The real value of the coronavirus protests
If the protesters can persuade leaders to craft responses that keep the need for economic activity and an eventual return to normalcy in mind, the noise will have been worth it
With the country in the grips of a debilitating global pandemic, is there a group that it is more fashionable to ridicule than the anti-lockdown protesters? These are the people who show up at state capitols, especially in blue states with strong red subcultures, to demand an end to the rules designed to curtail the spread of the coronavirus.
These crowds do contain some real outliers in American political life: gun-wielding militia members, conspiracy theorists who doubt the severity or even the existence of COVID-19, partisans who believe this is a deliberate attempt to wreck the economy in order to deny President Trump a second term, maskless shouters whose defiance of social distancing borders on recklessness. Some of the placards they carry — I haven't seen one saying "Coronavirus is healthier than fascism" yet, but the pandemic is still young — will make you do a double take.
But protesters shouting at Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D), Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D), Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz (D), Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D), and others also include many ordinary citizens who are legitimately concerned about the lockdown-weakened economy, even if they do not yet represent anything close to a majority of the electorate. They are also performing, however tendentiously at times, a valuable public service: creating political pressure on government officials to consider the staggering costs of their quarantine policies in an environment where all other incentives are tilted toward the putative benefits.
Those costs are real. Real unemployment is likely the highest its been since the Great Depression, exceeding the 2007-08 financial meltdown with jobless claims topping 30 million. Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell testified that nearly 40 percent of households earning less than $40,000 a year experienced job loss in March. The Becker Friedman Institute of the University of Chicago estimates that 42 percent of the post-coronavirus layoffs will prove to be permanent job losses.
It is frequently argued that the virus is about human life, the loss of which is permanent, while the economy is about wealth, comfort, convenience, and privilege, featuring dislocations that are in any event temporary. But millions of people bearing the costs of the shutdowns are in fact among the least wealthy and privileged, as their salary-earning counterparts work comfortably from home, and the longer this goes on, more of the economic damage will be irreversible — and will come with human costs, including poverty and death.
That doesn't mean we can simply ignore the virus. Public health remains paramount. Even if we reopen, we cannot experience a full economic recovery if millions remain too sick or too scared to go to work or patronize businesses. But many of the restrictions put in place as a result of the pandemic were not designed to last until there is a vaccine. We can debate whether enough was done with the time the quarantines bought for governments at all levels to improve testing and hospital capacity, but it is indisputable that these measures cannot outlast the outbreak.
Arguing that concerns about the economic cost are simply about getting haircuts or eating at Fuddruckers while grandma dies is as irresponsible as claiming face masks are the mark of the beast or engaging in revolutionary cosplay on the capitol steps. This too is a matter of life and death, and there is a limit to what even multi-trillion dollar Washington stimulus packages can accomplish for displaced workers.
The excesses of the protests do have the potential to discredit arguments for phased and careful economic reopening. So does the overidentification of economy-related arguments with the polarizing president. But so far, elected officials are mostly neither ignoring protesters nor giving them everything they want. States are easing stay-at-home orders while also taking into account health considerations.
It is essential to heed the expertise of epidemiologists about the virus and let that inform our policy making while putting that knowledge in proper perspective. Expertise in one area, no matter how important, does not confer expert status in others, such as macroeconomics or organizing human society.
The coronavirus should not be allowed to reinforce the conceit that political disputes can be resolved by science. Yes, facts matter. But many of these debates involve trade-offs and values that will not be evaluated the same way by everyone. Coping with a dangerous disease and an accompanying economic calamity is no different. If the protesters can persuade leaders to craft responses that at least partially keep the need for economic activity and an eventual return to normalcy in mind, the noise will have been worth it.
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