Letter from my sofa

Over breakfast, Peter looked up from the paper to tell me that the New York Times has a word for what I do all day: “doomsurfing.” The trouble is that it’s hard to look away from a threat. Over the last few years, I have had bouts of being able to stay off social media that have lasted sometimes for months at a time, but in danger my instinct is to look at the danger, and after being stuck in the apartment for a week and a half, I can’t resist even a polluted conduit to friends and acquaintances. To judge by anguished emails from friends, I’m not the only person with this affliction. I suspect that writers are by inclination unusually susceptible to it.

“I need you to be on the team,” Peter said to me, an hour or two ago, when I interrupted his workday to tell him that Trump was bound to fire Fauci in a few days, if an interview that Fauci gave to Science magazine is any indication. Peter was repeating a sentence that I, insufferably, had said to him a few days earlier, when it had been his turn to spiral into anxiety. Another thing I’ve been hearing, in emails and in conversations with fellow dog walkers, is that longterm couples are having fights. Monogamy isn’t a strong enough word for the new cohabitation. On Saturday, Peter and I had a tiff because I wanted to take a long bike ride, and he felt he ought to go on it with me even though he’s not a fan of outer-borough biking. Halfway down Coney Island Avenue, we arrived the hard way at the realization that if we’re with each other 24/7, there’s no need for us to treat weekends as a special province of togetherness; it’s okay to do our own things.

Last week, when the mayor finally got around to advising people to stay in, I had the idea of writing a post on this blog that was going to say, Hey, guys, as a writer, I’ve been living the social distancing life for years, persisting for days and days without talking to anyone but husband and dog, and I think I should warn you. I didn’t, though, because the warning was just going to be depressing, namely, that after a few days of not seeing anyone but your significant other, you start to wonder what the point of your existence is, and to take irregularly timed naps, and to swing out into distant extravagances of mood. When you share physical space with groups of other people, you use them to keep your balance, and they use you to keep theirs, without anyone even necessarily being conscious of the use. A significant other goes a long way toward helping keep one’s balance but not far enough. One seems to need contact with a number of people sufficiently large to allow one to touch a kind of impersonality in person form. Joining a Cross Fit gym last fall helped give me this kind of regular challenging contact with other people, in a group that was structured but not controlled, but the city closed all gyms last Monday. I was probably the only person in New York City who sympathized with Mayor De Blasio’s profligate decision to go for one last workout. Online classes have been enjoyable but not quite the same. The separate physical space of the class provided a social affordance for slightly antisocial impulses, like showing off and competitiveness, a permission not quite extended when one is watching and repeating the movements from inside one’s domestic space. Over the years, I learned to recognize the early warning signs of too much isolation: irritability, weepiness, paranoid thinking. This tweet is really about me and it pisses me off and omg I think I’m going to cry! Now that I’ve shared what I know about the hazards of social distance, you see why I didn’t want to tell you: I don’t have a remedy. My remedy was always: you’re getting both squirrelly and dour, Caleb, which means it’s time to make plans to meet other people face-to-face. This weekend everybody suddenly seemed to be using the telephone again; maybe the phone will be a resource, and I for one am willing to give teleconferencing a try. But it’s possible that we’re all just going to have to suffer for a while, in separate cells. That’s going to suck.

We are social animals. Even in our isolations, everyone seems to be taking the same steps further into isolation at roughly the same time. There was the day when the directive to stay home made it hard to find alternate side parking because everyone was home and was on the spot to zip into the available parking spots. And then there was the day when it was easy, because everyone with a country house had absconded to it. “Love ya!” a neighbor shouted to me, yesterday morning, as she took the stairs instead of sharing the elevator with me, because yesterday was the day that everyone decided not to share the elevator anymore. It was also the day that strangers became wary of petting our dog. Just as a couple of days before was the day when it became not optional but required to wipe down the grocery cart handle.

I should end this post by making it clear that I understand sheltering in place to be as necessary as it is difficult. A friend who’s a young doctor, running a COVID-19 unit at a hospital in the city, wrote to me in an email yesterday: “Please do be very careful—I know that anecdote is not data and that I’m seeing precisely the worst cases, but I’ve just seen far too many intubations of otherwise healthy people over the past couple weeks, including some younger than me.” Another friend relays that a doctor-friend of his called last night to say that work in a hospital now feels like service in wartime. Confinement to the sofa may be durance vile, but it is the least that those of us not on the front lines can do.

Would fiscal stimulus during a pandemic cause inflation?

I’ll start by noting that over the past couple of decades, it has proved far less necessary to worry about inflation than most economists have long thought. Economists used to believe in something called the Phillips curve, for example, which asserted that the odds of inflation rise as the rate of unemployment descends. They even used to believe that they could use the Phillips curve to make predictions. The last half decade of low, low unemployment and low, low inflation has trashed that faith. Median wages have only begun to inch up in real terms very recently, and these days many economists believe that the US economy could make profitable and noninflationary use of even more fiscal stimulus than it has received. There’s been a fair amount of fiscal stimulus under Trump; deficit spending has soared in a way that Republicans would never have permitted under a Democratic President, and yet all the indicators have toddled happily along nonetheless. The Fed is so far from worrying about inflation these days that its great fear of late seems to be that it has kept interest rates so low for so long that if it needs to add fiscal stimulus by monetary means, there’s not much lower it can go.

All of this is by way of saying, it’s a little perverse at the moment for me to even raise the specter of inflation, and I know it. Let me explain what made me think to ask the question.

In the 1970s, Keynesian economics failed to explain the combination of high unemployment and high inflation that became known as “stagflation.” This intellectual failure gave a policy opening to Friedman’s monetarism and, a decade later, to Thatcher and Reagan’s neoliberalism. Did Keynesianism fail because its premises were wrong, as Friedman and other advocates of shrinking the government asserted, or because the Keynesians were misreading the economic signals at the time? This is a big debate among economists. Among the most striking economic signal in the 1970s were the spikes in the real price of oil. Looking through the decade’s numbers, I’ve been impressed by the fact that real food prices seemed to spike in tandem with real oil prices, which makes sense, given that modern agriculture is driven by fossil fuel, via fertilizer and farm machinery. In other words, during the 1970s, two costs that an average working person could not forgo, food and fuel, both rose relative to the prices of other goods, leaving workers with less to spend on any other category, and as Keynes showed, the spending of people with less income is far more crucial to the strength of the economy than the spending of those at the top. This leads me to wonder, in my amateur, I’m-only-a-novelist-playing-at-economics way, if an economic crisis caused by a sudden rise in the cost of core goods might be different in kind from an economic crisis caused by a collapse in demand. Maybe the right remedy for one might not be beneficial for the other?

There’s a suggestion of this in an endnote to Binyamin Appelbaum’s new book, The Economists’ Hour. Appelbaum believes that Keynesianism can be reconciled with the conditions of the 1970s:

Stagflation can be explained in a Keynesian framework, but the explanation was not well understood at the time. The gist is that higher oil prices forced people to reduce consumption of oil, or of other goods, which increased unemployment. The United States responded with an economic stimulus, driving up inflation. Why was the stimulus ineffective? The original problem was a decline in the supply of oil, so pumping money into the system drove up prices. It was a demand-side response to a supply-side problem. Nations that refrained from stimulating their economies, including Germany and Switzerland, experienced an economic downturn but did not experience higher inflation.

My question is whether a COVID-19 pandemic, if it does break out in America (this coming fall if not this spring or summer), might be more like the 1970s oil crisis than like the 2009 financial crisis. In America, as in all industrialized economies, the bulk of the economy long ago shifted away from manufacturing to service. But during a pandemic, the supply of services is bound to contract, as people stay home from work because of either illness or fear of illness. And if services end up suffering a supply-side shock—if there are suddenly far fewer people offering services—will pouring money into the economy help? (Pouring in money is what a number of policy makers are now contemplating.) If far fewer people are healthy or brave enough to cut your hair, babysit your children, or deliver your groceries, because they’re all sheltering in place in their homes, won’t juicing the economy merely drive up the price of these services, without doing much to increase the number of people available to perform them?

I’m offering this only as speculation. I may have misunderstood some of the economic fundamentals here; for example, in the gig economy we have now, all those haircutters, babysitters, and grocery deliverers will probably be abruptly without income during a pandemic, and maybe the demand-side shock caused by their loss of income will cancel out any supply-side shock caused by their sudden withdrawal of services, and so they’ll need to get some new money in their wallets after all. Or it may be the case that the underlying capacity of the economy to absorb more stimulus is still simply greater than any compromise of that capacity that might be inflicted by the pandemic’s shock to the supply of services.

UPDATE, 6:20pm: I just discovered that Appelbaum himself raised more or less exactly this issue, more cogently, in an online op-ed at the New York Times a few days ago:

Cutting rates is not an effective antidote for the coronavirus. Lower interest rates increase economic growth by driving up demand, while the disruptions caused by the spread of the virus are reducing the supply of goods. Cutting rates won’t address that “supply shock.” It won’t hasten the return of Chinese workers to factories, or speed ships across the Pacific.

Letter from the spices aisle

There was plenty of food to buy and there were few people shopping for it at Wegmans yesterday morning, which was probably about right for ten A.M. on a normal Friday. At the entrance, a policeman in uniform was standing in front of the citrus display, but he mostly seemed to be checking his phone. Am I overreacting? I wondered. I was at a grocery store instead of at my desk because I had thought that this wasn’t going to be a normal morning. Over breakfast, I had seen a tweet in my feed of empty shelves in Hokkaido, Japan, where a state of emergency had recently been declared on account of the coronavirus pandemic. Stores there had sold out of all paper products. I knew what happens to milk and bread at New York City grocery stores when there’s a rumor of a snowstorm, and had figured I had better sacrifice my hours for writing, which are never all that productive anyway.

I had a long shopping list. It didn’t make sense not to do the shopping for the week as well as for the apocalypse. I had instructed myself only to buy things that we regularly do eat and use. Oatmeal, farro—neither of which I could find, and I was too shy to ask, though Peter tells me that Wegmans does have both, the oatmeal we like apparently located in the “British” section of an ethnic foods aisle—canned beans, lentils. An exception: tunafish. In the early years of our relationship, Peter and I ate far too many servings of a dish we ended up calling “tunabeans” and now we almost never eat tuna from a can. But cans of tuna seemed very much like the sort of thing one eats at the end of the world. We joke a lot about how we’ll probably have to eat catfood in our old age, for example. I bought two.

Would two be enough? I wasn’t sure what I was planning for, exactly. Sheltering in place during some kind of general lockdown? Sweating out at home our own cases of coronavirus? (Would that even be legal?) I added a couple of cans of chicken noodle soup, which we allow our otherwise vegeta- and pescatarian selves to eat when we have respiratory ailments. But two cans of soup wouldn’t be enough if either of us actually did get sick. On the other hand, we weren’t sick yet. Maybe because it was hard to believe I was really buying groceries for a plague, I only seemed able to do it halfheartedly.

I bought a couple of boxes of tissues, even though I’m a handkerchief person, and as I put them in my cart, in my head I wrote a joke, which I later shared on Twitter, about how I was going to use them in a few weeks as currency, the way packs of cigarettes used to be traded in the gulag archipelago. Shopping in extremis seems to put me in mind of the Warsaw Pact. When I lived in Prague, decades ago, while Czechoslovakia was in a ditch between communism and capitalism, there were rolling, unpredictable shortages because farmers and other producers of goods were hoarding in anticipation of being able to get better prices once the new world order arrived. For a long time there were no potatoes; at one point, there was a run (as it were) on toilet paper, and on paper generally. Having been triggered by the Hokkaido tweet, I bought four rolls, and two of paper towels, in addition to the tissues. For years after Prague, I remained neurotic about keeping a stocked pantry, and about having candles and matches in a drawer somewhere in case the power went out. Half a dozen years ago I even made Verizon give us a backup battery when they insisted on replacing the good old-fashioned copper cable to our landline with a fiber optic one, which doesn’t transmit electricity. The phone company has a power system independent of Con Edison’s, and Verizon’s “update” was going to disconnect us from it. Now this backup battery is so old that it beeps an announcement of its death every few months, but as with most modern applicances, if you unplug it and then plug it back in, it resets and you get a little more life out of it. Just before leaving for the grocery store, in fact, it had been beeping and I had unplugged it anew.

When I started this essay, I thought I knew where it was going, but now I’m not sure.

When I got home, I saw out the window that our neighbors across the way have put up a Gadsden flag. That’s the yellow one with the snake asking not to be trodden. When I was a child, it was just a historical curiosity—I think it was around a fair amount during the bicentennial—but now it seems so dire. Last fall, when I visited my father, who lives in rural Texas, I was struck by how many houses in the state are flying “Trump 2020” flags. I don’t think I had ever seen flags for a political campaign before. Yard signs and bumper stickers, but not flags. And the presidential election was then still a year away! It suggested a shift in the kind of allegiance people were expressing. My parents both often tell me that I don’t understand what support for Trump is like in their part of the country now, and they’re probably right.

I put the groceries away, ate lunch, tried to do a little work. Later in the afternoon, on my bike on the way to Cross Fit, I decided I should write an essay about how shopping for a plague is reminding me of having lived once before in a society that was in crisis, but then I had been young and the disorder had seemed like an adventure and a challenge—like a story that I was visiting rather than one that I was described by. And Wegmans had been so calm! Maybe after all I was the one carrying around the anxiety about being able to provide in an emergency, perhaps on account of still being a writer, which doesn’t quite add up to a living. We still needed oatmeal and farro. There was a Whole Foods on the way back from Cross Fit, and after class, I stopped there on my bike ride home.

At Whole Foods, though I knew where to find the oatmeal we liked, there wasn’t any. “It’s getting pretty cleared out,” said an employee, when I asked if they really didn’t have that brand in stock. They still had another brand that we don’t like quite as much, so I took two bags of it. Then took another three, because we have oatmeal every morning. Would five be enough? There were still a few bags of farro; I took them. The only cans of beans still left were lesser-known varieties, but I already had enough beans. Most of the pasta shelves were empty. Maybe people who shop at Whole Foods are more avid news consumers than people who shop at Wegmans? Or maybe the mood of the city had changed over the course of the day? In which case perhaps it hadn’t actually been crazy of me to have gone to the store in the morning. I got in line with my few items, but while waiting, I started to feel anxious. Did I really have everything we needed? Had I gotten enough tunafish?

I went back. “We need QR codes for all of these,” one employee was saying to another, gesturing at empty shelves where cans of beans had been. “They just declared a state of emergency in California,” another employee volunteered. “The whole state?” I asked, shocked. “I don’t know because I haven’t had time to look into it,” he replied. (In fact, so far only a few counties in Califonia have declared emergencies.) I got more tunafish—four cans, this time. There were still two small boxes (not cans, this was Whole Foods) of chicken soup on the shelf, and they seemed to be the last ones. I took them, too. Before I left the aisle I remembered that we needed whole coriander, not for the apocalypse but just for our regular lives. Whole Foods doesn’t have whole coriander, only ground coriander, and I knew this, but “Walk Away, Renee” had started to play on the store loudspeakers, and Peter had told me last week that one of the members of the Left Banke had died recently, so I stood in front of the spices for a while as if to verify that they didn’t have whole coriander and it occurred to me while I was standing there trying to hold it together that this wasn’t going to be the first plague I had lived through, actually, even though this one looked like it was going to move a lot faster, and I suddenly had the feeling that I had had one night during Hurricane Sandy when I was scrolling through Twitter and came across a video of a Con Ed transformer exploding down by the East River—a feeling that everything was coming apart and that maybe it was going to be too much for me. I was fine, though, I knew. Peter and I were in good health (and even if we came down with coronavirus, we’d almost certainly be fine), and I was shopping for things like farro and steel-cut oatmeal. I was living in the richest country in the world. It’s just a sad song, I told myself.

On the ride home it occurred to me that if Trump loses in the fall, then by this time next year he won’t be President. In fact he won’t have been President for five weeks. This might not happen, of course, but it was pleasant to think about.