Pooling our ignorance on the CovidD-19 economy

Published 2:00 pm Monday, April 20, 2020

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by Andy Millard


Like millions of Americans, I’m eager for a return to normal life. I want to sit down for dinner at Lavender Bistro, see a movie at the Tryon Theatre or catch a show at the Tryon Fine Arts Center. After a decades-long hiatus from directing plays, I really, really want to be able to fulfill the plan of directing Romeo and Juliet in Rogers Park this summer.

You yourself might own a small business that’s teetering on the edge of survival, or maybe you’ve lost a job you loved and needed through no fault of your own.

Maybe you’re just ready for our local businesses to restart the engine of commerce. Wouldn’t it be great to see traffic jams returning to Trade Street? Smiling faces spilling out of the Tryon Bottle onto the sidewalk? Schoolchildren piling out of buses on a spring morning?

It’s not that simple, of course. Start with the grim cost in human life and health. Polk County has only 10 confirmed COVID-19 cases as of this writing, but our neighbors are not so lucky. Rutherford County has 75 cases with two deaths, Henderson County 120 cases with eight deaths, Spartanburg County 213 cases with five deaths, Greenville County 492 cases with 11 deaths.

Those numbers are almost certainly undercounts. Case in point: South Carolina’s Department of Health and Environmental Control discloses not just the number of confirmed cases but also the number of estimated cases. By their estimate, there are actually over 1,300 cases in Spartanburg County and over 3,000 cases in Greenville County. And growing.

Despite the speed of the virus’ spread, it’s clear that social distancing is having positive effects. The numbers of cases and deaths would certainly be higher if we “reopened” the economy immediately. With that in mind, some folks have taken to opining about how much additional illness and death would be an acceptable price to pay for a return to some semblance of normalcy.

Leaving aside the godlike implications of such calculations, they miss at least one important factor—and they proceed from a false premise.

The missing factor is the already-unbearable strain on our healthcare system and the heroes who work it on our behalf. What would happen to them if we ended social distancing prematurely? My niece is an ER resident at UNC Hospital in Chapel Hill; I can assure you, she doesn’t need any more on her plate right now.

The false premise is the notion that someone can flip a switch, or sign a decree, or wave a wand, and the wheels of commerce will start spinning, shop and factory doors will fling open, people will start streaming out of their homes and we’ll all be back to “normal.”

In reality, business owners and customers will likely pay little heed to such decrees. They’ll make their own decisions as to when and how to start up again. And the wheels of commerce will likely spin quite slowly at first, as business owners and families make their own calculations as to when to venture out into a world that’s still infested with an invisible killer for which there is no cure, no vaccine and precious little testing.

Finally, there’s a risk of the economy opening too quickly, leading to a rash of new cases and deaths and necessitating a second shutdown. As smarter people than I have pointed out, this country cannot afford to close for business a second time. We need to get it right on the first try.

I had a professor at Wake Forest who taught me a valuable figure of speech. Whenever the class would launch into a group discussion where everyone had an opinion, but nobody really understood the subject matter, he would gently remind us that we were “pooling our ignorance.” That phrase is very apt in this moment. As we confidently spout our positions, we would do well to remind ourselves that no one really has a complete grasp of what we’re dealing with.

If you’re a business owner, I wish you wisdom and luck as you make your plans for the next few months. As for the rest of us: rather than pooling our ignorance—pretending that we know best in this complex life-or-death environment—maybe we should take a breath, stop talking, listen to the real experts, and give our designated decision-makers the space and support they need to do what is right with the limited information they have.

Andy Millard, CFP® is a retired financial planner and former principal of Millard & Company, an investment management firm. He does not offer financial planning services; this column is not intended as advice but rather education and opinion. Consult a professional advisor. If you have questions about financial planning or investments, feel free to submit them to Andy at camillard@mac.com.