Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book Skin in the Game discusses the concept that politicians and bureaucrats who don’t have a personal stake in the outcome of a decision (“skin in the game”) are prone to making decisions that have negative consequences for other people.
In the current COVID-19 crisis, salaried politicians, with advice and encouragement from academics and the media, have shut down or seriously restricted the earnings of businesses across the country. Here in Alachua County, Commission Chair Robert Hutchinson and Gainesville Mayor Lauren Poe announced on Monday that all “non-essential” businesses would be closed by midnight that same day.
Even before that, the governor’s order to close all bars and all dining-in options had caused massive lay-offs in those industries.
When your job and income are safe, it’s easy to declare that the risk of an unknown number of infections and deaths is enough that other people should lose their jobs. Those people can just go on unemployment (which pays, by the way, a MAXIMUM of $275/week – and these are the same politicians who say that nobody can live on less than $15/hour, or $600 gross for a full-time work week). There is absolutely no acknowledgment of the fact that rent is due in less than a week for potentially tens of thousands of people in Alachua County who no longer have an income.
Even if those who are laid off get unemployment or a check from the federal government or get a reprieve in paying their rent or utility bills, all of those bills will be due eventually, and they will NEVER get back the income they’re losing right now. The best case for them is to go back to work at whatever pay and hours they were working before. If they were barely making ends meet before this crisis, there will be no extra to pay their past-due bills. Hourly workers are facing ever-increasing debt with no prospects for digging out.
We’ve been given guidelines from the CDC, and the vast majority of businesses have taken measures to protect their employees and customers. It is false to say that those measures haven’t been enough because not enough time has passed. Because of the delay in becoming symptomatic and getting tested, it can take 10-14 days for behavioral changes to show up in the number of cases reported. Also, as we test at higher rates, numbers will continue to go up.
Local decisions about “essential” businesses were not made with regard to safety but with regard to how commissioners feel about those businesses. There were lengthy discussions about funeral homes (Chestnut’s business) and real estate (Cornell’s business), while other industries were declared unnecessary.
On top of that, the order has created confusion throughout the community about which businesses can stay open. One of my doctors called to say they have to close (they don’t), and a woman contacted me because her son broke his glasses and can’t get a new pair because the opticians covered by their insurance are closed (according to the order, eye care services are “essential” and don’t need to close).
The county commission has admitted that they’re so unsure about their decisions that they’ll probably revisit the order every few days to tweak various provisions. Again, they show that they don’t understand business; many businesses can’t ramp down and then successfully ramp up again in a short period of time.
Hutchinson is so out of touch that he declared that everybody should just get grocery delivery from “Instagram” (he meant using Instacart to get delivery from Publix, although County Manager Michele Lieberman had already pointed out that they currently have 2-week delays). Commissioner Charles Chestnut pointed out that not everyone has a bank account or access to the internet to make orders on websites and apps, but Hutchinson said people should be “forced” to change their shopping habits and convinced the commission to keep occupancy restrictions in place – restrictions that are causing long lines outside grocery stores.
How about issuing guidelines and asking businesses to comply with them instead of making top-down decisions about which businesses should be arbitrarily closed? Governor DeSantis has correctly pointed out the unintended consequences of stay-at-home orders, including drug abuse, alcohol abuse, domestic abuse, and suicide. None of that has come up in local discussions.
Business owners should be allowed to do their best to keep people working, and elites who can continue to get salaries while comfortably working from home should get out of the way.
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