Like my fellow New Yorkers, I’m stuck at home during the coronavirus outbreak. My forays outside have been restricted to “essential” travel: grabbing groceries, taking walks for exercise (while maintaining a six-foot distance from everyone else doing the same thing), and stocking up on toilet paper and cleaning supplies. So I’ve had a lot (too much?) time to read and think about the crisis and its implications for our economy and politics. My roommate has access to the Wall Street Journal through work, which certainly hasn’t helped.
Here’s a representative sample of its opinion pages:
The financial markets are in an unrestrained and undisciplined panic. Whenever this happens, whether in 1929 or 2008, an overreaction of economically damaging regulation follows. If that post-panic panic occurs this time, it will turn the sacrifices everyone made fighting the virus into a long-term economic decline. The goal should be to create incentives for the economy to turn upward, not drive it down further with new burdens.
Here’s a recovery idea Bernie Sanders won’t like, but what Bernie represents is looking pretty yesterday by now. Before this crisis, the real economy and the people who do real work were strong. When it’s over, every level of government—federal, state and local—should declare a two-year holiday from regulatory costs, such as the minimum wage. Ask any big-city shopkeeper or business owner if that relief wouldn’t help them hire back staff and turn the curve up quickly. Ask the laid-off workers if they’d take that deal.
(Daniel Henninger, “Yes, Flatten the Curve”)
Here’s the lesson of the virus so far: Relying solely on government bureaucracy is insane. To the extent America is weathering this moment, it is in enormous part thanks to the strength, ingenuity and flexibility of our thriving, competitive capitalist players.
The loathsome “multimillionaires” at Comcast, Verizon and Sprint are guaranteeing to keep Americans online for the next two months, regardless of who can pay. Adobe and Google are making remote-learning tools available to schools, universities and parents. U-Haul is offering free self-storage to college kids. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are suspending foreclosures. The list of corporations voluntarily offering sick leave, pay for contractors and vendors, work-at-home flexibility, and donations to affected communities is enormous—and inspiring, especially given the general financial distress.
(Kimberly Strassel, “Coronavirus Vindicates Capitalism”)
Italy lags other large European countries in provision of acute-care hospital beds, furnishing 2.62 of them per 1,000 residents as of 2016, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. In Germany it’s 6.06 and in France and the Netherlands it’s 3.15 and 3 respectively. That year, Italy devoted around $913 per capita to inpatient acute and rehabilitative care, compared with $1,338 in France, $1,506 in Germany, and $1,732 in the U.S.
Government accounted for 79% of total health-care spending in the U.K. in 2017, according to Eurostat, and 74% in Italy. Germany and France both rely on compulsory insurance schemes with varying degrees of subsidy and government meddling, but outright government expenditure amounts to only 6% of total health spending in Germany and 5% in France. Covid-19 in this sense is a test of how much one trusts central health planners to make wise long-term decisions that boost resilience in the face of unusual dangers.
(Joseph C. Sternberg, “Europe’s Coronavirus Fate is Already Sealed”)
Given the current public-health strategy of social distancing, providing cash and in-kind benefits to tens of millions of stranded workers may be a prudent and compassionate approach. But no one should pretend these programs will stimulate recovery. They are likelier to prolong a slump, as the Obama strategy did. President Trump should beware: Another redistribution recession might even ensure that Joe Biden takes his job in November.
A much simpler and more effective stimulus would be a pro-growth tax cut, such as a suspension of the payroll tax. In addition to boosting take-home pay, it would give 27 million small businesses an incentive to hire rather than fire.
(Arthur Laffer and Stephen Moore, “Obama’s Bad Stimulus Example”)
There are some true howlers in these op-eds, my favorite being the commentary about the low number of acute-care hospital beds per capita in Italy. Accompanying the text is a figure, also displayed at the top of this post. As you can see, our free market healthcare system has furnished even fewer beds per capita, 2.44, than Italy’s “centrally planned” one (2.62). The top countries, by this metric, are the notoriously laissez-faire countries of Japan and South Korea.
I’m reminded of Corey Robin’s thesis about conservatism:
The tension that long buttressed the right – the countervailing pressures of the political versus the economic, elite versus mass – are no longer as taut as they once were. Those pressures don’t support the movement; they don’t give it the buoyancy it once had. The reason is the disappearance of the right’s traditional antagonists – the freedom movements of the left, those subaltern assertions of agency and will, from the French Revolution through civil rights and women’s lib, that sought individual emancipation through collective liberation and vice versa. “Conservatism does its best”, the right-wing British philosopher Roger Scruton has written, “in times of crisis.” For the right, the crisis is a dynamic and vibrant left, the challenge of movements of revolution or reform that force the right to think harder and better, to act smarter and with greater discipline and intentionality: not out of any Millian desire to get the better of an argument but out of dread necessity, the need to defend power and privilege in the face of a movement seeking their elimination. When the left is ascendant and genuinely threatening, the right gets tough, intellectually and politically; when the left is in abeyance, the right grows sclerotic and complacent, rigid and lazy. According to Hayek, the defense of the free market “became stationary when it was most influential.” It “progressed” only when it was “on the defensive.” While there are stirrings on the left – Occupy, Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ movements, and the Sanders campaign – none of these movements has yet achieved sufficient velocity or institutional traction to awaken and discipline a new right that would be able to do what its predecessors did. The right’s greatest “burst of creative energy,” according to Frank Meyer, one of its leading midcentury action intellectuals, occurred “simultaneously with a continuing spread of the influence of Liberalism in the practical political sphere.” Without a formidable enemy on the left, without an opponent to discipline and tutor the right, the long-standing fissures of the conservative movement are allowed to deepen and expand.
Conservatives, in other words, have triumphed, and that triumph has made them incapable of any intellectual thought besides the rote recitation of the usual nostrums: payroll tax cuts good, government healthcare bad, corporate America good, economic regulation bad. The last set of authors, Arthur Laffer and Stephen Moore, have been around so long and have so few real ideas that I could probably have written their column for them (and at half the price!).
Robin mentions that an “ascendant and genuinely threatening” left might inspire “creative energy” on the part of the right. But where is that opposition? Bernie Sanders, as Daniel Henninger correctly notes, “is looking pretty yesterday by now”, doomed by a “resistance” that prefers a return to normalcy to a revolution. Joe Biden, who is ostensibly leading that resistance, is conspicuously absent from the political and intellectual discourse surrounding the pandemic, much like he was conspicuously absent from the primary campaign. Jamelle Bouie wrote on Twitter, “[The] weirdest thing about this week is how the likely Democratic nominee has basically vanished and how the Democrats have basically ceded the fight for public opinion to the GOP”. And a San Francisco Chronicle piece, headlined, “While Trump commands the coronavirus stage, Joe Biden is playing a bit part”, noted that “There are also no campaign rallies, no victory speeches and little free media for Biden at a time when President Trump appears on TV every day to talk about what his administration is doing to make Americans safe.” (This is, I suppose, the problem with relying on a free media strategy to propel you to victory; while it might work in the primary, when MSNBC is calling the shots, it is doomed to fail in the general, particularly against an incumbent president with the power of the pulpit and the right-wing media apparatus.)
During the Obama administration, the right wing responded to Obama’s handling of the economic crisis by going on rants about “subsidizing the losers’ mortgages” and founding a movement that won a landslide victory two years later. Now, that same right wing is in charge of the crisis. Rick Santelli is no longer in an oppositional, bomb-throwing role; he and his fellow thinkers must supply the intellectual juice that will guide the country out of this mess (and, judging by his recent attempts, that effort isn’t going well). In other words, the people formerly complaining about reforms to the health care system are now running and relying upon that system; the people formerly complaining about excessive generosity towards the unemployed now have those people as their charges; the people formerly deriding stimulus as socialism and touting tax cuts and deregulation as salvation now have the opportunity to try those policies out, and see if they work. On the one hand, this is obviously a recipe for disaster: humanitarian, economic, and political. If the country stumbles through this crisis, it will be only because the right wing abandons its economic rigidity and adopts some measure of social democracy and leftist economics (which, to be fair, might happen: Republicans have a habit of embracing deficit spending and easy money when they are in charge, and opposing those same measures when they are not). On the other hand, though, this is an exciting, albeit truly terrifying, opportunity to see what happens when a stagnant intellectual movement, one that has not come up with an original idea in the last 20 years, is responsible for dealing with a problem that requires dynamic thinking, and whose outcome cannot be blamed on anyone else, simply because there seems to be no one else, least of all Joe Biden, contesting the terrain.
One thought on “The Wall Street Journal”
The WSJ opinion pieces are terrifying portraits of the most close-minded, perhaps brainwashed people in America. And, do I even need to say anything about Joe Biden. C’mon man, you’re going to be the Dem nominee. Do something…
Also, stay safe in New York! I’m based in NYC, and it’s really starting to feel like it’s getting out of hand!
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