• Pure Speculation

Why Reopening Isn't Enough To Save The Economy

Updated: Jul 30, 2020



Brooklyn Heights sits across the East River from Lower Manhattan. It's filled with multimillion-dollar brownstones and — usually — Range Rovers, Teslas and BMWs. These days it's easy to find parking. The brownstones are mostly dark at night. The place is a ghost town. And the neighborhood's sushi restaurants, Pilates studios, bistros and wine bars are either closed or mostly empty. It's a microcosm for what has been the driver of the pandemic recession: Rich people have stopped going out, destroying millions of jobs.


That's one of the key insights of a blockbuster study that was dropped late last week by a gang of economists led by Harvard University's Raj Chetty. If you don't know who Chetty is, he's sort of like the Michael Jordan of policy wonks. He's a star economist. He and his colleagues assemble and crunch massive data sets and deliver insights that regularly shift core economic debates about inequality and opportunity. This new study focuses on the economic impact of COVID-19 and the government response. To us nerds, this is like Game 7 of the NBA Finals, and Chetty just swooped in at a crucial moment to drop some threes.


On the day the study came out, Chetty participated in a Zoom webinar sponsored by Princeton University's Bendheim Center for Finance. Dressed in a white-collared shirt with bookshelves as his background, Chetty took us all through the study. The data? Good lord. They've assembled several gigantic new data sets from private companies, including credit and debit card processors and national payroll companies. The data are allfreely available online, updated in real time and presented in an easily digestible form. Chetty and his team have crunched it all to give some precise insights about consumer spending, jobs and the geographic impact of the crisis. The study represents an advance for economics as a science, and it has got some bombshells.


"Rich people have stopped going out, destroying millions of jobs."

First up, consumer spending. Typically, Chetty said, recessions are driven by a drop in spending on durable goods, like refrigerators, automobiles and computers. This recession is different. It's driven primarily by a decline in spending at restaurants, hotels, bars and other service establishments that require in-person contact. We kinda already knew that. But what the team's data show is that this decline in spending is mostly in rich ZIP codes, whose businesses saw a 70% drop-off in their revenue. That compares with a 30% drop in revenue for businesses in poorer ZIP codes.


Second, jobs. This 70% fall in revenue at businesses in rich ZIP codes led those businesses to lay off nearly 70% of their employees. These employees are mostly low-wage workers. Businesses in poorer ZIP codes laid off about 30% of their employees. The bottom line, Chetty said in his presentation, is that "reductions in spending by the rich have led to loss in jobs mostly for low-income individuals working in affluent areas."


Third, the government rescue effort. They find it has mostly failed. The $500 billion Paycheck Protection Program, which has given forgivable loans to businesses with fewer than 500 employees, doesn't appear to have done much to save jobs. When the researchers compare the employment trends of businesses with fewer than 500 employees with those with more, the smaller businesses eligible for PPP don't see a relative boost after the program went into effect. It looks like the program didn't do its job of saving jobs. Meanwhile, the stimulus checks, while increasing spending, did not have much stimulative effect because the spending mostly flowed to big companies like Amazon and Walmart. The money didn't flow to the rich ZIP code, in-person service businesses most affected by the downturn. Overall, the federal rescue package, they find, has failed to rescue the businesses and jobs getting hammered most by the pandemic.


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