Progressive Intentions, Regressive Results

It’s an old joke about our politically correct media:  if humanity was wiped out in a nuclear apocalypse, the headline in the New York Times would be “World Ends – Women, Minorities Most Affected.”

But it’s commendable to have special concern for the vulnerable in society – whether they are women, minorities, the poor, or others.  What is not commendable – indeed, what is condemnable – is embracing policies presumed to serve the vulnerable that actually do the opposite.  Even if you are always motivated by good intentions, you have to consider that they sometimes go awry.

Which brings us to our current crisis, combining a terrible threat to both public health and economic welfare.  Now that we have achieved our announced objective of “flattening the curve” in order to keep COVID-19 cases from swamping our hospitals (see above graphic for Maryland), more eyes are focused on the costs of doing so.  And as the Times and others have noticed, (“Job Market Meltdown Hits Most Vulnerable Workers Hardest“), the news is especially bad for women, minorities, and the poor.

Some highlights as the nation’s unemployment rate just hit its highest level since the Great Depression:

  • “The 20.5 million jobs lost in April fell disproportionately on African Americans, Latinos, low-wage workers and people with no college education.”
  • “For April, while overall U.S. unemployment reached 14.7%, the rate for African Americans was 16.7%.  For Latinos, it was an all-time high of 18.9%.  For workers with only a high school diploma, a record 17.3%.  For immigrants, 16.5%.”
  • “By contrast, the unemployment rate for white Americans was 14.2%.  And just 8.4% of college graduates — who often enjoy the flexibility to work from home — were unemployed.”
  • “Erika Romero, a native of El Salvador… abruptly lost her job last month as a janitor at the Postal Square Building in Washington.  Romero was left without health insurance or the ability to pay most of the monthly mortgage on the Maryland home she shares with her husband, their two daughters, her adult son and both sets of grandparents.  Her husband had his daytime job reduced to three days a week, and his overnight cleaning job was cut.  She has received one unemployment check so far, not nearly enough to support her substantial family.  ‘Where am I going to look for work in this epidemic?’ said Romero… ‘It’s just unfair.’”

Unfair indeed – and well worth remembering as we weigh the trade-offs of gradually unlocking the Maryland and U.S. economies in coming weeks.  Unfortunately, discussion about the timing and speed of re-opening is breaking down along ideological lines.  Progressives seem to favor much more stringent and persistent constraints on economic activity.  A common refrain is that we should be willing to “pay any price to save any one life.”

That mantra, usually repeated with a smug tone of moral superiority, must be called out as nonsense.  Taken literally, it would mean none of us would ever leave our beds – in which we would all starve because there would be no one staffing Uber Eats.  But even if just taken seriously rather than literally, it is a very bad guide to policy.  Paying an excessively high price to save a life over here might sacrifice others over there.  Indifference to economic costs and waste of resources is, in fact, indifference to life.  Evaluating policy trade-offs carefully is a moral imperative.

As we look at data like that in the chart above, then, let’s stop ridiculing those who are anxious to get back to work (with reasonable safeguards, of course).  People are not necessarily “covidiots” for wanting to take a walk on a beach, enjoy a restaurant meal, or get a haircut.  And let’s understand that the lockdown – however necessary it was to mitigate a public health catastrophe – is having profoundly regressive effects economically.  Prolonging it without due regard to those effects is not, in fact, progressive policy.

The more general take-away is that the Law of Unintended Consequences never sleeps.  No one wanted the lockdown to harm the vulnerable most of all.  Similarly, no one wants Maryland's and Baltimore’s misguided tax policy to so restrict economic opportunities for the poor.  Or its “progressive” approach to law enforcement to have such a disparate impact on mostly minority neighborhoods.  But when these regressive results occur, we must admit error and change course – or we are hypocrites.

Stephen J.K. Walters (email:; Twitter: @SJKWalters) is chief economist at the Maryland Public Policy Institute and the author of Boom Towns: Restoring the Urban American Dream.