The great involuntary experiment

By Randall Poulton | Jun 18, 2020

In many ways, for the last three months, we have all become guinea pigs in a great, involuntary experiment. Now the results are starting to roll in and they are not pretty.

On the lighter side, the last time I got a haircut was in February. My wife likes my overgrown, slightly gray, locks. I am OK with my new hair style for now: Happy wife. Happy life! Will I get a haircut again someday? Of course. But it is unlikely I will ever go back to my pre-Corona monthly trips to the too expensive, franchise, hair salon. Assuming I am not alone in adopting “Corona curls” as my new look, then even this trite example may mean lost jobs and lost income for some local businesses.

But I fear this experiment may result in far more serious consequences, fundamentally changing the way we work and the way we live. Here are a few sobering examples:

I have two cousins who have not been to their respective offices in three months and they couldn’t be happier. Both work for companies you have heard of, one of which is headquartered in Freeport and the other in Silicon Valley. The idea of “telecommuting” has been around for years but the corona crisis has made it mandatory for those not deemed “essential workers.” I suspect that it will be very difficult for my cousins, and hundreds of thousands of folks like them, to ever go back into the pre-Corona normal of five days a week in the office. With more people working from home, companies will be downsizing office space and that will lead to vacant buildings. (More on that in a minute.)

Like telecommuting, “Zoom meetings” and Skype calls have been around for years. But the corona shutdown made this form of get-together mainstream. And for skeptics like me, this involuntary experiment proved Zoom meetings can be productive and efficient. Will the formerly ubiquitous large gatherings for cocktails, conferences and presentations make a comeback? Possibly, but I doubt it will ever attain pre-corona levels. Places like the Cross Center are in trouble.

I believe many cities are going to experience an exodus of both people and money. New York City was once the epicenter of fine food, fashion and entertainment. But three months ago, people started leaving NYC, and other big cities, in droves, headed for their “second homes” on the coast of Maine and other distinctly un-city-like locales. New York office buildings emptied as people opted to work from home. I suspect some folks will return, especially if they have private jets and private elevators. But it is unlikely that the crowds that once supported the lights of Broadway and the stores in Times Square will ever again approach pre-corona levels.

The recent history of Detroit may give us an indication of what’s in store for New York. Detroit was once the fourth-largest city in America. Today, two thirds of that population have fled, leaving thousands of vacant buildings and severe urban decay. In 2011, half of Detroit’s remaining residents failed to pay property taxes. And, in 2013, the city declared bankruptcy. It is going to get very ugly in New York and Baltimore and Chicago and probably every city that depends on a subway system for mass transit.

But here is the result of the great involuntary experiment that worries me the most: Our governments have discovered new emergency powers that will now be very difficult to reign in. Keep in mind, corona viruses are fairly common. In fact, SARS CoV-2, the particular strain that causes COVID-19, is just the latest in a series of novel viruses to hit our country, including the original SARS virus in 2004, H1N1 (aka the swine flu) in 2009 and then MERS in 2012. This pattern suggests SARS CoV-3 or a similar virus is likely to emerge within a few years and we can expect similar dire forecasts of overwhelmed hospitals and millions of deaths. Will draconian measures to “flatten the curve” once again be enacted at the federal and state levels? I believe the answer is yes. Again, look at history.

Not that long ago, the act of shutting down the government to resolve a budget impasse was incomprehensible. Now it happens with regularity. Clinton, Obama and Trump have all resorted to protracted shutdowns to forward their political agendas. Snow days for state agencies and colleges used to be unheard of. Now the governor shuts the state down if the weather readers predict more than a few inches of snow.

The precedent has been set: If the CDC says “pandemic,” our governments will grant themselves emergency powers and order businesses to close and people to stay home. And apparently, We the People, to a great extent, will obey.

Dick's Sporting Goods closed. Walmart open. Where is the outrage? Churches closed. Home Depot open. Same question. Fourteen-day quarantine for tourists. Protesters free to gather en masse. Et cetera.

Don’t think for a second this lemming-like compliance with emergency executive orders has been missed by the swamp creatures in Augusta and Washington. They are amazed and empowered. And the few who pushed back, trying to save their businesses or put food on the table, were quickly smacked down.

Imagine taking a 77-year-old barber to court because he refused to stop cutting hair? Or actually jailing the owner of a beauty parlor because she opened-up a few days earlier than the governor’s mandate? Or pulling the licenses of restaurant owners who had the audacity to serve willing customers? These are perfect examples of the old adage: Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Of all the results stemming from this great involuntary experiment, that most people approve (at least tacitly) of our governments’ abuse of power, is by far the scariest.

Randall Poulton is a columnist for The Republican Journal. He lives in Winterport.

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Comments (1)
Posted by: Alan Charles Pickering | Jun 19, 2020 07:08

Yes Randall, what’s all the excitement about, the disease has only killed twice as many people as the Vietnam Nam War. Yes that’s that unpleasantness in South East Asia that our fearless president declined to participate in while some of us went over there for more than one tour.

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