There is a lot of discussion right now about how to save the economy, or whether certain trade-offs are permissible in order to save the economy, like foreseeable deaths. The animosity in this discussion is partly enabled by the vagueness of the term. People are using the same word, the economy, but thinking very different things. I’m skeptical that this can be fixed by being more precise in defining the economy, which just might be an essentially unwieldy and unhelpful concept. It lumps together too many different things to be a helpful category.

Let’s take the household metaphor implicit in the etymology. Imagine needing to know whether there was enough food in your pantry or whether the kids had clothes that fit, but only talking about whether there was enough stuff in the house overall. The overall mass of stuff in the house is growing at 2% per annum — good news or bad news? The inability of the word stuff to distinguish the food in the pantry from the rare book collection or bags of garbage I forgot to take to the street makes rational deliberation in these terms impossible.

Or let’s take the garden metaphor, as the number of us with gardens on our minds is suddenly multiplied. Should I evaluate how my decisions impact the total biomass produced by the garden? Or should I attempt to distinguish the tomato yield from the poison ivy growth?

One helpful distinction might be made in terms of the different ends that are served by economic activity. To borrow phrasing from Epicurus, some economic activity serves the limited desires that are natural or necessary, while other economic activity only serves the boundless desires due to idle imagination.

Permit me a short historical detour to explain. A century ago and more, the visionaries of mechanization dreamed of setting people free from work. We found ways produce more food as a nation where only 3% of people work as famers than we did when we were a nation of 90% farmers. Mining and manufacture also had huge productivity gains. But rather than reducing everybody’s work week to an hour (probably an unworkable dream anyway), we simply generated unemployment. The problem was not a lack of production but a glitch in distribution.

One response to post-industrial unemployment has been stimulated demand. A high-consumption, high-waste society can need (or at least buy) enough things to put people back to work. When our economy struggles today, it is not our ability to grow and make enough but our ability to consume enough that we worry about. The boundless desires of idle imagination can be stoked by policy, advertising and planned obsolescence.

The need that is satisfied by so much economic activity isn’t the production of value or the meeting of needs, but simply the chance for people to deserve their income. Granted, we permit income distribution by other means than wages for labor in this country. There are dividends and royalties, and the many forms of return on investment. But for the most part, only the wealthy are permitted to eat whether or not they work.

So if we mean by the economy the production and distribution of food and medicine, then it is terribly short-sighted to let it fall to shambles, especially during a pandemic. But if we mean by the economy the production of video games and even new cars, then we could pause all of that without failing anybody’s needs, apart from the income needs of the producers. Addressing the pandemic is a perfectly good reason to pause the production automobiles. This works, of course, only if we meet the producers’ income needs in other ways. This we can and should do, whether through temporary pandemic-stimulus payments or by finally adopting a universal basic income.

This distinction is obviously not black and white. The overgrownness of the stimulated economy, which was wreaking social and environmental havoc long before the pandemic, is deeply entangled with the satisfaction of real needs. Even my paradigm example of agriculture is not so simple. We have invented ways of consuming ridiculous amounts of corn to deal with the results of subsidizing vast overproduction. And if automobile factories are producing ventilators, then we need those to stay open.

But when we ask about sacrificing the American economy to protect our people from the pandemic, we need to be clear about which economy we are sacrificing. Some of it was in desperate need of pruning anyway. And sending people back to work just isn’t necessary for us to meet their income needs. We have long been able to afford everybody’s basic needs. We just have to do it.

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