The Cost of Lockdowns

Post from First Trust Economics Blog

Brian S. Wesbury – Chief Economist
Robert Stein, CFA – Deputy Chief Economist 

Oct 4th, 2021

Last March, when the government was considering whether

to lockdown the economy, we argued that the longer we stayed

locked down the more permanent the damage we would do to the

underlying economy.

It is now clear that the cost of the lockdowns is immense.

We aren’t just talking about the $5 trillion in government

borrowing from future generations, but the clear damage done to

small businesses and supply chains.

The US economy cannot be switched off and on like a light

bulb. Every day, countless decisions are made in order to get the

simplest of things on store shelves. One of our favorite economic

essays is “I, Pencil” by Leonard Read in which he writes, “not a

single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me

(the pencil).”

Think about it. We all know the simple components of a

pencil (wood, graphite, paint,…etc), but it’s a complex chain of

people and events that put it together. Loggers need equipment,

food, and clothing. So do all the other suppliers. Each part of

the process depends on those before, and if just one part is thrown

out of whack, making a pencil gets harder.

Locking down the economy threw complicated supply

chains into chaos, and restarting them is not as easy as many

seem to think. Markets are robust, and sturdy, but government

decisions (made by bureaucrats who, at most, can handle a dozen

pieces of information) destroy the information flow necessary for

smooth functioning.

Add into this mix that government locked down the supplyside

of the economy, while simultaneously providing rocket fuel

(through printing and borrowing money) to the demand-side. A

massive spike in consumer spending by people who weren’t

producing is a recipe for unbalanced markets.

It’s like causing a car accident and saying that morphine is

the cure. Once the morphine wears off, the injuries remain, and

the pain resurfaces. Here, inflation is one clear result.

We have seen ports in Los Angeles and New York thrown

into chaos as ships wait weeks to be unloaded. And the cost to

ship those containers has soared by nearly 500%. Dollar Tree,

which sells items (many imported) for a dollar, now says they

can’t do it anymore and will sell more items for above a dollar.

Oil, gasoline, and natural gas prices are rising. Europe,

which also locked down, is heading into the winter with a

shortage of fuel. Government attempts to alter a well-established

industry by forcing it to create more green energy are failing.

Government can’t possibly manage such a complicated system.

The United States Postal Service is slowing down deliveries

to save money as financial losses go ever higher. Automobile

manufacturers cannot get semiconductors and are seeing

production levels, in the face of strong demand, fall behind.

All of this was predictable. A market economy only works

when information (through the price system) is allowed to flow

freely. Turning it off, or trying to manage it to fit some

politician’s utopian vision of the future, creates chaos.

In the economy, there is the “seen,” and the “unseen.” The

seen is the fact that you can’t buy toilet paper, or food prices are

going up. The unseen is the market system; what Adam Smith

called the “invisible hand.” The market provides because people

work together as a team, even though they don’t know each

other. They do it to earn a paycheck or make a profit.

To call this system “greedy” misunderstands the role of

profit, and how resources are allocated by the marketplace. Free

markets require unimpeded information. Locking down the

economy and attempting to manage it from Washington, DC is

guaranteed to create more problems.

One of those is inflation. It isn’t transitory, it’s a natural

outcome of decisions that have been made in the past year.

Lockdowns will cause more problems than COVID itself.