The arrival of a second lockdown has been pitched as a balance between lives and livelihoods - a big hit to the economy offset by reduction in the total number of Covid-related deaths.
But is that the right way to look at it? It all depends what that "big hit to the economy" actually means. People need the money to pay their mortgage or rent, to put food on the table and for many other essential expenses. The first priority of the government must be to make sure that everyone is OK so far as the basics are concerned, and the news coming out about foodbank use suggests that there is still a lot more that it must do.
The "normal" way that people make their money is when other people spend it. Non-essential shopping, drinking and dining out, and visits to cinemas and public entertainments, all put money in the pockets of the owners of those businesses and the people who work for them. But is an economy that depends on spending a viable model for the future? The lockdowns caused by the Covid crisis are making that question increasingly relevant.
When a person takes a day off work to spend time at home with their family, the economy shrinks. First because they haven't done any paid work, and second because a day at home generally involves minimal spending. The benefit, however, can be considerable. There is no end of ways in which people create huge value in their lives without earning or spending any money at all.
To make sense of this the economic system needs to re-think it’s understanding of what it is to be productive. At present it means that something has happened to cause money to change hands. So home cooking, home educating, home exercising, community volunteering, gardening, DiY - all the many unpaid activities that filled up the last lockdown and will no doubt now fill up the new one - are treated as having no productive value beyond the materials they use. For the future, the use of the term “economically productive” must be changed to include them.
But there's productivity in socialising, too. Some people locked down in their homes may appreciate the extra family time and not miss the loss of spending opportunities. And for those who are more isolated it is a fair bet that it is the company of their families and friends that they will most miss, rather than the spending associated with non-essential shopping, dining out and cinema excursions. Humans have, since the earliest times, been social creatures, whereas we have only recently learned to shop and to pay for our entertainment. So the value of human interactions that contribute so greatly to people's well-being should also feature in the nation's accounts.
The true trade-off in lockdown, therefore, may turn out not to have been between lives and livelihoods, but between lives and socialising. Whereas money losses can and must be made up for, the loss of social contact has long-term, potentially irrecoverable consequences for people’s mental health and well-being. When the price of Covid-19 is eventually calculated, this is where the real deficit may lie.
Minimising these social losses should be central to the government’s planning, but because they have no monetary-equivalent they cannot compete with closed bars and shops in the Treasury’s accounting. Money talks, but loneliness is silent. For as long as the economic success depends on people spending money, the voice of social well-being will remain unheard.
The economic challenges of lockdown are a harbinger of what the future holds even once Covid-19 has been defeated. The environment will not allow us to continue to consume and throw away physical goods at an ever-increasing rate, even if we want to, and there is a limit to the quantity of paid services that each person can make use of. The British economy has long been suffering from a money disease in which the blind pursuit of cash turnover is putting at risk our capacity to produce the real value that improves our lives.
Future growth in production, therefore, should not depend exclusively on further spending but should come from the work that we do and the actions we take to improve the quality of life within our families and our communities. Structuring the economy so we can spend less cash but still be richer is a key challenge for which the Covid crisis could be useful preparation.