April 14, 2020

The Roiling Reopening Debate

Trump asserts “total authority,” while 10 governors band together with plans.

For weeks, we have been urging our elected leaders to come up with an exit strategy from the current shutdown. There must be a time when we can reopen for business to prevent the collapse of our economy. That strategy obviously has to balance public health with, well, public health — the virus with putting food on the table. Still, “There’s nothing smart about doing it too early,” says economist Arthur Laffer.

The good news is that President Donald Trump is launching a commission today to formulate a plan. The bad news is that President Donald Trump asserted Monday, “When somebody’s the president of the United States, the authority is total, and that’s the way it’s got to be. … The governors know that.”

That’s not true in our federalist system, of course, and it’s not the way Trump has acted throughout the crisis. We can’t say enough how regrettable it is that Trump is so quick to offer easily rebuttable hyperbole when he’s making his case. But the Leftmedia narrative is that Trump is both doing too much and not enough — that he is Hitler but also not enough Hitler — so the fact that he fights back is welcome.

According to the Associated Press, “Among those expected to be part of the new team: Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson and White House economic advisers, past and present, Kevin Hassett and Larry Kudlow. New White House chief of staff Mark Meadows is expected to chair the effort.”

Meanwhile, 10 governors — nine Democrats and one Republican on the coasts, representing one-third of the U.S. population — have banded together to formulate their own plan for reopening, which is very similar to the plan from two economists we noted last Thursday. Americans should all hope that this doesn’t devolve into nothing more than a political fight over who gets the credit.

New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Delaware, and Massachusetts have formed one coalition, while California, Oregon, and Washington have banded together in another. Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott is working on his own plan. The governors will use various benchmarks and health officials’ recommendations to slowly loosen restrictions and allow people to return to work, though likely not until May.

Why is returning to work so important? It’s far more than just making a profit; it’s about hope, and it’s about weighing which suffering is worse.

Former New York Lt. Gov. Betsy McCaughey writes, “Job losses cause extreme suffering. Every 1% hike in the unemployment rate will likely produce a 3.3% increase in drug overdose deaths and a 0.99% increase in suicides according to data provided by the National Bureau of Economic Research and the medical journal Lancet. These are facts based on experience, not models. If unemployment hits 32%, some 77,000 Americans are likely to die from suicide and drug overdoses as a result of layoffs. Scientists call these fatalities deaths of despair.”

There have been roughly 24,000 U.S. deaths from coronavirus so far, with projections reaching nearly 70,000 into August. If there is a second wave of infections and deaths due to reopening, recriminations will be deafening. There are tradeoffs to whatever decisions are made. Ignoring them doesn’t make them go away.

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