Out From Under ‘the Economy’

Out From Under ‘the Economy’

Covid-19 proves we can’t conflate the market’s health with workers’ well-being.


In response to an unprecedented crisis, governments around the world are doing unprecedented things. Student loans, mortgages, and utility payments have been suspended in Canada, Italy, and France respectively; Spain has gone further and nationalized all its hospitals in one fell swoop.

Even the United States, where the entire political spectrum skews to the right, is moving toward basic income, paid sick leave, and perhaps even socializing components of its private health insurance system.

It seems that calls to do the right thing—house the homeless, free prisoners, lift sanctions, tax the rich, and bail out workers—are finally being taken seriously and “the economy” finally being redirected in favor of everyday people.

These emergency measures are well and good, but nowhere near enough. The current economic system remains set up to reward delay and dithering. Across the world, we have seen quarantine and social distancing measures being implemented too late because governments and analysts have been busy calculating if prevention is economically “worth it.” This calculation has become explicit as the US government begins to weigh how many human lives it is OK to sacrifice for the stock market and especially “the economy.”

As we prepare for the coming decades of crisis, what more could we do if we organized our lives around collective social well-being rather than around “the economy”? Can we permanently quarantine “the economy” precisely in order to save ourselves?

“The economy” and whether it’s healthy has too often been the central question of the Covid-19 saga. This is because metrics like the Dow Jones Industrial Average and quarterly GDP estimates, used to assess the health of the “economy,” are routinely taken as a proxy for overall societal well-being. But “the economy” doesn’t really reflect all citizens’ lives. Even when a stock market crash accompanies a real livelihood crunch, the two things are often separate problems, and more often the relationship between the stock market and everyday people’s well-being is an inverse one.

The Dow and NASDAQ usually rise when wages fall, a fact we forget when we talk of a shared “economy” where workers and CEOs are all in it together.

“The economy” might seem like a fact of nature, but it is actually a very new way of thinking about production and distribution. If you said “the economy” before the 1930s, nobody would know what you meant. Back then, economists only ever discussed specific things like individual commodity markets (wheat, cotton), business cycles, or the industriousness of specific populations without thinking of all these things as forming a single totality called “the economy.” But as the Great Depression, World War II, decolonization, and the fall of the gold standard rattled the existing global order, a new way of measuring commercial success had to be found, one that could both be limited to the boundaries of discrete nation-states and yet “grow” without acquiring new territories or markets, simply by the faster circulation of goods and services.

This new concept was “the economy,” which quickly became governments’ main responsibility to manage and increasingly a way to measure a country’s and its people’s well-being by proxy of money changing hands.

We already know what’s wrong with measuring well-being this way. Metrics like GDP indiscriminately reward activity even if it’s bad, e.g., an oil spill or a war. Like the Dow, economic growth isn’t a good measure of everyday people’s well-being. For instance, since 1980 the GDP has grown thanks to financial sector profits, not shrunk because of most Americans’ stagnating wages.

But the “economy” concept does even more mischief. First, it leads us to assume that disparate things—like workers’ well-being and the Dow—are necessarily linked, when they don’t have to be: It’s not as if when the stock market crashes, work worth doing, shelter, and food just disappear off the planet. Talk of “the economy crashing” hides the fact that letting people go hungry during crises of profitability is a political decision, not a natural occurrence.

A second problem with talking of “the economy” is that it prevents us from recognizing when things actually are linked, e.g. it casts climate change as an “externality” rather than the logical consequence of an economic growth agenda. Similarly, it excludes and devalues the feminized, racialized, and “informal” labor of social reproduction (e.g., caring for children and the elderly, sanitation, janitorial work) which is often the bedrock of all formal and profitable “work.”

Because of its skewed valuation of labor, “the economy” today does not grow when we undertake urgent and essential crisis-mitigation labors but instead flourishes the more inhumane we are. This is why economic growth is boosted by useless and damaging work boosts economic growth, such as stock trading, landlording, price gouging, attempts to privatize vaccines, flying empty flights, and even political insider trading.

Meanwhile, those whose work is now the most essential—cab drivers, nurses, trucking and delivery workers, grocery store employees—are often devalued and excluded from “the economy.”

If this is what “the economy” means, should we really be rushing to save it?

Societies organized around economic growth are woefully unprepared to deal with the coming crises that their own single-minded pursuit of growth has produced. In the US and UK, there aren’t enough hospital beds or ventilators, and hospital workers have resorted to making their own face masks. In contrast to the scarcity of these essentials, the overabundance of steel and aluminum has gotten worse and a crude oil glut is sending investors into a panic. In short, we have tons of stuff we don’t need, but we don’t have the things we need.

So how would things change if we realized that this quarantine and essentials-only society that we are in right now shouldn’t be the exception so much as a new rule, going into the future?

If we apply the clarity that disaster brings to our thinking about how to organize society, the way forward isn’t hard to figure out. Public goods are the bedrock of such a society. We need guarantees that food, shelter, utilities reach those who need them and contribute meaningfully to society. Meaningful contribution must be redefined to include everyone who works to provide essential goods and services like transportation, food, cleaning, essential construction and repair. Useful work must be seen to include care work, ranging from nursing infants to caring for the sick and elderly. Care work should be seen as real work, involve training and support networks, and take place in all communities.

Unnecessary jobs—basically everything that is motivated only by profit and is being suspended during this crisis—should be taxed heavily because of the burden we, the society, bear for putting up with it. Nonessential forms of commuting and movement should be limited. This will be easy once everyone can find work in local communities, in their local schools, in their local health centers.

Since we’ve been taught to believe in the profit-driven economy, people will wonder: How will we live without the profit motive and its drive to innovation? But clearly the profit motive hasn’t created innovation. A vaccine for viral illnesses is within reach but hasn’t been developed, because it’s more profitable to improve Viagra than to develop treatment for pandemics.

Or perhaps some will may ask: Won’t living outside of the market system create deficiencies? But our health care “system,” if you can call it that, always runs on deficiencies. Millions go untreated, and tens of thousands succumb to preventable illnesses that are silent pandemics like diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. It does not supply what is needed; it supplies what is profitable. “If the stock market crashes, people will lose retirement” is also no excuse. Retirement should come from Social Security, a promise by younger generations to care for their elders enshrined in a collective contract, not the reckless whims of greedy traders. We need to de-link life’s essentials from unessential and damaging things and from the profit motive.

Every crisis is an opportunity not just to set short-term political agendas but to open up long-term visions of what’s possible. Especially in an unprecedented moment when global commercial activity has come to a standstill, we can be brave about asking for a better world. Many progressives realize that this crisis requires us to change our political priorities to favor people over profit. Their short-term response has been to demand paid sick leave, UBI, freezes on rent, etc., with long-term demands including Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. These are all crucial things. But we can go even further if we recognize that crises aren’t going away. We need to quarantine “the economy” and think beyond it. We should ask not for just a “bailout” for workers now but for a society where all essential work is rewarded for its full value, once and for all.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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