People are beginning to hoard toilet paper. I went on a normal shopping trip to buy toilet paper last week and could not find any because of all the panic-buying. Social media is full of people storming grocery stores and fighting over two-ply. Hand sanitizer is extremely difficult to find. The Clorox plant up the road from me is running 24 hours to keep up with demands.
But the toilet paper?
The run on toilet paper should be the biggest signal that an economic stimulus plan is not going to work right now. People are being driven by fear, and they are being told to stay out of crowds. People are stocking up on toilet paper because they are convinced they are going to get quarantined or otherwise stuck in their homes.
Giving businesses money, making loans cheap and encouraging people to get out and shop is not going to help. What might actually help is giving people exactly what they expect — ordering everyone to stay home.
But this presents a way more complicated solution than some want to acknowledge. Shut down schools? And what about the nurses and doctors who have small children? What do we do with those kids?
What about the workers in the restaurant industry who work hourly and won’t get paid if there are no customers? If the restaurant can’t get revenue, it can’t meet payroll. Should the restaurant apply for a loan from the government to pay the workers and possibly risk the financial future of the restaurant? Perhaps. If the restaurant is going to go out of business otherwise, why not try to keep it afloat for some time? But for how long?
Do we make people apply for unemployment in person when we want them not to congregate? Do we start paying people, and, if so, what do we do about the debt and inflation and the value of the currency?
If the government isn’t ordering people to essentially shelter in place nationwide, how is this going to contain the virus? If the government does order people to shelter in place, what about the workers who cannot get paid? What about vacation deposits?
These are not easy answers. But they are demanding answers at this point.
What we know about the coronavirus is that it is orders of magnitude more deadly than the flu and highly contagious. What we know is that people are already convinced they are going to be quarantined in their houses and are stockpiling. What we know is that restricting travel will restrict the spread of the virus.
The public is panicked and needs to see serious, grown-up leadership in Washington right now, as well as some bipartisan unity. The public is expecting draconian efforts and has already baked their expectations into their toilet paper buying habits. The Washington solution seems to be that both sides of the aisle have different, competing economic stimulus plans. They will undoubtedly do both, further driving up federal spending, the deficit and the debt. I just do not think it will matter right now.
The president could fly Air Force One over major cities and dump freshly printed hundred dollar bills out of the belly of the plane, but if people think they’re going to get the coronavirus, they still are not going to take that cash and go shop, eat out or mingle in large crowds. They won’t even go to the bank to deposit it. They will, like with the toilet paper, simply stockpile it till the crisis is over.
Before any stimulus can work, the public must trust the health care response. To trust the health care response, President Donald Trump cannot be competing with his own administration’s message. The economic fallout is going to grow far worse than the virus unless the Trump administration gets publicly aggressive and gets buy-in from Congress.
Unfortunately for all of us, there is a bipartisan problem in Washington. Both sides have “electionitis,” and the only cure is denying the other side any sort of public successes in order to beat them in November. It is not yet known how many Americans will die in the process.