William Watson: Beware pandemic opportunism; it could lead us astray

We should not rush into radical changes that we have resisted for years simply because their long-time proponents now recommend them under cover of COVID-19

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A catchphrase of the pandemic is that “The COVID-19 crisis has laid bare inequities and distortions that demonstrate that capitalism needs … exactly the policy changes I have been proposing all my adult life.” Googling “COVID-19” and “laid bare” gets you 3.62 million hits. The top three as of this writing were “COVID-19 has laid bare how unprepared we are for crises,” “The pandemic has laid bare structural inequalities” and “A crisis in capitalism laid bare by COVID-19.” I especially like the crisis of capitalism bit. The only crisis of capitalism COVID-19 has revealed is that if you shut capitalism down, it doesn’t work very well. People are surprised by that?

On CBC Radio the other day they were going on about how COVID-19 has laid bare the crisis in daycare. “Daycare is infrastructure,” went the argument. You can’t get women back to work unless you provide them with daycare — free, unionized, taxpayer-funded daycare on demand in which the daycare workers receive, regardless of demand and supply for their services, at least the median income for all workers.

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If daycare is infrastructure, what isn’t infrastructure?

The only crisis of capitalism COVID-19 has revealed is that if you shut capitalism down, it doesn’t work very well

It’s certainly true that without daycare for their kids many people will not get back to work. As parents in their millions have now discovered, home-schooling and home-working are not a sustainable mix. But just five months ago, even without that Platonic ideal of universal, free, state-run daycare, we were at record low rates of unemployment, including among women. We do have a daycare problem right now: if locked-down daycares don’t start up again, large parts of the economy won’t, either. But “the crisis in daycare” has been laid bare only for those who have always believed there’s a crisis in daycare.

I happily admit I am no exception to pandemic opportunism. To my mind, the pandemic makes clear both government’s general inability to plan and also the need for large-scale deregulation. To get essential goods flowing and new people into our health-care, education and, yes, daycare systems fast, we need to eliminate legal obstacles to entry and movement.

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But some of these “laid bare” arguments don’t work. Consider mass transit. For decades, supporters of mass transit have been touting the environmental, social, economic and creative benefits of high urban density and waging political warfare against anyone so unenlightened as to favour a suburban lifestyle. Now these same people are pitching big new spending for subways and light rail that will jump-start the pump-primer and recharge the solar-powered battery of the economic engine.

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Just one problem: mass transit seems to spread the disease. A new study by John McLaren, an economist at the University of Virginia, looks at racial disparity in COVID-19 deaths by asking whether U.S. counties with given demographic characteristics have been hit harder by the virus. As there are more than 3,100 U.S. counties with usable data there’s lots of helpful statistical variation.

Using death data that run through May 19, McLaren finds that counties with higher Black and Hispanic populations do have significantly higher death rates. Moreover, the disproportion doesn’t disappear when he also controls for cross-county differences in other factors that you might think would affect people’s ability to cope with COVID-19. “Surprisingly,” he writes, “neither income nor poverty rates have any visible effect” either independently or in reducing the statistical influence of ethnic background. Even more surprisingly, neither does the “fraction of county residents who have no health-care insurance.”

What does have an effect, a strong one, is the percentage of workers in a county who use public transit to travel to work. “We can conclude,” he continues, “that a substantial fraction of the racial disparity in mortality is due to the use of public transit.” Looking at specific cases, the fraction of the population “who use public transit to get to work was 61 per cent for Brooklyn and six per cent for Los Angeles” and that difference accounts for between 59 and 78 per cent of the difference in COVID-19 death rates between the two cities in April and May.

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If mass transit really is a COVID-19 incubator, would it be smart to double-down on big new investments in it as part of a recovery strategy?

You can imagine how lobbyists and non-paid enthusiasts for mass transit would respond: One study doesn’t prove anything! Maybe what it says was true in April and May but Los Angeles’ COVID-19 mortality rate is rising now, despite its freeway culture, while New York’s has been falling, despite its subways (though last week’s subway ridership was still down almost 80 per cent from last year). Let’s wait and see how everything plays out before we give up on urban density.

Bingo! Yes, that’s right. Let’s wait and see how things play out. But let’s do that with everything. Bizarre times mainly “lay bare” the true bizarreness of bizarre times. We should not rush into radical changes that we have resisted for years simply because their long-time proponents now recommend them under cover of COVID-19.

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