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Essential to Whom?

Updated: Nov 29, 2020

When the pandemic and shutdowns began back in March (2020), my wife and I were lucky enough to be considered "essential" employees, and we both had the ability to work from home even if we weren't. We could continue to earn an income, pay bills, and give to those who can't through no fault of their own. This was our milieu. When you consider incentives to be for or against shutdowns, it wouldn't have been fair for us to say: "we're all in the same boat".

Our personal-financial situation left us with a considerable bias towards NOT reopening our beautiful state. After all, we had all we needed right in our little bubble. Plenty of food, water, lights were on, we had more cars than licensed drivers, countless hours of movies and TV, and the ability to have almost anything shipped to our doorstep. What was more significant about our situation is that we were blessed to have a happy marriage (which remained happy even after spending 24 hours per day with each other), and two little girls aged one and "zero", who were endless sources of entertainment. I say all of this not to brag, we had and have struggles like everyone does, but unlike 33-million other Americans who filed for unemployment (this was back in April 2020, current numbers are much higher), we were not worried about where our next paycheck would come from, or how we'd pay our rent.

Misaligned Incentives

Who else enjoys the luxury and subsequently has a major bias towards shutting the state down? Government officials. Unlike private businesses, the government will not go out of business. There is little fear of job loss and little risk of not being able to pay your bills if you're higher up in government.

Governors have an incentive to keep things shut-down as long as possible and reduce the number of COVID deaths as low as possible, almost regardless of the peripheral effects. If you want to determine a governor's incentives to act a certain way (in other words, their bias), consider how his or her performance is judged and measured. What is the metric that defines "success" when you're a governor?

Major media outlets as well as the general population caused a lot of pressure for government officials to "flatten the curve" and "slow the spread" by any means necessary, but there is little pressure to maintain the highest level of personal liberty and general well-being for citizens. It's an easy justification to make, after all. "Saving lives" is a more compelling message than "upholding freedom to choose one's course in life."

Please hear me correctly. I am NOT saying that public safety and protecting the lives of the vulnerable is a trite endeavor. My wife and I complied with the rules completely, despite not being able to visit loved ones including my in-laws who have yet to meet their newest granddaughter, Corona, who was recently born amidst this chaos. My point is: how you're measured as a politician determines how you act. If the public is only measuring one factor of your performance, i.e. lowest COVID cases, then that will be your priority. Okay, I can't let you go on without saying that was a joke, her name is not Corona.

Do you believe that every politician knows the most just action to take at all times and acts solely on their genuine desire to uphold that justice? If so, then I have a large copper statue I'd like to sell you on an island near Manhattan. The bottom line is that in a world where morals are viewed as relative to each individual, leaders will act based on what will earn them the most praise, and the least backlash. They view this as a win-win.

Unfortunately for those governed by such leaders, there are peripheral effects of shutdowns that can be so severe they ruin lives. These effects go widely unnoticed too. Within the first few weeks of shutdown back in April, my daughter's pediatrician told me one of his patients had to go to the hospital because she was so severely abused at home by a now unemployed, alcoholic father. What could go wrong with forcing lay-offs and social isolation, all while an unfettered supply of booze remains, and hope-inspiring social establishments are closed?

Was this tragedy and the national uptick in child abuse caused by parents whose M.O. is to be abusive, or was it caused a rise in drug and alcohol usage? Was the fact that parents are spending more time isolated at home, with fewer healthy outlets for their frustrations considered? Was this a direct result of policies made by our governor out of haste and fear of the unknown?

The uncomfortable truth is: it doesn't matter. Not to politicians.

Not only is it impossible to prove that type of violence against a child resulted from a politician's decision, but many mainstream media outlets and the general public have completely ignored these negative side-effects of shutdowns. If you look closely, you'll notice strong evidence that cases like this are instigated by restrictions on social interaction and jobs.

The vast majority of popular media members are using hackneyed expressions like "Flatten the curve!" and "Stay safe, stay home!", yet they are ignoring the serious implications of government shutdowns. Every mandatory stay-at-home order deprives individuals of meaningful in-person connections. It eliminates the purpose and fulfillment found in a job and has consequences that are severe and not easy to measure.

More Bias

Another source of bias among politicians is apparent in what is banned and what isn't. For example, one of my favorite smoothie shops is open (minus the tables), however not a single gun shop was open for business. Regardless of what you think about guns, there is a constitutional amendment that specifically mentions citizen's right to keep and bear them, whereas smoothies are basically frozen candy. Which one is essential? Well, it depends on who you ask. Guns are not essential to some people, which is perfectly fine, but they are essential to others. They are so essential, in fact, that some ammo prices have quadrupled since the shutdowns began, and gun sales have skyrocketed across the country due to increased demand.

Almost all elective surgeries were also banned. Abortion clinics in NM, however, never closed since restrictions began, including one that performs elective late-term abortions specifically beyond 32 weeks, with no limit in the stage of pregnancy. Why were some elective procedures banned, but not others? I am not here to be political, but can you see the inconsistency?

When churches first started opening again, they were limited to 10% capacity, but retail stores were open up to 25% capacity here in New Mexico. Seriously. At first glance, it appears the restriction guidelines were decided arbitrarily based on what one person thought was and was not important. Even if that wasn't the case, however, what our public officials believe is important does determine what stays open and what doesn't.

It's impossible to draw a line between essential and non-essential when the entire economy is interconnected and interdependent.

The Peripheral Impacts

The direct impact of governments banning companies and gatherings is that people lose their jobs and businesses, many of which will not return when restrictions are lifted.

The peripheral impacts are the easily forgotten, less quantifiable aspects that occur downstream of the main effects. What happens when people are forced to isolate themselves, stop working, and possibly give up businesses they may have spent a decade working on building?

The obvious unintended side-effects include:

  • Increase in depression and suicide

  • Increase in child abuse and domestic violence

  • Increase in alcohol consumption

  • Decrease in charitable giving

Some less obvious societal effects are:

  • Decrease in personal fulfillment

  • Decreased feeling of self-worth

  • Increase in loneliness

  • Lost opportunities for ground-breaking innovation

Even health workers were furloughed, and hospitals were closed. My wife's favorite midwife had her hours cut in half right before she gave birth, so she had to use a new midwife she had never met before. Hospitals around the country shut down permanently, many on the brink of permanent closure.

I personally knew people in elderly care facilities who never saw their families before they died of non-COVID causes. To add salt to the wound, funerals were banned. Not only are people dying alone, they are being buried alone. Forgive my dismal outlook on this one, but that’s a tragedy in my mind. Someone spent their whole life raising a tight-knit, loving family, only to face death itself completely isolated.

Seeing family is essential to some people, and they at least deserve a choice. You would think that choice would be respected considering just one year ago, New Mexico lawmakers wanted to allow physician-assisted suicide. In other words, you ought to be free to kill yourself directly and intentionally with assistance, but you cannot go out in public and risk getting a virus that might kill you.

Before you think I just came here to bash our governor and other bureaucrats, I do understand that she has made sacrifices as well, and she isn't totally exempt from the struggle caused by restrictions she is imposing. With that said, what is thought of as "non-essential" by our governor (and other "essential" workers), is in fact very essential to others.

With each new day during the restrictions, there is a loss of meaning and purpose in life caused by lost jobs. There is a loss of income and security for families. There is a loss of quality time spent with loved ones due to increased anxiety and depression. Opportunities for charitable giving, friendship, and joy from real-life human connections are gone. There are missed opportunities for invention and innovation that could lead to better lives for everyone.

The economy and free enterprise are not greed-driven systems that help rich people hoard wealth. The economy is the method society uses to achieve a high level of productivity and comfort. Without free enterprise, we cannot continue to create value for our nation. Each gear in the economic system needs to be moving, or none of the gears will move effectively.

As Elon Musk put it: "Let me break it to the fools out there. If you don’t make stuff, there’s no stuff. Yeah. So, if you don’t make the food, if you don’t process the food, you don’t transport the food, medical treatment, getting your teeth fixed, there’s no stuff. They’ve become detached from reality. You can’t just legislate money and solve these things. If you don’t make stuff, there is no stuff, obviously. We’ll run out of the stores, run out of the… the machine just grinds to a halt."

All of the societal functions that New Mexico decided to indefinitely shut down are not just "nice to have's". They are essential aspects of human life, whether economically or personally.

Reasonable prudence is needed. Fear is not.

To be clear, I believe the virus is something to take seriously. We absolutely should take precautions to prevent its spread.  I also believe this can be done without panic, and without instilling quite as much fear in the public as it has. 

One thing that has bothered me since March is just how statistics have been reported.

Every day since the pandemic began, the "Updated Death Toll” has been distributed far and wide, from every major media outlet to official government websites.  I've actually spoken to some people who get these numbers emailed to themselves DAILY.

Talk about increased anxiety...

By the very nature of human beings not returning from the grave, that number can ONLY go up, causing our situation to only appear more dire.  The story is the same for the updated “Confirmed Case Count”.  This leaves people with a constant trickle of fear.  “It gets worse every day” is the natural mindset resulting from constantly tuning in to the news and seeing higher numbers. 

I’d also be remiss if I failed to mention the most catastrophe-laden headlines I’ve ever seen, which used words like “apocalyptic”, "terror", "horrifying" and "war zone". These types of headlines were designed to instill fear, not convey important information.

Good decisions are always made based on consistent logic. Not panic, fear, or desperation. This is especially true when it comes to decisions that primarily affect the lives of others.

It's okay if your view of what is "essential" differs from that of others until you start making decisions about how others will live. When that happens, serious prudence and conservative judgment must be exercised if you care about maintaining individual liberty.

Consider who has skin in the game.

Again, I write this not merely to criticize politicians.

My goals in writing this are for you to A.) stop and consider who is incentivized by what, B.) consider the fact that those in government make decisions that affect YOUR jobs and YOUR businesses more than their own, and C.) be skeptical of anyone who believes they know better than you do when it comes to your own decisions.

Individuals should be left to choose their fate. Not central planners. No one can live your life better than you can, and you should always be leery of someone who thinks they can.

Government isn't your mom or dad. It doesn't know better than you when it comes to what is your next best step in life. Government doesn't deal with the consequences of your choices, you do.

If someone wants to stay home and pursue a generally unhealthy lifestyle, they are free to do so in every other aspect of life, as unfortunate as that may be sometimes. We shouldn’t stop people from voluntarily throwing away things like social interaction, productive work time, and meaningful relationships, as people often do.  YOU are the one who has to live with your bad decisions.

It’s one thing to make a bad decision for your own life. It’s another when someone else makes that decision for you.

The next time you hear someone say something is not essential, ask them this: "Essential to whom?".

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