As we think about coming out of our caves. there’s jockeying for position in determining who’s in charge and who’s to blame. This was inevitable, given the personalities involved. When is the President the boss and when are governors in charge? We’re learning about federalism and dual sovereignty the hard way.
Trump is providing guidance to the states for opening the economy, rather than pulling all the strings like he’s inclined. He wisely climbed into his bully pulpit where he can influence the process, applying his trademark bluster of course, as our economy awakens.
There’s been uncertainty and criticism about this decentralized process with states making their own economic recovery decisions. So, who’s in charge? Perhaps nobody. But let me explain. Our Founders set up our government with power originating with the citizens. Only powers so enumerated are delegated to the federal government, with all other power residing with the states or the people. What seems like “chaos” to some, is evidence of the system working properly.
Everyone, whether governor or citizen, has unique personal opinions about safety. Lockdowns give feelings of control, while opening the economy gives up that control. The result is uncertainty and fear. Some plead, “just follow the science,” but there’s much more to it than that. Paraphrasing Rich Lowry, “outside of the lab, in the real world, we must deal with public policy, economies, questions of values and striking a balance between competing priorities.”
Scientists and modelers don’t have answers to all the questions presidents and governors must consider. Opening the economy doesn’t prioritize the stock market over human life and values. It doesn’t trivialize all that front-line health and other essential workers have done. Rather, it means we refuse to trivialize very real but obscure dangers that threaten many others.
We’re learning that “flattening the curve” via lockdown comes with costs of its own. There are “body counts” associated with lockdown-related mental health issues, economies being wiped out, and personal bankruptcies. A rise in unemployment has a material effect on suicides, homicides, domestic violence, substance abuse and eating disorders. And what’s the cost of delaying elective medical care like knee replacements, cataract surgery, annual checkups, glaucoma tests, and even root canals?
We dare not minimize or ignore the potential tragedy of struggling economies – neither here in the U.S. nor internationally. The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) predicts that by year end, more than 260,000,000 people will face starvation, double 2019’s total. In April, WFP’s director stated: “More people could potentially die from the economic impact of COVID-19 than from the virus itself.” That’s the result of tearing down global food supply chains, not deaths from the virus itself.
It’s folly to require uniform actions while facing vastly different situations across the country. Each state has unique issues. New York has over 300,000 infections to date, and a death rate of 71 per 100,000 citizens. The New York City metro area has over 160,000 infected, with a death rate of 128 per 100,000. Texas has over 35,000 infections and 2 deaths per 100,000. Florida’s numbers are approximately 35,000 infections and 4 deaths per 100,000, despite its aging population and complications of having spring break visitors during early March.
Our Founders understood the value of keeping authority at the state and local levels. A counterproductive, “one size fits all” philosophy prevails whenever the federal government is pushing all the buttons. We’re lucky everyone isn’t following the same formula. Nevertheless, we will see both successes and relative failures while restarting America. And we’ll learn from that.
Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis channeled our Founders when he wrote, “a state may……serve as a laboratory and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.” He popularized referring to states as “laboratories of democracy” which I’ve rephrased in the context of COVID-19 recovery. States are now serving as “laboratories of pandemic recovery.”
Scientists, economists, and social scientists will learn a lot from our states as “pandemic laboratories.” We’ll know a lot more about how and when we should come out of our caves, or maybe we’ll find out hiding in caves isn’t necessary. But right now, we’re not sure what we don’t know.