Opinion: Government should help, not lead recovery

Joseph G. Lehman and Rich Studley

These are unprecedented times. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s declared emergency may be the longest in the state’s history. The coronavirus outbreak and subsequent orders have Michigan residents everywhere stressed and worried for their health and their family and friends. But they’re also increasingly concerned with what this all might mean for the health of the state’s economy. Policymakers need to start planning to reopen Michigan’s economy as soon as possible.

To be clear, public health comes first. This must be Whitmer’s and the Legislature’s number one priority, and there is no reason to believe this is not the case. But at some point, we must confront the fact that a long economic recession can have a damaging impact on public health as well.

We do not have to sacrifice one for the other: Protecting the public health and safely reopening the economy are not mutually exclusive. We can do both at the same time if the state plays a proper and productive role in supporting Michigan’s economic recovery.

That’s why our two organizations, after consulting with our members and other policy experts, developed guidelines to help public officials navigate the important decisions to come over the next several weeks and months.

Perhaps the most immediately relevant guideline for policymakers is to create a safety standard. For instance, if a job can be done while maintaining appropriate social distancing and presents no distinct threat to public health, it should be allowed. This type of approach would be superior to grouping everything into “essential” and “non-essential” categories — these, of course, are inherently subjective decisions. Focusing on defining what constitutes a safe activity or a safe workplace and giving Michigan’s job providers and entrepreneurs a chance to meet those standards is a better approach.

If policymakers want to help the economy recover quickly, they should stick to the fundamentals, removing burdens from businesses and entrepreneurs so they can create jobs and start new ventures, Lehman and Studley write.

Throughout the rest of this emergency and into the recovery, policymakers should create clear and consistent orders and laws. Regardless of whether all of Whitmer’s executive orders were appropriate or not, they suffered from a lack of clarity and consistency. This is evidenced by that fact that, so far, the state has had to write answers to about 500 different “frequently asked questions” about these orders.

Not only does this frustrate those earnestly striving to comply, it makes it nearly impossible to achieve equal enforcement of these rules.

The extended stay-at-home order and increased restrictions have many people questioning the governor’s decisions, especially considering many of our neighboring states have less restrictive orders.  Whitmer’s latest stay-at-home order offered little explanation for why increased restrictions were necessary. Greater transparency about the decision-making process would help build additional trust with the public.

As the state transitions into economic recovery, policymakers should avoid the temptation to play favorites. It’s true that some industries have been harmed more than others, but nearly all firms have been impacted. If policymakers want to help the economy recover quickly, they should stick to the fundamentals, removing burdens from businesses and entrepreneurs so they can create jobs and start new ventures.

Recovering from a pandemic is unchartered territory, but policymakers need to keep in mind that their role should still be limited. The governor has sweeping powers now, but these and all of the orders issued during the emergency will expire when it ends, as required by law. In the end, it will be Michigan’s hard-working employees, risk-taking entrepreneurs and other job creators who rebuild the economy. The government can help, but it should not lead.

Despite the coronavirus outbreak, we remain optimistic about Michigan’s future. While there’s still a lot that’s uncertain, our economic foundations are strong. In fact, Michigan can come out even stronger on the other end of this, especially if we have steady and supportive leadership from Lansing.

Joseph G. Lehman is president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Rich Studley is president and CEO of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce.