Robert Samuelson: “There are at least four intertwined crises, involving health care, economics, politics and democracy.”

From a Washington Post column by Robert Samuelson headlined “This crisis is about democracy itself”:

Few words are more overused in our debates than “crisis.” We have many—the education crisis, the inequality crisis and the environmental crisis, to name just a few. The word suggests an impending calamity unless we take instant action. The reality is that most crises are not calamities. They’re stubborn problems that, for one reason or another, defy a sweeping solution. Life goes on. The “crisis” label is mostly a public-relations device designed to attract attention.

Then there is the occasional exception—a crisis that is really a crisis, meaning that if we don’t react with the right responses, we will suffer irreparable harms. This is the case with the coronavirus. We need to understand why. There are at least four intertwined crises, involving health care, economics, politics and democracy. . . .

A computerized simulation done by researchers at London’s Imperial College has estimated that, if tough remedies against the virus aren’t adopted, the death toll could hit 2.2 million in the United States. With more stringent policies—mainly mandatory quarantines—U.S. deaths could drop by half to 1.1 million, the study asserts.

The report stunned some experts as too pessimistic. Whatever the case, there is little dispute that unless we control the virus, we will suffer many unnecessary deaths. Quarantines are the proposed solution—stay home (“shelter in place”). If people don’t come in contact with one another, they can’t pass the disease along. Grocery stores, gas stations and other essential outlets would be exempted. . . .

The second crisis is economic. As the virus spread, many customers stopped eating in restaurants, attending sports events, going to movies and traveling from home. With customers fleeing, companies laid off workers or closed. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin suggested that the unemployment rate, 3.5 percent in February, could hit 20 percent. . . .

What looms, if these adverse forces aren’t disarmed, is a recession that may equal or exceed the Great Recession of 2007-2009 in its destructiveness. This brings us to the third crisis: the political crisis. Republicans and Democrats have repeatedly shown themselves unwilling or incapable of reaching compromises on basic issues of national importance. Can the parties do better now?

In isolation, any of these crises would be difficult to resolve separately. As CNBC’s Steve Liesman has pointed out, there’s an inherent contradiction—or tension, if you will—between what we want from economic policy (stronger economic growth to avert another depression) and what we want from health policy (slower economic growth, or no growth at all, to reflect a population “sheltering in place”)

It may be that the contradiction is less stark than I’ve indicated. “It’s a false choice,” says David Wilcox, a former Federal Reserve economist now at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. His point: The economy can’t be strong unless it is purged of the toxic coronavirus. Good health policy and good economic policy are identical. Still, the twin goals tug, at least temporarily, in opposite directions.

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