The Limits of Togetherness

“We are all in this together.” Makes us feel warm, fuzzy, united. Two problems: it’s not true and, worse, it has a pernicious effect on policymaking. The hard fact is that we are definitely not all in this together. For one thing, there are the income disparities that bedevil so much of policymaking these days. French poet Anatole France long ago noted that “The law, in its majestic inequality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.” Just as “we are all in this together” obscures the iniquity of a policy that forbids both rich and poor alike from going to their workplaces to earn a living.

Consider this. A tabulation by The New York Times of post office data shows that tens of thousands of New Yorkers – twice the usual number – in high-income neighborhoods such as the Upper East and West Sides are ordering their mail sent to homes in Maine, Connecticut, upstate New York and similar Edens. That is about four times the number of mail-forward requests from neighborhoods in which our new heroes, essential health-care workers and such live. Clearly, we are not all in this together.

Ask yourself whether workers who can do their jobs from their homes — lawyers, consultants, knowledge workers, government doctor/bureaucrats — are all in this together with those workers and small businessmen who make and deliver pizzas, style hair, tend bars, wait tables. They are not. The unemployment rate (40%) among relatively low-paid workers in the leisure and hospitality industries is four times that among those in professional and business services industries. Policymakers who shutter the economy permit themselves to trumpet their concerns for the safety of all, without acknowledging that the cost of that safety is being borne largely by the waiter who would gladly trade some of the imposed safety for a pay check and tips with which to pay the rent and feed his or her family, not a problem of major concern to the work-at-home investment banker.

The waiter, in most cases a relatively young person, has still another compelling reason for railing at the policy that is built on the assumption that he or she is in this together not only with the better off, but with his elders. The elderly are the most susceptible to the virus, and the most likely to die if they are stricken with the disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people 65 years of age and older account for approximately 85% of coronavirus deaths, while fatalities for COVID-19 patients between the ages of 20 and 54 are “remarkably uncommon”. To believe that the young and healthy are in this together with the elderly is to misshape policy to the disadvantage of the young with no advantage to the elderly that is not otherwise available to them from sensible behavior by family members and close friends.

Consider also education. Children represent only 0.02% of COVID-19 fatalities in the U.S.: since February 15 kids have died from the disease while 200, 13 times as many, have died from the flu and pneumonia. A policy that converts these statistics into school closures that deprive tens of thousands of children of their education surely needs revisiting. Especially since these tens of thousands are not all in this together. As a general matter, kids attending private and charter schools hardly missed a beat in the switch from physical attendance to internet-based, parent-assisted learning. Meanwhile, most public school districts struggle to make the switch, partly for lack of teacher training, partly because many public-school students lack the necessary computers and internet access.

Politicians, more risk-averse than usual when dealing with constituents’ children, believe an educational shortfall for tens of thousands of students is less of a threat to their careers than the possible spread of the infection to a few children. Meanwhile, in many cases the politicians’ progeny are safely at home taking daily instruction from their private-school teachers via Zoom or some other app. Because school closings are a far less serious educational disruption for students living in the digital world, their parents, generally in a position to make or at least affect policy, have a reduced incentive to press to have schools reopened. And undoubtedly take some comfort from repeated media messages assuring them that we are all in this together.

Finally, there is good old partisan warfare. Democrats and Republicans are in this together only in the sense that two scorpions are together in a bottle. These politicians face powerful incentives to favour very different policies. The President needs a rapidly recovering economy by the fall if he is to overcome Joe Biden’s burgeoning lead in all polls. That makes Trump an advocate of re-openings, hoping any bump in infections proves manageable by local hospitals.

Democrats have no wish to confront Trump on his home turf – a growing economy. They profess to see a spurt in new cases and deaths if economies are reopened, but are not unaware that a locked down, staggering economy would deprive Trump of a recovering economy while they hammer him on his belated response to the pandemic and his, er, idiosyncratic suggestions for coping with it.

If those opposing incentives were not enough to drive the parties to opposing policies, there is the small matter of the next couple of trillion dollars of taxpayer money to be thrown at the problem of relieving suffering. Democrats want the money to go to state governments, especially those with long pre-virus histories of profligacy that has them on the edge of bankruptcy. Republican states are in far better fiscal shape, and see no reason their taxpayers should have their pockets picked to fill the gaping holes in the pension funds of public-sector workers in New York, Illinois and other Democratic strongholds. And clearly, state-government employees who continue to receive their paychecks, and in Illinois will receive a $261 million automatic pay raise in July according to Scott Walker, former governor of Wisconsin, have no desire to be together with less fortunate private-sector workers, dependent on government relief checks.

The Democratic drive to fund state governments from federal tax revenues is a clever back-door way of allowing liberal states such as New York and California, with declining populations, to expand their entitlement programs and repay their trade union masters while passing the cost of that largesse on to more conservative states that are growing rapidly in part because of their less confiscatory tax structures.

It is not only age, income, medical factors and partisan politics that separate one group of Americans from another. Ron DeSantis, Republican governor of Florida, faced an influx of families fleeing Democratic New York City’s virus hotbed – 244 deaths per 100,000 population (149 statewide) compared to Florida’s 10 according to a data compilation by The New York Times. He ordered police at roadblocks and airport checkpoints to advise these migrants to self-quarantine for fourteen days or face 60-day jail sentences. A request to a burly, imposing Florida state trooper to ignore his governor’s orders because we are all in this together would likely fall on uncomprehending ears. As well it should.