When confronted by the very difficult decisions created by the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, our political leaders have been seduced time and time again into a dangerous kind of wishful thinking. Instead of acting decisively to save lives, they have wavered and delayed—fiddling around with different colour-coded regional schemes, holding off on requiring masks, or reopening restaurants, bars and gyms in regions in regions where case counts were still rising.
What is it that political leaders treat as so important that they are willing to run this kind of risk with people’s lives? It’s the economy, of course.
And yet, this concept of “the economy,” which we are told to make so many sacrifices for, is actually a fiction – based on a series of longstanding narratives that must be challenged if we are to tackle the current crisis.
Probably the most pernicious fiction is the idea that the economy is so important that it trumps politics as usual, allowing the suspension of liberal democratic norms in the name of its survival.
This is an assumption that I’ve described elsewhere as a form of economic exceptionalism. We saw it over and over again in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, when all sorts of exceptional measures were justified in the name of the survival of the economy: first bailout packages and then austerity measures were rushed through legislatures, while unelected central banks took on huge new powers—all in the name of responding to the economic emergency.
Decisions about how to respond to a crisis don’t affect everyone equally. Yet it is easier to talk about saving “the economy” than to explain why a government should help some folks (like those who benefited from the bailouts) rather than others (the ones who were asked to do the belt-tightening later).
Yes, major crises like wars, economic crises and pandemics justify some exceptional measures. But we should be very wary when our political leaders tell us that we must suspend our norms and make sacrifices for the sake of “the economy.”
This logic of sacrifice depends on another powerful fiction: the idea that a “sound economy” is some sort of abstraction that can be separated out from the lives of the people who make up that economy.
This is an idea that has risen and fallen in popularity over the centuries. It dominated economic thinking in the laissez faire nineteenth century, when the Global North relied on the gold standard to ensure “sound money” and free trade. Yet even as these politicians did whatever they could to protect the integrity of their own economies, they were also ruthlessly extracting resources from the Global South through colonialism. The term “free trade imperialism” nicely captures this hypocrisy – a term used by the British to justify their use of gunboats to force China to continue the opium trade.
The idea of the economy as an abstract thing began to fall out of favour during the Great Depression, when it became all too clear that efforts to protect a sound economy by imposing austerity only made things worse. After living through that terrible experience, politicians and economists alike recognized there is no such a thing as a “sound economy” apart from the men and women trying to find work to support their families. Their creation of the welfare state and policies like unemployment insurance, public education and health care were all based on their recognition of the importance of treating economic health holistically.
Yet, in the 1980s, as Margaret Thatcher told us that “there is no such thing as society,” we began to forget many of those lessons, and to treat the economy as a separate entity with the principle of “sound money” once again trumping employment as the dominant objective.
The final fiction that we’ve heard in the last months is the ill-fated idea that it’s possible to take a “balanced approach” to the pandemic response, as Alberta Premier Jason Kenny and Ontario Premier Doug Ford have both argued. Mr. Ford outlined his government’s version of this approach in a recent statement, in which he noted, “the number one priority is health and safety, and right beside that is the economy.”
At the core of this strategy is a false opposition between “health and safety” and “the economy” – as if it were possible to balance so many dollars in an economy on one side of the equation, and so many illnesses (and needless deaths) on the other.
Of course, as even the Ford and Kenney governments have finally begun to recognize with their latest U-turns, there is no trade-off between health and safety and the economy – particularly in the medium to long term. It is only by giving up on economic wishful thinking and taking decisive action to restrain the spread of the virus that we can ensure that we have a healthy population capable of rebuilding the economy in the months and years to come.
The economy is not a separate thing. Nor is it a god that must be placated through our sacrifices. It is us. Only us. And we must be healthy, safe, and supported by a capable government if we are to continue to thrive together.
A shorter version of this blog appeared in The Globe and Mail, November 29, 2020.