The illness and the illusion

I don’t think surprised is the right word, but one of the things that has been niggling at my brain during this pandemic is all the economic reporting. While it’s clear why hospitals and supermarkets need to remain open, and, yes, there needs to be some kind of childcare provision for those workers, it is not at all clear to me why the stock and money markets need to remain open.

Sure, the high street is suffering (though I don’t attribute the failure of Carluccio’s to the epidemic, after one week of lockdown), a visible symbol of the lockdown. On the other hand, lots of solutions have already been offered: cancellation of business rates, mortgage holidays, 80% of employees’ salaries paid by the taxpayer.

But why were stockprices still falling? Why weren’t the markets and the funds all frozen, the algorithms set to OFF, and all the button pushers sent home for the duration? Of all the people in society who ought to be able to afford a few weeks off, these people, right? Just shut it all down until it’s all over: you’re not doing anything that society needs right now.

Shares in Zoom, the video-conferencing company, are booming. Is this the same Zoom that was installing a secret web server on peoples’ computer a year or so ago? A secret web server that remained in place even if you deleted the app? (Reader, it is.) Is this the same Zoom that has been caught selling its users’ data to Facebook, even if they weren’t Facebook users? (Reader, it is.)

Why is there even a story about Zoom other than, um, maybe don’t use it? Why is there a story about Zoom’s value as a company when the only story ought to be “Zoom’s shares, like all other shares, are frozen for the duration”? Or “For some reason people are trusting this company that has repeatedly shown itself to be untrustworthy”?

Could it be because it’s all an illusion? Could it be because, if we turned off the stock exchange magic money tap for three months, life would go on pretty much as normal? And that the people with their mouths around the hose ends don’t really provide anything essential? Could it be that in order to maintain the illusion, we need to pretend that all the public spending is somehow damaging the economy and will lead to Consequences? Because if we didn’t go on pretending, people might get the idea that the last time this kind of thing happened, in 2008, there was no need for all the suffering that followed? Sure, your pension, if you have one, is tied up in stocks and shares, but a three month freeze can only help, not harm, your fund.

The Greens have been saying for years that we need to move beyond economic growth as a measure of how well we are collectively doing. And that we need to do so urgently in order to deal with climate change. But even as the skies clear and the pollution haze dissipates and oil production is reducing, the papers are full of stories about recession and fears of reduced growth in China – even the bloody Graun.

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