In A State Of Constant Stimulation

As we approach the two-year anniversary of the initial governmental shutdown orders of 2020–and are still dealing with the various variants of COVID-19–some members of Congress are back to considering whether more “stimulus” efforts should be undertaken, and a two-year-old Change.org petition calling on the federal government to send out $2,000 monthly “stimulus” checks to all Americans has passed the 3 million signature mark.

The initiators of the petition contend that, even after two years of various “stimulus” payments, the $2,000 monthly checks are needed because of uncertainty about what could happen if the government orders a new round of closures, if schools require remote learning, or if other disruptive events occur. The article linked above quotes the initiators of the petition as saying that signers are trying to send a message: “‘We just need certainty. We need to have something we can plan on month after month.’”

In short, for some people what began as an effort to help individuals and businesses while the country dealt with the economic shock of the initial, purportedly short-term “flatten the curve” shutdowns, through “stimulus” checks, enhanced unemployment benefits, and readily available business loans, has morphed into a quest for guaranteed, federally funded monthly income that would apparently extend into the indefinite future. When you reach that point, it can’t reasonably be called a “stimulus” payment anymore–unless you accept that our economy now is in need to constant “stimulation,” like a Frankenstein’s monster that is forever being zapped with high-voltage electricity in order to keep going. And such a budget-busting monthly payment obviously would have significant inflationary effects and other long-term consequences for the economy generally and the labor market specifically.

An interesting point is that the primary stated reason for the requested monthly checks is the impact of governmental decisions, like closure orders and requirements for virtual schooling from home, on individuals and families. Perhaps the real lesson from the petition isn’t that some people would like to continue to get governmental checks–that’s really no surprise–it is that governmental entities need to think twice about consequences before issuing new sweeping and disruptive orders after two years of COVID edicts.

Pandemiflab

When the COVID-19 lockdowns started, I remember getting texts from friends with memes consisting of before and after photos showing people gaining weight during the lockdown period. We chuckled at them then. Now a newly released study cites evidence that people in fact did put on weight during the shutdown–and it’s really no laughing matter.

The study involved adult participants from 37 states and the District of Columbia who were monitored between February 1 and June 1 last year. The study indicates that, once shutdown orders were implemented in their locations, the adults began gaining weight at a rate of 0.6 pound every 10 days, or roughly a pound and a half of body weight a month. Researchers attribute the weight gain to the effect of shelter-in-place and office shutdown orders that curtailed everyday activities like walking from an office desk to a conference room or walking to the subway and standing to wait for a train. Those little snippets of exercise during the day add up, and people working from home and sitting on their behinds all day don’t get them. Add in the fact that people reported eating and drinking more during the shutdown, and you’ve got the recipe for weight gain.

Gaining a pound and a half a month may not sound like much, but multiply 1.5 pounds by the number of months the various shutdowns were imposed in different states, or authorities were encouraging people to stay at home to curb spikes and hot spots, and you’ve got more than the “freshman 10” weight gain that people talked about back in college. That’s a lot of weight for people to add in a country where obesity had already become one of the largest public health challenges. And, as any adult knows, once you’ve put on that extra weight, trying to take it off isn’t easy–particularly if you’ve fallen into bad habits.

Once the pandemic period finally ends, we’ll start to get some perspective and meaningful data on whether the prolonged shutdown orders, including the current recommendations that even fully vaccinated people should stay at home if they can, were sound public policy decisions. That involves balancing the impact of those orders on the incidence of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations against a number of other factors, like depression, suicide, economic disruption and job loss, child development . . . and basic public health issues, like daily exercise, alcohol consumption, and weight gain. We should reserve judgment until all of the meaningful data comes in, but the study noted above shows that there are negative public health consequences to shutdown orders that need to be carefully balanced against the positive effects. It’s pretty clear that the analysis is not going to show a simple, one-sided story.