...Archive for June 2020

Complementary currencies for municipal finance

It is an act of criminal malfeasance that the United States’ federal government has not eased the tremendous fiscal pressure on states and municipalities, enabling them to prioritize public health and long-term economic wealth over immediate maintenance of tax revenue. Misgovernance of the United States presently rises to the level of war crime (and that is not just Donald Trump).

A recent article by Rohan Grey, aptly titled Monetary Resilience, highlights one way this national misgovernance might be circumvented. Municipalities could issue complementary currencies:

[S]ome of the more historically successful complementary currencies explicitly adopted the fiscal logic of public monetary regimes, anchoring their value in the acceptability in payment of local taxes, fines, or other legal obligations. This anchor reduced the local currency’s degree of autonomy and independence from the public monetary system, but in exchange provided it with greater legitimacy and stability with respect to its underlying value.

Such an approach allows local currencies to emerge organically from below, and then receive public support from above through the granting of tax-receivable status. This dynamic, in turn, points towards the possibility of an alternative hierarchy of money, in which banks and other private financial institutions responsible for shaping and directing investment are replaced by nested community currencies, operating in accordance with common principles of ecological, economic, and social justice.

Grey here envisions municipalities blessing or adopting privately founded complementary currencies, but there is no reason why local governments couldn’t start up such currencies themselves. Suppose a municipality issued basically a gift card with which certain taxes and fees could be paid at a discount. In particular, suppose that only business taxes and fees are granted this discount, but gift card balances are sold just to individuals and in limited amounts. Suppose that local businesses can apply for “merchant accounts” with respect to these gift cards, accepting payment from customers in gift card dollars just as they might from a debit card. Businesses would be eager to receive this local scrip, at least until this revenue is enough to cover all of their tax obligations eligible for the discount. They would encourage customers to pay in the scrip, whether by sharing the tax discount directly, or by offering other inducements. The overall demand inspired by the tax discount would be more than consumer facing business’ tax obligations. These businesses’ local suppliers will also prefer to be paid in scrip, and will share inducements with business customers, creating demand beyond each firm’s own tax bill. Municipalities themselves can creatively design inducement for residents to maintain balances in scrip. Perhaps residents get 10% off museums, public transit, etc if they can demonstrate a threshold balance, with a scan of a QR code on an app. There could be some (modest) VIP amenities for high balances. Perhaps balances pay interest on themselves, at a rate lower than what municipalities have to pay to float bonds but higher than what ordinary consumers earn in bank savings accounts. To put a floor under its value and limit consumer risk, municipalities could stand ready to buy back the scrip, at a discount or with a moderate transaction fee to discourage redemption. However, the city’s tax and amenity schedule would be the fundamental driver of scrip demand.

Importantly, municipalities would retain control (by their management of merchant accounts) over to whom this scrip might be paid. Complementary currencies are historically deployed in the service of localism, of encouraging circular flow within a local economy rather than “leakage” into a more global economy. Municipalities have every interest in encouraging this sort of localism, which already they do to a certain degree via PR campaigns and small business subsidies. Should chains or national vendors have access to the local tax discount that receipt of the scrip enables? That would be a local government choice.

But besides the localism, the existence of these scrips would create a new option for municipalities, increasing fiscal resilience. During periods of great need, municipal governments could encourage an increase in the float of the currency, by adjusting the tax and amenity schedule, and also by appealing to community and local pride. These currencies could serve as small scale echoes of the “war bonds” that helped finance World War II.

There are lots of reasonable objections to this idea. Most obviously, in the United States, there is a Constitutional question. The Constitution grants Congress to power “[t]o coin Money, regulate the Value thereof” and explicitly prohibits states from “coin[ing] Money; emit[ting] Bills of Credit; mak[ing] any Thing but gold and silver Coin a Tender in Payment of Debts”. I am not enough of a lawyer to address this question fully, but two centuries later, states and municipalities emit all kinds of debt securities that are transferable with much less restriction than those described here to finance their operations. Our “complementary currencies” do not propose any new unit of account. Each local scrip would be denominated in US dollars. As Grey describes, these are “currencies” in the same way bank deposits might be “currencies”. They plug into the existing hierarchy of money for whose zenith the Constitution prescribes a monopoly. They do not compete with or seek to supplant state money.

More substantively, is localism a good thing? Localism is arguably what contemporary national monies were designed precisely to oppose. The proudest accomplishment of modern monetary systems is that bank monies trade at “par”. Payees in Pittsburgh accept funds from Paducah Bank in Kentucky as if they were the same as funds from Citibank in New York, reducing financial frictions to commerce at a distance that once upon a time were profound. But that achievement serves also as a kind of solvent, weakening once preferential ties between specific individuals and businesses, reshaping humans, in their roles of buyer and seller and investor, into creatures more like the abstract optimizers of neoclassical economics. “Civil society” is the name we give to dense, particular, reasonably stable networks of humans who interact and collaborate over time periods that outlast a mere transaction. Precisely because contemporary monetary systems work as designed, allowing each individual to optimize their choices as though the world is always new and every counterparty interchangeable, they undermine civil society, whose development and stability are founded on advantages that come from repetition and trust. Once upon a time, we all formed social networks as an inevitable side-effect of commerce. We visited the same few grocers and hardware stores. Our rolodexes filled with travel agents and insurance agents, people who, yes, were trying to sell us stuff, but who were also human experts we could phone up and chat with as a matter of course. Those kinds of “professional networks” are now decidedly upscale. For the rest of us there is Amazon and Expedia. We gained something in price and selection, but what did we lose?

As with most economic phenomena, the best solution is probably an interior one. A world without economic specialization and trade at national or even global scales would be much poorer than the world we have come to inhabit. Our forebears were right to seek to overcome the “natural” constraints on commerce across vast chasms of geography and trust. At the same time, there are real positive externalities to local commerce and exchange, in human community and civil society, and also (as we are painfully learning) in resilience. We should not abandon the hard-won institutions that enable large scale commerce, but we should supplement them with Pigouvian subsidies of localism and its extratransactional virtues. Where economies of scale and agglomeration render widely dispersed commerce genuinely superior, we should take advantage of that. But where such economies are small, or the advantages of scale are due to market power more than genuine efficiencies, we should encourage localism. The municipal complementary currencies proposed here tilt the scale towards localism, but probably too little. In our current world, big dominates, largely not due to inexorable efficiencies, but thanks to monopolized network effects and other forms of market power that we should work to oppose. Subsidies to localism create incentives to help do that.

To me, the most cutting critique of this proposal is that it is too little, too late. The United States is in a crisis, states and municipalities are throwing human bodies on the flame to sustain a trickle of tax revenue. Standing up institutions like this would take time, and managing them well, to promote useful commerce and achieve a fiscally meaningful float, would take much more time. I don’t know that we even survive in any form under which proposals like this don’t become utopian and archaic. As a human I feel like a tremendous failure, because I have ideas about how the world should be run, maybe even some good ones, but I have failed to develop and communicate them with the urgency that might have contributed, at least a small amount, to saving us. I hope I have another opportunity, that we all do.

National politicians of every party and stripe: Please provide fiscal support to states and localities now, and encourage them to prioritize public health and long-term prosperity over immediate-term economic activity. Please.

Update: Nathan Tankus has an excellent, much more historically informed, piece on tax-receivable, municipal crisis monies!

Update II: Not unusually, I was not particularly well-read on this idea before I deigned to write about it. In addition to Nathan Tankus’ excellent piece, please see Marshall Auerback on a US-centered discussion tax-receivable municipal currencies, and Paul Katz and Leandro Ferreira for a discussion of the remarkable town of Maricá, Brazil, and the use of its longstanding digital municipal currency, the mumbuca. (I’ve appended an old-school related link box below, and may add any other links that I come across without further updates here.)

Update III: John Evans suggests a reference to perhaps the most famous municipal money experiment, the “Miracle of Wörgl“. During the Great Depression, the Austrian town of Wörgl stimulated its economy by issuing not just a local scrip, but one subject to demurrage, meaning the value of the scrip declines the longer it is held, encouraging quick expenditure. This idea, which remains popular among economists today, is most famously associated with Silvio Gesell.

Update History:

  • 28-June-2020, 3:35 p.m. EDT: Add bold update re Nathan Tankus’ excellent piece.
  • 30-June-2020, 1:50 p.m. EDT: Add second update noting more relevant municipal currency pieces, and the related links box.
  • 30-June-2020, 2:25 p.m. EDT: Add third update re the “Miracle of Wörgl”, suggested by Jon Evans.
  • 30-June-2020, 7:05 p.m. EDT: “Silvi Silvio Gesell”


This post is obviously oversimplistic. Many of the idiocies I present here are, intentionally. All blog posts are wrong but I hope some are useful. This one is more of a thumbnail than usual, but I hope it is still useful.

One way to understand the United States’ political arrangement is that it has functioned to enable a kind of tacking. Tacking is a sailing maneuver that allows a seaman, by zig-zagging, to perform the daunting task of bringing a wind-driven boat upwind.

In one famous oversimplification, the American electorate tends socially conservative but economically left, while the American elite is socially liberal but “fiscally conservative” (i.e. economically right). Here’s a graph from Lee Drutman (via Karl Smith) of the 2016 electorate:

Although the strongest clusters are at the bottom left and center north, there are plenty of Americans in the category Paul Krugman described as “hardhats” (and, a bit ironically in retrospect, as missing from the political scene): socially conservative but economically left. Further, if you averaged the American electorate in the way that a voting system or political consultant might, if you collapsed it to a single point, it would sit in that quadrant — clearly to the economic left, socially center-ish but tilting conservative. “The United States is a center-right country” is a common oversimplification that is not only wrong but mostly useless. “Left but not woke” (which David Frum dubbed Bernie Sanders’ brand) is a better characterization of the heart of the US electorate, or at least it was as of 2016, before “The Great Awokening“.

Yet neither US political party’s messaging has historically been tailored to the top left quadrant in which the average (but not modal) American has lived. We have one party that bills itself as full-throatedly socially liberal and half-heartedly economically left, and another party that bills itself as full-throatedly on the economic right, but half heartedly socially conservative.

Donald Trump rose to power by taking this missing ground. He campaigned (although has not governed) from the economic left, talking about universal health care, protecting entitlements, and trillion-dollar infrastructure projects, and from a social right so unapologetic some of his copartisans denounced it as racist. It worked! Under the simple (very wrong) median-voter-theorem-ish logic under which the US political system is supposed to deliver moderation, both US parties should be messaging somewhere just north and substantially left of the center point of this graph. But that is not where either US party usually is.

However, if you factor in the shared preferences of elites who shape both parties’ political operations — professionals and donors — maybe the arrangement makes a bit more sense. If these players are not neutral operators trying to gain votes for their team, but interested actors whose bipartisan target sits (lonesomely!) in the bottom right of the graph, then you can see some sense in the parties’ positioning. The United States historically oscillates between its political parties. Elites can make economic progress when Republicans govern, by deemphasizing the social issues that win the votes and enacting the less popular economic agenda. When Democrats are in power, elites make pursue their agenda by emphasizing social progress while disingenuously lamenting constraints that thwart economic progress. Elites use our famous “peaceful transfers of power” not as signals to change direction, but as the zigs and zags that constitute a tack in their prescribed direction.

This is more an account of the past than a guide to the future. Hopefully it helps discredit the (silly) “too much democracy” theory prominent among elites to explain current political dysfunction. The electorate has spent decades swapping political parties and moving away from what, on average, it has wanted. The social extremity of the Trump coalition can be understood less as a discontinuity, and more as part of a reaction to the post-2008 discrediting of elite economic preferences. Emphasizing polarization on social rather than economic grounds helped avoid a dangerously “left but not woke” primary challenger among D-leaning voters (who live mostly in the left half of the graph), and also helped mobilize a dispirited, economically not-so-conservative base to turn out in an expression of social resentments among R-leaning voters (who live mostly in the top half of the graph). Both parties’ elites shared an interest in polarizing the countries across a social and cultural terrain, while de-emphasizing economics. But Trump turned Washington’s gurus into sorcerers’ apprentices, as their usually calibrated tweaking of social resentments gave way to a figure they increasingly cannot control, and of whose governance no sane American should approve.

In 2020, I am a bitterly disappointed either-Bernie-or-Liz guy. Nevertheless, I’ll be working to elect Joe Biden over Donald Trump this fall. But I do hope a new administration understands the stakes. You can’t not give the public what it wants over a period of decades and expect democratic forms and norms to go unscathed. In order to bring down the temperature of social polarization in the United States (which, perhaps marking me as a squish sell-out, I desperately hope we manage), elites will have to reverse their 2016 mistake, and give ground to the left on economics while trying to talk the country down (“unify”) from the social polarization that they themselves, in my view, quite cynically engendered.

Neoliberal desegregation

On bunch of housing-related issues, the United States is badly paralyzed. In aggregate, “we” would like things to change. We would like our housing (and with it access to public goods like high quality schools) to be less stratified by race and class. Many of us (although perhaps fewer mid-pandemic) think that on environmental, social, and economic grounds, we’d be better off if we built and lived more densely, sunsetting postwar US suburban sprawl for something more like the megacities of East Asia.

The pro-density agenda is controversial. But at least in theory, the desegregation agenda is not. Even in this moment, with its boogaloo warriors and the Fox-News-o-sphere shouting from a reactionary crouch as protests rage over racial injustice, pretty much no one in the United States overtly favors residential segregation. Yet almost all white Americans — not just hateful bigots on the right, but liberals, lefties, wishy-washy social democrats — tacitly engage in practices that reinforce that segregation. Bourgeois liberals apologize for the practice, we are not unaware, but once we have kids, we insist they grow up in “nice” neighborhoods with “good” schools, knowing and quietly exploiting correlations between both race and affluence and our scare-quoted notions of quality. One way people try to address this is to encourage (or shame) families into not insisting upon access to segregated public goods, or at least not relying on the correlations embedded in segregation to make their choices. I don’t think this is likely to be fruitful. Structural racism requires structural remedies. To use a much-too-dry, economist-ish analogy, families with the option of purchasing segregation as a visible proxy for high quality public goods are in a situation very much like a depositor in a (pre-FDIC) bank she believes to be sound, but that is facing an incipient run. She might be right about the fundamentals, but a bank run will destroy even a solvent bank. Participating in the run, withdrawing her funds, is antisocial. But failing to participate (by withdrawing early, while she still can) will cost her life’s savings, and won’t save the bank. The individual incentives to behave antisocially are too strong for it to be credible that everyone will spontaneously agree to do the right thing. And if (nearly) everybody will not do the right thing, doing it on your own yields little social benefit and a lot of self harm.

Obviously, the analogy here is not perfect. Our bourgeois liberal’s child may derive real benefits, not just costs, from being educated in a racially and economically diverse setting. (The most affluent families purchase slots in private schools that bus in a carefully selected, “safe”, diversity.) A bank either goes bust or not, but when a well-resourced family does choose to place their child in a less affluent, less lily white, school, there may be incremental benefits to other children and families. If so, each family’s individual choice to acquiesce to segregation as a proxy for public goods imposes an opportunity cost on kids and families who cannot make that same choice. On moral grounds, the case for condemning parents who seek predominantly white and asian neighborhoods as a proxy for safety and good schools is undoubtedly stronger than the case for condemning a person who gets out early during a bank collapse. But given just how starkly public goods like safety and educational outcomes are in fact segregated in our society, and given parents’ unusual solicitude for the welfare of their own children over other moral goods, I don’t think trying to remedy segregation by encouraging or shaming people one-by-one will do a lot of good.

We’ve tried some more structural approaches, most notably bussing and school assignment lotteries, both of which try to decouple residential segregation patterns from school quality. These approaches have not proved sustainable. For traditional beneficiaries of segregated public schools, these practices impose two kinds of costs. Their kids have to bear the cost policymakers intend to impose — sharing more broadly the public schools, and so bearing more of the costs and risks associated with the education of less privileged populations of students. But they also impose deadweight costs, like long bus routes and the quotidian challenges of pick-up and drop-off when home, school, and work may all be in entirely different neighborhoods. These deadweight costs create beautiful personal and political pretexts for rolling back the policies without feeling evil. Of course we support equal opportunity and desegregated schools. It just doesn’t make sense, though, that my kid should have to go to a school halfway across the city, when the school just a block from our home is much better! To sustainably remedy the segregation of public goods like education and public safety, I don’t think anything other than remedying the geographical and social segregation of humans will suffice.

Here I propose a very neoliberal approach to that. Affluent and especially white Americans segregate themselves because it is in their and their families perceived interest to do so. Individually, we face incentives to continue a centuries-old, self-reinforcing dynamic. But one thing neoliberal social engineering is very good at is flipping incentives. What if we literally paid people to integrate their neighborhoods, or taxed people who insist upon, or fail to remedy, segregation? We already have a property tax system. Suppose that for each point of residential geography, we computed the overall demographics within a circle extending for, say, 50 miles. Then we compute a metric summarizing the divergence between the demographics of the (very) immediate neighborhood and the overall regional demography. We provide a property tax refund in an amount that decreases with demographic divergence. Property taxes would become much lower in neighborhoods that are well integrated. Neighborhoods that are segregated would face higher property taxes. All of a sudden, the segregated themselves would face significant financial incentives to figure out how to integrate their own neighborhoods. In effect, we as a polity would be trying to purchase integration with tax credits paid directly to homeowners.

If you take the ugly patterns of contemporary America to be eternal and immutable, you might argue that this wouldn’t work. The public goods that affluent, especially white, Americans associate with segregation are extraordinarily valuable, so rich people would just pay up to keep the status quo unless the tax benefit for integration was implausibly large. I think this misses two important points. First, “affluent” America is not uniformly that comfortable or affluent. In most “nice places”, substantial fractions of residents have leveraged themselves to the hilt to buy their smallish-for-the-neighborhood home in that great school’s catchment area. Affluent America is now full of $1M plus homes. At current-ish tax rates, without going refundable, a full property tax credit could amount to more than $10K in savings every year, a pretty big deal for many people who struggle to afford “nice”. If we wanted to keep the scheme revenue neutral, we’d increase the base property tax rate to cover the cost of the integration credits, widening further the range of credits that could be offered. (And nothing prevents making the tax credits refundable, effectively offering a negative property tax for the best integrated neighborhoods.) There’s a real incentive here.

And for most of these people, I think there is not a real trade-off they would pay up for. Perhaps my glasses are rose-colored, but I think most families who participate in the dynamic that sustains and reinforces existing segregation understand the unfortunately accurate correlation between neighborhood demographics and public goods quality, but do not mistake those correlations for causality. That is they understand that, for bitter historical reasons, if you want to predict which neighborhoods are likely to be safe and have good schools in the United States, racial demographics are informative. But they do not believe that “whiteness”, for example, causes public goods quality, or that “blackness” diminishes it. Therefore, it should be possible to integrate ones immediate neighborhood without a cost in the quality of neighborhood-based public goods. Whenever a house in the neighborhood goes up for sale, existing residents would have a financial incentive to actively recruit diverse newcomers who they’d welcome as neighbors.

There are obviously things that are problematic about this. This recruitment would be quite similar to the way upscale private schools recruit their diversity. Race might not be causal of local public goods quality, but class plausibly is. The PTAs of “public” schools raise a lot of money from parents for “enrichment”. Students whose families lack social and financial resources sometimes require schools to do extra work to compensate, creating a burden. Affluent white neighborhoods would end up competing for the “nicest” (meaning richest, most bourgeois) black families to integrate themselves with. That’s tokenistic and ugly. But still better than the racially segregated status quo.

And of course, the financial incentives would not apply solely to affluent neighborhoods. In most of the United States, public goods quality is middling to poor regardless of racial demographics, but segregation is sustained by some combination of people’s modestly higher comfort level with their own groups and (hopefully modest) discrimination against outgroups. Direct homeowner financial incentives that favor integration could make a lot of headway in these neighborhoods.

It’s not only households of the segregated majority that could use financial incentives to integrate their neighborhoods. “Pioneer” families moving into previously homogeneous neighborhoods face challenges ranging from culture shock and unintended “microaggressions” to overt racial hostility. Under this proposal, pioneer families would effectively receive financial compensation for helping integrate a neighborhood, relative to purchasing a home of similar value in an own-ethnicity segregated neighborhood. And the proposals would give new families and their neighbors a shared, common, financial interest in making things work out.

Under the status quo, racist behavior by white homeowners is encouraged by a plain economic incentive: So long as affluent Americans use segregation as a proxy for pubic goods quality, any integration of a neighborhood reduces perceived public goods quality, and therefore home values as well. Conventional American homeownership is in financial terms a huge, undiversified, leveraged speculation. Homeownership overshadows all other investment for most families, and is for them the basis upon which any financial security rests. Under these conditions, it is not right, but it is also not surprising, that people with expensive houses prioritize maintaining home values above what should be more important social goods, like not being racist. A reduced property tax burden for integrated neighborhoods could offset this financial incentive. Property tax burdens get impounded into home values too. A property tax advantage for integrated neighborhoods would push home prices upwards, offsetting any price effect of integration on perceived public goods, especially over time as correlations between segregation and public goods quality (hopefully) diminish. Realizing the lower tax burden and higher home values would be a shared project for both new, integrating, families and existing residents of formerly segregated neighborhoods.

I’ve mostly discussed the incentives of homeowners, but if landlords experienced the same integration-dependent property tax schedule, they would also have a financial incentive to integrate their buildings. There are devils in details. Would those incentives lead landlords to violate equal housing laws? Should we modify equal housing law to permit practices that would diminish segregation according to our metric, so that landlords can seek to capture the subsidy, perhaps by sharing it with the pioneer families they’d seek to attract? There’s more to think about here.

Integrating disproportionately white, especially upscale, neighborhoods sounds like a worthy project to liberal American ears, but what about integrating disproportionately black or latino neighborhoods? Would an incentive designed to move every neighborhood towards a region’s average demography increase the threat vulnerable communities already face from displacement and gentrification? We value ethnic enclaves like Chinatowns, both as tourist attractions and living communities. Should we design incentives in a way that excludes these neighborhoods, because they reflect a form of segregation we’d prefer to retain? If so, should the same exclusion apply to Little Italys or traditionally Polish neighborhoods? Maybe it is upscale communities that most urgently, and least problematically, should face pressures to integrate. We could design a tax credit that only offsets property taxes above some threshold, so that poorer communities would not face financial incentives to integrate. Perhaps we’d simultaneously make the property tax progressive, so that owners of lower-value homes share some benefit. One advantage of a neoliberal, technocratic, thought experiment is it forces one to think pretty explicitly about values and tradeoffs, in order to translate them to formulas. (But a key disadvantage of neoliberal, technocratic policy is that often formulas are proposed and enacted while the values and tradeoffs they embody are largely inscrutable to the general public, enabling onerous values to get entrenched into law.)

We could use the same technique to purchase densification, if we as a polity agree that densification is something we want to buy. Right now, existing “homevoters” tend to favor neighborhood preservation over densification. Localities enact thickets of zoning regulations whose effect and purpose is to give neighbors veto power over new development. People like Elizabeth Warren have proposed offering Federal grants conditioned on localities reducing land-use regulation, on the theory this will create an incentive to permit densification. But that is not a great approach. It creates incentives for local officials to game the system in order to meet homevoters’ dueling preferences for more amenities (what Federal grants can buy) and continued restriction of new development. The likely effect would be a shift from status quo land-use restrictions to more tacit practices that still enable neighbors to veto projects but aren’t disqualifications for receiving grants. A cat and mouse game between density proponents and preservationist homeowners would ensue. A much simpler approach would be to define a property tax credit for neighborhood density. This would “flip the incentives” of (some) homevoters, from opposing new development to welcoming it. Local officials could then just do what these voters want. By adjusting the scale of the tax credit, and perhaps setting a threshold beneath which it wouldn’t apply, we could try to target densification towards more upscale communities so that it is less of an engine for displacement and gentrification.

Pandemic diary 2020-06-03: Mad world

I cannot not say that I think it is madness.

I think it is madness that the United States is engaged in a cycle of mass protest and suppression while in the thick of an uncontrolled deadly pandemic. Some of you are fond of imagining what the history books will say, after that subject’s long arc has finally run its course, about this or that policy atrocity. What will the history books say about people crowding into streets to protest or to suppress, people crowding into vans and buses to detain or to be detained, people crowded in holding cells as the detained, while a deadly respiratory virus travels from lung to lung to lung?

This is not to say that I blame the protestors. Predictably enough given my politics, if you ask who I blame I will blame the police. From my vantage, however unavoidably unrepresentative that may be, many police departments have responded even to peaceful (but disruptive) protests with escalation, rather than accommodation and protection. They have tried to suppress the protests rather than work with the great majority of protestors who do not condone looting and vandalism, but who do demand to block roads, to surround buildings, to exact a toll on commerce and convenience but not life and property. I worry, perhaps unfairly, that police have intentionally ignored or even encouraged crimes against property to serve as pretexts for aggression against peaceful protestors.

Maybe you disagree. Great. History will have its verdict there too (although we should never imagine that the verdict of history is God’s truth). But it seems to me we all have a common interest in finding some detente that would get us through the next year or so without crowding into streets and precinct houses.

I think “civil strife” in the US is overdue and unsurprising. In ordinary times, I would be sad and worried, but also hopeful that these convulsions might put us on a better path than the slow social collapse and rising stock market of the last decade. For me, watching it all, it is hard not to feel a chord of elation. Here finally is a new civil rights movement maybe strong enough, maybe serious enough, to actually remedy our national sin and so redeem us all. (Intellectually, there are problems with this theory. But emotionally the pull is strong.)

These are not ordinary times, however. The pandemic is not a plot laid by capitalists and racists to suppress the black, brown, and poor. Two weeks ago it was the capitalists and racists endangering us by pretending the virus was under control or no big deal. It was easy for me and people with my political sympathies to condemn that. Now we are… nuanced. Perhaps reasonably! You can argue (I’d quickly agree) that pursuing the cause of racial justice is a more important good to weigh in the balance against pandemic harms than a pool party, or getting to go to the gym. Less dismissively, you can point out that the miseries of business owners and unemployed people, many of whom have not been made remotely made whole, can be relieved without creating public health hazards by offering more generous public support, but there is no simple switch we can flip to end police violence and racism. Perhaps the social and political good these protests might do outweigh the harms at the margin they do to pandemic control. There’s a case to be made.

But let’s be conscious of the scale of potential harms, of the risks we are collectively taking, with “we” here including the protestors and the police in their codependent dance, people like me and perhaps you on the sidelines, encouraging one group or the other, public figures who could perhaps diffuse the situation, the public as a whole. Maybe the “reopeners” were right after all that the hazards of this pandemic are actually pretty manageable. Maybe the virus simply does not transmit very easily outdoors and in heat, maybe widespread mask-wearing dramatically reduces its infectivity, maybe loads of people can hang out outside, even chanting and shouting, if they do their best to stay masked when they are not chanting or shouting and at least six feet apart. Maybe the number of people getting arrested and dangerously confined is too small to make a dent in the pandemic, however dramatic it all looks on TV.

But maybe not. These are things we just don’t know. Jumping on them is accepting risks most of us thought premature when Georgia and Florida and Texas started “opening” a month ago (now we begin to see a mortality bump). This current cycle of current protest and suppression might prove not so terrible, epidemiologically speaking. Or it might prove really terrible. We don’t know. If it is really terrible, how really terrible would it be?

Astonishingly, miserably, your lifetime risk of getting killed by the police, if you are black and male, is about one in a thousand. That is a fucking crazy death rate, a blot and a stain and an ineradicable shame on our political community. At a moral level, nothing can minimize that or undo the grief and fear that black communities have and continue to live with. Mercifully, COVID-19 does not inflict the same degree of shame and anger upon us as police killings. It is, to a certain degree though not fully, an act of god rather than an act of man. But COVID-19 does inflict grief, fear, and death upon us.

Over just a few months, your risk of dying of COVID as a New York City resident was roughly two out of a thousand. [*] That is twice a black male’s lifetime risk of death-by-cop. That two-per-thousand death rate is lower than the true number for black residents, and especially black male residents, since the disease killed black and male disproportionately. As far as we can tell, maybe 25% of NYC residents were ever infected by the virus. (We think as of mid-April about 20% had been infected, but infections have been subsiding since then.) New York’s epidemic was belatedly suppressed. A resurgent epidemic could bring the death rates of five or six per thousand, and significantly higher for black men, to New York City and everywhere else.

Black lives matter, and the disproportionate dying by black men of COVID-19 is almost certainly caused in great part by the socioeconomic conditions that current protests mean to remedy. But the current protest/suppress/escalate cycle in the streets risks a whole lot of lives, black lives and other lives. It risks death at a scale of many years of police killings. Obviously, the cause of addressing racist police violence cannot be put on pause. But is there any way we can shift towards less risky means of pursuing it?

Even as a matter of politics, the pandemic tilts towards finding other means of pursuing justice. Always with disruptive protest, movements have to balance the effectiveness of visibility and pressure against the possibility of backlash and retrenchment. Often “risk of backlash” is wielded disingenuously, a classic rhetoric-of-reaction perversity claim. You, dear reader, will have to decide whether this essay falls into that category. In ordinary times, my views on this stuff are nuanced.

But consider the following scenario: A few weeks from now, while protests are ongoing, cases and then mortality really spike. For now, the public-at-large seems remarkably supportive of the protest movement. But if conventional wisdom comes to blame it for a reinvigorated epidemic and all the miseries that attend it, if the public (black and not) can be persuaded that “burn it all down” rhetoric translated into a wildfire of indiscriminate disease, the public sympathy that political progress requires may curdle into hard hostility. A nation convinced that a “hard left” or “black activists” hate America so much they recklessly or intentionally caused hundreds of thousands of avoidable deaths will not be fertile ground for justice or social democracy.

I am not saying that people should stand down now. Acts of violent suppression make it untenable for protesters to stand down. I am saying that the costs and risks of this form of political struggle, at this time, are dizzyingly higher than they usually are due to the pandemic (and even in usual times, the stakes are very high). I am pleading that all sides take into account the very real risk of mass death that attends the path that we are currently on, and find ways to deescalate from epidemiologically dangerous tactics without betraying causes and values that are inviolable.

I don’t know exactly what this might look like. Obviously I can’t speak for people in the street, or behind riot shields, or in the White House. But to be constructive, I’ll hope first that police revert to a strategy of accommodate, protect, and deescalate, that they strive to minimize arrest and detention (which we know are conducive to disease spread), that they enforce the law when people are engaging in actual violence but tolerate a broad range of civil disobedience that does not cause imminent harm. I’ll hope that the movements on the street coalesce around some set of very concrete demands that won’t be sufficient to remedy centuries of white supremacy, but that will address their most urgent concerns and allow them to declare this battle won. I’ll hope with Pat Robertson (really?) that public officials at all levels adopt a tone of conciliation and openness rather than militarization and threat. I’ll hope.

[*] I am using the raw NYC health department numbers, restricting to “confirmed” cases, using 8.4M as the population of NYC. I’ve seen reports of a five per thousand NYC population mortality rate, but I don’t understand how that is computed.

Update History:

  • 6-June-2020, 7:35 p.m. EDT: “…roughly two out of a thousand risk death by cop.” Thank you commenter Brian Slesinsky