On 26th September, 2001, The Onion headline read, “Not Knowing What Else to do, Woman Bakes American-Flag Cake.”1 That was the feeling I had at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. I found myself unable to get work done and constantly obsessing over news and then data on topics that I knew very little about. I was in self isolation having travelled to the United States. Upon reflection, not knowing what else to do, I decided I would do what I was good at: I’d write a book. I would endeavor to explain some of the broader economic issues arising from the pandemic to a wide audience.
In this task, I was hampered by two things. First, and this is what every economist writing about this has been saying, I am not an epidemiologist. That meant I was absorbing that material as an amateur and so had to be cautious regarding my own understanding. So, I would be flying well beyond what the usual academic norms would dictate which meant I had to be careful in making any claims. That said, my goal here was to explain the economic issues of all this and in that task, I was very experienced. Second, things were moving fast. Policies were changing. Scientists were learning more about the virus and its disease. No one had the information to create an appropriate assessment to evaluate the reasonableness of decisions being made although everyone (including myself) had opinions they were willing to put all over social media. But if this book was going to be relevant in a month, let alone a year’s time (as I wanted it to be), I was going to have refrain from being judgmental. That meant that there would be no politics and even applause for what seemed like the best policies nor distain for what seemed like the worst. For readers looking for that, you will have to get that elsewhere.
In the end, what we have here is a hastily written book that no doubt leaves out citations to many who deserve it. Its purpose was to be an urgent source of clarification and a thoughtful take on the issues. In so doing, I was forecasting what we would potentially take away from this crisis and what we would want to reflect upon beyond the chaos of the first month or so. I’m hoping not to be completely wrong about all of that but if I am, I will be the first one to call it out.
I would like to thank my family with whom I am stuck in a house writing this. They put up with my crazy idea to push out a book when I could be less socially distant, at least inside our household. I would also like to thank Ajay Agrawal, Scott Adams, Pierre Azoulay, Franceso Bova, Kevin Bryan, Eric Budish, Bruce Chapman, Alberto Galasso, Richard Holden, Andrew Leigh, June Ma, Barry Nalebuff, Bob Pindyck, Paul Romer, Scott Stern and Alex Tabarrok for helpful comments and discussions. I would also like to thank my constant companion through this -- #econtwitter – who alerted me to much of the research cited in this book. Finally, I owe a special debt to Emily Taber and the MIT Press team for acting so quickly to get this project out there.