“We closed [the economy] down and now we’re reopening, and we’re doing record business,” President Donald Trump said during the first presidential debate of 2020.
He wasn’t alone in celebrating the surprising “recovery” after months of lockdowns and harsh restrictions. Economist Martin A. Sullivan told Forbes that “the snapback was almost as remarkable as the decline.”
But politicians and economists who want to mark lockdowns as economically successful don’t talk about the downside we’ve experienced in the interim between lockdowns and the imminent recession: how miserable the consumer experience has been. This experience isn’t as acutely painful as the oppressive lockdowns and mandates themselves, but it should nevertheless remind us that the economy can’t be “switched off” without consequences.
The employment rate may have technically bounced back, but other parts of the economy’s complex machinery, like supply chains rattled by lockdowns in other countries and trucking shortages, haven’t operated smoothly since before lockdowns. Going by a plethora of anecdotal evidence, quality of service has declined across many sectors, probably in part due to the Great Resignation that saw millions drop out of the workforce and take their job competence with them. Not only that, but the high number of remote workers feel disengaged from the mission and purpose of their companies. Apathy adversely affects performance.
Think about the customer experiences you’ve had in the past week, month, year, three years. We are paying much more for most things and buying from organizations that are harder to work with. In many cases, products are of lower quality and smaller than they were before (mentions of shrinkflation have been steadily rising in Yelp reviews). We wait far longer for all of it — often just to find out our orders or service requests were canceled, were replaced with an inferior product from another brand, or somehow slipped through the cracks.
Inconvenience is nothing new, but it seems to have been a particularly common affliction these last few years. We all have stories: suffering on the phone with the bank for an hour after getting put on hold by a remote worker who couldn’t care less whether your problem gets solved, only to have the call dropped at 4:59 p.m.; Holiday Inns having broken dryers, broken vending machines, broken Wi-Fi, and front desk “help” that is anything but; and automated offers to have you talk to a real person who might be able to help you solve a problem that are never fulfilled. Being a “platinum member” of this or that no longer seems to guarantee you anything in terms of service, much less perks.
Grocery stores still have fewer choices than before the Covid-19 panic. It wasn’t until just this summer I finally saw dark brown sugar at the store again, after not being able to find it for three years. At one point all the eggs were gone from the Walmart. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve gone to the store to get a very normal household item and come back empty-handed. I’ll bet you have, too.
Or take the county fair as an example. Ride tickets at my local fair were triple the price of what they were a couple of years ago, the swipe fees were outrageous and sometimes hidden, the funnel cake we bought had clearly been sitting out for many hours, and the curly fry brick was completely unsalted. For three people to ride the Ferris wheel cost $15. What’s more, the non-food vendor space, normally wall-to-wall with merchandise, held only a small handful of vendors. Aggressive inflation, longer lines, poor products, poor service, and fewer options — a microcosm of the greater economy.
And what does the government tell us about the state of the nation these last few years? That they saved us, they filled our savings accounts (however briefly), and they avoided a recession. Sure, inflation is a nasty beast, but trust the wise Fed: It’s maneuvering for a “soft landing.” Through a failure to see down the long chain of consequences, from the instigation of lockdowns themselves to the mistaken belief that shoveling dollars into people’s pockets will “save the economy,” the last two administrations heaped chronic misery onto what would have been essentially a tragic but systemically manageable flu (if our government hadn’t panicked).
And instead of avoiding a recession, they simply delayed it until after the 2020 presidential election. President Joe Biden’s massive “stimulus” and expansion of food stamps by 27 percent undoubtedly propelled inflation, and his travel mask mandates hurt tourism. But the money-dumping started with the CARES Act, which Trump and Congress used, as Heritage economist Peter St. Onge has put it, “to bribe Americans into accepting lockdowns.”
Few consumer experiences are as good as they were before lockdowns, and we have arrogant politicians and busybody bureaucrats to thank for it. Covid was a global phenomenon, and the choices of other governments, particularly China’s, played a major role in destabilizing the economy.
In addition to the aftermath of lockdowns, now supply chains must be rerouted around the Russia-Ukraine war as well. Actions have consequences, and the consequences of government action reach the furthest and last the longest.
Every time the government sticks its fingers into the complex machinery of the economy, it remodels the economy to look just a little more like itself. The more the tyrants meddle, the more the private sector starts to resemble the DMV. Someone remarked to me recently that getting mental health treatment while on Obamacare is “like socialized medicine — but you still have to pay for it.”
So in the latter half of 2023, the aura of government incompetence, greed, and don’t-give-a-damn permeates the economy, long after the understandable depression and cynicism of low-wage workers who had to show up to do a job while others got to sit at home and collect a paycheck. It doesn’t matter how high the Federal Reserve cranks up interest rates, the stench of lockdowns just won’t release. Let all the aches and irritations of buying stuff over the last three years — and for the foreseeable future — remind us to never, ever let the government do this again.