How the economy will look after the coronavirus pandemic

 

How the economy will look after the coronavirus pandemic

After many weeks of lockdowns, tragic loss of life, and the shuttering of much of the global economy, radical uncertainty is still the best way to describe this historical moment. Will businesses reopen and jobs come back? Will we travel again? Will the flood of money from central banks and governments be enough to prevent a deep and lasting recession, or worse?

This much is certain: The pandemic will lead to permanent shifts in political and economic power in ways that will become apparent only later.

To help us make sense of the ground shifting beneath our feet, Foreign Policy asked nine leading thinkers, including two Nobel-Prize-winning economists, to weigh in with their predictions for the economic and financial order after the pandemic.

Why will this trend continue? The American population has lost faith in globalization and international trade. Free trade agreements are toxic, with or without U.S. President Donald Trump. By contrast, China has not lost faith. Why not? There are deeper historical reasons. Chinese leaders now know well that China’s century of humiliation from 1842 to 1949 was a result of its own complacency and a futile effort by its leaders to cut it off from the world. By contrast, the past few decades of economic resurgence were a result of global engagement. The Chinese people have also experienced an explosion of cultural confidence. They believe they can compete anywhere.

Consequently, as I document in my new book, Has China Won?, the United States has two choices. If its primary goal is to maintain global primacy, it will have to engage in a zero-sum geopolitical contest, politically and economically, with China. However, if the goal of the United States is to improve the well-being of the American people—whose social condition has deteriorated—it should cooperate with China. Wiser counsel would suggest that cooperation would be the better choice. However, given the toxic U.S. political environment toward China, wiser counsel may not prevail.

The pandemic and subsequent recovery will accelerate the ongoing digitalization and automation of work—trends that have eroded middle-skill jobs while increasing high-skill jobs during the last two decades and contributed to the stagnation of median wages and rising income inequality.

Changes in demand, many of them accelerated by the economic dislocation wrought by the pandemic, will change the future composition of GDP. The share of services in the economy will continue to rise. But the share of in-person services will decline in retail, hospitality, travel, education, health care, and government as digitalization drives changes in the way these services are organized and delivered.

Many low-wage, low-skill, in-person service jobs, especially those provided by small firms, will not return with the eventual recovery. However, workers providing essential services such as policing, firefighting, health care, logistics, public transportation, and food will be in greater demand, creating new job opportunities and increasing the pressure to raise wages and improve benefits in these traditionally low-wage sectors. The downturn will accelerate the growth of nonstandard, precarious employment—part-time workers, gig workers, and workers with multiple employers—leading to new portable benefits systems that move with workers and broaden the definition of employer. New low-cost training programs, digitally delivered, will be required to provide the skills required in new jobs. The sudden dependence of so many on the ability to work remotely reminds us that a significant and inclusive expansion of Wi-Fi, broadband, and other infrastructure will be necessary to enable the accelerating digitalization of economic activity.

As the lockdowns began, the first impulse was to search for historical analogies—1914, 1929, 1941? Since then, what has come ever more to the fore is the historical novelty of the shock we are living through. There is something new under the sun. And it is horrifying.

The economic fallout defies calculation. Many countries face a far deeper and more savage economic shock than they have ever previously experienced. In sectors like retail, already under fierce pressure from online competition, the temporary lockdown may prove to be terminal. Many stores will not reopen, their jobs permanently lost. Millions of workers, small-business owners, and their families are facing catastrophe. The longer we sustain the lockdown, the deeper the economic scars, and the slower the recovery.

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