Covid-19; The economic history of pandemics, how this impacts Florida and Governor DeSantis' choice

I hope everyone is coping with this Coronavirus pandemic as best they can. For me, the boredom and Netflix binging afflicting most folks hasn’t hit me yet, largely because this down time has given me the opportunity to make great progress on my forthcoming book on Florida History. I had planned to spend some of this time in St Augustine doing on-the-ground research but in fact being locked indoors has allowed me to access the type of online archives and refresh my historical knowledge by reading books lying around my house, that I would not have been able to otherwise.

This has also refreshed my memory about previous pandemics and how they detrimental impacted the economies of the world’s most productive nation-states. My fear in listing the items below is Florida could be headed for a similar rough period of decades or longer after.

  • The 541-542 Justinian Plague absolutely gutted the Eastern Roman Empire’s economy – depending on historical perspectives recovery either took 150 years or 450 years. In any event Constantinople did not recover its population until the Ottoman Empire was in its heyday in the early 1500’s.
  • The Black Death wiped out an estimated 50% of the population of Western Europe. Importantly it also reversed the economic gains of the High Middle Ages between 1000 and 1340. European society had fallen into a depression following the collapse of the Roman Empire with its vast trading network, law-and-order, engineering capabilities and infrastructure. Just as Western Europe was about to reach the standards the Roman’s had established 1300 years earlier, plague came. It can be argued Western Europe didn’t reach the Pax Romana era Roman standard of economic development until 1700 or so.
  • The Great Plague of London left devastation unmatched in the history of the great city. A quarter of the population had passed. Making matters worse the Great Fire of London took place as the city was beginning to recover. The impact was tremendous coming right after the political instability of the interregnum. England’s economy really didn’t completely recover until industrialization over a hundred years later.
  • In 1700 the Mughal Empire of South Asia (India) was the world’s foremost economic power. Not only did it control a quarter of the world’s GDP, but had a far higher level of urbanization than any other place on earth as well as much higher manufacturing rate. A series of wars, famines and disease brought by Europeans made India by 1850 a basket-case. Only in the late 1990’s did the region begin to recapture even a small part of its economic might

My point in illustrating these examples is that economic hegemony and dominance is not a static thing. The United States has lost ground economically, politically and in terms of reputation in the last two decades. The Iraq War and botched response to Hurricane Katrina made the US far less admired than it had been previously. Now Conronavirus and the US’ late response as well as the latish response of many of the other western nations impacted not only could throw us into a depression but could alter the US’ standing permanently in the global economic order.

The United States’ slow and botched response reflects poorly once again on this nation as does the widespread panic and hoarding of items like toilet paper. The US’ soft power has never been at a lower point since World War II. The efforts of some states like Washington, California and New York have been rightly lauded. Florida has treated this pandemic differently, and Governor Ron DeSantis has been widely criticized by Democrats and the newspapers for his inaction. Is this fair? I do not think so.

What the critiques of DeSantis ignore is that we have a unique state and an economy that lacks diversity. We do not have the economic might of California with its robust technology and service sectors of New York’s financial interests. We have relative to our population few Fortune 500 companies based here, a lack of manufacturing prowess and no ability to attract the best and brightest minds to live here. We are in fact a wasteland in many ways – very few capable people between the ages of 25-55 want to live in Florida – we lack the educational system, the types of urban life with parks, good museums and cultural options and the critical mass of bright minds that attracts talent. We are in many ways where those who fail seek refugee and where those who are bright, ambitious and successful flee.

I do not say all of this to insult the readers or myself. It’s reality, we don’t attract talent in this state and haven’t since the 1980’s. The salad days of Governor Askew and Governor Graham when Florida was the envy of the nation are long gone. Our technology sector, robust then has been static since. The Citrus industry doesn’t have as much of foothold as it once did thanks partly to free trade agreements, and our state universities and public schools have gotten progressively worse relative to the rest of the nation. We’ve sought to create low-wage jobs which require little education rather than the type of skilled jobs that attract talented young people and the cultural trapping that come with that.

So why discuss this now? Because it is incredibly relevant in Governor DeSantis response to the pandemic. California, New York, Washington and Illinois WILL come back. They will survive this and thrive in the future so they take the prohibitive measures now to save lives and come out bright on the other side.

Florida, like so many of the examples I have listed above probably cannot survive a long-term shutdown of its tourism-dependent economy. As people are less likely to travel or take cruises in the future, Florida will almost inevitably fall further behind the rest of the nation, no matter how badly hit the US is as a whole.

So Governor DeSantis does not have the easy choice his critics, many of whom have never had any responsibility in actually governing claim. Florida, in my humble opinion will likely be devastated worse than any place in the US by this pandemic and its economic fallout. What DeSantis and his team are trying to do is mitigate how badly this could go for us by keeping some elements of our economy going. In terms of public safety, I concede it is reckless but the decisions he and his team are making aren’t easy, and unfortunately the greater economic health of this state long-term might be tied to not completely shutting us down.

I am not in either camp – I personally have not gotten in a car or left my neighborhood beyond walking distance in ten days. I have that luxury economically. I guess if I had to pick a side, I’d lock-down completely. But our state is not New York or California. I do not know if we can afford a complete shutdown and I place my faith in our Governor who has more information than I do to make the right decisions for this state.

4 comments

  1. […] wrote three days ago that I had faith in the Governor to make the right decisions though I had ideological problems with the a… had taken. But this week the Governor’s denial of reality and unwillingness to make tough […]

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  2. […] wrote three days ago that I had faith in the Governor to make the right decisions though I had ideological problems with the a… had taken. But this week the Governor’s denial of reality and unwillingness to make tough […]

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  3. […] A week ago, I half-heatedly defended DeSantis– I would have locked down the night the President first addressed the nation on this crisis (March 11), but I am a progressive and conceded I didn’t have the level of information available to me that the Governor does. […]

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  4. […] week ago, I half-heatedly defended DeSantis– I would have locked down the night the President first addressed the nation on this crisis […]

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