How long can we go on like this and when will the money run out? This is the question I am being asked all the time. Whether I am out for a walk, in the supermarket (at a safe distance) or on the phone, it’s the same question over and over. How long can we survive?
Some people are concerned about the massive increase in Government spending via the wage subsidy. When will that money run out? Small business owners want to know how long this can go on before they default on loans.
Whether or not we can avoid an economic depression will be determined by what we do now. Amid the pessimism it is crucial to appreciate that it is possible to avoid this outcome if we deploy all the right levers of economic policy. The European Central Bank (ECB) has underwritten the economy at borrowing rates below zero. As a result there should be no hesitation in borrowing more to tide us over.
We can also reprice existing debt to dramatically reduce the cost of outstanding debt, and we can boost demand to cushion the slump by putting money directly into people’s and businesses’ accounts.
Economics is not a cult. It is not a set of definitive, unchanging rules. It is not a religion. There is no creed. There are no believers and there is no dogma. While there are clubs or factions, membership of those is optional. At its core, economics is the art of the possible. It is the study of a complex system that is never at rest, a dynamic and adaptive system of enormous energy and potential. It evolves rather than grows or contracts.
The economy is like an immune system, dealing with new dangers, learning on the job and constantly acclimatising. Despite what most economists say, there is no such thing as equilibrium. A moment’s thought would tell you that an economy in equilibrium is a ludicrous notion.
The colours of the traditional barber’s sign, a pole with red and white diagonal stripes, signify blood and the barber’s apron because the barber use to double-up as the local leacher. He was the man who bled the sick. For hundreds of years, since the Greeks, rudimentary medics believed that sickness was carried in the blood and the solution for this was to drain the patient of blood in order to expel the bad blood. The theory was that the less blood, the less the disease had to work with. Sometimes they used leeches to do this but oftentimes, they simply cut a vein – or perhaps an artery. The barber had blades, knives and scissors, sure what more did you need?
How we behave in this crisis will determine how we come out of it. In the 1960s Martin Luther King spoke of the “fierce urgency of now”; what is critical in a crisis is today – tomorrow can look after itself. We can view our traumatised economy in a similar way.
From the point of view of commerce, the most critical point is to keep small businesses afloat and prevent mass bankruptcies, which would prompt defaults and prevent business people from getting back on their feet.
When events change, we change our minds. Old rules go out the window and new ideas are embraced. What was once radical becomes mainstream and what was once mainstream becomes redundant. In a crisis, you run out of time. You can’t wait; you must act.
This week, the Department of Finance acted with remarkable speed, implementing what might be called the “Danish model”, soldering the link between employers and employees by subsidising people’s wages to the tune of 70 per cent. The civil servants are to be commended in how quickly they turned this around. It should help enormously. Hopefully, we will see results in a stabilising of the rise in unemployment.