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OPINION | PAUL KRUGMAN: What if things get better?

by Paul Krugman The New York Times | October 9, 2021 at 3:53 a.m.

This was the summer of our discontent. Early this year, many of us were expecting to see dramatic improvements in the quality of our lives. Miraculous vaccines offered the hope of a quick end to the pandemic and a return to normal life.

The return to normality would, we hoped, also set the stage for a rapid economic rebound. When President Joe Biden predicted a "summer of joy," that didn't seem unreasonable.

But it was not to be. The vaccination drive, after early successes, stalled in the face of widespread resistance, intensified by politically motivated misinformation and disinformation; and in an inadequately vaccinated nation, the Delta variant led to a deadly third wave of infections.

While job growth has been fast by historical standards, the economy has been crimped both by the persistence of covid-19 and by snarled supply chains. And a surge in homicides has revived some of the old dystopian fears of social breakdown.

The result has been widespread frustration, with many people predicting that things will stay bad or get worse in the months ahead.

But what if the current gloom is overdone? I'm not an optimist by temperament and am as terrified as everyone should be by the threat right-wing radicalism poses to U.S. democracy. But there's a good case that in the quite near future we'll see substantial progress against the three Cs: covid, containers (supply chain issues) and crime. We didn't get our summer of joy, but we might be heading for a spring of relief.

Start with the state of the pandemic. At this point, the Delta wave is clearly receding in the United States. Furthermore, there are reasons to hope that this won't be another false dawn, because the federal government and a growing number of private employers have been getting serious about requiring that workers be vaccinated.

And the wall of vaccine resistance is proving a lot less solid than it may have seemed. A few months ago, surveys suggested that many workers would quit their jobs rather than accept mandated vaccinations. In reality, employers that have already imposed such mandates, for example in health care, are typically seeing only 1 percent or 2 percent of their workers make good on this threat.

None of this means that we're going to stop worrying about covid anytime soon. But we do seem, finally, to be on a path toward a situation in which Americans who have been vaccinated can feel fairly safe going back to the office, going out to eat and--most important of all--sending their children to school.

What about supply chain problems? It's fair to say that almost nobody predicted the Great Snarl, the logistical mess that has scores of container ships steaming back and forth off California waiting for a place to dock, automakers unable to meet demand because of a shortage of semiconductor chips, and more. But two of the main factors behind this mess seem to be abating.

First, the easing pandemic should directly help mitigate supply issues, because at least some disruptions have been caused by covid-related shutdowns and the inability or unwillingness of some workers to engage in risky activities. As the rate of new cases falls, such disruptions should become rarer.

Even more important, many of our supply chain woes were caused by the unusual shape of demand during the pandemic, which saw consumers buying fewer services but more stuff, like exercise equipment because they couldn't go to the gym, and home entertainment systems because they couldn't go to the movies.

Purchases of consumer durables surged far above the pre-pandemic trend, and the world didn't have the capacity to move all those goods without major delays.

But the rush to buy stuff has greatly slowed down over the past few months, and should slow even further as ordinary life returns. This should reduce pressure on the system. Christmas gifts may still be a bit hard to come by, but it would be surprising if the stress doesn't ease substantially by early next year.

Finally, crime. There was a sharp rise in homicides last year, although one that still left murder rates lower than they had been in the 1990s. Did the spike in murders herald a return to the bad old days, or was it a pandemic-related aberration?

Data from New York, at least, suggest that 2020 wasn't the start of a trend. Homicides so far this year have run below their rate in the corresponding period of last year; over the past four weeks they were down 14 percent from a year previous.

All in all, there's a pretty good case that we'll all be feeling a lot better about life early next year than we are now.

Such an improvement in the nation's mood would have big political implications. We should expect Republicans to do all they can to make things worse again; Mitch McConnell may have flinched at the prospect of creating a global financial crisis over the debt ceiling, but there's undoubtedly a lot more mischief ahead.

But I find myself feeling cautiously optimistic. Maybe it was something I ate?


Paul Krugman, who won the 2008 Nobel Prize in economics, writes for the New York Times.

Print Headline: What if it gets better?

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