In 1930, 1,028 economists signed a letter to Herbert Hoover urging the US president to veto a bill that would raise tariffs once it became law. Hoover refused and the US raised taxes on about 20,000 imports and intensified a trade war that caused world trade to plunge nearly 70% from 1929 to 1934.
The uniform complaint of the economists was that higher tariffs clashed with a key tenet of classical economics, the law of comparative advantage. The theory from the 19th century postulates that everyone is better off when, first, people and countries specialise at what they are most efficient and, second, they engage in trade to acquire the rest.
The trade war of the 1930s, in effect, reaffirmed the law’s validity. The global order post-World War II was designed so the law could operate unimpeded. It’s not a stretch to say the prosperity flowing from the globalisation of the past four decades is thanks to how this law in practice meant efficiency was prized above all.
Not anymore. The coronavirus showed the law overlooked national security. The theory ignores trade’s role in influencing the balance of power between countries and made no allowance for protecting populations during disruptions to trade from, say, pandemics.
Westerners confronting their mortality were alarmed to discover that vital health supplies depend on a rival; namely, China. They were surprised that just-in-time global logistical networks producing essentials failed. They now expect governments to ensure self-sufficiency in key items. Companies know they need to hold more inventory and strengthen supply lines.
Steps against globalisation are just some of the changes heralded by coronavirus’s psychological effects, when mood shifts change human behaviour. If the virus did anything, it created a mass anxiety that has upended the complacency, even arrogance, that progress is society’s default condition. Now a gloomy, wounded and cautious public, grieving over what has been lost, peers into a poorer, less-secure and probably harsher future.
The deteriorating mood will bring changes that can be grouped into four categories. The first is new trends. This includes the partial retreat of globalisation. It covers higher personal sanitation standards, the rise of telemedicine, improved health facilities and wider health coverage. ‘Social distancing’ will endure. Essential workers have won new-found respect and the definition has widened to include service labour. Remote working will be more popular (but not remote schooling). Populations might save a higher percentage of their (shrinking) income. Business might be less confident about investing. Investors might worry more about preserving capital. Governments will relook at biosecurity, cybersecurity and the safeguards around utilities.
The second category is the hastening of trends. The group features the shift to the safer online world, notably the boost to virtual communications, cashless payments and online food delivery, shopping, entertainment and gambling. It covers the psychological shifts damaging the relationship between Beijing and Washington that is moving from rivalry towards hostility.
The next grouping covers the ebbing of old ways. The US’s view it is the world’s proper hegemon appears to have cracked. So too has frictionless international travel, cheap flights, the popularity of cruise ships, and business models dependent on spontaneous and close human contact such as bars, cinemas and professional sports.
The fourth category gathers possible transformations. A greater role for government in society, the rise of the surveillance state and renewed status for experts are included here. Other possible outcomes are demands to address inequality stirring politics, reduced legal immigration and a lower priority for climate change. An uptick in intergenerational resentment appears likely as the young will bear most of the costs in fighting covid-19. Respect for global bodies is under question. Even if only some of these changes endure, covid-19’s psychological legacy is likely to drive profound and durable changes, especially if the virus lingers.
Let’s note that many things won’t change. The likely effects of covid-19 look tame compared with history’s greatest pandemics. It’s hard to categorise things neatly into four groupings and to distinguish between anxiety over covid-19’s health and its economic effects because they are intermingled. Many changes stemming from covid-19 will meet resistance. Some psychological effects, such as the effect on family life, mental health and religious belief, are too intangible to be discussed here.
The biggest disclaimer in analysing the psychological effects of covid-19 is the trap of thinking that initial reactions will prove lasting. Many might not. But enough surely will. People are likely to recall for a while yet the shock at how vulnerable the coronavirus made them feel emotionally, intellectually, economically, financially and politically. Consider that we have entered an age of vincibility – as was the 1930s.
By Michael Collins, Investment Specialist
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