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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Economics is rarely aligned with morality. That's one lesson from the looting example I wrote about last week: Looting is harmful to society, and is criminalized for good reason, even though it can have positive economic consequences.

Why it matters: The disconnect between economic and moral imperatives lies at the heart of the biggest issues facing America today, from the rising appeal of socialism to the question of how to deal with the coronavirus outbreak.

Driving the news: Those who want to reopen America and get the economy moving again are pitched against those who think the highest priority is to minimize the spread of COVID-19.

  • A fragile consensus emerged early on that there was no real tension between the two imperatives — that unless and until the pandemic was brought under control, the economy could never return to its former health. The hope was that if the virus could be eradicated this summer, the economy could bounce back to its pre-pandemic state some time this fall.
  • Today the virus is so widespread that there is no realistic chance of new cases dropping to near zero before a vaccine arrives. New cases are being found at a rate of about 24,000 per day, while about 700 people per day are dying. So now the economic question has changed.

The economy won't return to its former health any time soon, given the enduring prevalence of the coronavirus and the sobering fact that about 3% of Americans diagnosed with COVID-19 are likely to die of it.

  • A PwC survey released this week found that fewer than half of employees say that safety measures like wearing masks or reconfiguring layouts will make them more comfortable returning to the office.
  • Since a "V-shaped economic recovery" won't happen, the economic best-case scenario is now a partial bounceback in the face of continued health concerns. The more that the economy reopens, the stronger that partial bounceback — and the more lives that will be lost to the virus.

The bottom line: America has made its choice. While lockdown protocols vary from state to state, the broad trend is that constraints on commerce are being lifted even as the virus continues to kill thousands of Americans every week.

  • The moral imperative has surrendered to the economic imperative. Any future lockdowns will likely be imposed only if a wave of hospitalizations and deaths threatens to imperil the nascent economic recovery.

Go deeper

Updated 8 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

  1. Health: CDC director defends agency's response to pandemic — CDC warns highly transmissible coronavirus variant could become dominant in U.S. in March.
  2. Politics: Empire State Building among hundreds to light up in Biden inauguration coronavirus tribute.
  3. Vaccine: Fauci: 100 million doses in 100 days is "absolutely" doable.
  4. Economy: Unemployment filings explode again.
  5. Tech: Kids' screen time sees a big increase.
Updated Sep 23, 2020 - Axios Events

Watch: Reimagining capitalism in America

On Wednesday, September 23 Axios' Felix Salmon hosted a conversation on capitalism in America, featuring Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), Director of Harvard's Democratic Knowledge Project Danielle Allen and founder and CEO of Operation HOPE and Bryant Group Ventures John Hope Bryant.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal discussed the details of the Paycheck Recovery Act, examples of other countries that have taken measures to stabilize their economies through the COVID-19 crisis, and the importance of accessible health care.

  • On the Paycheck Recovery Act: "It [could be] an automatic stabilizer to the economy...So it doesn't require congressional approval and therefore congressional bickering over what a package should or shouldn't be. It automatically kicks in."

Danielle Allen unpacked how the erosion of labor's bargaining power over the course of the 20th century has contributed to income inequality and how investing in the public good can lead to a more resilient public health system and economy.

  • On an effective public health system: "Public goods and substantial investment in public health infrastructure is a public good...Federal government needs to invest in and support data systems. States need to build out boots-on-the-ground organizational implementation, rebuild the sort of practices of their public health organizations in order to deliver those goods in practice as services."

John Hope Bryant discussed economic inequality in America, the importance of financial literacy and more accessible job training and internships.

  • On how economic inequality has impacted Black communities: "Where have we succeeded? The arts and entertainment and sports. Why? Because the playing field is level and the rules are published. Free enterprise and capitalism, the rules aren't published."

Axios co-founder and CEO Jim VandeHei hosted a View from the Top segment with Omidyar Network CEO Mike Kubzansky, who discussed how the American economy can become reimagined to work for the public good.

  • "Markets are not laws of physics. They are actually built by political economy and interests and power and ideas, which means they can be also rebuilt in different ways and unbuilt in important ways as well."

Thank you Omidyar Network for sponsoring this event.

Where the science stands on using face masks against coronavirus

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Scientific evidence shows face masks can help to control the spread of the novel coronavirus, but the nuances and changes in messaging about their use are complicating public health efforts.

Why it matters: COVID-19 cases are rising in many parts of the U.S., but politics, distrust in public health advice and science are coming to a head over face masks.