Prompt: The economic situation in the world now is very different from what it was when the semester started in January and COVID-19 was still, as far as we knew, confined to a localized outbreak in Wuhan. The global public health crisis is intimately intertwined with economics. Economic activity is entwined with the transmission of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Distribution of economic resources and patterns of employment shape who is most at risk of contracting the disease and most at risk of suffering a severe or fatal form of the disease. Treating the infected and containing the disease requires a rapid reallocation of resources from the patterns of use common just two months ago – and also requires idling resources that cannot be safely used. None of those whose work we read this semester wrote specifically about the economics of pandemics – even though a number of them lived through serious infectious disease outbreaks. (Marshall, Keynes, Commons, Alexander, Perkins, DuBois and several others all lived through the 1918 flu pandemic, for example.) But we can search their collective body of work for ideas about how to understand our current economic situation. Other people’s perspectives, Sen notes, can “[broaden] our own investigation of relevant principles, for the sake of avoiding an underscrutinized parochialism of values and presumptions in the local community” (p.62). Turning back through the history of economic thought, we meet thinkers who wrote their analyses at times of far lower material standards of living – when Ricardo, in agreement with Malthus, assumed that material deprivation would keep the population in check, for example. Maybe they can help us understand something about lowering our consumption expectations, as we will likely have to do. We meet policymakers like Frances Perkins who worked to enact workplace safety regulations at a time when workers died on the job with grim frequency. Maybe they can help us understand something about how to protect the safety of those whose work we cannot even temporarily do without. We meet a range of thinkers –Beecher, Marx, DuBois, the Women’s Cooperative Guild, the theorists and activists Folbre wrote about in her chapter on the Nanny State, for example – who asked in a wide and wild variety of ways what economic practices could prioritize basic human needs, including the need for care.
In your essay, choose one main work from any part of the class to respond to. (You may use others to amplify or critique your main chosen work.) Connect this work to the COVID-19 pandemic. (You should also draw on current news sources and government-issued public health and economic statistics to document the relevant dimensions of the current crisis.) How does the selection you’ve made from the economic literature help us understand something about the way the pandemic is playing out so far? What ideas does it give us about economic policies that would help us meet our needs during the outbreak and stabilize the economic system (or change the economic system!) once the threat of infection subsides? Are there aspects of this work can’t be applied in this situation?
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