As Joe Biden prepares to take up residence in the White House, one issue towers above all others in his public communications: the coronavirus.
He has promised to “spare no effort, none, or any commitment, to turn around this pandemic” and demanded “a robust and immediate federal response” to bring it under control. Biden has carefully avoided saying that he will impose a national lockdown to save lives, but key members of his coronavirus advisory group have called for one, and Biden has repeatedly pledged to listen to the experts on coronavirus.
Pundits and punters generally expect a Biden lockdown to carry the country through from Inauguration Day until vaccines become widely available. Given that Biden relentlessly rode coronavirus fear from the campaign trail through two debates to success on Election Day, it seems almost inconceivable that he could avoid giving his most motivated supporters what they most desperately desire. It may be a lockdown lite, or it may be a lockdown heavy, but there is almost certain to be a Biden lockdown.
If international experience is anything to go by, an immediate and heavy-handed lockdown would be a political home run for Joe Biden. Just look at New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern. The coronavirus catapulted her from scraping together a minority coalition government with 37% of the vote three years ago to winning an outright majority in 2020. The secret of her success: locking down the country and destroying its economy. Twice.
At least New Zealand is an island, a favorable geography that gave Ardern some chance of eradicating the coronavirus. European lockers-down have gone the same route, to little effect. We constantly hear that the United States has experienced more coronavirus deaths than any other country in the world; we rarely hear that in per capita terms, U.S. deaths have been roughly on a par with deaths in the lockdown-weary countries of western Europe. Belgium, Spain, and the United Kingdom have all done worse than the United States; Italy is at the same level; France, Sweden, and the Netherlands have done slightly better.
Take the lockdown-happy, all-Democrat New York metropolitan area out of the U.S. statistics, and the remainder of the country looks better still. That’s not to say that the United States has done better than western Europe, or that Donald Trump set any kind of a clear course for American coronavirus policy. He didn’t, and that’s probably what doomed his reelection campaign. It’s only to point out that Trump’s European counterparts who took decisive action to fight the coronavirus produced results that differ little (on average) from Trump’s dithering approach. Coronavirus death rates in Western developed democracies appear to bear little or no relationship to policy. They have been, essentially, random.
The same can’t be said for the economy. No one knows for certain how lockdowns affect public health, but everyone knows for certain that they destroy the economy. American economic commentators rarely bother to compare the U.S. experience to developments in other countries, so they have almost completely ignored one key fact. For all its coronavirus troubles, the U.S economy has outperformed every other developed country economy in 2020. And that’s on top of outperforming the entire developed world in 2019, too.
The U.S. economy will decline by 3.8% this year, according to OECD estimates. That’s far better than major lockdown economies like France (-9.5%), Germany (-5.4%), Italy (-10.5%), and the United Kingdom (-10.1%). Amazingly, it also beats island countries that were able to avoid full-scale coronavirus epidemics: Japan (-5.8%), and New Zealand (-4.1%). And all of these GDP estimates predate the “second wave” lockdowns currently being implemented all across Europe. Were the United States simply to tough it out until the vaccines are ready, it could lead the world into recovery in 2021.
A Biden lockdown threatens all that. It means exchanging the unambiguous benefits of an open economy for the uncertain rewards of a focus on public health. If the public health establishment had demonstrated its ability to control the coronavirus in countries like France and the U.K., where national leaders have sworn to abide by the advice of their medical and scientific advisors come what may, it might make sense to listen to them now. Given the ample empirical evidence that the doctors can’t stop the pandemic, it makes more sense to keep the economy open.
Nihilism is strangely popular in a pandemic, and Biden’s base is baying for a lockdown. The first great test of his leadership will be his ability to resist their demands.