Wednesday, July 14, 2021

The economy’s job is to serve our good health

What a tough, tricky world we live in. There we were, starting to think the pandemic – for us, at least – was pretty much over bar the jabbing, when along came a new and more contagious variant and knocked our confident complacency for six. It’s now clearer that getting free of the virus will be messier, more expensive and take longer than we’d hoped.

It’s natural to be impatient to see the end of this terrible episode in the nation’s life, but no one’s been more impatient to see the end of restrictions than Scott Morrison and the business lobby groups.

We should worry less about any continuing small risks and more about getting the economy working normally again, we were told. Why do those appalling premiers keep closing state borders? Don’t they understand how it disrupts businesses?

One theory that’s been blown away is the tribal notion that continuing problems keeping a lid on the virus were limited to dictatorial Labor states, not “gold standard” Liberal states. We’ve been reminded of what pride so often causes us to forget: success is invariably a combination of competence and luck.

Luck was running against Victoria, now it’s NSW’s turn. NSW did do better on contact tracing, but along came a variant that could spread faster than the best contact-tracing system could keep up with.

The nation’s macro-economists learnt some years ago that the best response to a recession is to “go early, go hard”. That’s something the exponential spread of viruses means epidemiologists have long understood.

The sad truth is, no matter how long NSW’s present lockdown needs to last before the virus is back under control, Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s critics are certain to say she waited too long and didn’t go hard enough.

And they’ll be right. If there’s ever a possibility of starting even a day earlier, it’s always right.

Is it a bad thing to want to limit the economic disruption caused by our fight against the virus? Of course not. But it’s a tricky choice. You don’t want to act unnecessarily, but the longer you take to realise you must act, the more disruption you end up causing.

Berejiklian’s problem is that she was being held up as the national pin-up girl of governments’ ability to cope with the crisis while minimising economic disruption.

The economy is merely a means – a vital means – to the end of human wellbeing. Health is also a means to achieving human wellbeing. But good health is so big a part of wellbeing it’s almost an end in itself. And prosperity isn’t much good to you if you’re dead.

So, as surveys show, most economists get what it seems many business people (and certainly, their lobby groups and media cheer squad) don’t get: in any seeming conflict, health trumps economics.

It’s also a matter of solving problems in the best order. Just as a war takes priority over material living standards, so does a major threat to our health. Fix the health problem, then get back to worrying about the economy.

To put it yet another way, “the economy” exists to serve the interests of the people who make it up; we don’t exist to serve the economy.

The people who want to exalt “the economy” tend to be those using “the economy” to disguise their pursuit of their own immediate interests, not the interests of everyone. “Keep my business going; if that means a few people die, well, I’m pretty sure I won’t be among ’em.”

Some economists estimate that the NSW lockdown will cost the economy (gross domestic product) about $1 billion a week. But don’t take that back-of-an-envelope figure too seriously. For a start, it’s not huge in a national economy producing goods and services worth about $2000 billion a year.

In any case, it’s misleading for two reasons. First, can you imagine what would be happening in the economy had St Gladys (or, before her, Dictator Dan) done nothing while the virus raged about us, getting ever worse?

Most of us would be in what Professor Richard Holden of the University of NSW calls “self-lockdown”. Which would itself be a great cost to the economy – not to mention the angst over the lack of leadership.

So don’t confuse the cost of the virus with the cost of the government’s efforts to limit its spread by doing the lockdown properly.

Second, remember that the economy rebounded remarkably quickly and strongly after the earlier lockdowns, making up much of the lost ground. Of course, the exceptional degree of income support for workers and businesses provided by the federal government does much to account for the strength of the rebound.

Which is why it’s good to see the federal-state assistance package announced on Tuesday, even though its cut-price version of JobKeeper, while being better than was provided to Victoria recently, isn’t as generous as it should have been.

Like Berejiklian, Morrison is still adjusting to his newly reduced circumstances.