The COVID-19 crisis is fueling a race to find solutions for the problem while also shutting down large parts of the economy and giving governments enormous economic powers. Except for wartime mobilization, this situation is unprecedented. In this article I discuss seventeen major potential consequences of the crisis for our political economy.
The article will continue to be updated as new information becomes available.
This story was originally published on Foreign Policy Follies on March 21.
The share of small, independent businesses in the economy will decrease
Small, independent businesses will tend to be the first to collapse because:
· they typically have smaller reserves than big companies
· they typically have less access to stimulus funds
· they and/or their customers remain on (partial or complete) lockdown while giants such as Walmart & Amazon remain open (especially online) & take over their business. Another way of putting this is that many service sector jobs will be replaced by software.
More people become dependent on government
Meanwhile, millions or tens of millions of people will lose their jobs or encounter great economic difficulties, and will turn to the government for help.
More businesses become dependent on government
Many smaller or medium sized businesses that do survive will have had to rely on government assistance. Dependence on aid and other privileges may persist for some time and to some extent, and government loans will have to be paid off.
Public-private partnerships benefit big business
The technological and institutional solutions to the Covid-19 problem will involve lots of ‘public-private partnerships’ that benefit well connected businesses and that will create new industries or transform existing ones. Through government contracts and regulations these businesses may come to form de facto cartels, keeping out or crowding out independent competitors.
A public-private surveillance industry and control system emerges
To keep track of virus spread governments need data. Businesses will develop new, more advanced and comprehensive tracking and collection systems that can be used by governments. Said governments will use those new tools to not just contain and control the virus but also the people.
Revolution through crisis
For decades governments, businesses, NGOs, voters have been talking about economic measures against climate change. These talks are slow, the negotiations tense and difficult, the changes small & incremental — lots of talk, little action. But now with Covid-19 we are fundamentally restructuring the economy in a matter of weeks, with little to no talk and all action.
A supply crunch followed by a demand crunch = not good
Due to the virus’s first confirmed cases happening in China and due to the drastic measures the Chinese government took to contain it, supply chains to Western economies were severely disrupted. These seem to be recovering but now Western economies are shutting down, causing a huge demand crunch. In a hyper-leveraged economy and a very uncertain economic environment, this is a recipe for disaster.
Borders become a thing again
The problem with viruses is that they spread. Border controls of people and goods can slow or halt that spread. So borders — both between countries and within countries — will become a thing again, and trade and travel will become less free.
The world economy becomes more protectionist, less free
Western countries — especially under pressure of a pre-existing anti-China lobby that is seizing its opportunity and is painting China as the Great Enemy that brought this plague upon us — will erect more barriers to trade with China, will try to decouple more, start making more goods (especially pharmaceutical & medical) at home or in other countries.
Protectionism creates a more dangerous international situation
A reduction in trade and the further politicization of existing trade cause political tensions between countries. With less economic interconnectedness the direct economic and social costs of conflict decrease which means there are lower barriers to war and war-like actions.
A big geopolitical shift away from the US and toward China could take place
If the US keeps its economy shut down for much longer and if China’s economy continues its recovery from the Covid-19 crisis, and if China continues to assist other countries in dealing with the pandemic, the US will lose economic and political power while China gains it. Expect the US to put up some serious economic, political and military resistance to this development. Few empires go gentle into that good night.
Anti-China rhetoric and policies will increase
For several years now politicians, media and think tanks have been increasing their anti-China rhetoric. Now faced with an economic collapse and looking for scapegoats the Trump administration will pull a Hillary: Blame a foreign power for his own failure.
China and China alone will be blamed for the Covid-19 crisis, despite the lack of evidence for the accusations, the considerable evidence to the contrary and ample evidence for the Trump administration’s own mishandling of the Covid-19 crisis and the disastrous effects it has had.
High unemployment & high economic uncertainty create a volatile domestic situation
Institutions will come under pressure; scapegoats will be sought and found; demagogues find willing audiences; people become more open to radical solutions; people’s and businesses’ increased dependence on government means those governments will have more power to wield; divisions within the country can be created or fueled and exploited; war against perceived domestic or foreign enemies may come to be used as a tool to unite a country, give its people a sense of purpose and a way to channel their anger & frustration.
Emergency work and life changes become permanent
To contain the virus, protect themselves and the people around them, a lot of individuals, families and businesses are making big changes: Working from home, home schooling and online education, various forms of social distancing. After the virus threat has receded and life has gone back to normal, some of these changes will endure because more people will now have experience with these practices and because a better infrastructure will have been built up to facilitate them. Because more people will now be working or studying from home, the market for alternative ways to physically meet and interact with people — and hence of apps that help organize such activities (e.g. MeetUp.com) — may grow.
The Uncertainty Monster
Who in their right mind would start a business once the lockdown has ended? After all, at any point in the future a new lockdown may be imposed that could wipe out your new business. So why take the risk? In general, few things are as bad for an economy as uncertainty. Uncertainty makes planning much more difficult. Government’s response to the COVID-19 crisis has created uncertainty on a scale unheard of outside of wartime. As a result, there will likely be considerably less long-term investment.
A new narrative rationalizing the transformed political economy emerges
There was no public process of discussion, analysis, reflection and justification that formed the intellectual basis for the fundamental changes made to the political economy. The public was not given an opportunity to vote on whether they want this new system or not. Instead, these changes came in the form of direct emergency actions taken in the middle of the crisis or as a result of more indirect macroeconomic developments that the crisis and the measures taken to combat it gave rise to over time.
But although there was no prior process of deliberation and justification of the new system, the public will have to come to see the new system as legitimate. And so a new narrative or framework that rationalizes the new system will form and be communicated to the public by politicians, media, economists, social scientists, think tanks, schools and other major influencers of public opinion.
The changes we have been witnessing and the potential developments outlined above are without precedent. Our economic, social, political and financial systems evolved to function in a certain relatively stable set of circumstances that have now been uprooted. All sorts of strange, unexpected and unintended consequences are likely to occur when a system that evolved for one set of circumstances has to suddenly adjust to radical changes. It is very important that the price system be allowed to function freely — that there be no price controls — so that it can perform its coordinating function, bringing supply and demand together.
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