Coronavirus vs. The Economy

After watching the Biden speech last night and having now been fully vaccinated (yay me!), I found myself getting interested this morning in the ways different people are viewing the virus. This is something I’ve done on and off during this little pandemic of ours, but it’s been a while. So I took a bit of a break between creating words and did a little Googling.

I came across several polls, of course. We are nothing if not a world full of polls.

I found myself interested in a bit of work done by NPR-PBSNewsHour/Marist back in March of this year. It’s an interesting poll, with lots of different data cuts and a statistical margin of error of about 3.5%.

(as an aside, I should note that doing this kind of thing always takes me back to when I was working in Corporate America and trying to make heads or tails of survey results. It’s both fun and frustrating to attempt to make narratives out of such data)

I chose to talk about this one here today because buried inside this poll is a question and response that I think defines the framework of our population in America today. The question asks people to select among three choices:

• Your state should prioritize controlling the spread of coronavirus, even if it hurts the economy
• Your state should prioritize restarting the economy, even if it hurts efforts to control the spread of coronavirus
• Unsure

You should, of course, immediately begin questioning the question—or at least know that the question has baggage that the responder will need to assess in making a “true” answer. For example: “What is the economy? Or: “Hurt the economy for how long or in what way?” Or: “How would the economy be hurt, and what does that mean to me?” Or: “How are the economy and the spread of the coronavirus connected?” Or: “what do you mean by restart the economy?” Or: “By controlling the spread of the virus, do you mean killing more people?” And, if so: “How many more people, and who?”

You can ask your own questions here if you’d like. But the point is that in interpreting the results we should realize the limitations of the question. There are a lot of nuances here.

That said:

Well, the results are so stark you might think such questions are not valuable.

• 78% of Democratic voters say “controlling the virus” is more valuable even if it “hurts the economy.”
• 74% of Republican voters say “restarting the economy” is more valuable even if it “hurts efforts to control the virus.”

I mean … sheesh. Read the poll yourself, of course. Don’t take my word for it. But when I scan down the data I can find lots of ebbs and flows and a few more bold points (such as 47% of Trump voters say they will not take the vaccine, whereas 10% of Biden voters say the same thing). But to my eyes, there wasn’t any bolder definition of position in that poll than this one.

Ignoring for the moment that the “whole economy” was not particularly good before the pandemic, I am, of course, among those who say our main priority is to shut down the virus—specifically so we can get back to a “normal” economy or, perhaps better said, specifically so we can get back to working on our economy to make it better for everyone.

That said—removing all the baggage around the Republican position and stripping down the situation to the words on the page—I totally get, understand, and agree with the idea that there is fear that “the economy” will never recover if it is crushed now. I think that’s the main framing my friends who are Republican voters would use: “if you kill the economy, there’s nothing to come back to,” they would say.

I agree with them.

This need to keep the economy solvent is why I was quite pleased that the congress actually did some great things in the summer and pushed money into the system, helping businesses as well as providing cash to people who needed it.

“The economy” is important.

So let’s agree on something here: Ignoring certain fringe elements, no one in the Democratic pool wants to see it crash. And, as a counterpoint, people are also important, too. Again, ignoring certain fringe elements, no one in the Republican pool wants to see a lot of people die.

But “the economy,” as noted above, is an amorphous thing, meaning it is connected to everything we do to push money around our world.

My dad is fond of noting that a lot of businesses have been hurt during this cycle—and that’s not wrong. But a lot of businesses have also seen boom times. So simply looking at the world around us today should be enough to understand that “the economy,” while it has been changed, has not been stopped.

Yes, I’m arguing with the question. Deal with it.

You cannot “restart” something that has not been stopped.


I find polls like this interesting, though, because the questions and their answers give us an idea of how people think.

When I see 74% of Republicans say that restarting the economy is more important than controlling the virus, what I hear them saying is: “I think the economy can run along fine even if 100,000 people a day are getting sick and 800-1,000 or so are dying.”

Perhaps that’s giving the response too much weight, I don’t know. Perhaps, as some antagonists might say, Republicans really are saying “I don’t give a shit about all these people, I just want my kid to go to school and me to go back to work.”

But, in the end, that’s the equation:

If the US economy can go along just fine with 100,000 people a day getting sick and 1,000 people dying, then the Republican position has intellectual weight. If that kid of system can operate in a fashion that is “normal” and that works for the greater good, then you can at least argue in good faith that it’s an approach with some kind of merit. At question, though, is whether that’s a real possibility. I say that because I see these two things—the going back to a “normal” economy and controlling the virus—as inextricably intertwined.

One need only look at what happened in Italy at the beginning of this thing, and at New York a year ago, our whole country over the summer and into the fall (that lead to the most horrible months of surging death over the winter), and in India today to see what we are facing if we take a cavalier attitude to controlling the virus. Just as my friends who are Republican voters would say that you need an economy to come back to, you cannot have a viable economy unless people remain alive and able to work.

This, to me, is the point of government. It’s one of the few things the government should actually be focused on.

Remember: everyone wants to open the system up. Everyone wants to go back to life as it was prior to the pandemic—or at least get to working on improving our system without the shackles of the virus clogging everything.

Ignoring all the political angles and other shenanigans involved, I think the Republicans, in the way they are answering this this poll question about priorities, are playing a shell game of Three Card Monty. I think their response is not just philosophically wrong, but systemically wrong—especially given that vaccines are available and given where we are in the process of distributing them.

I mean … yes, I suppose if we were at this point and had no vaccines available, one could say the greater good required us to all just get sick and deal with the fallout, but that’s not where we are.

We are so close to the goal line—at least here in the US.

So close.

It’s obvious that we can end this now. So the question becomes not whether to open things up, but how and when. The risks and values of opening things fully in April or May should be weighed against the risk and values of opening things fully in June or July. If we do this right, that’s the window we’re talking about. If we do this wrong (which is what the Republicans answering this question seem to be arguing for), the window moves out.

Given where we are at, the congress should stay the same course that they set last spring. The states should support that.

They should continue to spend in order to maintain people’s ability to buy essential things (which is the root of this makeshift economy we’re living in). Indoor places should still be constrained. People should still wear masks and distance when in certain situations. When vaccines are in 70% or 80% of arms (whatever CDC immunologists say makes sense), then we should open indoor places. And when the rest of the world catches up (isn’t it great to finally be able to say that about something coronavirus-related?) then we can go back to more “normal” behavior.

That’s the process. Having done actual rocket science in my life, if you can remove politics from the equation, this doesn’t seem particularly complicated.

With a bit of patience and due diligence, we’ll make it across that goal line.

Then, when we get there, after we actually do cross that line, the economy will not need to be “restarted.”

Instead, it will simply change again.

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