The British media loves to create artificial dichotomies in an attempt to explain complex issues: we were told we could choose between austerity and a massive debt crisis, or between leaving the EU with no deal and holding a second referendum. Today, there is a new favourite dichotomy for the nation’s political journalists: fighting the virus or saving the economy.
Ministers, we were told, carefully weighed up the costs of introducing another lockdown based on an assumption that doing so would create irreparable damage to the UK economy. The judgement at the heart of this balancing act is that human life has a monetary value and that the costs of lockdown can therefore be weighed up against the costs of the lives lost without it.
This thinking is founded on the belief that some human lives have a higher monetary value than others. The elderly, the disabled and ‘low-skilled’ workers – for whom we’ve spent the last half year clapping – are treated by some in this camp as expendable, whether because of their low life expectancies or low earning potential. Why, the argument goes, introduce a lockdown to protect these people when doing so would harm economic growth?
While many would react with horror at the idea that their lives were being weighed and measured against profits and tax revenues, it happens all the time. Economists have tried time and again to measure the value of an average human life – and the results have been used to inform the calculations of everything from insurance companies to car manufacturers.
The idea that everything – from human beings to the planet they inhabit – can be ascribed a monetary value is inscribed deep into the foundations of modern capitalism. And this is the idea that journalists and politicians are drawing on when they say that we are faced with a choice between fighting the virus and saving the economy.
But this framing is not simply morally abhorrent, it’s also completely inaccurate on its own terms. When asked this question way back in July, Paul Krugman – hardly a radical progressive – tweeted his response: “there [is] no tradeoff; you can’t recover until you beat the virus.” He pointed out that those states, like the US, which were slowest to act in response to the pandemic are also those experiencing the deepest economic crises.
As long as people are worried about leaving their homes, consumption will not rebound – and in economies like ours, where consumption is responsible for the vast majority of output, that means a very weak recovery. As long as business owners remain uncertain about the recovery, they will not commit to any further investment.
As long as businesses aren’t committing to any future investment, employment will not recover – and neither will wages and incomes, reinforcing the negative effect on consumption. And as long as consumption, employment and personal and corporate incomes do not rise, tax revenues will not increase and the public debt will continue to rise.
As many times as I have repeated this point on TV, the presenters still don’t seem to understand. They keep coming back to the very high (and very real) immediate costs of imposing a lockdown: lost incomes, lower profits and falling tax revenues. Usually, this is followed by the same question: how are we going to pay for it? Where is all the money going to come from?
But it makes no sense to ask these questions in tandem. As well as saving lives and protecting the NHS, the whole point of imposing a costly lockdown now is to avoid a longer recession over the coming years. In other words, by ensuring a swift recovery, the preventative measures introduced to tackle the pandemic today are what allow us to ‘pay for it’ tomorrow.
It reminds me of the debate over austerity: people could not wrap their heads around the idea that the measures that government was taking to ‘save the economy’ today would mean far more economic pain down the line.
I have often used a metaphor to get the point across: if you were told that you were behind on your debt repayments, so you stopped paying your rent and feeding your kids, you’d pay back the debt quite quickly – but you’d soon be homeless with a starving family and no hope of earning any future income.
Indeed, the IMF – the very institution that, in the wake of the financial crisis, helped to impose on southern European countries austerity programmes similar to the one the UK imposed on itself – has now admitted that austerity was an abject failure. The institution is warning the British government not to cut too quickly or too early in the name of fiscal responsibility, as doing so will cost the country more over the long-term.
The choice between fighting the virus and saving the economy, just like the choice between paying back the debt national debt immediately or facing a massive economic crisis, is a false one.
The only real choice is between protecting human life and propping up corporate profits – and this government has made clear at every stage of this pandemic which of these two options it considers more important.