All posts filed under: Economics

Pandemics and Pandemonium

Minneapolis and urban centers across America are burning, most directly in response to the brutal killing of a black man by a white Minnesota police officer. But the rage ignited by the death of George Floyd is symptomatic of a profound sense of alienation that has been building for years among millions of poor, working class urbanites. The already diminished prospects facing such people have only been worsened by the unforeseen onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic and the policies devised to combat it. Like earlier pandemics, the virus has devastated poorer communities, where people live in the most crowded housing, are forced to travel on public transport, and work in the most exposed “essential” jobs, most of which are badly paid. Unlike the affluent of Gotham, some 30 percent of whom were able to leave town and work remotely, the working class remained, forced to endure crowded conditions as the disease raged through the city. No surprise then that inhabitants of the impoverished Bronx have suffered nearly twice as many deaths from COVID-19 as those …

Capitalism or the Climate?

Can environmentalism and capitalism sustainably coexist? An influential movement of climate activists view capitalism and environmentalism as antithetical. According to the title of an article in the Guardian, “Ending Climate Change Requires the End of Capitalism.” An article in Foreign Policy, meanwhile, is subtitled, “New data proves you can support capitalism or the environment—but it’s hard to do both.” And in her bestselling book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, Naomi Klein writes, “By posing climate change as a battle between capitalism and the planet, I am not saying anything that we don’t already know.” These are just a few of countless prominent examples. This view dwells not just in newsrooms, but in the halls of government as well. US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, author of the 2019 Green New Deal resolution and surrogate to Bernie Sanders in the 2020 democratic primary, told a 2019 SXSW audience, “Capitalism, to me, is an ideology of capital. The most important thing is the concentration of capital, and it means that we seek and prioritize profit and the …

Towards a Better Urbanism

The pandemic has brought panic to the once-confident ranks of urbanists promoting city density. At a time when even the New York Times is noticing that density and transit pose serious health risks for any potential re-opening, such people attack their critics as “anti-urbanist” or “sprawl lovers” or “urban gadflies.” Preferring theology over data, some advocate ever-greater density and crowding in cities and mass transit. But wishful thinking cannot alter the fact that the pandemic has hit core cities with particular force. The concentration of the worst outbreaks in major urban areas—the New York region alone accounts for more than 40 percent of all US fatalities—is a global phenomenon also seen in Japan, Korea, the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, Italy, and Spain. This has cast a pall on traditional downtown-centric employment, dependent on massive subway systems, crowded apartments, and packed workspaces. Such places promote what demographer Wendell Cox calls “exposure density.” This is particularly lethal for low-wage workers forced to take packed transit lines from crowded apartments to packed workplaces. It is not surprising that, …

After the Virus: The Way We Live Next

How will we live, or be forced to live, after the pandemic? “I don’t know” is—according to Paul Collier, the famed development economist—the most honest answer to this question and others related to the cause, rise, treatment, and decline of the current pandemic. This is, after all, an unprecedented disease of rare speed and communicability, for which there is no cure and no agreed political and social response. Yet, contradicting himself within weeks, Collier wrote a similarly powerful essay in which he argued that centralisation had failed, and devolution from those who pronounce from on high to those who practice on the ground is necessary. Perhaps he was merely demonstrating that, in this maelstrom of conflicting arguments, no-one, no matter how distinguished, can wholly know his own mind from day to day. In any case, agnosticism is as unwelcome to journalism as it is to governance. And journalists, who operate under fewer constraints than governments, can at least consider some likely alternatives, while remaining alive to the possibility that unknown unknowns will continue to turn up, …

Viral Politics

Long after the pandemic has receded, its long-term impact on our society and political life will continue. Just as plagues past have reshaped the trajectory of cities and civilizations, sometimes with fearsome morbidity, COVID-19 is already having a profoundly disruptive impact on our political future. Rather than uniting humanity against a common foe, the pandemic seems to be widening the internal political chasm between nations and within them. The “battle,” “war,” or “crusade” against the novel coronavirus has not to date reprised the London Blitz, Pearl Harbor, or the World Trade Center attack in 2001, during which people closed ranks, even if they thought little of their country’s leaders. Democrats like party strategist James Carville and Speaker Nancy Pelosi insist that Trump has “blood on his hands” and one of Pelosi’s more excitable colleagues has suggested that Trump be tried in The Hague for his handling of the pandemic. On the Right, meanwhile, the pandemic has engendered, in the US and elsewhere, a predictably anti-China and nativist tone, which have sometimes drifted into overt racism, …

Warehouse Work in an Age of Contagion

As regular readers of Quillette will know, I work at a warehouse in West Sacramento, California, where every workday I toil in close quarters with dozens of other employees. In the days before the advent of the novel coronavirus pandemic, that wasn’t a problem. Now, however, it’s a little bit frightening. Last week, along with all other members of the company’s workforce, I received an email informing me that a supplier of surgical masks for all warehouse workers hasn’t yet been found. In the meantime, employees are improvising. People are covering their faces with bandanas, like stagecoach bandits in the Old West. Others are wearing ski masks, like contemporary bank robbers. Some wear scarves around their faces, even though the weather is fairly warm now. And some have even managed to procure actual facemasks. But most of the employees, like me, work uncovered. Although we are encouraged to stay six feet away from each other at all times, that isn’t really practical. We’re all hauling bags and packages out of narrow aisles and it isn’t …

The Case for Economic Hibernation during the COVID-19 Lockdowns

The extreme social distancing measures required to arrest the spread of COVID-19, especially the lockdown and isolation, are presenting economic policymakers with an unfamiliar challenge. The economic slowdown, caused by the need to employ extreme social distancing and isolation measures, has nothing to do with underlying issues in the local or global economy. Businesses are closing and people are losing their jobs, not because of a natural decline in demand for their services, nor due to a new technology that has made their job obsolete, nor a bubble whose time has come to burst. People still want to travel abroad, purchase clothes, go to the hairdresser, and sit with friends for coffee. The underlying demand in the global economy remains unchanged. This means that the extreme social distancing and isolation measures are sending distorted signals into the economy of a supposedly precipitous fall in demand for numerous products and services. In reality, demand for these products and services remains the same, but simply cannot be realised as a result of the enforced isolation. These distorted …

The Coming Age of Dispersion

As of this writing, the long-term effects of the coronavirus pandemic remain uncertain. But one possible consequence is an acceleration of the end of the megacity era. In its place, we may now be witnessing the outlines of a new, and necessary, dispersion of population, not only in the wide open spaces of North America and Australia, but even in the megacities of the developing world. Much of this has been driven by high housing prices and growing social disorder in our core cities, as well as the steady rise of online commerce and remote working, now the fastest growing means of “commuting” in the United States. Pandemics naturally thrive in large multicultural cities, where people live “cheek by jowl” and travel to and from other countries is a fact of international tourism and commerce. Europe’s rapidly advancing infection rate is, to some extent, the product of its weak border controls, one of the EU’s greatest accomplishments. Across the continent, cities have become the primary centers of infection. Half of all COVID-19 cases in Spain, …

No, COVID-19 Is Not a ‘Disaster for Feminism’

I wasn’t especially surprised to find an essay in the Atlantic calling the COVID-19 pandemic a “disaster for feminism.” But I am disappointed. It seems that the author, Helen Lewis, undervalues “women’s work” simply because it is unpaid labour. But to undervalue unpaid labour is to reaffirm corporate ideas of what constitutes valuable work. The denigration of home economics has always been a blind spot within feminism, which often champions traditionally male markers of professional and corporate success as success itself, rather than celebrating the un-corporatized nature of traditional female work. To repeat, I am not surprised by this anti-female logic at this late date, but I still find it disappointing. There are, of course, good reasons why feminists fought to emancipate women from the home. Economic independence transformed societies, economies, and the individual lives of many women, and allowed them to pursue intellectual, creative, professional fulfillment they had hitherto been denied. However, the kind of professional and capitalistic contemporary feminism (of which Lewis is apparently an adherent) seems to require the denigration of home …

The Two Middle Classes

Politicians across the Western world like to speak fondly of the “middle class” as if it is one large constituency with common interests and aspirations. But, as Karl Marx observed, the middle class has always been divided by sources of wealth and worldview. Today, it is split into two distinct, and often opposing, middle classes. First there is the yeomanry or the traditional middle class, which consists of small business owners, minor landowners, craftspeople, and artisans, or what we would define historically as the bourgeoisie, or the old French Third Estate, deeply embedded in the private economy. The other middle class, now in ascendency, is the clerisy, a group that makes its living largely in quasi-public institutions, notably universities, media, the non-profit world, and the upper bureaucracy. Standing between the oligarchs, who now own as much as 50 percent of the world’s assets, and the growing population of propertyless serfs, the traditional middle class increasingly struggles for survival against those with the greatest access to capital and political power. The power of this modern-day equivalent …