Policymakers Should Stop and Consider the Destination Workers

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“It doesn’t make sense.” Those are the words of Las Vegas resident Valicia Anderson. Interviewed by New York Times reporter Sabrina Tavernise, Tavernise reports that Anderson quickly runs out of fingers when she attempts to list all those she knows who've been rendered unemployed by the response of politicians to the new coronavirus.

Tavernise goes on to report that victims close to Anderson include “Her husband, the breadwinner of her family and a restaurant worker in the Rio casino. All 25 of his co-workers. Her grown son, in a temp agency. The technician who does her nails. The barber who cuts her husband’s hair. Her best friend, a waitress. The three servers and a manager at the TGI Friday’s that is her family’s favorite treat.”

Such is life for all-too-many workers, or former workers. Their work is a destination, or was a destination, that often involves or involved serving people in person. Tens of millions of them are now out of work. That they are may explain future skepticism from them toward politicians and policymakers for whom work is to some degree an anywhere thing thanks to the internet, or internet-enabled Zoom, or on TV thanks to internet-enabled Skype. 

Former FDA Commissioner and American Enterprise Institute (AEI) resident fellow Scott Gottlieb is one of those policymakers who can work from anywhere, and who has been working non-stop since the spread of the coronavirus began. His media presence has been substantial, and he's expressed a lot of worry about what the virus's spread could mean to our health. Unfortunately, the policy response from lawmakers he's advised has resulted in mass unemployment, bankruptcy and desperation for the typical, destination-style workers Gottlieb perhaps doesn’t encounter much in Westport, CT. About a governmental response to a virus that amounted to quite literally fighting something potentially lethal will economic contraction, it should be stated up front that this economics writer never once presumed to talk the actual “health” of the coronavirus during an economic contraction primarily endured by those with the least. With good reason. This writer knows nothing about medicine, or viruses.

At the same time, the view all along from this column has been that even if the worst case scenarios presented by the most fearful were in fact true, the response should still be liberty. We’re not fools. If something is potentially deadly, or even if it merely has the potential to make us sick, we’re wise enough to be rather cautious. So will businesses eager to remain in business. They got that way by meeting the myriad needs of customers, and so would they meet the needs of customers scared a lot, a little, or not at all by a virus.

Arguably missed by Gottlieb, and other policymakers, is that while they work in government now, or advise governments now, they didn't always. And just as they didn’t need a law or policy “solutions” in order to stay healthy before they were in or near government, so do we not need policy solutions now. So again, the view from here was to assume that the worst, since-walked-back projections from Imperial College were true. The worst is assumed not because yours truly believes the worst scenarios will materialize, but because the only reasonable response to millions of potential deaths would logically be unfettered freedom. Really, who would fight what may be deadly for millions with the mother of all recessions? Please read on.  

So with the lack of medical qualifications once again out of the way, something obvious requires stating: poverty kills. It’s the biggest killer man has ever known. Governments have a long history of creating poverty of the worst kind. And since poverty kills, it’s probably a bad idea for politicians and policymakers to seek solutions that will first enhance the power of government, and for having enhanced it, secondarily result in tens of millions unemployed, millions of businesses wiped out, and desperation in general. Better yet, it’s probably wise amid the spreading of a virus to push aside that which is known for inefficiency and the destruction of human and financial capital at a time when efficiency and copious human/financial capital are most necessary to vaccinate away what some deem a mortal threat.  

Indeed, while there’s once again no presumption of medical knowledge in this column, there’s confident knowledge that creative people matched with capital have been erasing past killers for decades, and realistically, centuries. Lest readers forget, WWI was the first war in which more people were killed by guns and bombs than pneumonia. According to Dr. Lawrence Dorr, one of the world’s most accomplished surgeons, doctors used to respond with “Don’t know” to questions about the why behind pneumonia. Among other things, it was “too small to be seen” and was referred to by doctors who had no answer to it as  “Captain of Man’s Death.” Readers can rest assured that poverty didn’t wipe out this “Captain” of misery, so why lead with poverty to fight what all-too-many “Don’t know” the why behind now? 

On Sunday, Gottlieb observed on CBS’s Face the Nation that Georgia was “jumping the gun” in opening up its economy; that a better timeframe would be mid to “late May.” Such caution may make sense for Gottlieb. As his bio makes plain, he's got corporate board income, think tank income, and federal pensions to fall back on during the lockdown. Crucial, however, is that not all of Georgia’s workers have the means to sit idle for weeks and months with the rather decadent notion of “flattening the curve" top of mind. Many are tapped out, or their businesses are. They need to get back to it six weeks ago. Translated, "flattening the curve" is a luxury likely beyond the reach for most most Georgians, and most Americans. 

Gottlieb followed up his Face the Nation appearance with an economic policy piece the following day. He explained to readers that the “first nation to develop a vaccine for Covid-19 could have an economic advantage.” No need. Indeed, the beauty of open markets is that they result in every innovation appearing as though it was created next door. Gottlieb fears the “country” that develops a vaccine first will supply it to its citizens first, but then if a “country” can cure Covid-19, the vaccine won’t be very difficult to produce in the first place, Nor, perhaps, will it be much demanded.

If other doctors are to be believed, the virus is perhaps not very lethal. No doubt the skeptics could be wrong. Gottlieb may say so himself. Such is the beauty of freedom. The combination of differing views, and people responding differently to differing views, is the path to knowledge; ideally knowledge that will fell Covid-19 as a threat. 

Until then, hopefully more people for whom the lockdown meant cushy time at home will stop and think about Valicia Anderson and tens of millions of other Americans. The solutions foisted on them by local, state and national politicians proved extraordinarily challenging. Gottlieb too should recognize this as he recommends against states re-opening from the comforts of Westport. Gottlieb has the luxury of being careful, which is something tens of millions of Americans do not. 

John Tamny is editor of RealClearMarkets, Vice President at FreedomWorks, and a senior economic adviser to Toreador Research and Trading (www.trtadvisors.com). His new book is titled They're Both Wrong: A Policy Guide for America's Frustrated Independent Thinkers. Other books by Tamny include The End of Work, about the exciting growth of jobs more and more of us love, Who Needs the Fed? and Popular Economics. He can be reached at jtamny@realclearmarkets.com.  

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