Austan Goolsbee (YC ’91) served as President Obama’s Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) from 2010-2011 and as a member of the President’s Cabinet. During his tenure on the CEA, Goolsbee helped shape the response to the global financial crisis and the Great Recession. He is now the Robert P. Gwinn Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. 

You helped craft the Obama administration’s response to the 2008 economic crisis. How does the current pandemic’s economic fallout compare with the 2008 crisis?

There are many ways that I think the financial crisis –– the years 2008, 2009, 2010 –– is quite different from what’s happening with COVID-19, and we’ll get to that in a second. 

But, first, there are a few facets of it which are strangely parallel. They are both crises that originated around contagion in some sense. The financial crisis was about financial contagion –– if one bank failed, it was going to lead other banks to fail, and if the banks failed, then the insurance companies would fail. It was that kind of interconnection that was everyone’s fear at the time.

Now, it’s obviously physical contagion. The thing about that is that crises of contagion are about fear, and people’s response to fear is to withdraw. In 2009, it was about financial withdrawal, people just pulling their money out. So it had the feeling of old-fashioned bank runs. This time they’re pulling their physical person out of the economy, and so the service sector is collapsing

The contagion and fear is the biggest parallel. The main difference is that 2008 was a financial crisis. A lot of the attention had to be centered on preventing financial institutions from failing and spiraling into a Great Depression. This current crisis is really the first recession we’ve had that’s caused by something that has nothing to do with the economy. And so the sectors that are hit now look nothing like the sectors of 2009, which looked much more like a regular business cycle. This time big drivers of the collapse of GDP are sectors like healthcare –– people stopped going to the doctor, they didn’t want to go to the dentist. They didn’t want to have somebody in their face. Before 2020, we largely viewed all of this service sector stuff—personal services, restaurants, leisure, entertainment, travel and tourism, going to the gym—as recession-proof. This time, it’s driving the recession. 

As a sidenote, that’s why I think forecasts have been so bad. People are basically trying to jam a totally unprecedented, unusual thing into a regular business cycle model. They’re asking, how fast did the economy come back in 1984 when we cut interest rates? How fast did it come back in 1991 when a recession began? Those are just totally unlike this. 

Given those similarities and differences, how should the policy response to the current crisis compare to 2008?

What needs to be done is not actually in the choice set of the government. You have to make people not afraid for the economy to come back, and the government can’t just change a rule and say, therefore, no one is afraid. So you have to set the conditions so that now, you stop or dramatically slow the spread of the virus. 

Then, you have to make people comfortable.  In the Bush administration in the financial crisis and the Trump administration with the COVID-19 crisis, their series of actions undermined their credibility in a crisis. Andrew Metrick is a dear friend of mine and runs the [Yale] Program on Financial Stability. He and I worked pretty closely with Paul Volcker through the financial crisis, and Paul Volcker kept saying that in a crisis, the only asset you have is your credibility. His view was that in a non-crisis time, you want to build up your credibility –– even if it’s making you look bad to tell the truth –– because you’re going to need it someday. When everything goes wrong, if you’ve lost your credibility, then your announcements don’t work. 

The fundamental thing that needs to be done for COVID-19 –– like what needed to be done with the financial crisis –– is yes, you got to sort out the technical aspects of the fire, but you also need to convince people that it’s safe to come back. When you have a problem of credibility I think change of administration –– of either party, of anything –– can be a good outcome in itself. It’s rebalancing.

That’s all a long wind-up to say: I think what has to happen now, I’ve been saying it from the beginning. The number one rule of virus economics is that if you want to help the economy, you have to stop the spread of the virus. Period. Every other strategy is a failure. You can try to prioritize the economy, not health, but if you do that, you will get neither. You will get 500,000 people dead and the economy still won’t be back because there is this huge component of fear of catching a fatal virus. 

They’ve got to stop the virus, and simultaneously they’ve got to have what is more like disaster relief than it is stimulus. Stimulus is about jumpstarting the economy and getting it to grow. That’s not really that feasible in a moment when nobody wants to go out. You have to stop the virus and then couple it with relief payments so people don’t get evicted, thrown out, freeze to death. You’re burning money so you don’t freeze to death until you fix the furnace. And you need that relief money for as long as the virus goes. That argument –– wait, didn’t we pass a whole bunch of relief money last year –– yes! But then the virus reemerged, continuing to rage out of control, that means we need more money. If we don’t get control of the virus, we’ll need even more money. That’s the cost of life support. 

Do you think journalists and policymakers have been using those two terms –– “relief” and “stimulus” –– somewhat interchangeably? 

Yes. Totally confusing the terms. You’ll hear them now talking about it. Ah, the $1.9 trillion stimulus bill! And being sloppy with that language leads to mistakes in our reasoning. Once you start using the word stimulus and thinking about stimulus, it invites now –– you’ve probably followed this whole debate –– is this going to be inflationary? Is it too big?

There I think they have in their mind, well, let’s take the budgetary cost, call that stimulus, jam it through the old business cycle model from past recessions to tell us how much inflation and how much economic growth will come from it. I just think that’s conceptually incorrect. In the language of stimulus, the multiplier on government spending that’s in the form of handing you money –– so that you can pay the rent this month and not get evicted –– that has low bang for the buck. It doesn’t generate any kind of output. It prevents future collapse. It prevents permanent damage.

But it’s not as though all the economists and policy people have been in the right and the journalists have been in the wrong. There’s a lot of confusion about the terms even among the policy people. 

This debate about the level of relief that’s warranted is going on even within the Democratic Party. Former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers and former National Economic Council Director Gene Sperling wrote opposing op-eds earlier this month. Summers has warned that spending big on stimulus or relief might make it difficult to spend on other priorities like infrastructure or climate. Where do you come down on it?

The Summers op-ed… [laughs] I was personally frustrated because I had written a New York Times column that came out two days before the Summers column in which I made an argument about why you should go bigger than you expect to need. The argument was that during a pandemic where there is contagion, wait and see is the absolute worst strategy you can follow. 

In 2020 we followed a wait and see strategy. We passed the CARES Act. Then the virus reemerged. People said, no, it’s going down, maybe we don’t need more relief, let’s wait and see. But of course by December, January, it’s raging out of control again and the economy clearly slowed down. We started losing jobs on a monthly basis again. And it’s precisely because we’re going to “wait and see” what happens with something that’s spreading. By the time you see it, it’s too late. 

Deficit spending does make sense now. We should not be raising taxes right now in the short-term to pay for the response to a short-term crisis. Biden’s other campaign priorities –- the Build Back Better, spending on infrastructure and climate and inequality –– came with long-term plans to create revenue and avoid deficit spending, which makes sense. So I think we can pay for relief through deficit spending and still have ways of paying for other priorities.

To wrap up, is there an economic question –– pandemic-related or otherwise –– that you think pundits aren’t covering enough right now? 

It’s maybe my personal contrarian bias, but there’s been all of this talk about work from home, about domestic migration, about creating domestic supply chains for masks and PPE.

My view is that anything about COVID-19 that goes against long-standing trends in the economy is likely to default back to the normal trend. Right now everyone is moving to rural and small urban areas. But urbanization is a fundamental, monotonic trend economic force –– we’re more productive when we’re near each other. People move to cities because they can share ideas and collaborate directly. It might take two, five, ten years, but I think you’re going to see companies moving back to major urban areas.