It was great apart from all the death

19 December 2023/No Comments
By Nick Dunbar

The Phoenix Economy by Felix Salmon

How should we look back at the Covid pandemic, an event that killed around seven million people globally? As I write this, the UK is already several months into a public inquiry costing more than £100 million. Aside from holding the key decision makers accountable, the inquiry has given £6.5 million to polling company Ipsos to “analyse stories that the public share”.

But globally, this is the exception rather than the rule. The United Nations’ World Health Organisation shelved its own investigation into the cause of the pandemic, under pressure from China. In the US, an attempt to launch a bipartisan congressional inquiry, modelled on the 9/11 inquiry 20 years ago, stalled in Congress at the end of 2022.

Without any official accounting of Covid, Americans are forced to rely on the publishing industry, which after a flurry of disaster non-fiction has cast around for more positive takes. Enter Felix Salmon, the journalist and blogger who by his own admission is a perennial optimist, and we have The Phoenix Economy. Introducing the book, Salmon acknowledges the challenge of looking for Covid’s silver lining.

He makes clear right away that his book will not be about the epidemiology of Covid. Nor is it a piece of investigative journalism into how policymakers or health officials reacted to the pandemic. The title is a clue: it’s about money rather than viruses, and the way the economy rebounded after its moment of terrible gloom in spring 2020. And not to the same place as before: while labelling himself as a ‘mean-reverter’, Salmon asks whether the world has actually reached a different place.

That may be the premise but that’s not quite what we get. Salmon wants to share his lived experience of Covid, such as the comedy of manners in dealing with vaccination status for post-lockdown dinner party invites. And he wants to show us his deep knowledge of areas such as the art world. Thus equipped, he takes us on an enjoyable 300-page tour through different themes, including ‘Mind and Body’, ‘Time and Space’ and ‘Business and Pleasure’.

Salmon is fond of riffing on individual risk preferences, from picking seats on trains to investing in meme stocks. I’ve done that myself in The Devil’s Derivatives, where I looked at ‘love to win’ versus ‘hate to lose’ archetypes in finance. Salmon takes it all a lot further.

In his vignettes, he pits Boomers against Millennials, managers against employees, rich against poor and so on. Combining academic sources, statistics or otherwise an anecdote – a conversation with a meme stock trader for instance – he makes the archetype feel convincing enough to carry an argument.

The approach works well, particularly where Salmon points out that the richest in society have more freedom to take risks (such as building electric cars or launching their own space rockets), while the poor are focused on disaster-avoidance. He argues that the pandemic inverted this logic by temporarily giving the poor enough security to take risks, quit dead-end jobs and seize opportunities. That led to YOLO behaviour such as meme stock manias, but Salmon predicts a flood of creative genius will result as well.

Aside from a few waspish asides about billionaires, this kind of relentless optimism is typical of the book. If Salmon expresses anger, it is against the country of his upbringing, the UK, which committed what was for him the mortal offence of voting for Brexit.

With the zeal of a recently naturalised immigrant, Salmon can sometimes seem a little blind to the flaws of his adopted country. For example, the entire 1.1 million US death toll from Covid is exceeded every six years from a combination of gun deaths (homicide + suicide) and drug overdoses, according to Centers for Disease Control data.

Salmon mentions such mortality rates as undergoing a blip due to YOLO/risk-taking behaviour during the pandemic, but perhaps the reality is less fleeting and more depressing than that. Many of us would rather suffer in London than experience what Americans have to live with.

But it wouldn’t be fair to criticise Salmon for not focusing on these things. As he puts it, Covid lived ‘rent-free in our heads’ for two years, crowding out other problems that might be more consequential in the long run. The pandemic was a transient event that at least in economic terms was handled well by fiscal authorities. If you weren’t one of the seven million dead (or their close relatives), it was a good time to be alive, and Felix Salmon has written the book for you.

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