COVID-19 Economic Response—Pick Your Picture
The nation is now having to come to terms with the COVID-19 economic response. Every organizational leader is having to pick their anticipated metaphor and make organizational decisions accordingly. The anticipated responses are varied. But this much we know: the picture you hold in your mind will dictate your actions. We think first in pictures. C.S. Lewis observed, “All our truth, or all but a few fragments is won by metaphor.” Pictures work differently than mere propositions. We sometimes say that “Pictures are worth a 1,000 words,” but it is not simply that they carry more information, rather they frame information. Metaphors convey interpretations and significance, not bare facts. Apologist Holly Ordway notes, “Metaphors are valuable because they build a bridge between the known and the unknown…. A metaphor is like a map intended to help the reader or viewer to arrive at the truth.” When it comes to the economic response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to be aware of the metaphors that we choose. In Christian circles there are two series of pictures that are being widely discussed: one is climate and the other geometry. Andy Crouch and Praxis have put forward the metaphors of climate to describe the anticipated economic outcome of the pandemic: blizzard, winter, and ice age. This imagery was reinforced by Crouch at his recent Q Virtual Summit address, “A Year Without a Summer.” A blizzard is an isolated passing event. Winter involves months or a season. And an ice age suggests lasting climatological change—“a once-in-a-lifetime change that is likely to affect our lives and organizations for years.” The normally optimistic Crouch and his team at Praxis seem to lean toward a permanent change—an ice age analysis or a prolonged 18-month downturn. He mentions 80% of businesses cannot survive an 18-month lag and therefore “no longer exist.” He warns nonprofits of needing to respond to a 60% reduction in long-term giving. Praxis observes, “Almost no one is currently planning for an ‘ice age’ scenario,” a year or more disruption. The suggestions that this trusted evangelical analyst is making are pretty sobering and daunting. I don’t fully agree with his analysis. I think it is safe to say that our experience has already taught us that this pandemic is more than a blizzard—a passing event with no lasting ongoing consequences. At issue is whether it is also ushering in long-term permanent social change—an ice age.
The other set of metaphors being used to describe the economic response to the pandemic are geometric: V, U, or a Nike swoosh. The anticipated V is the view most associated with the Trump administration’s championing of an immediate and strong economic return to normal. The U suggests improvement after a period at the bottom where thing remain economically bad. The turn toward improvement here is gradual. The Nike swoosh suggest an immediate turn to improvement, but only gradual economic growth, no sharp improvement. Two things are self-evident in this debate. First, we will have to choose a metaphor and we will marshal facts to buttress our chosen frame. One thing that the pandemic wisdom will not allow is failing to choose, somehow assuming that life will go on without any long-term consequences from this pandemic. The strategic plans of all organizations are going to have to be reassessed and our assumptions about how we do our work and fund raise are being called into question. This is an opportune time reassess one’s governing assumptions. In many cases, they will need to be reframed in light of the fallout from the pandemic. As a cultural analyst, my study of culture and cultural change suggests that it is rare for drastic long-term changes to happen quickly. Culture is very stable and enduring. It is very difficult to change and it is rarely like throwing a light switch. Culture is not like a passing fad. Cultural change is incremental and almost never immediate. So my view is that the “new normal” will continue to look more like the “old normal.” My own sense of it is that the lasting impact of the pandemic is going to be more psychological than economic or cultural. A national economic lock down is unprecedented and the psychological shock will remain with Americans for sometime. Myths of technological solutions to every problem and unquestioned economic stability in employment have been shattered. Perhaps the greatest outstanding variable for organizational decision makers is how the upcoming election will turn out. My guess is that voters will be looking for stability, calm, and continuity and will eschew bold moves and revolutionary economic alternatives that were so in vogue just six months ago. It is only honest to state unequivocally that no one can really predict the economic future with absolute certainty. Nonetheless, senior leadership demands making decisions in the midst of this uncertainty. Robert Greenleaf warns, “On an important decision one rarely has 100% of the information needed for a good decision no matter how much one spends or how long one waits. And, if one waits too long, he has a different problem and has to start all over. This is the terrible dilemma of the hesitant decision maker.” So without full certainty, organizational leaders will have to make a decision and pick a metaphor for the anticipated economic response to this pandemic. My own proclivity is to pick the moderate option: a U or winter. I do anticipate that the virus will return in the fall and that the deaths will continue until there is a vaccine in the fall of 2021. But I do not anticipate another nationwide economic lock down. There will be strong measures taken to deal with isolated flareups and some measures of safe public health mitigation behaviors will continue. But as the fundamentals of the economy are largely in place and sound, I’m of the opinion that by Labor Day we will be at the end of bottom U curve and on the way up. This could be a long painful summer unless the heat really does serve to minimize the spread of the virus, which is still an open question.
So my view is cautious optimism and avoiding the two extreme alternatives. What we can anticipate is more than a blizzard, but less than an ice age. But this is a winter season to be used wisely. For this is not the last global pandemic we are likely to see in our lifetime and there are lessons to be learned.