The problem of dealing with the economic policy consequences of the current coronavirus public health emergency is best analyzed in two pieces: the Jubilee, and the Hunker Down.
Bringing the Jubilee
What is the Jubilee? It happens after we have managed to get the virus under control, so that normal public health measures of (1) testing a random panel sample periodically to understand where we are, (2) testing the symptomatic, (3) tracing and testing their contacts, and (4) hospitalizing patients with serious illnesses can manage the situation as best as it can be managed.
Note: I say “managed” rather than eliminated. The extent of asymptomatic transmission means that this disease will not be eliminated. It will become endemic. The task is to delay until our virologists can work their miracles. The task is to delay so that the medical care system is not overwhelmed so that we can keep mortality from the disease at 1% rather than 5% or more.
Once the virus is under control—by June 1, say—we will want every job that existed on February 1 and every business that was running on February 1 to resume. We will want no business to have received a “bankruptcy shut down“ from the market system. We will want no worker to have a received a “you are not wanted“ signal from the market economy.
There is a side constraint on the Jubilee: whatever policies we adopt need to be crafted to minimize unjust enrichment. Perhaps the second biggest economic policy mistake committed by the Obama administration was that its policies to deal with the great recession were both inadequate out of the fear of being perceived to contribute to unjust enrichment, and yet somehow also managed to generate a huge amount of unjust enrichment for the financial sector.
Then there is the question of how to manage the Hunker Down. In the Hunker Down, social distancing needs to reach a level that reduces the caseload to what the medical system can currently handle, but should not be pushed far beyond that point. Beyond that point, the benefits of generating a situation in which our ICUs and emergency rooms have excess capacity are low and the costs are high. In the Hunker Down, as many people as possible need to be given financial incentives to move into new productive occupations that provide useful goods and services without disrupting social distance. And in the hunker down, everyone needs to receive the income flow they need to pay their bills.
Managing the Hunker Down and bringing the Jubilee are two separate problems that need to be designed and implemented separately. We need to think about both. We need to keep worries about bringing the Jubilee from damaging our ability to undertake the Hunker Down. We need to keep inplementing the Hunker Down from impairing our power to bring the Jubilee.