The year 2020 has been anything but a year of seeing clearly. It has been characterized by uncertainty, divisiveness, and conflicting views. In the January prediction issue of my newsletter, “Forecasts & Strategies,” I stated, “The outlook for stocks, gold and the dollar is positive as we enter 2020, but beware of a ‘black swan’ event that could derail the longest running bull market in history.” Indeed, the coronavirus not only derailed the bull market, but the entire economy and our society. Today, on 10-10 2020, I thought it would be appropriate to publish my top ten lessons learned from 2020.
- “Trust the science but not the scientists.” We quickly learned that medical experts are subject to biases and weaknesses just like the rest of us. As Steve Forbes says, “You can’t always trust the experts.” In early 2020, prominent epidemiologists in the UK and the US published convincing articles predicting that the new virus would kill “millions.” Indeed, people began dying at alarming rates. Other medical experts dissented from the alarmists, saying that the coronavirus was far less lethal than previous influenzas such as the Hong Kong flu of 1969. As doctors have learned more about the virus, treatments have improved and death rates have dropped. But the panic continues.
- “The cure turned out far worse than the disease.” Sir Harry Schultz has said, “Never underestimate the size of a panic or the power of a politician.” Government leaders overreacted to the virus scare by shutting down schools, sports, theaters, tourism, travel, churches, and business. To use a metaphor from John Maynard Keynes, “We used a sledge hammer to crack a nut.” Only now are we finding out the devastating unintended consequences –bankruptcies and job losses, depression and suicides, domestic abuse and alcoholism, and permanent changes in our lifestyle and culture. Some studies suggest that more people are dying from the shutdown than from the disease itself. As I’ve traveled across the country over the past several weeks I’ve seen business after business closed down— whole areas of towns shuttered— no public bathrooms or places to eat— and I am appalled by what has happened to our country. What a tragedy! Sadly, none of the governors or mayors who imposed these draconian restrictions have apologized or taken responsibility for their blunders. Meanwhile, Sweden was one of the few countries that did not succumb to the scaremongering, and the virus is virtually finished there. It is becoming more and more apparent that locking down was the worst choice.
- “Technology made the lockdown easier to impose.” How it was possible for the government to shut down the economy and society so quickly? Why were Americans so compliant? Fear about the unknown properties of the virus were the initial reason, of course. But the months long shutdown was made more palatable because e-commerce and online technology made it easier for many to transition to working from home. College and university officials could shut down schools because it’s now possible to teach online and for students to be educated and entertained at home. White-collar workers could do their jobs online. Most products, even food and drink, could be delivered to people sequestering at home, largely because blue-collar jobs (manufacturing, retail and delivery) were deemed “essential” and the risk of the disease was deemed warranted.
- “How quickly we lost our liberties.” Milton Friedman said, “Freedom is a rare and delicate flower.” Despite the safeguards guaranteed in the Constitution and Bill of Rights, within days of the lockdown, we saw our First Amendment rights abridged, including the freedom of speech, peaceful assembly, worship, travel, and commerce. Education went online and borders were closed. In the past, quarantines were imposed on those who were actually sick and thus posed a threat, but now everyone was restricted by the fear that anyone could be a carrier, even without symptoms. Government officials in other countries imposed even more severe limitations on their citizens’ freedoms of movement and behavior. At the same time, certain groups were allowed to engage in mass protests without any limitation. But those who protested the lockdowns were cited, fined, and surveilled. Most law-abiding citizens were reluctant to defy the State and engage in civil disobedience, even when their new rules defy common sense.
- “The Rise of Irrational Behavior.” I am amazed how willingly citizens conform to State mandates and prohibitions, giving up their liberties so quickly in order to be safe. Masks and physical distancing are the most obvious examples. I can understand why many people wish to protect themselves; let them make their own decisions about safety and risk. But the government and the media have been so effective in scaring people that we see people wearing masks inside their cars when they are driving, walking alone on the streets, and exercising in the gym (which is downright unhealthy). Jokes have been made about how intelligent the virus is, avoiding people while they’re sitting in a restaurant but attacking when they’re standing. The governor of California seriously suggested that people put on their face coverings in between bites when eating at a restaurant. The chief medical officer in Canada said with a straight face that partners should wear masks during sex, or try positions where they aren’t facing each other. Meanwhile, most Swedes have adopted sensible distancing protocols, but they don’t wear face coverings everywhere they go, and their businesses have remained open.
- “Government at the federal and state level is out of control.” As a result of its own hysteria in shutting down the economy, governments at all levels face the worst financial crisis Americans have experienced in peacetime. States have used up their “rainy day” funds and many face bankruptcy if Washington does not bail them out. Of course, many municipalities were facing insolvency before the pandemic, but the shutdown has sped up and intensified the crisis as tax revenues lessen and demands for welfare and unemployment benefits increase. Major corporations and small businesses face the same dilemma. Lost revenues and increased spending have resulted in alarmingly high deficits. Central banks like the Federal Reserve are engaged in virtually unlimited buying of Treasury securities and other assets, generating fears of higher taxation and inflation in the future. In sum, Washington is like Humpty Dumpty – the egg has cracked, and it can’t be put back together again. As a result, socialism is on the march.
- “Government executives have been given way too much emergency power.” George Washington is alleged to have said, “Government is like fire, a dangerous servant and a fearful master.” Over the years, the president, governors and mayors have been granted almost unlimited power to use “executive orders,” powers intended to be used sparingly, only in times of war or natural disasters. In 2020, they began using executive order to impose virtually any prohibition or mandate they wish. As Jorge “Tuto” Quirado, the former president of Bolivia, once said, “Now more and more everything is either prohibited or mandated.” In 2020, we see that representative democracy has been replaced by dictatorship. A few states limit these emergency orders to 30 or 60 days, during which time the governor must consult with the legislature to get their approval before continuing their mandates, but many have simply issued new orders after the expiration date. The courts have started to rule against these overreaching mandates, notably in Michigan and Pennsylvania, but the damage has been done.
- “We need to encourage healthy living.” It seems the entire focus by medical and government authorities is to deal with the symptoms of the disease — to develop a vaccine to prevent the virus or medicines and treatments to make you better if you contract it. But the evidence is overwhelming that healthy and young people are not likely to get the virus. The most vulnerable victims are the elderly who suffer from obesity, diabetes, heart disease, or other diseases. Adding insult to injury (or hypocrisy to mandates), much of the rise in these conditions is a result of misguided and misleading federal nutrition guidelines since the 1980s, when fats were demonized and sugars were quietly substituted to create texture and flavor. The increase in sugar and processed carbs has weakened immune systems. It’s time for teachers and other leaders to encourage healthy living at all ages through proper diets, exercise, and a positive mental attitude. During the lockdown people have done more walking and biking, but the stay-at-home orders, coupled with the closing of gyms, parks, beaches and sporting events have led to a more sedentary and less healthy population. If herd immunity is the goal, having a healthy society is the best road to surviving this crisis.
- “We have begun to live in fear, not faith.” In today’s Brave New World, masks have become a religious talisman, imbued with magical powers to ward off evil viruses even when they are often dirty and ill-fitting. Meanwhile, religious men and women who go to church are required to wear masks and not socialize—just hurry in and hurry out. Their pastors seem to have more faith in science and government leaders than they do in God. It saddens me when I see children recoil in fear as they pass strangers on the streets or in a store. What kind of message are we sending to our future generations when children are told that anyone could be a carrier—anyone could potentially kill them? Moreover, physical distancing requirements are repressing children’s ability to develop social skills and exercise their natural tendency toward play. Oh, ye of little faith!
- “Know the signs of the times.” Bertrand de Jouvenel wisely said, “A forecast is never so useful as when it warns of a crisis.” The pandemic scare offers an important lesson in how we conduct our lives, our friendships, our businesses and our investment portfolios. We need to be alert and prepared for the unexpected. The coronavirus not only derailed the bull market, but the entire economy, politics, and our society. However, forecasting is a difficult business. It’s easier to prepare than to predict. I urge all to save regularly, avoid unnecessary expenses, build a strong cash position in their portfolio and retain earnings and reserves in their business.
Admittedly, many people have learned different lessons during this pandemic—they’ve resolved to spend more time with family and less time away from home, even after the pandemic ends. They’ve reconsidered career choices and school options and reevaluated how they spend money. I applaud those who have chosen to use this time productively. But for many hundreds of thousands of people, the loss of freedom and livelihood has been devastating. Both sets of lessons must be learned so that we don’t permanently lose our freedom to choose our paths.
Mark Skousen is the founder and producer of FreedomFest, “the world’s largest gathering of free minds.” He is a presidential fellow at Chapman University, where he teaches courses on economics and finance. He is the editor-in-chief of Forecasts & Strategies, now in its 40th year.