When the King is Law in a Democracy

I’ve been battered by my news feed this morning. Issues local and larger driven not simply by a pandemic but by government fiat about how we must handle this pandemic. I’ve touched on this topic before, particularly on the issue of the goals of state policy over the last seven months being shifted from flattening the curve to driving pandemic cases to an arbitrarily defined minimal number.

California has led the way in this from the very beginning. And the rules continue to change. Rules that have not been presented for a vote to the population but rather are dictated by the governor for implementation at the county level. The governor has created a tiered system of restrictions based on criteria he defines – and is free to alter at any point.

Case in point, for the past two months there have been two major criteria determining how restrictive a tier any given county is in – case rate and test positivity. But now a third criteria has been added. It is no longer enough that a county drops below arbitrarily defined thresholds related to case rate and test positivity. Now counties must also demonstrate – by arbitrarily defined means – that their efforts to combat COVID-19 are adequately distributed among all population groups in their county.

This new Equity Metric theoretically intends to make sure that disadvantaged groups in a county do not lag “significantly” behind other groups in the county in terms of case rate and test positivity. But in reality, the Equity Metric requires that disadvantaged groups report case rate and test positivity scores below the mandated metrics for the county as a whole. In other words, the county as a whole could meet case rate and test positivity requirements to move into or remain in a lower tier of restrictions, but if the disadvantaged groups in that county (which the county itself must identify) have higher rates in either of these two categories, the entire county will not be allowed to progress into the lower-restriction tier, or could be pushed up into a more restrictive tier.

On the flip side, the Equity Metric could potentially help a county move into a lower-tier of restrictions. If a county hasn’t met the requirements yet for the next lower-restriction tier, but the county’s lowest quartile disadvantaged groups not only meet that criteria but the criteria for the next level in lower down restrictions, the county would be allowed to move into the next lower tier.

Obviously, the intention is to encourage (force?) counties to invest more money in treatment, education, etc. for their most disadvantaged groups. At the same time, since these groups often consist of ethnic minorities known to be impacted by COVID at higher rates than less-disadvantaged groups, it means an entire county could be prevented from progressing to a lower-restriction tier just because one small subset of the population is struggling with higher rates of reported cases and test positivity ratios.

All of which may or may not make sense, but all of which is also a completely arbitrary addition to what the counties in our state (and country) have been focusing on for the last seven months. It smacks of ideological profiteering – taking advantage of a situation to distribute wealth and resources differently, rather than a strictly “scientific” approach to limiting the spread of a worrisome contagion.

I’m sure the governor had advisors on this, but I’m also pretty sure those advisors are similarly inclined to him, ideologically. And once again, we the citizens have to deal with the effects of his laws without getting any say in them. Presumably then, “science” in a very loosely defined sense supercedes rule by law and the American concept of rule by the people. Since these rules are ostensibly “for” the people (as defined by an unidentified subset of the people), it is apparently not necessary to get our feedback and approval on these rules.

For a short-term emergency situation this can be dealt with and accepted. That’s what we all more or less agreed to back in March. But seven months on, the restrictions are only piling up, and the impacts are being borne solely by the citizens of counties and states and not by the people elected to run the government. As I argued months ago, if our elected representatives are not impacted by the rules they make, there is no natural braking system for just creating more and more rules and restrictions.

For instance, our governor dictated that law enforcement was not allowed to enforce any laws regarding overnight camping on public property (beaches, parking lots associated with beaches, etc.). Citizens have frequently been banned from going to the beach on major holidays due to concerns about crowds and contagion, but if you pitch a tent on the beach and sleep there over night, nobody is allowed to bother you. Increasing numbers of tents are cropping up on beaches. Again, the governor can issue his order – don’t enforce the law – but he doesn’t have to deal personally with the ramifications of his ruling.

Presumably this is because of an acknowledgment by our elected leaders that homelessness is going to increase as a direct result of the economic restrictions they’ve put in place for the last seven months. Rather than mandating the protection of the most vulnerable populations, they’ve simply shut down – arbitrarily – large swaths of society. Small and mid-sized businesses are being devastated by not being able to open or only being allowed to open at a far reduced capacity (25% or 50%). Any economics major or businessperson can tell you that a business owner determines the viability of renting or buying a space and hiring workers and offering goods or services based on a certain minimum threshold of business. You can’t arbitrarily slash that threshold and expect a business model to still work. It might, for a short time. As long as stimulus loans are out there, for instance, but it isn’t sustainable.

I’ve heard predictions that anywhere from 30%-60% of restaurants will close and never reopen. The figures are as high as 85% for small, independently owned restaurants. They won’t be able to stay in business. The economic impacts of COVID restrictions are going to start cascading into the coming months. It will be a devastation of our economic landscape the likes of which haven’t been seen before. Could unemployment reach Great Depression rates? It wouldn’t surprise me in the least.

And when a restaurant closes it isn’t just the owner who loses – everyone they employ loses. The community that enjoyed or relied on their service loses. The community also loses tax revenues from that business. The impacts are massive on this scale.

And this is just one particularly business sector.

So we’re going to have more homeless, our leaders presume, and therefore we just aren’t going to enforce laws against homelessness in communities. Never mind that beaches don’t have bathroom facilities or running fresh water. Never mind the trash and debris that accumulate under these conditions. Instead of mandating (and providing) resources for counties to address this grim reality proactively, the governor’s order to not enforce laws simply creates new or exacerbates existing problems while simultaneously limiting the ability of any given community to deal with them.

Or consider the law in our state preventing landlords from evicting tenants because they are no longer able to pay their rent due to being unemployed because of COVID. Why are property owners expected to bear the burden financially for problems created directly by executive orders from governors? How are property owners expected to remain viable leasing property to people who aren’t paying them? How is it fair for one group of people to create a situation where another group of people bears the exclusive repercussions and losses for decisions the other group of people dictated?

If our elected leaders are not directly and immediately impacted by the results of their decisions – especially their directed decisions that don’t go to popular vote – then we’ll continue to suffer under laws and rules arbitrarily conceived and applied. I don’t doubt the intentions of most of these laws and rules is good. I do doubt whether good intentions equate to actual benefits or the desired results – it’s notoriously tricky to directly correlate closing a broad section of the economic sector with reduced transmission rates of COVID. You can argue for a correlation but it’s hard to prove causation. There are just too many variables. And again, for a short period of time correlation may be enough. Is it enough seven months later? At what point – if any – does it cease to be enough?

I maintain that if our elected officials are going to declare that certain businesses simply aren’t allowed to open, then the salaries of these officials should be directly affected. I’m sure a smarter person could determine an effective ratio. I’m sure it’s rather draconian to say that if you arbitrarily shut down any one kind of business for an entire state or county you oversee, your entire salary as an elected official should be withheld. But then again, maybe it isn’t too draconian.

Of course, elected officials would not be penalized for laws approved by their electorate.

Not until our elected officials personally and directly feel the devastating effects of the rules they are making up on the fly can we the constituents be assured they are really, really, really grapping with and making the best possible choices rather than the easiest ones. If they’re personally having their life’s savings drained away by the very policies they’re demanding the electorate abide by, I would feel a lot more confident they’re trying to find the best way forward. A way that doesn’t simply create an explosion in homelessness when they’re in no danger of living in a tent themselves.

We’ve allowed our elected leaders to extricate themselves from real life as the average citizen experiences it for too long. Whether it’s a separate retirement plan from Social Security, or a separate healthcare package from what citizens have available to them (even with the ACA!), or salaries guaranteed from tax dollars and therefore only secondarily linked to the decisions made in state capitols or Washington D.C., we shouldn’t be surprised our leaders seem unsympathetic to the plight of their constituents if they are not dealing personally (and financially) with the effects of the rules they put into place.

3 Responses to “When the King is Law in a Democracy”

  1. Mike Dungan Says:

    Thought provoking and ourageous, thank you Pastor Paul!
    Mike

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s