Oikonomia is Back, for Now

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Plato and Aristotle, at The School of Athens. Photo by By Raphael – Web Gallery of Art.

The current pandemic is a human tragedy on an enormous scale, not only in terms of death and illness but also in loss of employment, disruption to education and increased anxiety. Perhaps of most concern to politicians, the various restrictions put in place to reduce the spread of COVID-19 have had large negative effects on national and regional economies. 

As a result, many leaders have opted to ‘re-open’ their economies prematurely, partly since economic performance affects electoral cycles. In some cases there have been disastrous consequences to such loosening of social distancing restrictions, with spikes in infections in various countries or states. This has led to a discussion of a false dichotomy – between protecting human life and reviving the economy. 

This dichotomy is false for several reasons. At the most basic level, if large parts of the population get infected and either die or are unable to work, this would not bode well for the economy either. But more fundamentally, what we think of as ‘the economy’ is really broader than just profits and asset values. Read More »

Privatization and the Pandemic

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By Jacob Assa and Cecilia Calderon

Unlike other epidemics or pandemics – such as tuberculosis, SARS, MERS or HIV/AIDS – COVID-19 has hit hardest at the world’s wealthiest countries. As of early June 2020, the 37 industrialized countries of the OECD accounted for 59% of all cases and 78% of deaths, even though they constitute less than 18% of the total population affected.

Looking at the pandemic’s effects in another way – using cases and deaths per million population – paints an even starker picture. OECD countries have a prevalence ratio of 2,890 cases per million and a mortality rate of 225 per million, compared with 869 cases and 51 deaths per million in the rest of the world. Furthermore, the case fatality ratio (CFR) – the ratio of deaths to cases – is also higher in the OECD (7.8%) than in the rest of the world (5.9%).

What can explain this phenomenon, the world’s richest countries impacted more than middle-income and poor countries?  One explanation is that COVID-19 spreads faster in countries that are more integrated to the globalized economy, as the OECD members certainly are. A recent study found that globalized countries have indeed experienced more cases per population, but less mortality.Read More »

Laissez-Faire, Laissez Mourir

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The spread of the coronavirus epidemic around the world in the past few weeks has exposed not only differences in the lack of preparedness of various public health systems, but also differences in reactions to the crisis. Some governments imposed an early lockdown in their attempt to ‘flatten the curve’ while others have taken a more gradual approach, proceeding from travel restrictions through limits on non-essential businesses to shelter-in-place regimes. 

As the epicenter of the pandemic shifts from Asia to Europe and the U.S, however, some reactions stand out among the rest in their utter disregard for human life. Federal and state officials in the U.S. have first downplayed the threat two months before it arrived in the country, as well as refused offers for help from the World Health Organization. Now, as the curve in the U.S. is about to get steeper (see the surgeon general’s warning), top levels of government are considering scaling back the moderate measures that have been taken so far, with a view to return to normal activity within a few weeks. While blaming China for not controlling the virus early enough, some officials are contemplating consciously allowing their own citizens to experience a much worse spread of infection and death than China has seen. 

One clear example of this misguided and dangerous ideology can be seen in the pressure put on the U.S. government by corporate lobbyists not to activate the Defense Production Act – which enables the executive branch to order corporations to manufacture the direly-needed medical supplies for testing and treating the virus. Large swaths of the political elite, instead, are relying on the private sector’s voluntary offers to produce such goods. Worse, these same politicians are aching to get the economy back to normal, so as to boost the stock market and their own ratings at the same time. The  lieutenant-governor of Texas even went as far as suggesting that older citizens – the group most prone to dying from the virus – would gladly ‘sacrifice’ themselves in the interest of getting the economy moving again.Read More »

Kicking Away the (Statistical) Ladder

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Developed countries often lecture developing and emerging countries on the appropriate policies and institutions necessary for economic success. This is done either bilaterally or through multilateral organizations such as the World Bank, IMF, OECD or European Union. Cambridge economist Ha-Joon Chang exposed the hypocrisy of this approach in his provocative 2002 book Kicking Away the Ladder: Development Strategy in Historical Perspective. Chang suggests that when today’s rich countries were themselves developing, they used practices opposite to what they preach today, including industrial policies, high tariffs and infant industry protection. Therefore their current advice to poorer countries amounts to ‘kicking away the ladder’ of development.

A lesser-known but equally disturbing process has occurred in the realm of economic statistics, in particular national income accounts. The EU and OECD often criticize the national accounts of developing countries, and a recent example is a claim made in a blog by Robert Barro: “There are suspicions that China’s reported growth rates in recent decades have been boosted by manipulation of the national-accounts data.” While no statistical system is beyond doubt, the biggest manipulations of data in history, in fact, have benefited (and were supported by) rich countries.Read More »