Covid Was Not a War

The Covid pandemic was often compared by news media to a war. The war analogy has been used to justify the huge expenditures and budget deficits associated with the response to Covid.  However, Covid was not like a war.  Wars kill young people in the prime of life; Covid killed unproductive old people a few years before they would have died anyway.  Covid took much less of a toll on the economy than a war involving the same number of people would have.  You could even argue that Covid was a net plus because it reduced the amount that would have been expended to care for old people in nursing homes and other care situations.  There was a corresponding increase in medical payments for end-of-life treatment in hospitals by doctors and nurses.  But overall, the effect of Covid was much less than a war would have caused. 

The only corresponding increase in deficits and debt has been those incurred during World War II. In World War II, people made many sacrifices to support the country. Food and gasoline were rationed. People bought war bonds to finance the war.  Neither the Trump nor the Biden administration has asked Americans to sacrifice anything for the war on Covid.  Instead, the government has handed out more and more benefits, such as the $9,000 FEMA payment for funerals of people who died from Covid.  Medicare and Medicaid paid many of the Covid medical expenses.  In short, it was almost the reverse of World War II; instead of the people helping the government fight Germany and Japan, the government helped people fight Covid. 

The Treasury and Federal Reserve expended trillions of dollars to make sure than no one suffered economic hardship as a result of Covid.  In retrospect, they may have done too much because Covid was not as damaging as people thought it would be.  Information technology kept many businesses going.  The main losers were restaurants and in-person retail stores, but many retail stores successfully converted to on-line sales.  There were dislocations, but certainly not a depression, or even a recession.  It was pretty much business as usual but carried out in different ways.  At first, people thought the housing market would collapse because people would be afraid to show homes for sale or to visit them.  Instead, the housing market turned white hot, with sales and prices going through the roof, in part spurred by interest-free money made available by the Fed.  The stock market has also gone through the roof after the initial losses around March 2020 when the pandemic first began to hit the population.  Many investors make huge profits in the markets.  Again, people expected the devastation to be much worse than it was.  Many people died, but not so many productive people.  Service and travel industries were hit hard, but others not so much.  Gains in information technology largely made up for losses in the service industries, like restaurants and airlines.  Even many restaurants adapted by converting to take-out. 

After the initial losses in early and mid-2020, the US economy came though fairly well, with relatively few sacrifices required of the American people, except a request to wear masks.  It’s ironic that the supposedly patriotic Republicans were the most vocal resisters to the few sacrifices that the government requested, wear a mask and get vaccinated. 

While there are still questions about how Covid started in China, it looks like as soon as the government became aware of it, it cracked down strongly.  The epidemic stated just as the 2019 Chinese New Year would normally have created the biggest travel days of the year, but the government stopped or postponed it.  As a result, China came though the epidemic much better than the US did and in a much shorter time.  This has benefitted the Chinese economy significantly vis-à-vis the US economy. 

Although the US came through the pandemic much better than I initially expected, I remain worried about what comes next. The Fed and the Treasury have made sure that no one suffered terribly from it, but there may be a cost in out years.  There are now huge government debts that must be repaid somehow someday, and it looks like there will be further budget deficits into the foreseeable future.  One way to escape debts is inflation; if money is worth less, the debt is easer to pay off, because you are paying cheaper dollars.  This inflationary pressure is in addition to more normal wage and price inflation caused too much money in circulation, thanks to the largess of the Fed and the Treasury.  If US inflation increases significantly, it will undercut the world’s use of the dollar as the international currency, perhaps replaced by China’s currency if it becomes the world’s leading economy.  Cryptocurrencies will further complicate the situation, if not bitcoin, perhaps cyber currencies backed by national governments. 

The US dollar because the world’s currency partly because of World War II.  The US was much less affected than the other belligerent countries.  The Marshall Plan revived western Europe, and benign occupation of Japan and Germany allowed them to recover.  Meanwhile the US had suffered fewer casualties than many of the other warring countries, hundreds of thousands, rather than millions (Soviet Union, China, Japan, Germany).  The US became the factory and the banker for the world.  There is a possibility that the pandemic will do the same for China.  China may not be as generous following the pandemic as the US was following World War II. 

Nuclear Power and the Environment

If environmentalists were serious, they would embrace nuclear energy.  It has downsides, but it does not contribute to global warming.  Environmentalists oppose nuclear energy on political grounds, not scientific ones.  Wind and solar energy are becoming more productive and reliable, but they still cannot supply the base load for electrical power.  They are too dependent on the vagaries of the weather. 

Nuclear power cannot be made 100% safe, no power system can, but it can probably be 99.9% safe, and if well designed the 0.1% failures can be managed without great loss of life, while global warming could destroy a substantial portion of the world’s population through rising sea levels, crop failures, fierce storms and so on. 

Part of the new infrastructure plan could finance more research on safer reactor designs, and construction of new reactors because new nuclear power stations are needed sooner, rather than later.  New nuclear power reactors will be expensive and take a long time to build, so we need to get started sooner, rather than later. 

Biden as President

My last few blog posts have been critical of Biden, but I am glad he won.  Trump was a terrible President, but his strong point was that he represented and stood up for the cultural ideas that are espoused by many ordinary, middle class people.  He is the ultimate illustration of the problem highlighted by the book “What’s the Matter with Kansas?”  Many people vote against their economic interests because they believe cultural interests are more important.  In Trump’s case it is even more surprising because he is a bad cultural icon.  He is course, crude, immoral, impolite, selfish, stupid, and the list goes on and on.  However, regular old white people see themselves under attack from all sides, and Trump is someone who is willing to take on the hatred from American intellectuals and minorities.  That one trait got him elected and it almost got him re-elected.  The Democrats were smart to change the voting laws right before the election to make it easier to vote.  Democrats could get apathetic, uninterested blacks to make the minimal effort to vote by mail for Biden, and it worked.  This Denver Post article illustrates the two approaches to voting requirements, although it clearly comes down on the side of making voting as easy as possible.   

Trump has incorrectly claimed that there was something illegal about the mail-in vote, but the states involved had made it legal.  It probably did cost him the election, but the state Democratic politicians and judges did it legally.  Easier voting favors Democrats.  The Republicans used the 2010 census to gerrymander their states to favor Republicans.  Each side is looking for advantages.  There are arguments on both sides.  When the US was founded, in most states only white adult male property owners could vote.  They wanted to restrict voting to responsible people who had a stake in their country.  Today, the Democrats have completely different priorities from the nation’s founders. 

Anyway, Biden is a much more normal President and good for the country.  He is being pushed by the progressive wing of his party to do a lot of questionable things, questionable because they have never been done before and they are very expensive.  But the Republicans are in a position to block most of them, or to tone them down.  Infrastructure repair is needed, but it needs to be limited, and paying for it right after huge payments for the covid pandemic if bad timing.  It’s good that interest rates are so low now, making it reasonable for the government to borrow money. 

Biden is a welcome change from Trump on foreign policy issues.  Trump tended to alienate our allies and pander to our enemies.  Trump messed up relations with Europe and North Korea, among others.  His China and Russia policies could have been more nuanced.  Biden is currently facing tough decisions on Afghanistan and Israel-Palestine, but he is approaching them rationally and intelligently. 

Biden’s reassuring, comforting tone is another welcome change from the Trump’s often strident, mocking, confrontational approach.  This offsets my concerns that Biden will take the country too far left.  That may be the trade-off for having a more traditional President.  Let’s give Biden a chance.