Way back when the US had 21,000 cases of COVID-19, May 1, Bloomberg reported that the Chinese government was using tricks to revive the economy.
The pressure to get China back to work after the coronavirus shutdown is resurrecting an old temptation: doctoring data so it shows senior officials what they want to see. This phenomenon is playing out in Zhejiang province, an industrial hub on the east coast, in the form of electricity usage. At least three cities there have given local factories targets to hit for power consumption because they’re using the data to show a resurgence in production, according to people familiar with the matter. That’s prompted some businesses to run machinery even as their plants remain empty, the people said.
And so, the idea is to make the economy look like it's running, and the world will think that the economy is actually growing, and the economy will, assisted by this belief, actually run again.
But the factories are, in fact, empty. No one is going to work. The lights are on, but no one is inside (the definition of madness). Machines are chugging, but nothing is being churned.
The sad thing is this plan might actually work. Even if the Chinese government openly censors stories about how its economic data is data without content, speculators and economists from Manhattan to London to Frankfurt will still buy it.
On Saturday, a newspaper in one of Zhejiang’s cities appeared to take aim at the practice. The Taizhou Daily published a front-page commentary criticizing local officials for narrowly focusing on power usage, arguing that hitting the targets won’t ensure economic growth. By Sunday, a link to the article on the paper’s website was no longer working.
The more we look at the patterns of the Chinese response to COVID-19, the more we see parts or versions of these patterns repeated in the US in one way or another. A good example is found in Georgia, a state that rushed to reopen its economy.
Georgia’s Republican Gov. Brian Kemp needed a way to show that he hadn’t been rash to reopen restaurants, theaters, nail salons and the like in late April.
His administration came up with a creative solution. They doctored the statistics.
Last week, Georgia’s Department of Public Health released a graph showing a dramatic, steady decline in cases, deaths and hospitalizations in the state’s five most affected counties, from a peak on April 28, just before the state’s restrictions were eased, to near zero two weeks later.
Basically, Thursday became Sunday to make the coronavirus data look good after the controversial reopening. We may see this move as a little extreme, but, if we look over the past three weeks, we find that much of the United States is not following Washington—a state that is still closed and still focused on combating the virus—but rather Georgia, which is turning to doctoring data to hide the disastrous consequences of its premature opening in late April.
Florida, another gung-ho state, is also compelled to doctor data.
White House #coronavirus Dr. Birx praised her work on national tv.
Florida's COVID-19 response dashboard worked very well.
It showed where cases were rising or falling by zip code.
Now, the Republican Gov. fired its architect.
Because she’s a success.https://t.co/405Xxa5Ipo
— Grant Stern (@grantstern) May 19, 2020
This is the possible direction we are heading in the US. We will reopen much of the economy, but no one will really go out and buy stuff because the government did not, in the first place, close the economy—the economy closed itself. People do not want to die or go through an illness that does long-lasting damage to your lungs. Being home alone will, for many, still be much better than the other available pandemic-era options.
So, what to do? Borrow from the Chinese government, of course. Keep the gyms open, keep the lights of the malls on, keep the films running in empty theaters. The data from Main Street will look just as good as the real thing. Wall Street will cheer. Shares will rise. Unbelievable billions will end up at the top. If you think this scenario is ridiculous, then you know nothing about the economy you already live in.
(The inspiration of this post is drawn from a chapter in a new book by the philosopher Slavoj Žižek, PANDEMIC!: Covid-19 Shakes the World. I will write about this messy work at the end of this week.)