The Morning Jolt

U.S.

What We’re Getting Right and Wrong with Reopening

A Dana Inc. assembly technician wears a face mask, as the auto industry begins reopening amid the coronavirus outbreak, at the Dana plant in Toledo, Ohio, May 18, 2020. (Rebecca Cook/Reuters)

We didn’t want to adapt, but we adapted.

All fifty states have now partially reopened. For those who argue it’s too early, note that the lockdowns started ten weeks ago. Sure, the medically or scientifically ideal policy might be to keep every American in their homes nonstop every day for three months, but that was never a realistic option. We flattened the curve, our hospitals were not overwhelmed, and now we face the equally difficult challenge of making life go on as the pandemic continues and, we hope, starts to wane. Today let’s look at what’s going right at this current moment, and what’s going wrong.

What’s Going Right

  • A primary election held in Wisconsin did not create a surge of new cases. Sixty-seven people in the state who tested positive said they had voted that day, but epidemiologists point out that they cannot prove that those patients caught the virus from going out to vote. Nearly 411,000 people showed up statewide to vote.
  • The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed Tuesday at 24,206. On March 23, it closed at 18,591. That’s still far from the February peak of 29,551, but at least one part of the economy has bounced back significantly from the crash and appears fairly optimistic about growth in the coming months.
  • A new study estimates that 68 percent of unemployed workers who can receive benefits are eligible for payments that are greater than their lost earnings. Many on the right would normally recoil from this, worrying that the unemployment benefits would create a disincentive to work. But this moment is nothing like normal economic circumstances. We’ve just seen 21 million jobs lost in a five-week period. There’s a lot less need to worry about a disincentive to work when no one is hiring! Laid-off food service workers and janitors making about 150 percent of their previously meager salaries does not seem like a terrible problem to have during a deep recession and widespread anxiety.
  • Crime rates went down in most U.S. cities.

What’s Going Wrong

  • The United States has lost 92,000 souls to the coronavirus. We will pass 100,000 deaths shortly, and the big question is whether our death toll reaches 200,000. At this point, someone might argue, “Yes, but they were mostly elderly.” But that doesn’t really make their deaths less tragic or painful, and the virus’s toll has included plenty who wouldn’t be considered elderly. In the cases of those in nursing homes in places like New York and New Jersey, many will fairly ask whether different state policies on readmitting recovering patients could have prevented some of those deaths.

Perhaps our greatest weakness in this crisis has been the inability to speak honestly about difficult truths — among political leaders, among the media, among ordinary citizens. Today, Kevin Williamson tears into a couple of prominent examples:

Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York said the other day, “as I said from day one, I’m not going to choose between public health and economic activity.”

Everybody knows it is a lie, beginning with Governor Cuomo. We are going to choose between public health and economic activity. We are going to try to strike some intelligent balance between competing concerns, and, even if we do our very best, innocent people are going to get hurt on both sides of that balance, and some of them will surely die — either from COVID-19 or from the economic consequences of the lockdown.

We do not have very many adults in government, but if we did, those adults would understand — and make a point of dwelling on the fact — that every decision of any consequence in public policy involves tradeoffs. We are going to choose between liberty and security, between protecting the rights of the criminally accused and the interests of crime victims, between efficiency and stability, between our commitment to free speech and our desire to counteract disinformation, between the interests of today’s social-welfare beneficiaries and tomorrow’s taxpayers.

Pretending that there is no choice and no tradeoffs does not liberate us from choosing. Mostly, it ensures that we choose poorly and that the choosing is left to ignorant and irresponsible demagogues.

Perhaps Americans’ perpetual dissatisfaction with their leaders — manifested in that low approval rating for Congress, no matter which party is running which chamber — is an indication of how often our leaders fail to deliver on their promises of easy solutions with no trade-offs. But if we keep believing those same unrealistic promises and unworkable happy-talk . . . is the problem with those leaders . . . or with us for believing in them?

ADDENDUM: Yesterday, I had a chance to chat about the coronavirus and China with political commentator, military historian, retired U.S. Marine lieutenant colonel, and infamously controversial historical figure Oliver North on his program. It should appear here sometime soon.

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