Opinion | How to Create a Coronavirus Economic Depression

Opinion | How to Create a Coronavirus Economic Depression


Last week the Bureau of Labor Statistics officially validated what we already knew: Just a few months into the Covid-19 crisis, America already has a Great Depression level of unemployment. But that’s not the same thing as saying that we’re in a depression. We won’t know whether that’s true until we see whether extremely high unemployment lasts for a long time, say a year or more.

Unfortunately, the Trump administration and its allies are doing all they can to make a full-scale depression more likely.

Before I get there, a word about that unemployment report. Notice that I didn’t say “the worst unemployment since the Great Depression”; I said “a Great Depression level,” a much stronger statement.

To understand why I said that, you need to read the report, not just look at the headline numbers. An unemployment rate of 14.7 percent is pretty horrific, but the bureau included a note indicating that technical difficulties probably caused this number to understate true unemployment by almost five percentage points.

If this is true, we currently have an unemployment rate around 20 percent, which would be worse than all but the worst two years of the Great Depression. The question now is how quickly we can recover.

If we could get the coronavirus under control, recovery could indeed be very rapid. True, recovery from the 2008 financial crisis took a long time, but this had a lot to do with problems that had accumulated during the housing bubble, notably an unprecedented level of household debt. There don’t seem to be comparable problems now.

But getting the virus under control doesn’t mean “flattening the curve,” which, by the way, we did — we managed to slow the spread of Covid-19 enough that our hospitals weren’t overwhelmed. It means crushing the curve: getting the number of infected Americans way down, then maintaining a high level of testing to quickly spot new cases, combined with contact tracing so that we can quarantine those who may have been exposed.

To get to that point, however, we would need, first, to maintain a rigorous regime of social distancing for however long it takes to reduce new infections to a low level. And then we would have to protect all Americans with the kind of testing and tracing that is already available to people who work directly for Donald Trump, but almost nobody else.

But fairly soon it becomes clear that Covid-19 is spiraling out of control. People retreat back into their homes, whatever Trump and Republican governors may say.

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