Virus fears, not lockdowns, determine fate of economy, White House adviser says

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A top adviser to President Trump maintains that voluntary caution, not state lockdown orders, drove the precipitous shutdown in commerce when the coronavirus hit. Now, he is arguing that people should feel more comfortable about public health and have the confidence to return to normal quickly.

“Even after states impose their mandates, there’s not much difference across them — between the states that do it later or sooner or more harsh or less harsh than others. That’s kind of interesting,” said Tomas Philipson, acting chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers.

Instead, concern about the virus, along with government incentives not to go out, is what “drove the reduction in behavior that we saw,” the former University of Chicago professor told the Washington Examiner. “Most behavior had already been curtailed before lockdowns had been imposed.”

As an example, he cited restaurant industry data showing that most eateries were already empty before state lockdowns began.

He said a similar logic applied now that states were reopening. Individual consumer choices and private sector behavior will determine how quickly the economy bounces back, not state policies regarding reopening. Just because a state is open doesn’t mean consumers will “rush back,” Philipson said. For instance, Georgia, one of the first states to reopen at the end of April, hasn’t seen a large uptick in business.

“I think it’s up to the consumer, how much fear there is on the demand side of this, that will drive how quickly this goes,” Philipson said.

The likelihood of people going out and spending at establishments is closely tied to how well the virus is contained, economists say.

Philipson, who is an expert in health economics, said that for any infectious disease, there’s “self-limiting aspects” to people’s behavior, saying that if there is a second spike in transmission, people will again change their behavior to protect themselves better.

Philipson has long studied the effects of viral outbreaks on personal behavior. During the AIDS outbreak in the early 1990s, Philipson published research that was skeptical of governmental involvement in epidemics. Instead, he focused on the consequences of private choices, rational and often informed, to engage in risky conduct.

He doesn’t, however, expect a second wave of the virus to erupt and foresees that fears about the virus will decline.

“What we actually are seeing now for the states that are opening up is that the cases are flat or declining even, even though we’re increasing testing a lot, which is very comforting,” Philipson said.

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