Thursday, April 2, 2020
We live in strange times. Here we were, cruising along, living under the delusion that our economic prosperity was invincible. But in a few short weeks, a simple virus―which may or may not even be complex enough to be considered a living thing―has brought the world economy to its knees. In the past two weeks, a staggering 10 million American workers have applied for unemployment benefits. And we have not hit the peak of the pandemic yet. The economic pain will increase drastically before it decreases.
But as Paul Krugman pointed out in his column this week, this is not a normal economic contraction. It’s more as if we have intentionally induced an economic coma in order to save society and as many of its members as possible. This is the effect of the unfortunately named “social distancing” we are practicing and the stay-at-home orders from government.
Krugman also points out another difference between this economic contraction and a “normal” recession: it affects some sectors of the economy dramatically, while other sectors are booming, and still others are seemingly untouched, although if the coma lasts long enough, eventually all sectors will likely feel the pain. The industries that are most affected are those based on dense public patronage: restaurants, airlines, educational institutions, sporting events, movies, theaters, concerts, conferences, amusement parks. Many retail establishments are closing or offering curbside service only. Other industries, however, are seeing the opposite effect. Grocery stores, teleconferencing, ecommerce, digital media, and, of course, some aspects of health care are seeing increased activity. And then there are those organizations and industries that are largely unaffected by the pandemic.
For the moment, I am in one of those organizations. I work for BYU as editorial director at BYU Studies, a scholarly Mormon studies journal, but even though the university is largely deserted, trying to offer course instruction online, BYU Studies is still chugging along, trying to pull together another quarterly journal. We have always been mostly unaffected by the university’s academic calendar, and the pandemic did not change this. Some of my colleagues have been working from home. Our student programmers and interns are mostly working remotely, some even out of state. But three of us have been showing up nearly every day, doing our work as usual. Even if Utah implemented a stay-at-home directive, going to work at the Joseph F. Smith Building at BYU would be pretty much the same as staying home. For one of my coworkers, it would probably be safer, because she has kids running around her house. BYU Studies has a fairly spacious office suite. The three of us work in different rooms. The large building is pretty much empty. It is rare to see anyone in the hallways. There is hand sanitizer everywhere. Student custodial employees come around periodically and disinfect doorknobs and countertops. I feel as safe there as at home. So I will likely continue to drive in to work until I’m required to do otherwise.
The other aspect of my job that makes it far different from many others in our pandemic-stricken economy is that I don’t worry about getting a paycheck. BYU is not going out of business, and it is backed by a church with massive reserves of wealth. So my paycheck is not likely to be in jeopardy during this economic contraction. My wife, on the other hand, tutors math in our home, so her income has taken a hit, but we can still live comfortably on my salary, so we are not hurting.
What I am getting at here is that my wife and I, and many others in our current macroeconomic predicament, do not need the money Uncle Sam is planning to send our way soon. I am also just a few years away from retirement. I have a very adequate pension from DMBA, as well as a 401(k) that I have been feeding for quite a few years now, so I don’t need any extra money for retirement either. Because of this, I feel particularly fortunate. But I also feel a bit guilty. My wife and I will probably get $2,400 from the government in relief money. We don’t need it, and we have talked about this and have decided we should give the money somehow to those who have been sucked into the economic vacuum created by COVID-19. The question is how. I’ve entertained the idea of going to restaurants and dropping $100 tips on the employees. But even though I’m sure most of them could use the help, they are actually working and still getting paid. So maybe that’s not the best idea.
I’m sure there are better ways to pass this relief money along to those who most need the relief. So I’m asking you for help. Are you aware of channels through which we can get this government windfall into the right hands? Who needs it most, and how can we make sure it gets to them? I’m sure you have good ideas I haven’t thought of.
The other reason I bring up my own financial situation is that there are many in our society who are in the same boat my wife and I are in. Many people are still employed, as I am, and many are retired and are living on pensions or retirement funds that are little affected by the employment crisis. I would hope that most of these people will do what my wife and I are planning to do.
It’s obviously too difficult for the federal government to distinguish between those workers who are financially secure and those who aren’t. They’ve set some arbitrary upper income limits to the relief payments, but beneath those limits are many like me who don’t need the money we’ll be receiving. So, really, it’s up to us to make this program work for the greatest good. And isn’t that what being members of a society is all about?