The presence of death and danger wakes a person up and things become vivid, the novelist Tim O’Brien wrote in The Things They Carried. His classic book about the Vietnam War celebrated a 30th anniversary in 2020—a year that buried everything normal in the global battle against COVID-19.
Not only did this unconventional war, fought against a formidable, evolving enemy, see a massive loss of human life across the world, but also considerable collateral damage. The global economy, marketplaces, national infrastructures, and businesses large and small were among the victims that succumbed in part to the coronavirus’s infectious reach.
Looking ahead to the future, however, hope has awakened. With prudent public health measures and the development and deployment of vaccines, we’ve found a way to beat back the coronavirus. Grandparents can once again hug their grandchildren. And businesses and markets are beginning to reopen and rebound—though to a completely new normal.
As we move forward to revive our way of sustenance, the human elements of our economy—a handmade product, the working parents’ struggle—are serving as indelible markers of shared values that matter. Certain ideas gleaned from the pandemic stand out vividly now for Emory’s economists and business thought leaders, as well as for several alumni who have closely tracked the trends in production, consumption, and transfer of wealth during this time.
To help remind us what is possible and what to guard against in the post-pandemic economy, these Emory experts each used a simple, commonplace object or idea to help illustrate their important lessons learned.
LESSON #1: THE SHAPE OF THE RECOVERY
The swoosh. The checkmark. The L. The U. The V. The W. Or maybe even . . . a bathtub? These are all attempts to name the shape that the economic recovery will take.
Global macroeconomics is where Jeff Rosensweig, Goizueta Business School associate professor of international business and finance as well as director of the Robson Program for Business, Public Policy, and Government, spends his time. He has considered the alphabet soup with a brand and emoji thrown in for good measure. Impressive moves by the Federal Reserve Bank, where Rosensweig once worked, helped shift the economy quickly and created a steep upward line of recovery that surprised him.
Jeff Rosensweig, associate professor of international business and finance at Goizueta Business School, and director of the Robson Program for Business, Public Policy, and Government
Aggressively lowering interest rates and expanding the money supply led the economy to shift to a steady upward trajectory. This recovery, stronger than forecast by Rosensweig and most analysts, could be said to resemble a swoosh or check mark over time. More surprising to most, the stock market—driven quickly upward as the money supply ballooned—traced a V and continued its quick rise to successive record highs.
But wait. That’s not the entire message. Below the rising fortune of the wealthy, others are moving in the opposite direction. “This new idea of the K-shaped recovery really rings true,” Rosensweig says. “The rich have gotten much richer, facilitated by the pandemic. Then there are people who are hurting. Every trend of the pandemic economy exacerbated racial inequality. If you miss that split, you miss the depth of things that you need to recognize going forward.”
LESSON #2: TECHNOLOGICAL RESILIENCE
Once upon a time, we had to use a phone tethered to a wall jack to reach someone distant. Then we used a flip phone to scroll texts and email messages. These are quaint memories after communications speed-morphed during the pandemic, turning phones and computers into visual meeting spaces.
Hashem Dezhbakhsh, Goodrich C. White Professor and Chair in Economics
“We had Zoom as an online teaching tool before COVID-19, but there was a lot of reluctancy to use it,” notes Hashem Dezhbakhsh, Goodrich C. White Professor and chair in the Department of Economics in Emory College of Arts and Sciences.
“New technology has fixed costs and requires people to change and learn,” he says. Now very different habits have formed during the pandemic. Education, entertainment, and retail are going to be very different. The pandemic reminded us that there are more convenient and better ways of doing things.”
Zoom and other technologies represent the resilience of the nation’s economy, Dezhbakhsh says. High-tech companies here helped the world keep working, and scientific companies innovated treatments and vaccines. “Despite our initial issues with COVID-19 response, vaccine development and its administration put the U.S. back in its global leadership spot,” he says. “Our comparative advantage is not in industries of the past—protected by tariffs—but in knowledge-based and high-tech industries.”
LESSON #3: INTENTIONAL SPENDING
A neighborhood often thrives when local people deliver their goods and services face-to-face. During social distancing, the grassroots entrepreneur needs gumption to survive.
“When you sell something that’s high touch and in person, that’s what makes it special,” says Brian Goebel, managing director of the recently established Roberto C. Goizueta Business and Society Institute, part of Emory’s Goizueta Business School.
Brian Goebel, managing director of the Roberto C. Goizueta Business and Society Institute
Six miles away from campus, the Refugee Sewing Society of Clarkston, quickly stitched new value to the community by making masks. The first one Goebel purchased is purple with pops of yellow geometric shapes, and its function goes beyond preventing viral spread. “It does not have perfect proportions,” he says. “You can tell it was made by a real person, and that reminds me of the good that comes out of economic challenges.”
Shopping small was one indelible message of the past year, linked for Goebel to the idea that one dollar, one person, one viral exposure can make a difference.
“The importance of intentionality,” he says of spending. “Thinking about others, checking in with them, thinking about what you buy and who you buy from. It’s checking our behavior and blind spots and understanding that we’re all part of the same system.”
Goebel’s keeping the mask indefinitely, for its memories and message.
LESSON #4: HAVING YOUR CAKE AND EATING IT, TOO (BUT NOT FOR ALL)
Alex Watts 02Ox 04C is a private wealth adviser for Merrill Lynch, whose team serves 125 clients, each of whom has at least $10 million in assets. Most are entrepreneurs who leveraged the technological advances of 2020 for freedom to shelter in gorgeous spots with all the comforts of home.
Alex Watts 02Ox 04C, private wealth advisor for Merrill Lynch
Watts experienced this firsthand when he hunkered down with extended family for several months in the Idaho resort town of Sun Valley. He watched his brother-in-law sell a home in New York, buy another in Washington, D.C.—and have it renovated—with every transaction handled online.
“If you have a place in Sea Island that you go to a couple of times a year, now you can spend three to six months there,” Watts says. “You can live in Europe, not just visit, that’s possible. You can have your cake and eat it, too.”
However, there’s a flip side to this that greatly concerns Watts. Will perks like a room with a view (and plenty of WiFi) weather the societal tension created by wealth disparities? Those well off can take advantage of these new work vistas, but the majority of workers have little mobility. With U.S. wages stagnant for several decades, pressing unemployment and underemployment, and significant opposition to the $15 minimum wage hike, Watts worries: “The gap between the ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ has been exacerbated by the pandemic, and my biggest fear is that this is unsustainable.”
LESSON #5: LISTENING TO EMPLOYEES
As CEO of The Leading Niche, a data analytics contractor with $5 million in annual revenue, Tamara Nall 97B wants her 40 employees to feel engaged even though they are spread across 12 states and have led engagements in 16 countries. That’s why, pre-pandemic, she would host quarterly events (like sip-and-paint night) in the company’s hub cities of Atlanta; Washington, D.C.; and New York—and send gift cards to more remote employees.
Tamara Nall 97B, CEO of The Leading Niche
When the coronavirus shut all that down, a no-frills gathering in summer 2020 opened a surprising, deeper connection.
“The summer of 2020 was difficult with important injustices across our nation, therefore I planned a company-wide video call with no agenda,” Nall recalls. “About 10 people ended up speaking. One had gotten COVID-19 and told of being at death’s door twice. Others started taking it more seriously after hearing that. We had a parent who was crying because her young son wanted to participate in peaceful protests and wasn’t sure he would make it back home alive.”
She adds: “With 90 percent of our people participating [online], it was the largest employee event in our 13-year history. It taught me that no matter how much money you spend, no matter how jazzy the event, you want your people to have a personal connection to each other. That is what counts.”
The company’s followed up this revelation by increasing its philanthropy footprint with small-sum donations to families in need that totaled six figures. “We are female and minority-owned, and this level of giving is sustainable for us, which is important because the issues of inequity are not going to just die out,” she says. “Other companies our size might not know this is possible, so we need to tell our story.”
LESSON #6: BUILDING PUBLIC TRUST
A public good is a commodity or service for everyone that is provided without profit, usually by the government but sometimes by a private citizen or organization.
Emory economics Professor Caroline Fohlin can point down Clifton Road to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the nation’s health protection agency. Public health is a public good. So is the service of the local fire department next door to the CDC. Their proximity sends an economic message going forward.
Caroline Fohlin, professor of economics in Emory College of Arts and Sciences
“It’s so crucial to our economy to have public health infrastructure that is excellent and trustworthy,” Fohlin says. “When we have no trust, it’s every man and woman for themselves, and that leads to the breakdown of community.”
“We need to think about the CDC like we would a great fire department for your neighborhood. Because a pandemic is like a fire and you need to have people in charge who care about putting it out. I am looking forward to rebuilding trust in these institutions of science-based knowledge with people at the top who are honest.”
LESSON #7: GAUGING CONSUMER ATTITUDES ABOUT THE ECONOMY
How people everywhere feel about the economy shapes their other attitudes, says Richard Wike 98G 00G, director of global attitudes research for the Pew Research Center, who earned his master’s and doctoral degrees in political science at Emory. As the pandemic affected movement of people, money, goods, and information, he’s curious to see if people feel more connected going forward and if that leads to optimism or pessimism.
Richard Wike 98G 00G, director of global attitudes research for the Pew Research Center
“Obviously we have had a lot less connectedness during the pandemic, and I wonder how is that going to change how people feel?” he asks. “Will they turn inward, or will they think about how to deal with problems like COVID-19 in a cooperative way?”
One type of question that Pew research teams will keep asking consumers: Do you think your country would have fewer COVID-19 cases if your country had cooperated more with other countries? So far, Wike notes, the research shows that most people answer yes.
LESSON #8: THE POWER OF HUMAN TOUCH
Geet K. Bhatt 12C has never met any of his venture capital firm colleagues in person, and yet their investments are all about what’s best for humans. He started work at OGCI Climate Investments in June 2020 as a senior associate, mining new and old technology for “golden nuggets”—innovations that create fewer greenhouse gases in the manufacturing of steel, plastics, and concrete, for instance.
Geet K. Bhatt 12C, senior associate at OGCI Climate Investments
The pandemic accelerated the pace of innovation but shrunk the space for human touch in businesses like Bhatt’s. He keeps in mind that solutions for climate change, like artificial intelligence monitors that detect methane in oil fields, can disrupt companies and employees who once held that role. And he wonders how business people will meet and greet in person, as he did across 60 countries in a previous job with the World Bank.
“I miss shaking people’s hands,” he says. “Finance is a people-to-people, relationship-based career. Whether it’s the first or hundredth time, a handshake is a bond established. Bumping elbows is great, but how do we regain human touch and connection? How do we remember we are all human? I hope we don’t lose that gesture.”
LESSON #9: UNDERSTANDING HOW WE WANT TO LIVE AND WORK
Countries work together to solve economic problems through the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, where William Tompson 88C 88G serves as head of the Eurasia division. His focus is Russia and 13 nearby countries including Afghanistan. A key to economic well-being is not COVID-19 case counts but rising mortality rates.
“You look at the average rate of death and then the excess from COVID-19 or other causes, and it’s a huge rise,” Tompson says. In a visit to Torrita di Siena, the Italian village where his in-laws live, he witnessed dozens of fresh-dug graves crowding its small cemetery, most awaiting markers. “In a town of 7,000 people, that drives home the human cost,” he says.
William Tompson 88C 88G, head of the Eurasia division of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development
The death toll is one reason some economists predict cities will empty as people seek more space to reduce their chances of infections—both present and future.
Tompson is skeptical but knows that the pandemic is triggering new choices of how we want to live, if not where. For him, the answer is close to the earth. His family lives in the Paris suburbs, on a hill above a railway cut, allowing for a large garden and panoramic views of the city. “The lockdown makes you think about density, and my garden is my lifesaver,” he says. “I don’t know how a family of four survives in a 700-square-foot flat without a place to go.”
LESSON #10: PRODUCT REVIVALISM
As an economic trend spotter, Rohit Bhargava 97B published an annual book of 15 significant marketing and business patterns, teaching readers how to “speed understand” new social behaviors that affect profits. He signed off in 2020 from his decade-long Wall Street Journal No. 1 bestselling Non-Obvious Trend book series with a compendium of megatrends and a reference to the last episode of “Seinfeld.” What is old is popular again, and the trend isn’t ending soon.
Rohit Bhargava 97B, author, trend spotter, and entrepreneur
“You gotta wonder about sequels,” he says of the latest entertainment trend. “The Matrix, Avatar, Coming to America—a movie that came out 20 years ago could have had a moment before now, but it’s happening because of our desire to find what is most trustworthy. We’re seeing that play out in books, movies, and pastimes.”
For instance, the publishing industry boomed during the pandemic. It reminded people “how humanly satisfying it is to read a book, to skim it and rely on it,” he says. “Revivalism is a shift backward to the earlier version of things, and that’s why we’ve seen sales of puzzles, sewing machines, and classic video games.”
While Jerry Seinfeld ended his sitcom at its peak, Bhargava predicts revivalism hasn’t yet jumped the shark.
Story by Michelle Hiskey. Illustration by Jason Raish. Photos by Kay Hinton, Emory Photo/Video, and Getty Images. Art Director: Elizabeth Hautau Karp.