Thomas Mann, writer, philanthropist, social critic, and Nobel Laureate, told us, nearly a century ago, that “everything is politics.”

COVID-19 and the response to it are no exception. I have little doubt that every action taken in response to the pandemic has involved some form of political calculus, some assessment of impact on the political landscape, and some assessment of its effect on the upcoming election. Moreso, I have even less doubt that analysis of those actions is itself deeply informed and affected by those same political concerns.

It is in that analysis where the most room for mischief exists, and it’s that mischief that is certain to influence policy decisions. For it is very, very easy to criticize decisions made at a time of urgency, with incomplete, emerging, conflicting, and possibly wrong information, with the benefit of hindsight, newer and better information, and the incredible temptation to make political hay. Especially when those policy decisions regard something as viscerally fear-inducing as a pandemic virus, and especially where even a perfect set of decisions would be insufficient to prevent deaths.

It is in that hindsight where the determination of whether policy was either not-enough or too-much will be found. Unfortunately, that determination is inevitably subjective, and thus will inevitably be politicized.

We, as a society, accept a certain amount of risk as part of living our lives functionally. We tolerate a certain number of automotive fatalities in exchange for being able to move around more quickly. We tolerate a certain number of accidental drownings in order to enjoy oceans, lakes, and swimming pools. We barely register the tens of thousands who die of influenza every year. We know all this, rationally. A “pandemic,” however, affects our lizard brains in a very different fashion, and every new death (reported by a sensationalistic press) agitates our deep-seated fear centers.

COVID-19 is not merely another version of the flu. It’s something new, and very nasty, and there isn’t a serious person who doesn’t believe it requires a response that goes well beyond “flu season.” The ‘problem,’ to use an imperfect word, lies in the fact that its difference from the norm means its death toll will be judged differently from the norm, and this poses a quandary for those politicians who must work to mitigate the death toll without destroying everything else in the process. Finding a “balance” between infections and economic harm is, in a way, a no-win scenario, especially in these politically polarized times.

Also relevant is the fact that response doesn’t fall on one person’s shoulders, that fifty state governors and hundreds or thousands of mayors carry substantial authority and responsibility. This adds to the political soup, in that the various people of authority will be judged not only by subjective measures of success or failure, but in comparison with each other and with the President. Those judgments will be influenced by factors that include individuals’ degrees of fear, their personal experiences (e.g. family, friends, or acquaintances who got sick or died, if they got the bug and had a rough time of things, if they got the bug and had an easy time of things, or if they end up testing positive despite being asymptomatic).

Given that rationality will take a back seat, at least in the short term, all this tells us that an over-reaction is likely to be better and safer than an under-reaction. Sure, there’s excess, such as the Michigan governor’s prohibition against selling vegetable seeds, and there may (or may not – people have short memories) be political fallout from such excess, but it’s easier to talk away “an abundance of caution” than to explain an under-reaction in the face of a worse-than-expected-at-the-time outcome.

The Trump administration was slow off the ball, as we’ve learned in hindsight. I am not privy to the full body of information that Trump and his advisors had in those early days, nor am I privy to the forms of advice his experts gave them, nor am I privy to whether he ignored best-advice or was faced with conflicting opinions. So, I cannot judge whether his decisions, easily deconstructed with our greater degree of information, were a “best guess” in the moment. However, the emotional parts of the calculus suggests that he would have been better off over-doing his response in those first few days, even if the rational parts validated the path he took. Whether this bites him in the ass come election day remains to be seen.

The administration’s response, once it got going, has been markedly better. His daily pressers are excessive, unnecessary, and a distraction, other than as a rah-rah thing for his base, but as I’ve learned with Trump, it’s best to mostly ignore what comes out of his mouth and focus on what actually ends up being done. The middle of a crisis, with new information, new science, and new analysis emerging daily, is not the time to judge if he’s gotten it right after the slow start – that’s only assessable after the fact. That’s not stopping his fans from thumping their chests about how great a job he’s doing (especially when he barks at the press), and that’s not stopping his detractors from calling him an idiot, no matter what he does. I don’t pay attention to those absolutists, because they aren’t intellectually honest.

Truth be told, I’d call this stage of things – the shutdowns, the throwing of money, the bigfooting, etc, the easy part. The hard part of all this is the easing of restrictions, because it’s inevitable that some deaths will be attributable to it. Few will want to hear the reality – that the harm being done by the shutdowns isn’t just a matter of dollars, that it comes with its own public health concerns. So, we’re back to political calculus.

Here’s where the game gets really interesting.

In an under-appreciated 80s movie called Head Office, a young Judge Reinhold gets some sage career advice, including “the secret to survival is never make a decision.” Decisions come with peril, since a wrong decision will inevitably haunt you. But, making decisions is the essence of being an executive, whether it be a C-suiter, a governor, or a President, and the decisions regarding the reopening of the economy are of monumental import.

Considered in this context, Trump’s approach: issuing guidelines and a roadmap, but tasking governors with the say-so, is clever politics (apart from it making sense – governors have authority that the President does not, and different states have markedly different conditions and needs). Governors are under various and conflicting pressures: they cannot print money, so they must consider the impact of shut-downs on their budgets; they have a more proximate view and connection with infection rates and hotspots; and they face the disparate wants, needs, and demands of their residents. The decisions they face are difficult, as attested by their squawking in protest at Trump’s giving them a playbook and telling them the ball’s now in their hands. Better someone else face the risk and inevitable second-guessing of decisions made, politically-speaking.

Trump still faces plenty of tough calls of his own, in addition to having to deal with a Congress that leapt at the opportunity to lard up the money bomb with their pet projects and policies. With near-daily changes in the estimates of infection rates, mortality rates, and even in how much of the population has already been exposed, many decisions are going to be not much more than rolls of the dice, for him, for governors, for mayors, and for private-sector businesses.

Even if everyone rolls a natural (a near-impossibility) and reopens things in as ideal a sequence and timeline as possible, there will be more deaths, and there will be more infections that can be attributed to the easing of restrictions. As this happens, it behooves us to remember that the purpose of the massive economic shutdown, the social distancing, the countless mandates and restrictions, was to “flatten the curve,” not end the crisis. Flattening the curve is about keeping the health care system from being overwhelmed by a spike surge in cases. It’s about giving the massive innovation machine that is America the chance to come up to speed, to produce more necessary goods and equipment, to retool itself for the demands of this crisis, to develop treatments that will save the lives of some of the infected, and ultimately to come up with a vaccine.

A vaccine, however, even if already “solved,” won’t be the means by which the economy reopens. Administering a medicine to healthy people calls for a much higher level of “first, do no harm” than trying various medicines to those in critical condition to try and keep them from dying. So, testing and development will necessarily take longer. Furthermore, administering the vaccine to 60-80% of the populace, in order to get to some degree of herd immunity, requires a massive production and distribution effort. That can certainly be accomplished over a span of months, but it’s a near-impossibility over weeks. In short, we can’t wait for a vaccine to reopen the economy.

This brings us back to political calculus. Where an initial over-reaction would be most prudent, given that people’s fears spiked, an overlong delay in easing restrictions carries its own peril. While there are many whose degree of personal concern (warranted or not) prompts them to call for keeping this level of lockdown going until a vaccine is available, therein lie multiple other disasters. Economic ruin is not an abstraction – it’s jobs and small businesses and lost insurance and life savings depleted and massive debts incurred, and it’s blatantly obvious after a massive cash infusion that there isn’t enough power in the government to offset that ruin if a shutdown is maintained for the year to eighteen months a typical vaccine would take to develop and be administered. So, governors and the President are going to have to risk “getting it wrong” at some point, at least in the eyes of some, and to mitigate the fallout of that risk, their decisions are going to be tinged with political considerations.

For it is a reality that our expectation regarding public servants doing the right thing, regardless of politics, is an expectation that’s almost never fulfilled. It is also a reality that those who do routinely get thrown under the bus by their brethren. And so it will go in this time of generational crisis. There’s little political benefit to being a politician of principle, not when those who respect and expect principle are so few.

This is why we get the politicians we do. This is why we get pork-laden assistance bills, why there’s a mad rush to fold in spending on favored projects and constituencies, and why most of the Constitutional limits on political authority are being shrugged off. Take note, I’m not among those libertarian absolutists who reject the government’s efforts to mitigate the pandemic – being recklessly infectious is itself a violation of the Non-Aggression Principle, and the state has an obligation to intervene in such matters in order to protect citizens. But, I guarantee you, those proverbial smoke-filled rooms are seething with subtext about how to play this crisis for benefit in the next election.

Cynical? You betcha. Go ahead, prove me wrong.

Better yet, keep all this in mind as you watch the next few weeks unfold. Acknowledge actions you think are appropriate, criticize actions (or inactions) you disagree with, but above all call out actions you think are political. And, finally, try to reserve final judgment until the dust has settled. The reality is that everyone’s operating with imperfect and conflicting information, and many moves are little more than guesses.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.

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