few things. One doesn't need to keep buying non-perishable goods one has already bought in excess.

In short, we as a nation during this emergency need to do what we can to prevent the most harm caused by both the virus and the disruptions of work caused by social isolation to contain and end the contagion.  That will require volunteerism, innovation, and ways to reasonably and fairly distribute benefits and burdens outside the normal economic means of trade and business.  We should be willing to countenance fair and reasonable methods of distributing money during and after the pandemic, even if they go against the normal ways we do, and have done, business and trade.