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Two Take-Aways from the COVID-19 Crisis

I have nothing much of any value to add to what well-informed people – people far more informed about this matter than I am – have already said about the coronavirus. Still, in my most-recent column for AIER I do offer two reflections that are spawned by this crisis. A slice:

We take for granted that whatever we wish to pick up today at Safeway, Kroger, or Target will be available in whatever quantities we fancy. Likewise, we treat as an enduring feature of nature our ability to wander whenever we wish into a restaurant and to be served whatever menu items we order.

But the viral spread of COVID-19 – by drawing widespread attention to the likelihood that many workers will not show up for work – hopefully will provoke more of us to realize two facts about our material prosperity: first, this prosperity requires a massive division of labor; second, this prosperity is the result of an ongoing process of efforts.

Most of what constitutes our prosperity is a flow of finely coordinated activities each performed by highly specialized workers. In normal times this flow of activities is largely out of sight. It’s the daily production and delivery of soap, of toothpaste, of aspirin, and of beef, bread, beer, and blueberries. Items such as these don’t fall manna-like from the heavens onto retailers’ shelves. Nor for many goods are months’ worth of inventories lingering in warehouses idly waiting to be accessed. Every moment of every day hundreds of millions of specialists – from CEOs to accountants to factory workers to retail clerks – work to ensure that prosperity is continually produced and flowing.

Our wealth, in the end, isn’t the amount of cash we have stuffed into our purses or deposited in our banks. Nor is it the number of numerals to the left of the decimal point in our 529 plans and 401(k)s. Ultimately, our wealth consists chiefly in the ongoing willingness and ability of millions of strangers to work for us daily. Any obstacle to large numbers of people performing their daily jobs means hardship for us all.

This fact is true for Jeff Bezos just as it is true for you and me. Yes, Bezos surely has stockpiled more food, fuel, and medicines than now sit in ordinary Americans’ pantries and basements. But even Bezos, despite his billions, would soon find himself impoverished if the unheralded daily creation of wealth grinds to a halt.

My hope is that this coronavirus pandemic will inspire greater cognizance of our enormous dependence on the daily activities of countless specialized workers, every one of whom is a stranger to the vast majority of people with whom he or she works and that he or she serves. Such cognizance might then, in turn, rouse more people to realize that wealth isn’t a heap of stuff created easily, permanently existing, and housed in some mysterious location simply waiting to be “distributed.”


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