Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Mimsy Were the Technocrats: As long as we keep talking about it, it’s technology.

COVID Lessons: Shutting down innovation

Jerry Stratton, August 19, 2020

The same pattern of neutering our health care response spread throughout everything else that was shut down, too. Which meant that, instead of being open to innovative ideas for staying open and providing services, states clamped down on organizations and businesses that successfully implemented physical distancing while still providing services.

There is simply no reason to ticket churchgoers, for example, who designed a drive-in service where everyone stayed in their own car. Or restaurants who were able to successfully serve customers while maintaining distancing. We saw the White House Press Corps every day successfully physical distancing while questioning the President. There was no reason to deny this to everyone except the press.

If people can figure out how to go to church while maintaining separation, that’s a great innovation that needs to spread to other organizations, not something deserving of massive fines. If teenagers can figure out how to hold a safe senior get-together to make up for the loss of their graduation events, again, that’s not something to be destroyed, it’s something to be celebrated. So many politicians seemed to think that if you were social while physically separated, you were defying their authority.

We should have learned from these innovations. We should not have slapped fines on the very ideas we needed most, or punished those who came up with those ideas.

Both prescriptive and performance mandates block progress. Prescriptive mandates block innovative ways to solve a problem, and performance mandates block innovative ways to go around a problem. Our response to any crisis must allow both getting through the crisis and going around the crisis.

Our response to any crisis must acknowledge that there might be another crisis tomorrow. It also must acknowledge that everything that gets made, gets made for a reason. Somebody somewhere needs it. And where that somebody is related to food distribution or health care or any of the myriad networks that provide us with the means to survive, shutting it down means people die. Truck drivers need roadside restaurants and repair parts or they can’t deliver critical goods. Health workers need clothes replaced regularly and hair cut regularly or they can’t deliver sanitary care. Farmers need seeds and repair parts or we cannot eat. And the people who run restaurants, who make clothes, who grow seeds and who manufacture repair parts all also need what gets made. What would have happened if we’d been hit with a second crisis? Shutdowns cannot be the answer. Shutdowns kill.

We’ve already started seeing inklings of food riots, and, in some places, real riots.

But the real problem is that shutting down innovation isn’t new. We’ve been reducing our ability to fight a crisis for decades. Like certificate of need laws there is a vast morass of red tape and bureaucratic tangle that discourages and even outlaws innovation, especially the kind of innovation that we need during disasters. California literally tried to shut down the gig economy in the months preceding the crisis. All those food deliveries and alternatives to dangerous mass transit that we relied on to avoid spreading COVID-19, government bureaucrats don’t like.

One of the lessons of COVID-19 is that the regulatory burden that drives companies out of the country doesn’t just kill jobs, it kills people. We must reduce the regulatory burden that stops individuals from stepping up during a crisis—and that stops them from building up before the crisis hits. Laws on home business need to be updated for the modern century, instead of forcing home businesses to act like 19th century factories.

We must reduce the regulatory burden that sends manufacturing overseas, and that makes us rely on potentially bad actors during a crisis. We were put in the position of relying on the country that caused this epidemic to provide supplies for surviving the epidemic.

The inability of companies to shift food from restaurants to supermarkets is a direct result of the regulatory state. The regulations are so intense that often there are entirely different businesses providing food and supplies to each market. The expertise needed to comply with the regulations is so different, it is impossible for a business in one regulatorily-segregated market to shift quickly to a different regulatory market. Not only do they have no connections to that market, they know nothing about the different regulations that could destroy them.

So many of our problems initially and throughout the shutdown is that government has made it illegal for businesses to appeal to their customers. You want to deliver food? That’s a different license from serving it. Just because we shut you down doesn’t exempt you from that. That took another round of getting through the bureaucracy, to remove a barrier that should not have been there in the first place.

Many states even penalize businesses for maintaining inventory to cover times of shortages.1 Every year, businesses in these states are penalized for inventory in stock. It’s a form of property tax, but one that makes no sense. It hurts us during a crisis by discouraging crisis preparation. That inventory taxes exist may be yet another example of why property taxes are a bad idea.

The manufacturing ability and small businesses we save could have created masks and other supplies, instead of shutting everything down because we get all our masks from overseas, or from lumbering giant businesses that can’t adapt quickly to crises.

Governments did tend to recognize the dangers of shutting down services when those services were part of their own empire. California’s governor even shut down wineries while exempting the area that just happened to be where his own winery is. Mass transit is far more dangerous than most non-customer-oriented job sites, for example. But mass transit stayed open because those were government jobs.2

Which brings me to another reform that should make the tradeoffs a little more obvious to politicians and government bureaucrats. They literally shut down people’s ability to pay taxes and fees, but did not shut down the taxes and fees. We had local and state governments throughout the country telling people, you have to stop working, you have to shutter your business and send your employees home. But you and your employees still have to pay property taxes out of that money you’re all no longer making.

This means employees, who aren’t getting paid, now have to choose between paying property taxes or buying clothes for their families.

This is a strong argument in favor of getting rid of property taxes completely. Sales taxes and income taxes are a tax on what you do; and you have a choice about incurring them, especially when, as in most states, food is not taxed. Property taxes are a tax on existence. Whether you’re working or not, whether you’re buying things or not. If you’re a homeowner, you pay them directly; if you’re a renter, you pay them through your landlord. But everyone pays them, and you have to pay them even if the government shuts down your job.3

There are similar taxes to do with what you’ve got stored in your warehouse. Collection of every property tax, warehouse tax, rental fee to government-owned properties, business fee, and every other tax, fee, or payment to government that is based on your existence rather than your income or purchases must be shut down when the government says you’re not allowed to work.

Governments were willing to shut down partly because they didn’t think it would affect them much. Here in Round Rock, our council is already talking about being able to raise taxes by 8% without having to hold a vote. That has to end.

Taxes that isolate governments from their own bad decisions must go. If you still have to pay a tax even though the government forbids you from working, that tax needs to go away when the government forbids you from working. It probably should go away forever—it’s a dangerous tax that encourages shutting down innovation, which means it also makes crises more dangerous and more deadly.

Let people make the kind of innovative choices that don’t just solve a problem but that make the problem irrelevant. It is that kind of quantum leap outside of the box that America is exceptional at. Shutting down that kind of revolutionary innovation killed people. Probably, once the full effects are felt, more people than died of COVID-19.

It wasn’t people trying to keep their restaurants open or their hair salons open who killed the most people in this epidemic. It was the governors and attorneys general who forced nursing homes to take in infected patients. It was the governors who shut down the so-called “elective surgeries”4. Those surgeries would have saved lives; shutting them down killed people. But further, cutting back on these surgeries also cut back on work that hospitals needed to keep their employees. Shutting down that critical medical care forced hospitals to fire workers who we needed to be ready for the crisis that was the reason for the shutdown in the first place.

The same thing happened throughout America. People who could have been innovating were forced to scrounge for food and toilet paper.

Innovation is an alien concept to government bureaucrats. Shutting down the people who are good at it and relying on the bureaucracies that are bad at it is a recipe for disaster. All the regulations that are being temporarily lifted need to be permanently lifted. And we need to ensure that we don’t meet future crises by shutting down our ability to solve the crisis. This crisis should not have lasted this long. Just about everything we did prolonged it and reduced our ability to respond to any secondary crisis.

In response to COVID Lessons: The Health Care Shutdown: It’s fortunate that COVID-19 was not as bad as the experts said, because our response was almost entirely to make the problem worse. We shut down everything that could help, including health care for co-morbidities. We locked the healthy and the sick together, and cut people off from routine care. Most of the deaths “from” COVID-19 were probably due more to our response than to the virus itself.

  1. Sadly, Texas is one of them.

  2. Or, worse, mass transit stayed open but on a reduced schedule, ensuring even more crowded conditions than usual.

  3. Some states forbid evictions—reasonable enough when they forbid people from going to work—but they didn’t exempt landlords from taxes, required utility payments, or required repairs.

  4. “An elective surgery does not always mean it is optional. It simply means that the surgery can be scheduled in advance. It may be a surgery you choose to have for a better quality of life, but not for a life-threatening condition. But in some cases it may be for a serious condition such as cancer.”

  1. Monopolies fail ->