We're all socialists now, at least while the COVID-19 crisis lasts

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Image: Doug Ford/Twitter

Well, the debate's out there now, thanks to Trump. Will the "cure" -- shuttering the economy -- be worse than the disease, COVID-19? Turns out it's an old debate in new garb.

For example, a Canadian economist once claimed that smoking is an economic boon because early cancer deaths reduce overall medical costs. It's arisen now because most governments have reflexively (and IMO surprisingly) chosen to prioritize saving lives "at the cost" of stifling the economy.

Let me propose another way of viewing this grisly "debate." Does the economy exist to serve people or vice versa?

This eliminates the issue of trade-offs. If you choose option one, you pursue it, closing the economy till the plague passes, or settles into normal patterns, like the flu, which can be handled in normal ways (vaccine, built-up immunity) instead of people bringing out their dead as they did of old.

Another angle: Choose the economy, and -- consequently -- people die, they're gone forever. Choose people, and the economy doesn't die. It gets mothballed, put into a coma, to be revived. People die. Economies, which aren't alive, can be put on hold, then come "roaring back."

Everything will still exist afterward: skills, labour force, demand, plant. Because the economy isn't a living being, you can tuck it away awhile.

In that case, the economy gets subordinated to human well-being. Rent, mortgages, debt are forgiven or delayed though money must still be found for repairs etc. Only governments can finance these dislocations. Private businesses can't because they're under constraints like competition.

Where will government find the money? I leave this to finer minds but there are answers, along with counterclaims that they "don't work." May those disputes persist forever. Governments always find the money when there's a war to fight.

They print it or issue bonds. When the bill comes due they either owe it effectively to themselves or pay bondholders, which are largely pension funds, so it’s all good. At the moment they don't seem worried.

This choice -- for "the people" -- is arduous yet seemed to come easily. Maybe it springs from a deep sense of what being human is: creatures whose existence has meaning only in relation to others. In the past when such choices arose, like the Spanish flu in 1918, the options available were different and the choices may've seemed inevitable, lacking today's deliberative quality.

A remarkable thing about this debate, or nondebate since leaders have overwhelmingly opted for the people choice, is the range represented. Canadian right-wing austerity buffs like Jason Kenney, François Legault and Doug Ford leapt in enthusiastically, alongside Justin Trudeau.

Not so the federal Tories, who balked at this week's emergency bill supposedly on democratic grounds, though below the surface, austerity lingo lurked. But they're in Opposition and don't bear the burden of actual decision. It turns out ideology mightn't be as deeply imprinted as some (guilty m'lord) thought. This revelation is as clarifying as the sudden clearing of murky waters in Venice so that suddenly, without tourists and traffic, citizens can see the fish again.

Responses have also been impressive elsewhere. Wasn't China supposed to be a callous, top-down society where, if the finger's infected, they don't hesitate to cut off the hand? Yet they acted in Wuhan to save lives, built hospitals, quarantined -- if only GDP mattered, they might've locked it tight and let victims die.

Even Boris Johnson signed on, though tardily. It's only the U.S. where the "debate" is bubbling -- though if you look at New York, there's no real debate aside from one in Trump's head. If they do next to nothing, as they have so far, it’ll be such a wasteland they won't have opted for life or the economy: they'll have chosen door three: neither.

Is this socialism? It's more like Marx's "primitive communism," where the community took responsibility for everyone's basic needs. Keynesianism? No, since it doesn't spur demand but throttles it -- though it does require vigorous government intervention.

And it's only for the duration: a noble, if short-lived government centrality. Normal will return. One wonders if people like those right wing premiers, might by then have acquired a taste for another kind of public action than they're accustomed to.

Rick Salutin writes about current affairs and politics. This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Image: Doug Ford/Twitter

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