• Paul D. Wilke

The Devolution Solution

We're about to embark on a grand experiment. Fifty experiments, to be exact, with each state playing a role in coping with the coronavirus until a vaccine is found. This is the way our democracy should work, with power delegated and run by those who understand their communities best. A top-down, cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all approach is okay for Hong Kong or South Korea, but it's a terrible idea for a nation as vast and diverse as America. Manhattan is not Anchorage, and dense urban centers experience this differently than sparsely-populated rural areas.

As labs work around the clock to find a cure, states will become policy laboratories in developing mitigation techniques. Since we still know relatively little about the nature of the virus, trying many different things lets us more quickly find the ones that work best. What we'll likely see over the coming months is a gradual loosening of restrictions to the point where only those that provide proven benefits remain in place.

That's good because right now, we're at peak pandemic overreaction. Here in Paris, I constantly see people driving around alone in their cars with masks on. Why? And do we really need to don masks if we're all by ourselves in the park walking the dog at 6 a.m.? People seem to think so. And what about jogging alone while still social distancing? I haven't heard a convincing reason why not. As Rich Lowry at the National Review recently wrote, "A sure sign of fanaticism is the inability to make distinctions, in this instance between risky and non-risky activities and between places hard hit and places not." He's right.

It's not that the public isn't taking the pandemic seriously - polls consistently show that it is - but there is a growing suspicion that not all of the restrictions are backed by any corroborating science. In fact, some could actually be exacerbating other medical problems while providing no real protection against the virus. For example, parks remain closed even though evidence for outdoor infection is minimal, while we know there are real health benefits to spending time outside.

What we need to overcome this fanaticism are real-world case studies that cut through the conflicting narratives out there right now.

At one extreme, you have those who would not open much of anything until the virus is almost totally wiped out. The equation is simple: the stricter the rules, the more lives get saved, and saving more lives should be the priority.

This is true.

So if our goal is to save the most lives possible, then this course of action becomes the obvious choice. And what of those who clamor about the economic misery such restrictions will cause? Well, the restrictionists would retort that easing up too soon would hurt the economy just as much (or more) than maintaining tight restrictions until the pandemic is under control. According to this line of reasoning, people would be too afraid to shop and work; businesses would suffer anyway while people continued to get sick. In other words, easing up too soon to help the economy would hurt it even more.

On the other end, we have those who still wave this off as no big deal, that it's over-hyped by the media, and that we should just get back to business-as-usual right goddamn now. They bristle at the aggressive top-down methods many in the media and scientific community are calling for, arguing that the cure will be worse than the disease if we keep society shut down for too long.

This is also true.

Over thirty million Americans filed for unemployment benefits in April. Thirty million! Think about that for a moment as you shift uncomfortably in your seat. That's a terrifying stat and hints at the social and economic unrest that may be looming on the horizon.

You think it's bad now?

This is where a decentralized approach can help us find a stable, livable medium between these two extremes. Over the coming year, as these state and local experiments play themselves out, we'll be able to see who was right and who was wrong, what works, and what doesn't. I am glad to see Florida, Maryland, and parts of California reopening outdoor venues for people to get the hell out of the house. People need those kind of outlets to be able to cope with the other restrictions.

Let's see what happens.

Cities are also beginning to look at how to reopen restaurants in ways that mitigate risk. I have no idea how they'll make that work, but a lot of motivated and creative people are going to give it a shot.

Let's see how that goes.

On the other hand, rural locations like Dare county in North Caroline sealed its borders to keep the virus out. It worked in that regard. But what comes next? Other rural counties in North Carolina took similar strict measures. Others didn't. Maybe one of these responses will, in retrospect, turn out to have been a best practice others can copy later on.

Given this wide variety of responses, we'll have a number of real-world examples to inform policymakers going forward. No doubt, other more cautious state and local governments are watching these early experiments with interest to see how far they themselves can go in reopening their own public spaces. After all, they know their communities best and have more credibility than our out-of-touch federal institutions. Let them take the lead. They can tailor targeted responses to the needs of their communities better than someone in D.C. What the federal government can contribute, however, are vast resources, and those should be deployed nationwide to supplement states' efforts.

Whatever the strategy, at least some restrictions will continue to be necessary, but those should be proportional to the actual risk. Defining "actual risk" will continue to evolve as we get more data from all of these state-level experiments.

And just to give you an idea of the difference between various states, take a look at this. To date (7 May 2020), New York has had 333,400 cases and 26,000 deaths. Alaska has had 372 and 10. The two states' situations are not the same, not even close, nor are the risks. Alaska should not respond like New York, though it could learn from New York's experience. Every other state in the union is somewhere between New York and Alaska in the severity of the outbreak.

In any case, we're going to have to find ways of living with the virus and the threat it poses. Until we find a vaccine, some people are going to die. Further outbreaks are going to happen and we need to be ready for them. We need the states to take the lead implementing better processes (more testing, tracking, & masks, etc.) in ways that will minimize the virus's impact, and we need the federal government to help resource those efforts. Still, there is no getting around the fact that this is with us for the foreseeable future. Short a vaccine, there is no magic bullet.

The sooner we realize this, then the sooner we can get back to some semblance of normal. And stop calling this "the new normal." No, it's not. It's the new abnormal and it sucks. Think of this as a temporary and unpleasant deviation from the old normal. By delegating our response down to the local level as much as we can, we'll more quickly come to grips with the coronavirus, and life will go on as before, just like it did in every other pandemic.

There was no "new normal" after the 1918 Spanish flu killed 50 million worldwide and 675,000 in the U.S. On the contrary, people soon forgot about it and got back to living. Keep in mind, this was at a time when the world population was still under 2 billion (compared to 7.8 billion today), and the U.S. population was 103 million (compared to 330 million today). If our predecessors had the resilience to overcome a vastly more deadly outbreak, then we do too.

And so I am confident we will.

Is that naive optimism? Fine! So be it! Try it sometime! Better this than the continuously chanted "new normal" defeatism (here, here, here and...here) I hear so much of these days. And while I applaud our medical workers for their superhuman efforts in treating those infected, let's not forget the state and local officials who are navigating a vicious decision matrix of shitty options.

Statler and Waldorf - The Muppet Show

Yeah, I know, it's not fashionable to praise politicians for anything these days - I get it - but they're stepping up and taking the lead on something that the rest of us lazy asses in the peanut gallery are unwilling to do. Oh, but we'll criticize like champs because that's easy. So okay, if you don't want to give them any credit, if that goes too against your grain, then at least understand the dreadful dilemmas they are facing and cut them some slack.

Or, if you're still unsympathetic, get out and run for office and do it better.


I didn't think so.

After all, they will be vulnerable to constant criticism from those who think they know better. Who wants to be part of that? Scientists will be angry because this or that governor did not implement each and every one of their recommendations. Media pundits will focus on the missteps of this or that local mayor, preferably a Republican, rather than celebrating any of their boring successes, thus creating an impression of bungling and incompetence. Partisans on both sides will flog the other side for being either too insensitive or too sensitive, for being too willing to give up personal liberties, or too unwilling to limit those liberties for the public good. You name it, someone's going to bitch about it.

If our leaders open up too soon or too much, they may put more lives at risk. If they are too draconian in maintaining those restrictions, and for too long, the economic and psychological misery will also take its toll. They're trying to walk a tightrope narrowly balanced between preservation of life and protection of basic liberties. It's a helluva task, and one fraught with so many damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't scenarios that I start panic sweating just thinking about them.

Not all of them are going to get it right, either, and some will become cautionary tales. Nevertheless, we'll learn from those failures just as much as from the successes, thus helping us eventually find a sustainable equilibrium for our society until a vaccine is found. I believe this messy experimental approach will yield efficiencies that in the long run save more lives. Not only that, but it's also a thoroughly democratic way of managing a crisis like this.

Finally, a friendly reminder: Science must inform us, science should inform us, but it cannot dictate what we must do. That's not the way a democracy works. We the People must decide and then live with the consequences. We'll have to determine what tradeoffs we are willing to live with. I'm glad that our free and decentralized political system still lends itself to this kind of innovative problem-solving, in contrast with the Chinese and their inflexibly blunt and heavy-handed ways of crisis resolution. As the old saw goes, if all you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail. That's China, not us.

We're better than that.

As a result, the lessons learned from fifty states and thousands of communities across the land will help start getting us back to where we want to be. You know...normal. We'll watch, observe, and learn from each other in real-time, adjusting, and adapting along the way. The goal should be getting back to the way it was before, or as close as possible.

I for one am not going to passively settle for a permanent life of reduced liberty, constant slow-burn anxiety, and never-ending social distancing so I can quiver in soft safety from a virus that may or may not ever come for me.

If that's the "new normal" you're willing to settle for, you can keep it.


Paris, France

May 2020

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