The pandemic and the myth of balance

During a crisis such as the current coronavirus pandemic, there is a lot talk about balance, and implicit to this discourse is the faith that things can remain the same. For example, a Los Angeles Times op-ed from March 24 stated that

there are trade-offs between halting the disease and minimizing the economic meltdown . . . A prolonged and draconian economic freeze will have its own negative health and social effects. And it is the job of policymakers to weigh competing costs and risks. We do it all the time.

When that op-ed was published, only 100 people had died in New York City. According to the New York Times,

In the first five days of April, 1,125 people were pronounced dead in their homes or on the street in New York City.

Models of equilibrium describe structurally closed systems, which exist only conceptually. Government officials and others talk a lot about striking a balance between public health and the economy. There is always this idea that we can have everything if we just make some minor adjustments, but we can’t. If we really want to stop the spread of the virus, major, radical changes are necessary, and the economy and human beings will suffer. Millions of people will be unemployed; rents and mortgages won’t be paid on time, etc. Governments can step in here to relieve some of the suffering, but people will still suffer and government debt will rise.

Intro to Cost-Benefit Analysis

The preoccupation with balance belongs to an older form of society–one based on hierarchy and centralized control. Autopoietic systems never reach a condition of equilibrium. There is never balance between system and environment, but systems can still be relatively stable over the long term. Stable systems do not need to be in equilibrium. A physical structure like a table can be balanced, but living, evolving systems cannot be balanced. Stable systems may be in equilibrium or disequilibrium.

In government, there is no economic merit in a balanced budget. To be useful economically, a budget should be in a surplus or a deficit. I’ve written about this elsewhere. When a serious crisis occurs, a larger than usual imbalance should be created.

What this means is that for major problems, or “wicked problems,” radical measures are often called for. We cannot actually balance public health and an expanding capitalist economy. Nor can we balance a liveable global climate and an expanding, fossil fuels-based economy. Likewise, we cannot balance personal liberties and the “war on drugs.” The war on drugs needs to be abandoned. Adults should be allowed to put whatever they want into their bodies. The prison-industrial complex also needs to be ended. All nonviolent offenders should be released from prison unconditionally. The carnage associated with drug cartels is a direct result of current US drug policies.

But the problem is that the war on drugs provides many jobs for people in law enforcement and elsewhere. It’s basically a massive jobs program. According to the DEA Factsheet.

[The] DEA employs more than 10,000 men and women, including nearly 5,000 Special Agents, 500 Diversion Investigators, 800 Intelligence Research Specialists, and 300 Chemists.

That’s a nice tax-funded jobs program. The same is true for the prison-industrial complex. It’s a massive jobs program for prison guards and everyone else associated with prisons. The state of California alone employs over 36,000 correctional officers and jailers, with an annual mean wage of $78, 510. (

If we end the war on drugs and release all nonviolent offenders from prisons, most of the people employed by the prisons will lose their jobs. And of course, the DEA will be closed.

Still another radical change needed is the end of the military-industrial complex. The money spent on that could, among many other things, prevent people from starving during this pandemic. But then you have millions of jobs dependent on the military-industrial complex.

If we want to prevent ecological disaster due to climate change, radical changes in our lifestyle are necessary. There can be no balance or incremental change here. The same goes for the COVID-19 crisis. Serious gloal problems call for radical solutions.

One more major problem that calls for a radical solution is job loss due to automation. See Andrew Yang’s (2018) The War on Normal People. For instance, prisons are shifting to various kinds of AI and automation, replacing guards and other workers. There are even robot police officers being tested. But this is a topic for another post.

Radical change is often called for because if we wait until a problem seems truly urgent it may be too late. If a person has cancer and doesn’t seek treatment until it causes real physical pain, it will be too late.


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