There’s a lot riding on whether the nation’s children go back to school in the fall. The restoration of the economy. The ability of many parents to return to work. The safety and continued education of our kids. All of that, one way or another, is contingent on the return to things as they were before COVID hit.
The science says it’s safe if reasonable precautions are taken. Even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics are, to one degree or another on board. Keeping kids out of school might be more harmful, say the experts, than letting them attend.
Leading the fight against the return to normalcy is the usual cast of characters, many of whom oppose a normal school year because President Donald J. Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos want it. That’s a reflexive response, hardly meaningful as these are the same people who’d probably try to give up breathing if Trump said it was good for you.
Teachers and their unions are also resisting. You would have thought they’d be anxious to get back to work, especially since the science shows it is in the best interest of the children. But no, they’re on the frontlines arguing against any proposal that doesn’t at least cut back on the time that will be spent in the public-school classroom.
Some are going further. In Washington, D.C., where bad decisions by local politicians have caused the novel coronavirus to hit especially hard, public school teachers this week briefly lined up “body bags” outside the city’s administrative offices to pressure Mayor Muriel Bowser to keep the government-run schools closed.
It’s not in the kids’ best interests to do that. Yet the teachers’ unions who are the first to proclaim they are the guardians of that sacred trust anytime something like a tax increase to fund education comes up are leading the charge to keep schools closed and more. A coalition of unions, including those representing teachers in Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, St. Paul, Milwaukee, Racine, Little Rock, and Oakland has assembled a list of demands that is at best self-serving and, as they say, “non-negotiable.”
They won’t come back to work, they say, “until the scientific data supports it.” Which it does, even if they won’t acknowledge it. Also on the list is “police free schools,” a “moratorium on new charter or voucher programs and standardized testing,” a “massive infusion of federal money to support the reopening funded by taxing billionaires and Wall Street,” “Support for our communities and families, including (a) moratorium on evictions/foreclosures, providing direct cash assistance to those not able to work or who are unemployed, and other critical social needs,” and “All schools must be supported to function as community schools with adequate numbers of counselors and nurses and community/parent outreach workers.”
There may be a couple more, but you should understand their intent by now. The unions representing these teachers want to bring an end to any chance students might have, especially those in the inner cities, to a better education leading to a better quality of life than they knew growing up by putting an end to accountability and an end to the competition posed by charter schools.
We shouldn’t be funding these people with our tax dollars. We should be doing education differently, starting with what we pay for. We should be funding learning instead of schools and children instead of teachers. What we’re doing now doesn’t work unless you’re a politician who backs things as they are because you get political support for doing so.
Thomas Sowell, the great economist and public intellectual who has long been a leader in the fight for education reform once said, “Propagandists in the classroom are a luxury that the poor can afford least of all. While a mastery of mathematics and English can be a ticket out of poverty, a highly cultivated sense of grievance and resentment is not.” Yet that’s what we’re seeing in the demands the teachers’ unions and their coalition partners are making before they’re willing to let the schools reopen. They’re showing us they’re not in it for the kids as they claim. They’re in it for themselves and they’ve finally, because of the COVID crisis, exposed themselves for what they are.
Dear Fellow Americans,
Please allow me, a naturalized American, to share with you my deep concerns about the current state of affairs in the country in which I am humbled to be a citizen.
Today, a small minority has embarked upon an irresponsible adventure to terrorize the overwhelming majority of Americans. This small minority mostly consists of a heap of confused and insufficiently educated youth, who have been force-fed by their ideologically biased teachers, from kindergarten to graduate school, a visceral hatred for America as well as a discombobulated version of Marxism. Combined with a peculiar kind of sub-mediocrity, self-aggrandizing vanity, and outright disdain, they convinced themselves that they have nothing more to learn, and that they are the utopian perfection itself.
None of these pseudo-political, quasi-philosophical, or deceptively ascetic groups are neither intelligent nor earnest. Hastily conceived of by individuals who have had a great deal of ambition but very little of real life experience, their overwhelming passion has been to acquire wealth by taking it away from people who legitimately earned it. Equipped with the slogans of white supremacy, racism, political correctness, and the myth in victimhood, this small minority wants to set the nation ablazed by fabricating a homicidal revolution. During the present misery of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a precipitous rush. Every protester or rioter has opinions that are rather fickle, impulsive, superficial, and arrogant to the point of absolute hatred toward the United States of America, its constitution, its institutions, its elected officials, its morality, and its traditions. To add insult to injury, none of these great dividers has any genuine empathy for the poor and the weak, or a real understanding for the greatness and the future of this beautiful country.
Now, the majority is gripped by momentary cluelessness mixed with irrational fear. Cowed by sheer intimidation and burgeoning violence, this majority has failed to realize the gigantic hoax inherent in the minority’s fraudulent revolution. Those of the Democrat Party and a visible number of its office holders assist the minority to weaken and destroy the constitutional order of the Republic. Even some Republican elected officials have joined those who short-sightedly kowtow to a mob-like small minority. This heterogeneous minority thus far have failed to comprehend that as soon as the political and legal systems of a nation are destroyed, even if such destruction may be reasonably justified by past vices and misguided actions, chaos and anarchy would take over and reign, unchecked.
The United States of America has risen to become the greatest nation on earth because for 240 some years it has been able to unite all the living and also the dead. Humiliating the dead by murdering the past would only lead to irreparable divisions and surely not a more perfect union. Destroying monuments and denigrating the notable ancestors would merely result in self-debasement of the nation. Disrespecting the flag, kneeling down to the national anthem, defacing painting, torching historic structures are gestures of humiliation and not symbols of unity.
The single true legacy that the Founding Fathers bequeathed on all the successive generations is that democracy is a system of government in which the majority elects the President and everybody who gains his or her legitimacy through properly executed elections. Shamefully, since 2016, when the Democrats lost a presidential election that they believed they should have won, the opposition have consisted of politicians who know that they are bereft of a vision that would attract the majority of the voters. Therefore, they have come to the destructive conclusion that their only chance to claim power is to overthrow the elected President and his administration by defamation of character and fake-legal manipulations. Hence, the spectacles of the “Russia Collusion” and the pointless impeachment charade.My fellow Americans! It is time to wake up and reassert the majority’s rule by restoring the Constitution and the Judeo-Christian-guided democratic character and sustainable future of the United States of America. Simultaneously, policies and ideas fundamentally hostile to the historic traditions, the rule of law and the spiritual realm of the nation must be fought decisively without undue apologies and prostrations. We, as free and proud citizens, have a responsibility to uphold and steadily improve the foundational realms of this great nation. Otherwise, a small and unelected mob would destroy our inheritance forever.
We have to ignore the alarmists and get back to work
One of the ongoing controversies in recent days is the dispute over which should be the nation’s top priority: economic recovery or pandemic precautions? Both positions are framed in the same terms: no recovery will be successful if everybody is afraid of catching the virus; likewise, drastic prevention measures, if continued, will bring on the worst economic disaster since the Great Depression of the 1930’s. The answer is that both positions are essentially correct.
We cannot afford either of these alternatives. Common sense tells us that we must resume full economic recovery as soon as possible, but we ignore the frightful prospect of an unchecked pandemic at our own peril. Each consideration has its own imperative: we must resume economic activity at its fullest capacity as soon as possible and we take all reasonable precautions at the same time.
So, the key question is: what are reasonable measures for protecting ourselves as a society?
The first answer to this question is what we should not do. We should not trust the public health officials’ solution to this problem. They speak from a very limited perspective, namely, the optimal methods for avoiding the disease altogether. Obviously, the surest way to avoid the disease is to cease all human contact entirely — “shelter in place”. There are several economic activities which can be executed alone, thanks to the internet and the telephone, such as, writing, meeting, accounting, record-keeping, reporting, selling (some items), etc. The surge of some sectors of the economy, such as mail-orders and delivery services, show the enhanced value of such activities.
Starting from avoiding all human contact as the best protection for individuals — which even public health experts realize is not doable for most people — the next step is simulating “personal quarantine”. Thus “social distancing” and masks. This practice is marginally practical, meaning it can be done successfully by people engaged in some economic activities, such as counseling and lecturing.
Most economic activities, however, require closer contact. Therein lies the problem. Since most manufacturing and service industries are not compatible with “social distancing”, and since the nation cannot survive economically without these major sources of income, and, further, since the pandemic is not going away any time soon – in view of all these factors, another solution has to be forthcoming.
What is that solution? It seems clear that the solution is to carry on our economic life, using as many precautions as are feasible but not to the extent of continuing to suspend any significant activities which do not lend themselves to such precautions. For example, the practice of taking the temperature of all entrants to a building and requiring masks to be worn while inside – as being practiced in more and more venues already – can be adopted by far more businesses. Perhaps even on a mass scale such as ball games. Yes, it increases the cost of doing business, but that is better than no business at all. Imagination and creativity will be needed to cope with these issues. But those are characteristic attributes of Americans. The new question needs to be “How?” not “If”.
And how do we regain the confidence of the American public? How do we answer the inevitable charge that we are putting money ahead of saving lives?
The first thing we do is to stop measuring the success or failure of our efforts to contain the virus by the number of cases identified. This number is bound to increase as more and more people are tested every day. The proper metric is the death rate due to the virus. Even with the sloppy counting being used, the rate of COVID-19 deaths is actually going down. For example, the percent of deaths to cases reported for July 11 was 1.3%. (Source: Johns Hopkins CSSE) Longer term reports are equally encouraging.
What accounts for this statistic? In general, there are several reasons for this progress:
1) therapeutics are increasingly effective – both human competence, which has improved with experience, and new medicines which have been developed specifically to treat this COVID-19 illness. Treatment can be expected only to improve with more of both human and pharmaceutical development. Also, vaccines are due to start becoming available by the end of 2020.
2) Hospitals are getting more efficient in their protocols and procedures. The metric for the early preparatory efforts by the Administration was the fear of overcrowding the hospital capacity of the United States. While this is still a possibility on a local level, the occupancy is currently under control.
3) As younger people start to constitute a larger percentage of the total test population, mortality rates are expected to continue to decline because the virus appears to be less lethal for youths. In fact, many youngsters who have been infected never suffer any symptoms at all. In fact, their primary danger as a group seems to be their unwitting role as carriers of the disease to older contacts.
In general, America is learning to live with COVID-19 and to survive. It is now time to begin to flourish as we were before we were so rudely interrupted.
The brand of all cultural revolutions is untruth about the past and present in order to control the future. Why we have this happening to our country is the only mystery left.
The current revolution is based on a series of lies, misrepresentations, and distortions, whose weight will soon sink it.
Unfortunately few in authority have been more wrong, and yet more self-righteously wrong, than the esteemed Dr. Anthony Fauci. Given his long service as the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and his stature during the AIDS crisis, he has rightly been held up by the media as the gold standard of coronavirus information. The media has constructed Fauci as a constant corrective of Trump’s supposed “lies” about the utility of travel bans, analogies with a bad flu year, and logical endorsement of hydroxychloroquine as a “what do you have to lose” possible therapy.
But the omnipresent Fauci himself unfortunately has now lost credibility. The reason is that he has offered authoritative advice about facts, which either were not known or could not have been known at the time of his declarations.
Since January, Fauci has variously advised the nation both that the coronavirus probably was unlikely to cause a major health crisis in the United States and later that it might yet kill 240,000 Americans. In January, he praised China for its transparent handling of the coronavirus epidemic, not much later he conceded that perhaps they’d done a poor job of that. He has cautioned that the virus both poses low risks and, later, high risks, for Americans. Wearing masks, Fauci warned, was both of little utility and yet, later, essential. Hydroxychloroquine, he huffed, had little utility; when studies showed that it did, he still has kept mostly silent.
At various times, he emphasized that social distancing and avoiding optional activities were mandatory, but earlier that blind dating and going on cruise ships were permissible. Fauci weighed in on the inadvisability of restarting businesses prematurely, but he has displayed less certainty about the millions of demonstrators and rioters in the streets for a month violating quarantines. The point is not that he is human like all of us, but that in each of these cases he asserted such contradictions with near-divine certainty—and further confused the public in extremis.
In terms of how the United States “fared,” it is simply untrue that Europe embraced superior social policies in containing the virus. The only somewhat reliable assessments of viral lethality are population numbers and deaths by COVID-19, although the latter is often in dispute.
By such rubrics, the United States, so far, has fared better than most of the major European countries—France, Italy, the United Kingdom, Spain, Sweden, and Belgium—in terms of deaths per million. Germany is the one major exception. But if blame is to be allotted to public officials for the United States having a higher fatality rate than Germany, then the cause is most likely governors of high-death, Eastern Seaboard states—New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Connecticut in particular. They either sent the infected into rest homes, or did not early on ensure that their mass transit systems were sanitized daily as well as practicing social distancing.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, more than any other regional or national leader, is culpable for decisions that doomed thousands of elderly patients. He did not just suggest long-term-care facilities receive active COVID-19 patients, but ordered them to take them—knowing at the time that the disease in its lethal manifestations targeted the elderly, infirm, and bedridden.
Then in shameful fashion, after thousands died, Cuomo claimed that either the facilities themselves or Donald Trump were responsible for the deaths. In truth, in the United States, the coronavirus is largely a fatal disease in two senses: the vulnerable in just four states on the Eastern Seaboard that account for about 12 percent of the nation’s population but close to half of its total COVID-19 fatalities, and/or patients in rest homes or those over 65 years old with comorbidities.
Why are there currently spikes in cases among young people in warmer states and those of less population density in late June? No one is certain. But one likely reason is that millions of protestors for nearly a month crammed the nation’s cities, suburbs, and towns, shouting and screaming without masks, violating social distancing, and often without observant hand washing and sanitizing—most often with official exemption or media and political approval.
The period of exposure and incubation is over, and the resulting new cases—for the most part asymptomatic and clustered among the young—are thus no surprise. Still, what is inconvenient is the rise in these cases—given that the Left either had claimed its mass demonstrations would not spread the disease, or, if they would, the resulting contagion was an affordable price to pay for the cry of the heart protests.
Perhaps, but the real cost of four weeks of protesting, rioting, and looting was to undermine the authority of state officials to enforce blatant violations of the quarantine. Obviously, if some can march with impunity in phalanxes of screaming, shoulder-to-shoulder protestors, while others are jailed as individuals trying to restart a business, then the state has lost its credibility with people and they will simply ignore further edicts as they see fit. Now what adjudicates quarantines are the people’s own calibrations of their own safety.
Mismanagement of the virus? There have been four disastrous official policy decisions: sending patients into rest homes; allowing millions en masse for political reasons to violate state mandates on masks and social distancing; retroactively attempting to reissue quarantine standards that their advocates and authors had themselves earlier de facto destroyed; and consistently issuing pandemic alerts solely on the flawed basis of new positive cases, without distinguishing those who were asymptomatic, or who were infected and recovered without ever being tested, or who were asymptomatic and tested positive for antibodies, or who were only briefly ill, recovered, and by no means still a case-patient.
Black Lives Matter, Antifa, and other revolutionary groups hijacked the tragic death of George Floyd. Within hours they created a mythology of rampant white police lethal attacks on innocent black victims. But that trope, too, was without a factual basis.
The wrongful deaths of unarmed African-Americans in custody have been on the decline, is far less than the number of police murdered per year, less than the number of white suspects killed, and proportionally fewer, in terms of percentages of those arrested by police, than other racial groups.
In rare interracial violence, blacks are five times more likely to attack whites than vice versa. There is a tragic war against young, black males—over 7,000 murdered per year—but it is an urban genocide of sort perpetrated in liberal cities, governed by liberal mayors and governors, and overseen by liberal police chiefs. The shooters are overwhelmingly other black males.
Somehow those facts were distorted by the Left into a trope that George Floyd was typical of an epidemic of white-generated lethal racial hatred. One can certainly argue about systematic racism as being a factor in all these asymmetries, but that is not what the rioting and their apologists have done in trafficking in accusations that have no data to support them.
There is no logic to statue toppling, name changing, or culture canceling other than the quest to assert power, humiliate authorities, and create crises where they do not exist in order to manufacture a faux state of emergency—in service of a political agenda. In some sense, whether any statues fall is contingent entirely on the lack of resistance.
We know this because the ignorant rioters and protestors cannot explain why monuments to Ulysses S. Grant, Cervantes, black Civil War veterans, or Abraham Lincoln need to be toppled and destroyed as much as a statue of Robert E. Lee. We are not told why the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton is canceled out, but not the Wilson Center in Washington, or why a memorial to President Washington is targeted for defacement but not the hit play, “Hamilton,” another founder who at one time owned slaves. And what or who, if any, exactly is to replace our fallen luminaries? Name the most iconic—Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, or Che Guevarra and the current rules of perfection would disqualify them all.
The abettors of the madness—corporations, the Democratic National Committee, universities, and the media—are not so mad. Yale, named for a slave owner, is now mostly a brand name, not a certification of a first-class, disinterested, and classically liberal education.
Take the elite stamp away, and what replaces it might as well be an online degree mill—given that it is no longer so demonstrable that a Yale graduate learned more than in his four years than did a graduate of Cal State Stanislaus.
So university presidents at Princeton, Yale, Stanford, and Columbia, know that by the standards of BLM their brand names must be changed. But to do so is synonymous with multi-billion-dollar losses and the destruction of centuries-old brands. Perhaps that is why they pander to the mob the way a Roman would-be emperor outbid rivals seeking to win over the Praetorian Guard.
The truth is that the COVID-19 epidemic, the lockdown, and the rioting were seen by the Left, the media, and now the Democratic Party as a renewed effort in this election year to do what Robert Mueller, Ukraine, and impeachment had not—abort the presidency of Donald Trump, or make it impossible for him to be reelected.
So Trump was to be reconfigured as a racist responsible for the death of George Floyd. Then he was smeared as a Herbert Hoover who supposedly crashed the economy all on his own. And then he became a Typhoid Mary purveyor of death who sickened and killed tens of thousands of Americans at his rallies in a way millions at left-wing protests did not.
To that end, almost daily, entire fantasies were birthed, floated, crashed, and then were replaced by new hoaxes. The strategy was that while one lie might be refuted, the bigger and more numerous the lies, the more a continuous narrative could be fabricated.
Consequently, the last two weeks, in succession we were told by the media that a noose was left in a NASCAR garage as a racist threat to NASCAR’s only major African-American driver, typical of Trump’s racist America; that Donald Trump, in dejection and self-incrimination, was soon to quit rather than face the humiliation of a landslide defeat in November; that the president knowingly rejected intelligence that the Russians were paying bounties on American soldiers in Afghanistan, as part of his obeisance to Vladimir Putin; and that Trump went to Mount Rushmore to honor racist presidents and dishonor sacred Native American land.
All were not just lies, but respectively unimaginative and banal successors to similarly long ago discredited lies—the Jussie Smollett hoax, the “Trump never wished to be president in the first place” hoax, the Russian “collusion” hoax, and the hoax that Trump’s presence turns once esteemed monuments that prior presidents, most recently Barack Obama, visited into racist dog whistles.
Then there was the monstrous lie that Joe Biden has no cognitive disabilities. That he does was the consensus of one in five polled Democratic voters, of many of his own primary rivals in numerous Democratic debates, of handlers who bragged that his basement quarantine need not end because it resulted in him outpolling Trump, of a scramble to turn the vice-presidential nomination into a veritable presidential bid, and in a litany of gaffes, blank outs, and tragic memory lapses of familiar names, places, and common referents.
Biden finally came out of his bunker to do some tele-fundraising and talk to a few preselected reporters. He almost immediately blasted a reporter as a “lying dog face.” In one of his next appearances, his opening statement started with “I am Joe Biden’s husband, even as the liberal media insisted “Joe” was “Jill.” There is now a Biden-inspired cottage industry of arguing that what Biden is recorded as saying is not what he was saying—on the theory that he so poorly pronounces words that they can become almost anything you wish.
What is cruel is cynically using a cognitively challenged candidate for the purpose of winning an election and then replacing him with a far-left vice president who otherwise likely would never have been elected.
FDR and the Democratic Party did something similar in his successful fourth-term bid in 1944 because of FDR’s anticipated early death in office—but in matters of hiding physical rather than cognitive impairment. Moreover, at least that dishonest gambit was undertaken in order to prevent a socialist takeover of the United States by jettisoning the hard leftist, Vice President Henry Wallace.
In 2020, the effort is not to ensure that a socialist not be appointed president who otherwise would not have been elected, but rather to ensure that she will be.
The brand of all cultural revolutions is untruth about the past and present in order to control the future. Why we have let this happen to our country is the only mystery left.
Predicting the speed and strength of the United States' recovery from the current recession is extremely difficult. But what is clear is that policymakers must boost incentives to work in normal times when jobs are plentiful, while strengthening the safety net for when they are not and for those who are unable to work.
STANFORD – Like most of the world, the United States is attempting to overcome both the COVID-19 pandemic and a deep recession caused by the resulting government-ordered shutdown. At annual rates, the US economy shrank by 5% in the first quarter of 2020, and in the second quarter just ending, it could contract by 40% – the steepest decline since the Great Depression.
Moreover, tens of millions of workers have lost their jobs, causing the unemployment rate to soar to a post-Great Depression high of 14.7% in April. And although 70% of those laid off say they expect to be recalled to their jobs, not all will be, because many firms will fold, relocate, or reorganize.
True, the initial reopening of the economy has led to a sharp rebound that is projected to continue in the third quarter. Employment rose by 2.5 million in May, while high-frequency data from credit cards and mobility tracking for May and June show sizable bounce backs from April lows, with activity in a few sectors approaching or even exceeding year-earlier levels.
But the rebound varies by sector and region. Although Big Tech, home-improvement suppliers, and retail sales of alcoholic beverages have flourished, travel and leisure have collapsed and will take much longer to recover. And restaurants with drive-through service have fared much better than those able to serve only indoors.
Most forecasters therefore predict that the early “V-shaped” recovery will slow over the next few quarters, and instead come to resemble the Nike swoosh. But this plausible baseline forecast is subject to greater than normal uncertainty.
For starters, the shutdown of non-essential businesses in response to the pandemic led to a demand-side shock as well. So far, trillions of dollars in business grants and loans, cash payments to households, and unemployment insurance with federal bonus payments (enabling two-thirds of eligible workers to receive benefits that exceed their lost earnings) have provided a cushion to help the economy recover. The US Federal Reserve has pledged to keep its target interest rate until the economy returns to full employment, and it continues to expand the scope of its asset purchases. And a fourth fiscal package expected next month should focus on reopening the economy, including by limiting firms’ legal liability and redirecting bonus payments to encourage employees to return to work.
How quickly the US recovers from its public-health and economic crises will also depend on how well other countries handle them, and vice versa. The World Bank expects 93% of countries to slide into recession in 2020, the highest share ever.
Although the recent spikes in new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in the US appear manageable for now, given adequate provision of hospital beds and equipment, a significant worsening could trigger new shutdowns or stall further reopening. That would slow the recovery, resulting in economic despair and related health and social problems for many Americans.
Moreover, America’s twin crises have revealed longer-term problems, starting with the country’s inadequate stockpiles of medical supplies. California, for example, never maintained the supplies then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger built up to combat the 2002-03 SARS epidemic, and had to repair hundreds of defective ventilators. And state governments’ antiquated computer systems for processing unemployment claims and dispensing benefits buckled under the pandemic-induced strain.
In addition, the COVID-19 shock has shown that too many individuals and firms lack the financial margin to weather even a few months of lost income or revenue. It has also both highlighted and worsened racial disparities in health, income, and vulnerability to economic and health shocks.
These crises elicited massive, rapid, and unprecedented interventionist responses. But government responses enacted under exigent circumstances must control costs better and restore private incentives in the longer term, because history shows that, once launched, public programs and interventions seldom end.
The economic and health recoveries also heavily depend on the actions of businesses, citizens, and schools, including whether they adhere to recommended precautions such as social distancing, frequent hand washing, and wearing face masks. It remains to be seen whether firms can survive with restrictions on employees and customers, and whether the accelerated digital transformation will be a net plus. The other danger, of course, is a large second wave of the virus that overwhelms hospitals and scares away employees, students, and customers.
One bright spot has been the rapid pace of adaptive innovation. Most US schools quickly continued teaching online following the shutdown, while telemedicine has boomed, helped by the relaxation of government pay restrictions and rules prohibiting inter-state medical consultations. And medical researchers quickly refocused on COVID-19 testing, therapeutics, and vaccines: human trials have started for several promising vaccines, and new tests may be deployed before winter. For the first time, vaccine production capacity will be ramped up simultaneously with testing, so that any safe and effective vaccine that emerges will become available far more quickly.Sign up for our weekly newsletter, PS on Sunday
But the longer-term problems revealed by the pandemic and the recession will not disappear when these crises end. True, before COVID-19 struck, things finally had started looking up for lower-income workers. Minority unemployment was at an all-time low, and wages were rising most rapidly at the bottom of the pay scale. But while strong economic growth will be needed to ensure that these trends resume, there are pockets of people who have been left behind.
To address this requires reinvigorating policies to broaden school choice, bring private jobs and capital to depressed areas, and ensure better job training (including more apprenticeships and job matching), as well as taking a new approach to overlapping means-tested anti-poverty programs. US welfare recipients face extremely high implicit marginal tax rates in terms of the benefits they lose if they work, with many standing to earn less if they worked than if they remained on the several overlapping programs.
It is extremely difficult to predict the speed and strength of the US economic recovery with any certainty. What is clear, however, is that we must boost incentives to work in normal times when jobs are plentiful, while strengthening the safety net for when they are not and for those who are unable to work.
Column: How a microbe will decide the 2020 election
On March 18, at a press conference flanked by high-ranking officials, President Trump described himself as a “wartime president” fighting an “invisible enemy” known as the coronavirus. The president, it seemed, was beginning to reckon with the extent of the economic, epidemiological, social, and psychological damage the pandemic would cause, and to act appropriately. “We must sacrifice together,” Trump said, “because we are all in this together, and we will come through together.”
An anxious populace welcomed the appearance of a strong leader at a time of national emergency. The president’s job approval ratings rose in the following weeks, reaching a high of 47 percent in the Real Clear Politics average on April 1. The gap between Trump and former vice president Joe Biden narrowed to five points.
How long ago that seems. Some 122,000 deaths and tens of millions of lost jobs later, and in the middle of a cultural revolution sparked by the viral video of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police, President Trump finds himself backed into a corner. The rhetoric of a wartime presidency is gone. His coronavirus task force is barely visible. In a symbol of declining levels of support among white voters critical to his reelection, attendance at the Keep America Great rally in Tulsa failed to live up to expectations raised by Trump’s own campaign. The president’s job approval rating has fallen to the low 40s. Biden’s lead has widened to 10 points.
There is no shaking the coronavirus. It is the ever-present backdrop against which our national nervous breakdown is taking place. The good news is that deaths have declined to fewer than 1,000 per day. But that number is still higher than the casualties reported by other liberal democracies in Asia and in Europe, and it may rise in the coming weeks. Sclerotic bureaucracies, poor decision-making, and ill communication at every level of government wasted the opportunity to suppress the virus through relentless testing, contact tracing, and quarantine.
By the time testing ramped up to the point where it could become the centerpiece of a suppression strategy, Americans had grown tired of lockdowns enforced throughout the country without regard to local conditions and to basic freedoms, and weary of a public health establishment whose pronouncements—New York good, Florida bad; protests good, yeshivas bad—seemed driven by partisanship and ideology.
The virus exposed racial, ethnic, and class cleavages that inflamed elite opinion and increased demands for social justice. And the economic devastation left an environment permeated by anxiety and filled with bored and unemployed people, some of whom felt as if they had no stake in the system and no reason not to smash things. The civil unrest of the past month has analogues in earlier pandemics. Local, state, and federal leaders met the disorder with the same woolly-headedness, indecision, posturing, and lack of compassion that they have applied to this one.
Trump has tried to reinvigorate his candidacy by resuming a normal schedule. Recently, in addition to Oklahoma, he has traveled to Arizona and Wisconsin, but at each stop he has run up against the agent of his electoral distress: the plague.
The arena wasn’t full in Tulsa because of a justified fear, on the part of some who otherwise would have attended, of participating in a large gathering in an enclosed space. During his monologue the president remarked, as case numbers rose in 29 states, that he had told his team to “slow the testing down please.” The content of his speech to a youth group inside a Phoenix megachurch had to compete with questions over how widely face masks were distributed among the crowd. As the president traveled to Green Bay for a town hall with Sean Hannity, Texas governor Greg Abbott paused his state’s reopening and halted elective procedures at hospitals in four counties.ADVERTISING
The spread of the virus results in panic, and the panic results in economic losses, social isolation, and polarized media and culture primed for incitement. That is why 80 percent of registered voters say the country is out of control, why 68 percent say the country is on the wrong track.
What the coronavirus has done is rob President Trump of his ability to control events. The president has a knack for putting his human opponents on their toes, for establishing facts on the ground that are difficult to contest. But the coronavirus doesn’t read Tweets, doesn’t watch television, and doesn’t go away if ignored. It has to be defeated, or endured. America prides itself on having a government of, by, and for the people. But here, today, the virus rules.
President Donald Trump has so much on his plate right now, it’s difficult to see how he prioritizes the actions he must take for the country’s good. There’s so much going on in so many different areas it’s hard to recall any president in recent memory having to face so much at any one time at any one time.
All presidents must deal with crises. How they lead is part of the way we judge their fitness for office. And there are a lot of folks who say his leadership lately has been lacking as the nation deals with the novel coronavirus.
That’s remarkably ungenerous. The president mobilized the federal government and private industry to respond in ways not seen in decades. It’s impossible to be certain but is nonetheless highly likely the interventions he led produced faster testing on a broader scale, more ventilators than needed, and helped keep the spread of COVID-19 under control.
We may never know. All the models produced by the so-called public health experts working in the smart institutions were way off, even when early-stage interventions are accounted for. Meanwhile, as the result of actions taken by many of the nation’s governors, mostly in blue states, the U.S. economy tanked, a record number of jobs were lost in a single month, and Congress spent so much money on relief that might not even have been necessary it will take at least a decade of above-average economic growth to recover.
For the immediate future, President Trump would be both politically smart and doing the best thing for the country if he focused on measures to get the economy open and off its back. Businesses need to reopen. Lockdowns, if they are needed again (if a still-at-this-point hypothetical second wave hits), need to be localized, targeted, and well thought out. People need to get back to work, pay down their debt, and start saving again.
Several steps can be taken to help bring about the V-shaped recovery most everyone is hoping for. There are lots of positive indicators in the economy that its possible. Every policy decision from now until at least the end of summer ought to be taken specifically to enhance the possibility that will occur.
Just as the president was right to postpone tax filings and payments from April 15 to July at the height of the crisis, he would be right to have Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin tell the U.S. Internal Revenue Service to postpone the payment of those taxes until sometime in 2021.
The economy has just started showing signs of life. Taking $1 trillion out of it – which is what it would be if all the federal personal and corporate income taxes, estimated payments for the self-employed, federal excise taxes, the taxes paid by job-creating small businesses, and the outstanding balance due on returns from prior years – would almost assuredly plunge it back into a recession and push the recovery off by months.
The National Bureau of Economic Research says the recession caused by the lockdowns resulting from the coronavirus panic started in February. The NBER – and they’re the ones who get to make the decision – called it steep but short-lived. July 2020 should be a month of recovery because of strong, perhaps stronger than normal, economic activity. But that only happens if people are engaged in productive activity, buying and selling goods and services in the marketplace rather than sending Uncle Sam back a good chunk of the so-called stimulus.
Several prominent economists have endorsed this idea as being curative. Influential political groups including the National Taxpayers Union and Americans for Tax Reform have also signed on. The president and Secretary Mnuchin have it within their power to make this happen. They should order it be done with all dispatch. Certainty is important as businesses plan what to do next, whether to hire or fire, whether to stay open or close, and whether to expand. Knowing that the taxes due would not have to be paid until sometime early next year gives them that much more time to use their available cash to put people back to work. Making America Great and Keeping America Great can only be accomplished if America is working.
A lot to argue about!
Trump held his first post-lockdown rally last evening in Tulsa, Oklahoma. There was controversy before, during and after the event. Criticism was not confined to the content of the speech as usual but spread over the unusual areas of the timing, location, venue, and attendance of the rally.
The earliest criticism concerned the timing of the event. A Trump rally, held in an indoor arena, was criticized as a blatant violation of the CDC current (and often changing) recommendations regarding safeguards against the “Chinese virus”, as Trump calls it. Among the most obvious violations were the lack of social distancing in the densely packed house, without compulsory masks, and held indoors (as opposed to outdoors).
After the rally, much was made of the lower attendance. Not only were there noticeable empty bleachers (which the network cameras showed frequently), but also the scheduled outdoor appearance by the President was cancelled because the only crowd out there was the ever-present (thankfully peaceful) protesters. Nevertheless, there were approximately 18,000 or more in attendance, counting the seating on the floor of the arena, out of a published capacity of 19,000. One unaccounted-for factor was the absence of the 0ver-65 crowd who tend to be among the most loyal of the Trump base.
So, what to think about all this? First of all, there is the symbolic significance of the scheduling. The President has shown in various ways that the public health contingent – which essentially scared him (and all of us) into the lock-down in the first place – is no longer calling the shots in the White House response to the pandemic.
This column remarked very early in the process the fact that the public health perspective is necessarily limited. Never before in American history has this group been given such control over public policy. At the first sign of a public health threat, Mr. Trump, in typical CEO practice, called into service the finest experts he could find in this field – which he admitted was far from his own experience. He then followed their advice, quite uncritically. As I pointed out at the time, this was a huge gamble: if it went wrong, it could, among other things, cost him the election and even his place in history. (See https://drlarryonline.com/trumps-huge-gamble/)
After a while, he did begin to appreciate the narrowness of that perspective. But he was stuck in the middle of a lock-down which he had ordered! Thus, began the journey back to recovery, to normalcy. His diffusion of power to local politicians was a stroke of genius. Not only did he gradually shed the sole responsibility for the lock-down, but he made friends and evoked loyalties among an entire new group of politicians with whom he had had little prior contact. And it was acting out the essence of the Constitution, which sees the sovereign states as surrendering and thereby validating some of their powers to create the federal government.
This entire scenario was moving along quite nicely. Then two unexpected things happened: the Washington Democrats in Congress began to “adopt” the public health establishment, endorsing ever more stringent limitations on the population in the name of the pandemic. As this attitude began to percolate out to the state governors, the recovery slowed down.
By this time Trump and his people had fully realized that the lock-down had nearly ruined the economy and still threatened to do so. They went into overdrive to speed up the recovery. Trump was still winning, however, until the next shoe dropped: a cellphone video of the brutal murder of a defenseless Black man by a White policeman in Minneapolis went viral on social media. The reaction was a worldwide protest against civil authority in America. After a few peaceful marches, the movement turned violent and radical leadership emerged.
Among other secondary effects, the total attention of America — and much of the world – turned away from the economic recovery and toward the protesters and the rioters.
Some past events of this type have elicited soaring rhetoric from leaders such as the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator Robert Kennedy to begin healing the wounds. Soaring rhetoric is not one of Mr. Trump’s talents. Nor does he have the soothing, compassionate manner of a Bill Clinton or a George Bush. In the face of these disasters, Donald Trump stumbled.
The Democrat opposition immediately made him the face of the disaster. His poll numbers have tumbled, yielding to the reclusive Mr. Biden whose silence has served him well.
Trump may not be a great orator or an instinctive healer, but he does excel at one thing: he can draw thousands of impassioned participants to his rallies. This is his unique sandbox and he felt the urgency to activate it.
The Tulsa Rally was the first step on Trump’s road to recovery. It was an act of defiance to the public health establishment and their new sponsors, the Democrats and the press. It also emphasizes the simple truth that the virus is going to be around for a long time, and we have to learn to live with it while carrying on our normal economic activity. Our financial survival as a nation depends on it.
Whether Trump’s new strategy succeeds or not depends on the next steps. In one of Mr. Trump’s favorite sayings, “We’ll see what happens.”
Indeed, we will.
So many of our institutions failed us during the pandemic. Free enterprise isn’t one of them.
When future historians tell the story of this pandemic, I hope American capitalism is not so despised and maligned by the professoriate that they leave out the pivotal role private enterprise and individual autonomy played, not just in slowing and ultimately defeating the virus, but in getting the country back to work.
It was individual Americans who started socially distancing in March, as COVID-19 took hold in Italy and many mayors and governors were still calling fears of contagion from China overblown, if not bigoted. By the time our leaders came around to the crisis, millions of American workers and their employers were already taking steps to keep each other safer. And while Republicans and Democrats in Washington played politics with financial aid aimed at blunting the great economic pain necessitated by shutdowns, thousands of businesses, trade associations, and patrons were starting relief funds for the most heavily impacted.
Among the companies that could stay open, I will admit I am biased in my pride for one in particular.
Home Depot, the company I helped found, boosted wages and doubled overtime to acknowledge the valor of workers who wanted to stay on the job during some very scary times. Knowing that kids were at home because schools were closed, Home Depot expanded paid time off to help parents and made hours more flexible for older workers who were deemed at risk for COVID-19 infection. Many other companies offered similar incentives.
When it came time to attack the virus itself, businesses around the country showed the same decency and ingenuity, quickly repurposing to meet demand for personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks and gowns for frontline medical workers. Apparel company Brooks Brothers and MLB uniform tailor Fanatics switched their stitch to make masks. So did hockey company Bauer and retail stores David’s Bridal and Jo-Ann Stores. A NASCAR team, North Carolina-based Stewart-Haas Racing, helped its neighbors by putting idle racing transports back on track, delivering 2 million medical masks to Novant Health facilities in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia. Whiskey and vodka distilleries, especially small, locally owned ones, switched to making bottles of alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
Cutting-edge manufacturers used 3-D printers to make PPE. Charlottesville-based women’s shoemaker OESH made a mask that had soft edges, making its seal as strong if not better than what would be provided by N95-rated masks. There wasn’t time for FDA approval (which is a question we should take up later), but the skillful engineering made the mask a success.
One Delaware company, ILC Dover, worked with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to shorten the regulatory review process from one month to a week. That way the company could make its new Powered Air Purifying Respirator hood, which provides 100 times the protection of an N95 mask, available to health-care workers attending to patients with COVID-19.
National big-box stores, corner-store pharmacy chains, and delivery services really stepped up in hiring temporary workers. Wal-Mart, Walgreens, CVS, Costco, 7-Eleven, Ace Hardware, Dollar Tree, Dollar General, Domino’s, Pizza Hut, Papa John’s, Instacart, FedEx, UPS, and grocery chains around the country all upped their hiring to meet demand and provide opportunities to the recently unemployed.
Perhaps most strikingly of all, tech companies have really shined. Amazon, Uber Eats, GrubHub and dozens like them made it possible to keep a social distance while keeping the homestead supplied with groceries and supplies. Tech companies didn’t just keep us fed, they kept us on the job. Employers used existing, but often untapped, IT capabilities provided by companies such as Zoom, Microsoft, Apple, and Google to transform a cubicle and conference-room workforce into a remote team interacting through a camera and video screen. In the short term this kept a company’s productivity up, and long-term applications could create a more flexible workplace that could better support parents or employees who want to live in a rural area.
Of course, the biggest heroes are yet to earn their fame. Hard at work are the world’s leading scientific and research minds toiling for vaccines and treatments. Eli Lilly, Johnson & Johnson, and Moderna all have billion-dollar investments into fast-tracking a cure.
Throughout this entire ordeal, which is far from over, our blinkered press has focused on the negative, on anecdotes of price gouging, temporary supply-chain disruptions and shortages, and companies that saw outbreaks in the workplace.
But it takes a special kind of dumb to look at all the institutions that came up short under the pandemic and put free enterprise anywhere near the top of the list. Our free-enterprise system is the best at allocating resources and responding to crises. The private sector should be praised, not demonized, for its efforts during this pandemic. The examples are numerous, and they keep on coming.
The best thing the government did, arguably, is get out of the way. Government watchdog Americans for Tax Reform has identified more than 600 rules or regulations that were changed to give companies the room to innovate and adapt to meet the demand for equipment and other goods created by the pandemic. My hunch is these are probably 600 regulations that do not need to come back once this is over.8
We are not a perfect country, but we do have something that will always help us prevail — either over a pandemic or the next pitfall we encounter. We have regular people who dare to do heroic things.
Americans don’t need to be told what to do, and companies don’t need command-and-control regulation to do what’s best for a community. That’s because Americans’ entrepreneurial spirit is the biggest factor flattening the curve.
Liberals and conservatives are approaching the COVID-19 pandemic through very different moral frameworks.
In a 2008 TED Talk, psychologist Jonathan Haidt said the worst idea in psychology is the notion that humans are born as a “blank slate.”
Like the cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker, Haidt was rejecting the notion that the human mind is a blank slate at birth, an idea that can be traced to thinkers from Aristotle, to John Locke, to B.F. Skinner and beyond.
“Developmental psychology has shown that kids come into the world already knowing so much about the physical and social worlds and programmed to make it really easy for them to learn certain things and hard to learn others,” explained Haidt, a Professor of Ethical Leadership at NYU’s Stern School of Business.
Citing research from the brain scientist Gary Marcus, Haidt said the initial organization of the brain essentially comes with a “first draft.” Studying the anthropological and historical records, Haidt found that five pillars of morality exist across disciplines, cultures, and even species:
What’s interesting is that these moral pillars differ sharply across ideological lines in America today. Haidt found that both conservatives and liberals recognize the harm/care and fairness/reciprocity values (though liberals value these a little more than conservatives). Things change, however, when examining the three remaining foundational values—loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. While conservatives accept these moral values, liberal-minded people tend to reject them.
The difference is extraordinary, and it helps explain the different ways Republicans and Democrats are experiencing the coronavirus. In May, a CNBC/Change Research survey found that while only 39 percent of Republicans said they had serious concerns about COVID-19, 97 percent of Democrats said they had serious concerns.
While some of the divergence could stem from the fact that blue states have been hit harder by COVID-19 than red states, Haidt’s research would suggest that another reason Democrats are more concerned is because liberals have an intense appreciation of the care/harm moral pillar.
Indeed, the preeminence of the care/harm moral can be found in the rhetoric of many progressives.
“I want to be able to say to the people of New York, ‘I did everything we could do,’” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced in March. “And if everything we do saves just one life, I’ll be happy.”
The care/harm moral is even found in the latest social media emojis. Last month, as USA Today reported in an exclusive story, Facebook rolled out its new “care” emoji.
“The new Facebook reaction—an emoji hugging a heart—is intended as shorthand to show caring and solidarity when commenting on a status update, message, photo or video during the coronavirus crisis that allow users to express how much they care about others,” the paper reported.
Cuomo’s language (and to a lesser extent Facebook’s emojis) suggests that, for many, care for others is the preeminent virtue. As such, efforts to protect people must be taken above lesser social considerations.
Understanding the different moral framework conservatives and liberals are using helps us understand why blue states have taken a much more aggressive approach in efforts to limit the spread of COVID-19.
As The Atlantic explains, with a few exceptions, such as Ohio, Republican governors have been much more reluctant to impose sweeping restrictions on their residents than states led by Democratic governors. While governors in these states no doubt value care/harm, their moral framework likely gives them a heightened concern of other social considerations, particularly civil liberties.
The lockdowns, the Constitution Center explains, have threatened many of America’s most cherished civil liberties—the freedom to assemble, the right to purchase a firearm, the ability to freely travel, the freedom to attend church or visit a reproductive health facility. They’ve also put thousands of companies on a path toward bankruptcy by prohibiting them from engaging in commerce.
These infringements tend to be viewed as reasonable to liberals, who emphasize the care/harm moral but are less likely to recognize the sanctity/degradation moral. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, for example, said he never even considered the US Constitution—a document considered sacrosanct by many Americans—when he issued his lockdown order.
“That’s above my pay grade,” Murphy told Tucker Carlson in April. “I wasn’t thinking of the Bill of Rights when we did this. We went to all—first of all—we went to the scientists who said people have to stay away from each other.”
Similarly, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer saw no problem in suspending the Freedom of Information Act to prevent outside groups from assessing the model state officials used to justify locking down the entire state.
Those who view civil liberties and constitutional rights as sacred, however, are less than comfortable with such an approach. They will be less inclined to sacrifice sacred principles to support sweeping state efforts to protect people (and are probably more likely to see such efforts as counter-productive).
To be sure, some progressives do see civil liberties as sacred, and some of them have expressed dismay and bewilderment that so many progressives, in their enthusiasm for the care/harm moral, have abandoned civil liberties.
“[The COVID-19 crisis is] raising serious civil liberties issues, from prisoners trapped in deadly conditions to profound questions about speech and assembly, the limits to surveillance and snitching, etc.,” the progressive journalist Matt Taibbi recently wrote in Rolling Stone. “If this disease is going to be in our lives for the foreseeable future, that makes it more urgent that we talk about what these rules will be, not less—yet the party I grew up supporting seems to have lost the ability to do so, and I don’t understand why.”
If Haidt’s theory is correct, the reason is liberals and conservatives are, generally speaking, approaching the COVID-19 pandemic through divergent moral frameworks.
After all, the argument isn’t whether we should protect people.
“In any country, the disagreement isn’t over harm and fairness,” Haidt says. “Everyone agrees that harm and fairness matter.”
The argument isn’t even over how to best balance the care/harm moral with other considerations.
The disagreement is over whether efforts to protect individuals from COVID-19 should be balanced against other considerations—including constitutional and economic ones—at all.
The Coronavirus Is Emboldening Autocrats the World Over
In late March, Philippine strongman Rodrigo Duterte rammed a bill through his country’s parliament that granted him vastly expanded emergency powers, ostensibly to fight the novel coronavirus. The bill authorized Duterte to reallocate the national budget as he saw fit and to personally direct hospitals. “Do not challenge the government,” he bellowed in a menacing televised address. “You will lose.” Six days later, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban pushed even more expansive emergency legislation through his rubber-stamp parliament, enabling him to suspend existing laws, decree new ones, and arrest individuals deemed to be peddling “falsehoods” about the pandemic or “obstructing” the government’s efforts to fight it.
Duterte’s and Orban’s COVID-19 power grabs were especially brazen, but they were far from the only attempts by authoritarian leaders or parties to use the current health crisis as an excuse to curtail civil liberties or undermine the rule of law. Authoritarian regimes in Bangladesh, Belarus, Cambodia, China, Egypt, El Salvador, Syria, Thailand, Turkey, Uganda, Venezuela, and Vietnam have all detained critics, health workers, journalists, and opposition members during the pandemic. Democracies that have lately come under assault, meanwhile, such as Brazil, India, and Poland, have seen populist leaders or ruling parties seize on the crisis to remove checks on their power or weaken the opposition.
It will be some time, probably years, before the pandemic’s full impact on democracy around the world can be judged. The extent of the damage will depend on how long the health crisis lasts and how badly it harms economies and societies. It will also depend on how democracies fare compared with autocracies in containing the health and economic effects of the virus, on who wins the race to a vaccine, and more broadly, on who—China, the United States, or democratic countries collectively—is seen as the most generous and effective provider of global public goods to fight the pandemic. How carefully democracies monitor and circumscribe the enormous increases in governmental power that come with national emergencies will also factor into the equation, as will the ability of established democracies to summon the collective resolve to defend freedom globally in a time of rising danger.
So far, there is little reason to be reassured about the global outlook for democracy and plenty of reason to worry. The pandemic hit during the hardest period for democracy since the end of the Cold War, and authoritarian and would-be authoritarian regimes wasted no time in exploiting it to enlarge and harden their power. More danger could lie on the horizon as democratic governments weigh the dilemmas of using new surveillance technologies to fight the virus and holding regular elections in the midst of a pandemic. The downward democratic spiral can still be reversed, but it will require mobilized civil societies, effective democratic management of the health crisis, and a renewal of American leadership on the global stage.
Democracy was faltering globally even before the pandemic. For each of the past 14 years, according to Freedom House, more countries experienced an erosion of political rights and civil liberties than strengthened political rights and civil liberties, reversing the pattern of the preceding 15 post-Cold War years. While blunt military and executive coups have become rarer, more and more elected leaders have gradually eviscerated democracies from within. Politicians who initially came to power via democratic elections—such as Orban in Hungary, Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, and Sheikh Hasina in Bangladesh—have packed courts; co-opted other independent institutions; squeezed the press, political opposition, and civil society; and sought to subvert or prevent the elections that might otherwise remove them. As a result, the rate of democratic breakdown worldwide has risen sharply in the last decade to nearly twice that of the preceding two decades. At the same time, fewer countries have transitioned to democracy.
Democracy was faltering globally even before the pandemic.
The democratic downturn has been particularly steep in the last five years (2015 through 2019), the first five-year period since 1975 in which more countries transitioned to autocracy than to democracy—twice as many, in fact. In January 2020, the proportion of countries with populations over one million that qualified as democracies fell below 50 percent for the first time since the end of the Cold War. Just as worrying has been the significant decay of democratic institutions and norms in democracies that were thought to be consolidated, such as India, and also liberal, such as Israel and Poland; the more subtle and little-noticed degradation of democracy in South Korea; the steady decline in the quality of democracy in the United States; and the rise of xenophobic populism and political polarization in Europe’s liberal democracies. According to Freedom House, democracy has declined in 25 of the 41 established democracies since 2006.
In short, COVID-19 attacked a world in which democracy was already under threat. The resulting public health crises enabled some leaders (such as Erdogan and Orban) to consolidate authoritarian powers they had already been accumulating and others (such as Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in India) to intensify their illiberal campaigns against critics, independent news media, and opposition parties. In other words, the pandemic has mostly reinforced existing negative democratic trends, supplying illiberal governments with an incentive and an excuse for repressive tactics. Human rights defenders have paid the price in arrests, killings, and extended jail terms. The virus has cut a particularly deadly swath through prisons, furnishing cynical and murderous autocrats with a perfect weapon to use against indefatigable activists who try to hold them to account.
Still more damage may lie in store for democracy before the pandemic is done. In the name of managing the disease, governments are already implementing surveillance and tracking systems that could result in permanent losses of privacy. The apps generally work by gaining access to a phone’s GPS location and its range of Bluetooth communication. When someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 comes into contact with other people, the software alerts those contacts and advises them to self-isolate. With the proper democratic oversight and restraints, these apps can be powerful weapons in the fight to control the virus. But without such limits, they can be used to spy on private citizens and expand social control.
In India, for instance, many fear that a new tracking app rolled out in April could become a tool of mass surveillance for a government already bent on trampling civil liberties. Since Modi was first elected prime minister in 2014, his government has been assaulting venerated pillars of Indian democracy: press freedom, religious tolerance, judicial independence, and respect for dissent. Most alarming has been the Modi administration’s escalating campaign against India’s Muslim minority, which, at about 180 million, is the second-largest Muslim population of any country in the world after Indonesia. The narrative—pushed most blatantly by Modi’s extremist followers but condoned by the prime minister with the same wink and nod that U.S. President Donald Trump gave to neo-Nazi demonstrators in Charlottesville—is that Muslims (and sometimes Christians and other non-Hindu minorities) are “internal enemies” with allegiances to lands and peoples outside India. That narrative has grown only stronger during the pandemic, fueled by a vile stream of disinformation that blames Muslims and Dalits for deliberately spreading the virus. Modi has used the COVID-19 crisis to centralize authority over revenue at the expense of India’s states and parliament and to wrest control of state governments from opposition parties. Many rights activists and cyber experts fear that his government will enlist the disease-tracking app, called Aarogya Setu, to compromise privacy and monitor opponents.
Aarogya Setu was initially voluntary, but as the government eased lockdown restrictions in early May, it made the app mandatory for public- and private-sector employees as well as for people in so-called containment zones, areas with particularly high rates of COVID-19 prevalence. It also required anyone traveling by train to download the app. Later, the government took the positive steps of prohibiting the storage of individual data beyond 180 days and enabling individuals to seek deletion of their data within 30 days. To alleviate concerns about privacy and security, it also eventually opened up the app’s source code to public scrutiny (and improvement). But reasonable suspicion persists, and it may abate only if India does what all democracies should do—appoint an independent ombudsman to ensure that rules on privacy, data gathering, and use are respected.
To comply with international human rights norms, disease-tracking apps and technologies must be grounded in law, publicly deliberated, transparent, limited to the duration of the emergency, and restricted to the specific requirements of combating the virus. The MIT Technology Review has initiated an important effort to study and rate government tracking appsaccording to five criteria, such as whether or not they are voluntary, whether the data they collect can be used only for public heath purposes, how quickly that data is destroyed, and the transparency of the policies and the code that underpin them. By these measures, Aarogya Setu rates only a single star (for data destruction).
Election delays should be limited in time and proportionate to the danger the virus poses.
Privacy is not the only democratic precept under threat in the time of coronavirus: holding regular elections has become a logistical conundrum. Many democracies are left to decide which poses the greater threat: holding elections on schedule, when the opposition cannot campaign, poll workers and monitors may not show up, and large numbers of people don’t feel safe going to the polls; or postponing elections and perpetuating in power unpopular governments that voters might have otherwise ejected. The choice is straightforward in established democracies that have the time and resources to alter election procedures so that voters can vote safely from a distance, ideally by mail, or at least at fully staffed poll stations that have been disinfected and updated to accommodate physical distancing. But even in the United States—five months away from a general election—some Republicans, led by Trump, have turned voting by mail into a fiercely partisan issue, despite convincing evidence that it won’t give either party an advantage. Imagine, then, how much more fraught elections could become in countries with weaker institutions and less widespread postal services.
According to International IDEA, an intergovernmental organization that supports democracy around the world, more than 60 countries and territories have postponed elections at the national or (much more often) subnational level due to the pandemic. In many cases, doing so may have been the least undemocratic course of action. To avoid enabling authoritarian power grabs, the Kofi Annan Foundation has recommendedthat any decision to postpone elections be guided by rules that the government and the opposition agree upon, that are clearly communicated to the public, and that ensure the inclusion of vulnerable groups. As with the use of potentially invasive tracking apps, election delays should be limited in time, grounded in law and technical expertise, and proportionate to the danger the virus poses.
To protect rights, privacy, and the integrity of elections during a pandemic is a daunting task, but it is not impossible. It will require politicians, bureaucrats, and members of civil society to restrain their partisanship, adhere to sound expert advice, and submit all emergency measures to disinterested monitoring and oversight.
Before the pandemic, democracy-minded people in countries that had slid toward electoral autocracy showed that it was still possible to make democratic inroads through organized political campaigns. A campaign of “radical love” carried the opposition to a stunning victory in municipal elections in Turkey last year, and opposition parties won municipal elections in Prague in 2018 and in Budapest last October. Even in the absence of a national electoral upset, similar municipal campaigns that engage practical issues and transcend political divisions can limit the ability of autocrats to consolidate power in the pandemic’s wake. Public opinion can also help defend the frayed boundaries of democracy. The original emergency powers bill that Duterte’s office sent to the Philippine Congress in March would have enabled the president to temporarily take control of any privately owned business or utility. But congressional and public resistance forced Duterte to accept much narrower language, involving only the budget and hospitals.
Global democratic recovery will require much of the United States.
Ultimately, the pandemic’s effect on global democracy will be shaped in large part by its effect on the advanced industrial democracies and most of all, the United States. At a time when China and other autocracies are using the pandemic to trash the efficacy of democratic governance and tout their superior capacity to deal with public emergencies, free governments must show that they are up to the task. Some have already done so. Ironically, the “other” Chinese society—Taiwan—has vividly exposed the lie that competent governance in a pandemic requires the extinction of freedom. Australia, Germany, Israel, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea have also performed well in containing the virus. The successful governments responded early and vigilantly, with widespread testing and contact tracing, and they communicated with their publics in a transparent, coordinated manner that put health professionals at the forefront. Sadly, few major countries have performed worse than the United States, whose president has routinely flouted such elementary imperatives as wearing masks, respecting science, trusting the public health leadership, and not promoting voodoo cures. The damage has been incalculable—not only to American lives but to global esteem for American democracy and hence, for democracy itself.
Global democratic recovery will require much of the United States. But first, the country must get its own house in order. Fortunately, supplies of ventilators and protective gear have rapidly increased. But national leadership, with discipline and strategic vision, is still lacking. The U.S. government must not only galvanize its people to act responsibly but also spearhead the international effort to distribute protective equipment and—as they become available—vaccines and medicines. Then, when the coronavirus has been vanquished, the United States must resume its leadership of global democracies in defense of liberty and against authoritarianism, corruption, and bullying.
Politicians and public-health authorities reveal their hypocrisy — and reduce the chances of the public taking them seriously again.
The universal lockdown of the country following the COVID-19 outbreak raised tensions through every segment of American society. The social and economic disruptions sparked protests all over the country, most famously in Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin. These protests were quickly denounced by media personalities, medical experts, and politicians who claimed that the risk of spreading the virus made it foolish to gather in such ways.
Consider Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer, who said that those protests were risking the health of the people of her state, that they “make it likelier that we are going to have to stay in a stay-at-home posture,” and that anyone with a platform should encourage others to “do the right thing” and remain home. Or consider Deborah Birx, the lead doctor on President Trump’s coronavirus task force, who said: “It’s devastatingly worrisome to me personally because if they go home and infect their grandmother or their grandfather who has a co-morbid condition and they have a serious or a very — or an unfortunate outcome, they will feel guilty for the rest of our lives.”
Such concerns were completely reasonable. The nation had just passed the peak of the virus surge in hot spots such as New York and Michigan, and fear of further spread was legitimate. The entire scientific logic for the lockdowns, after all, was to suppress the peak of the surge of the disease, in hopes that our health-care system would have time to learn and adapt.
However, everything changed on May 25, 2020, when Minneapolis resident George Floyd was killed. The outrage over this cruel killing by an officer of the state inflamed the passions of the country, sparking protests, violence, and looting, in the Twin Cities and across the United States. People surged onto the streets, primarily peacefully, to display their full displeasure, fear, anguish, and sorrow.
This time, the response from national pundits and experts to the protest movement was starkly different. Dan Diamond’s excellent article in Politico provides a full accounting of how the medical community has responded to these protests. Jeffrey Flier, the former dean of Harvard Medical School, admitted that physicians were grappling with conflict between the science, and their emotions:
“It makes it clear that all along there were trade-offs between details of lockdowns and social distancing and other factors that the experts previously discounted and have now decided to reconsider and rebalance.” . . . Flier pointed out that the protesters were also engaging in behaviors, like loud singing in close proximity, which CDC has repeatedly suggested could be linked to spreading the virus. . . . “At least for me, the sudden change in views of the danger of mass gatherings has been disorienting, and I suspect it has been for many Americans.”
“Disorienting” is a very kind way to paint the shift from outright disgust and hatred that many Americans faced when they challenged the logic of the lockdowns to the ongoing celebration of the current protests. Don’t forget just how vitriolic the earlier outrage was: On social media, people were outright called murderers and terrorists; numerous governors, including New York’s Andrew Cuomo and New Jersey’s Phil Murphy, literally said people would die because of those protests; and media personalities behaved even worse, with Julia Ioffe of GQ calling the protesters selfish and demanding they stay home originally, and Soledad O’Brien calling Ricochet editor Bethany Mandel a “Grandma Killer.”
Suddenly, with the eruption of protests in the name of the murder of George Floyd, those concerns conveniently disappeared. Some former critics, such as Ioffe, have reversed their positions on mass gatherings and openly support them. Others remain silent, demonstrating their cowardice by barely mentioning the threat of the coronavirus to the public at large as thousands of people congregate in protest.
Consider, again, Governor Whitmer of Michigan. Whitmer has been very slow to reduce restrictions on the lockdowns. She and her attorney general, Dana Nessel, famously pursued a barber in the city of Owosso, Mich., who refused to close during the pandemic; the barber has since won his case in court. Whitmer has continued demanding strict masking and social-distancing rules for everyone in the state well into June. Yet when the BLM protests arrived in metropolitan Detroit on June 4, Whitmer was there to greet them. She wore a mask but rejected all social-distancing regulations, marching side-by-side with protesters. Whitmer was more than happy to violate her own executive orders.
Such hypocrisy is not unusual from journalists, or even politicians. However, a much more serious ethical and professional issue arises when doctors and scientists show such blatant hypocritical bias. As scientists, we have sworn to the public that our recommendations would depend on the science and the data, and reject the whims of emotion and personal opinion.
Sadly, this has not been the case. Former head of the Centers for Disease Control Tom Frieden tweeted that he was concerned about losing the community trust by having physicians voice the risks of the virus to protesters. However, back on May 3, he stated, without any fear, “We’re not just staying home in the magical belief that the virus is going to go away. It won’t. Staying home gives us the opportunity to strengthen our health-care and public-health systems.”
Did the virus change in the last month in ways that staying home now doesn’t weaken our system? Frieden is now making the same arguments that lockdown opponents were making a month earlier! In a tweet on June 2, Frieden stated: “The threat to Covid control from protesting outside is tiny compared to the threat to Covid control created when governments act in ways that lose community trust. People can protest peacefully AND work together to stop Covid. Violence harms public health.”
The facts and reality are that the science and data have not substantially changed. We don’t have a good quantification of the risk of viral spread outdoors: the common consensus is the risk is low, but that consensus existed a month earlier as well, and no conclusive, landmark studies have emerged. Nothing about our fundamental understanding of the disease has changed, but Frieden has done a 180-degree reversal of his position regardless.
Many physicians and scientists have likewise let their partisan leanings overshadow the science. An epidemiologist on Twitter stated: “In this moment the public health risks of not protesting to demand an end to systemic racism greatly exceed the harms of the virus.” What absurd scientific standards were used to make that remarkable statement?
The short answer is: none. Between 2013 and 2019, police in the United States killed a total of 7,666 people, according to Mapping Police Violence, a research and advocacy group. That data shows that relative to their share of the general population, blacks are 2.5 times as likely as whites to be killed by police; since 2015, 1,252 African Americans have been shot and killed by police, using the Washington Post’s database. These are obviously horrific numbers, and we should stipulate that no citizen of the United States should be complacent about these obvious abuses.
But science shouldn’t deal with emotion or fundamentals. It deals with facts and data. And the facts are these: As of May 26, 2020 (the last date for which race-based data is fully available), the APMResearch Lab documented a total of approximately 88,000 deaths as a result of COVID-19. Of those, 21,878 were African-American. African Americans were shown to die of the coronavirus 2.4 times as often as whites, and 2.2 times as often as Hispanics and Asians. To put that into better perspective, 1 in 1850 black Americans in the entire country perished, versus 1 in 4400 white Americans. African Americans represent 13 percent of all Americans, but have suffered 25 percent of all viral deaths.
These are incredible, and tragic, numbers. And medical science can give us some clues as to the reason for the disproportionate effect. African Americans are less likely to have family physicians, are more likely to have co-morbidities that lead to high risk of complications with coronavirus, and are more likely to use mass-transit systems. Additionally, more African Americans live in multi-generational homes, with possibility of infection from their children and grandchildren. All of these factors likely made them far more susceptible to the disease than the average American. But ultimately what this shows is that the coronavirus is somewhere in the range of 200 to 300 times more deadly than all of the police in the entire country — as a conservative estimate.
To be sure, reducing this complex issue to basic numbers fails to capture the complexities of dealing with racism in our society. These are emotional issues that cannot be distilled scientifically. It is perfectly reasonable for the public to deal with these issues by contemplating the larger context of society, racism, and historical connotations.
But scientists and physicians are supposed to be immune to political or emotional whims. Too many are showing themselves not to be. And the dangers extend beyond hypocrisy. Distrust between the public and the medical community makes it harder for the public to make sacrifices in the name of fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. Physicians fundamentally rely on trust; the doctor–patient relationship is one of the fundamental philosophical cornerstones in medicine. So, too, do public-health officials, whose recommendations can be disruptive to ordinary people’s lives.
It took a Herculean effort to institute the lockdowns. But many experts have totally refused to speak up about the risk of these protests to cause future surges of the disease, while they were violently opposing similar, smaller protests a few weeks ago. The narrative is clear: They are willing to stand up for the science, as long as it is politically and emotionally convenient.
Not all experts have stayed silent about the risks that persist to this day. Anthony Fauci has remained consistent in warning about the likely consequences of mass gatherings. But, from the beginning, plenty of people in the public-health and medical communities have expected ordinary Americans to listen to their recommendations while failing to admit their own scientific and knowledge limitations. In a piece in April, I stated that we would need sympathy and empathy nationwide to get through this crisis. We should now add humility to the list as well.
A barber who had been cutting hair for more than 50 years never set out to make a stand. He just wanted to pay his bills.
When Winerd “Les” Jenkins first became a barber, Neil Armstrong hadn’t yet set foot on the moon. For over five decades, Jenkins has made a living with his scissors and razor. For the past decade, he’s worked his craft from a storefront in Inwood, West Virginia. At Les’ Place Traditional Barber Shop, you can get a regular men’s haircut for $16 and a shave for $14—but come prepared to pay the old-fashioned way: in cash.
His insistence on “cash only” isn’t the only thing that’s old-school about Jenkins. He lives with his wife of 52 years on a small farm, where the couple raises rescued animals. He believes in paying his bills on time. He doesn’t use the internet, email, or text messaging. And he’s skeptical that his profession can become illegal overnight merely on the governor’s say-so.
This combination of old-fashioned values led to the soft-spoken barber’s arrest this spring. His story shows how governments’ uncoordinated coronavirus response has caught working Americans in its crossfire—and how the apparatus of occupational licensing has functioned as the state’s enforcement mechanism to shut down small business.
When Les Jenkins first heard about the Wuhan coronavirus, his first concern wasn’t for his own livelihood but that of his wife, Sue. She is medically fragile, on oxygen after an illness left her with Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) several years ago. “I thought long and hard about whether I should risk taking the virus home to her,” Jenkins told me. “But this is my only real source of income.”
Even before the state of West Virginia began issuing mandates to contain the virus, Jenkins was already putting his own protection measures in place for Sue’s sake. He wore a mask and gloves, sanitized tools and surfaces, and changed clothes upon coming home every evening.
On March 19, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice ordered all hair salons and barbershops to close. Most salon owners got the message through the media. The West Virginia Board of Barbers and Cosmetologists (WVBBC) published guidelines on its website but didn’t proactively contact its license-holders.
“The West Virginia Board of Barbers never sent me any written instructions, never called, never sent an inspector to tell me to close,” Jenkins said. “The fellow who works with me saw it on the internet and told me about it.”
Jenkins initially complied with the order, using the time off to make renovations to his store. “After about three weeks, money started getting pretty tight,” Jenkins told me. At his local bank, he was turned down for a Paycheck Protection Program loan, due to operating an all-cash business. He called Workforce West Virginia to apply for pandemic-related unemployment assistance. “The unemployment office told me that in order to get assistance, I had to provide evidence that I’d been ordered to close.”
On April 10, to get the documentation needed for unemployment, Jenkins wrote to the WVBBC, requesting a signed letter to confirm the governor’s closure order. He never received a reply.
By the time two more weeks had gone by with no income, Jenkins was in real fear of losing his home, farm, and business. “I’m 72 years old,” he told me. “What else am I going to do if not this? Who’s going to hire me?”
On Wednesday, April 22, Jenkins quietly opened his shop and cut hair for seven customers—all walk-ins, including several police officers. It would be his only day in operation. The next morning a WVBBC inspector came to the door. “I’ve known her for years, and we talked for a little while about her family,” Jenkins said. “Everything was cordial.”
The inspector told Jenkins the WVBBC had received a complaint the prior week from another local hairstylist, contending that Jenkins was open for business during the shutdown. Jenkins denied seeing customers at the time of the complaint—he was in his shop making renovations—but he admitted to being open the previous day.
He told the WVBBC inspector that he would be willing to close his shop if she would provide him with a copy of the governor’s closure order, signed for verification. The inspector returned to her car. “I assumed she was going to get the letter I had asked for,” Jenkins recalls. Instead, she was calling the sheriff. Two deputies promptly arrived.
After some back-and-forth between the sheriff’s deputies, the state inspector, and the barber, things came to an impasse. “Mr. Jenkins stated that so long as [the inspector] provided him with a copy of the governor’s order with her signature, in writing, he would agree to close his shop,” the sheriff’s deputy wrote in his arrest report. Although the inspector did print a copy of the governor’s order, she refused to sign it, saying that “she was instructed not to provide her signature on the documentation.”
After noting that Jenkins didn’t believe an unsigned document was sufficient, the deputy concluded: “Mr. Jenkins then asked if he may lock up his shop before being placed under arrest, and this deputy allowed him to do so.” Jenkins told me that “no one involved raised their voice or said anything detrimental. Everyone was cordial, professional, and polite.” Nothing in the officer’s report contradicts this characterization.
Jenkins spent three hours in a holding cell before being charged with obstructing an officer and released on a $500 recognizance bond. The misdemeanor charge carries a possible sentence of $50-$500 in fines, and up to a year in jail. Jenkins also worries about potential punitive actions from the WVBBC, which could include fines, suspension, or revocation of his license.
Today, Jenkins is working again, making up for lost time after six weeks without an income. He never did succeed in obtaining any government financial assistance. “I don’t know if I would have qualified for unemployment,” he told me. “But they wouldn’t even give me the opportunity to try. One bureaucracy dealing with another doesn’t work.”
It’s unclear why the unemployment office told Jenkins he needed to prove he’d been ordered to close his business. Workforce West Virginia did not respond to a request for comment. However, in interviews, other self-employed West Virginians attested to a disorganized, confused, and delayed response in receiving pandemic-related unemployment assistance. The Workforce West Virginia website currently contains a notice that its “systems are experiencing intermittent disruptions and temporary outages” due to overwhelming demand.
It’s still less clear why the state licensing board was unwilling to issue a signed letter at Jenkins’ request. The WVBBC proved far more interested in catching Jenkins breaking the governor’s order than it was in helping him abide by it. Rather than simply provide a document to help one of its barbers obtain assistance from another state agency, the bureaucrats at the WVBBC preferred to see the 72-year-old business owner leave his shop in the back of a police car.
The WVBBC—which did not respond to multiple requests for comment—is just one of an entrenched network of state occupational licensing boards in West Virginia. Last year, the Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy released a study comparing the state to two of its wealthier neighbors, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Not only does West Virginia have the most licensing boards of the three, but it also has generally higher fees and more onerous licensing requirements.
Garrett Ballengee, executive director of the Cardinal Institute, doesn’t believe an entity like the WVBBC even needs to exist. He notes that while approximately 5 percent of occupations required licenses in the 1950s, today that number stands at higher than 25 percent. “It’s a protectionist racket,” he says. “If we’re going to have an entity like this for barbers and hairdressers, it should provide voluntary certification or consultative services. It certainly shouldn’t be an extension of the legal system, which it clearly is.”
Indeed, in many states, occupational licensing boards have been a key enforcement mechanism for governors’ shutdowns of small businesses. For instance, Michigan’s own shutdown-defying barber has already had his license suspended. Fortunately, under the direction of President Trump, the federal government has been working to relax the regulatory burden on businesses and restart the national economy. State governments should follow this lead. The last thing small business owners need is to be worried about heavy-handed bureaucrats looking to set examples.
As for Jenkins, he has now hired an attorney from his own pocket, helped out by a few donations from the community. “I don’t want to go to jail for a year,” he told me. “I don’t want to lose my barber license. They’ve got the power over me; they’ve got lawyers funded by the state. I never set out to make a statement or a stand. I just wanted to pay my bills.”
Congress spent too much money trying to keep the economy afloat during what looks to be the increasingly ill-advised coronavirus lockdown. The effort to flatten the curve to keep hospitals from being overwhelmed quickly transformed into something more that is only now, and mostly in the so-called red states, easing up.
To cushion the blow, the House and Senate passed, and President Donald Trump signed legislation distributing trillions of dollars, many of which had little, if anything, to do with COVID relief. One of the most objectionable, one that distorted the labor market badly, was the provision guaranteeing a “temporary” $600 weekly bonus on top of regular unemployment payments for workers state government decided needed to stay home in the interest of public safety.
For more than a few of them, that bonus lifted their unemployment income above what they’d been making on the job. Stories about the difficulties involved in getting these people to come back to work are already legion and will continue to be so, especially as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats have made the extension of unemployment benefits and bonuses a priority for the next round of relief.
If there’s a more stupid idea out there, it’s hard to find. Paying people to stay home is about as silly as paying farmers not to grow anything—yet that was a hallmark of U.S. agricultural policy starting with the Great Depression and continuing through to the Clinton years, when Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America Congress put a stop to it. At least for a while.
Unfortunately, foolish ideas abound among legislators, even well-meaning ones like former House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady. The Texas Republican, who is now the committee’s ranking member, is proposing a $1,200 back-to-work bonus to get the economy moving again.
His plan, which he’s calling the Reopening America by Supporting Workers and Businesses Act of 2020, would cost less than some of the items on Pelosi’s wish list, but that may be the only thing about it that’s virtuous. Brady says he’s “trying to help Main Street businesses rebuild their workforce by turning unemployment benefits” into an incentive for workers to return to the job.
He says that will accelerate the economic recovery. Call me doubtful. As Nobel Prize–winning economist Milton Friedman and others have consistently argued, the money that comes out of the private economy does not produce as much growth as the money that never leaves it. The Brady plan is a circular exercise, with the government taking money from the earnings of workers and businesses through taxes and then giving it back to them as a “re-employment benefit.
Outside Washington, the argument that the answer to the problems created by subsidizing unemployment lies in a program to subsidize re-employment would be met with silent stares—justifiably so. Letting the bonus expire, as it will do under current law, would be a good fix in the short-term, but politicians need greater guts than many of the current crowd seem to have to oppose the extension of unemployment benefits when so many of them have filed for them since mid-March.
The difference between now and what is usually the case, however, is that in the main jobs are there for the taking. The unemployment we’re currently experiencing results from the COVID lockdown, not a business downturn that occurred for any of the usual reasons. Bolder, braver initiatives are called for.
One that’s one the table, which some in the White House like but the bean counters at Treasury hate, is a partial payroll tax holiday running from March 1 (when the lockdown started to approach peak levels) and the end of the calendar year. All in, including the deductions for Medicare and Medicaid along with what’s taken out for Social Security, that gives business owners a little over 15 percent of wages up to $137,000 out of which they can incentivize workers returning to work on broad terms and still have something left to help cushion them from the economic blow the lockdown caused.
The arguments against this plan are few and come mostly from the usual suspects. Some say it would jeopardize the health of Social Security, but as the so-called “trust fund” is mostly an accounting fiction, most of the money comes from general revenue. Others argue it would add precipitously to the deficit, which may be but not by more than what Brady, Pelosi or anyone else is proposing. Most of the politicians who hate it do so because it means they’re not in the position to ride to the rescue by passing out relief. That’s a silly reason to reject a good idea. Help the country. Do the payroll tax holiday legislation. Then go home.
If we’ve learned anything from the COVID-19 virus, it is that dependence on the Communist country is dangerous. For example, the Chinese authorities stopped a ship in transit filled with paid-for medical supplies at a strategic moment, hoping to hold us hostage. The Communist regime mixes all Chinese businesses with its military objectives using economics, trade and a growing dominance in the high-tech world to make their power and military might in the world greater.
That party has even bragged of its future capacity to attack and defeat the United States during an international pandemic. We must understand therefore that China isn’t merely a trading partner, it is also a dangerous international enemy. In response, we must always maintain a strong military. That is obvious. But what may not be quite so obvious, but every bit as important:
We must maintain our high-tech advantages and not make ourselves dependent upon a hostile power.
The Trump administration has been aware of these risks and has taken steps to stop China’s high-tech adventurism.
The administration recently enacted restrictions on Chinese tech company Huawei, which is infamous for placing backdoors in their chips so that the communist regime has control over any device with Huawei chipsets. This alone should make it clear the U.S. can never allow itself to become dependent upon China for its technology. Imagine American fighter jets, radars and missile defense that would work only if the communist regime in China decided not to switch them off.
This is why it seemed to be good news when the world’s third-largest chip maker, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), and the Trump administration recently announced TSMC’s plans to build a large chip manufacturing facility in Arizona, bringing in over 1,600 good-paying high-tech jobs. It also puts a major chip manufacturing facility on U.S. soil.
If we look more deeply into the details though, there is lot that needs to be improved if this deal is to truly advance America’s economic and security interests.
First, the deal would build a factory that when complete will be building yesterday’s chip sets. The factory is currently planned to make 5 nanometer chips. But the next generation 3 nanometer chips are just a few years off. Given that the factory won’t be fully complete until 2030, it should be built to manufacture the highest tech chips — not ones that will be a generation behind by then. The 5 nanometer chips may still be used widely in consumer electronics in the future, but they won’t be the most powerful, efficient and capable chip sets needed for the most demanding applications.
Bottom line: We won’t be getting a facility capable of manufacturing the highest tech chip sets that will be needed in the future. However, TSMC is updating some of its facilities in Asia to build these next generation 3 nanometer chipsets. So we should insist that if we’re going to build a chip factory in the U.S., it must be a top of the line, high-tech factory — not yesterday’s tech.
The planned factory would also have a relatively low monthly output capacity. Other TSMC factories can produce more than five times the monthly capacity of the proposed U.S. factory. If the planned factory is too small to truly act as a counterweight to China’s plans or to make us truly independent of China’s high-tech tentacles, it doesn’t actually do that much to make America stronger or safer. We should insist therefore that the factory capacity be expanded to make it a true counter-balance to China’s aims.
Here is a solution to all of these concerns — the U.S. requires TSMC as a condition of the deal to form a joint venture with an American firm. It could increase the available funding to build a factory capable of manufacturing the latest and greatest and most powerful chipsets. Moreover, it would allow the factory to be built bigger so that its monthly capacity qualifies it as a true, cutting edge “Gigafab” facility. And finally, a joint venture with an American firm would insulate the venture from China’s active efforts to co-opt strategic businesses and thereby make America and others dependent or at risk to China’s designs.
The Trump administration is smart to build positive relationships that strengthen America and reduce our dependence upon China. But the details matter, and the deal with TSMC needs some serious improvement if it is to truly end our dependence on high tech semiconductors that are within China’s orbit. The last 30 years have been disastrous for American manufacturing. China has been the primary beneficiary of those wrong-headed policies, taxes and regulations that drove business overseas. Hopefully, the COVID-19 virus has woken us up to the malignancy of the communist regime and the risks of relying up on it for things that are fundamental to our security.