GEORGIA vs. MICHIGAN: A TALE OF TWO GOVERNORS
For her part, Whitmer has chosen the route of a near-total shutdown, sacrificing significant elements of her citizens’ constitutionally protected civil liberties at the altar of health and safety. Kemp, meanwhile, with a background in the private sector, wishes to protect and extend his citizens’ liberties to the greatest extent possible and has taken steps to reopen his state’s society sooner rather than later. This has earned him brickbats even from President Trump himself, heretofore widely recognized as the nation’s foremost societal opener-upper.
From the cheap seats, it’s an entertaining exercise. But from the more serious aspects of public policy development and implementation, it’s an important experiment that could help our nation emerge from the crisis sooner and, perhaps, stronger for it.
That our federal system offers interested observers the opportunity to compare and contrast differing approaches to similar public policy problems is not new. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, writing in a 1932 dissent, wrote, “It is one of the happy incidents of the federal system that a single courageous State may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.” And ever since, thanks to our federal system, states have been seen as “laboratories of democracy.”
Michigan and Georgia offer a good comparison. They’re about the same size, with regard to population (each boasts 14 congressional districts), and each state has been hit hard by job losses over the last several weeks. A full 27% of Michigan’s workforce has now filed claims for unemployment insurance and tops the country in related rankings; in Georgia, 24.1% of the workforce has filed claims, ranking the state in seventh place.
So what do the laboratories in Michigan and Georgia reveal?
In Michigan, Whitmer used her edicts to impose the heaviest hand of government possible: She banned the sale of “carpeting, flooring, furniture, garden centers, plant nurseries, or paint;” she prohibited travel to and from other homes, including one’s own homes; she banned the use of motorboats and decreed that golf and landscaping “are not necessary to sustain life” and were, therefore, banned.
A week ago Friday, Whitmer announced an easing of her more draconian restrictions, but she’s still got some of the toughest in the country. And on the last day of April, she extended her state of emergency order through May 28. Under that declaration, state law gives her the power to issue executive orders related to the coronavirus, including a stay-at-home order that’s in effect until May 15. The state’s Republican-led legislature opposed Whitmer’s moves, and both chambers passed resolutions authorizing their leaders to take legal action against the governor.
Not surprisingly, as of Friday, a Change.org petition to recall Whitmer had received 325,000 signatures. And as of Friday, Michigan had 41,347 confirmed cases and 3,788 deaths.
In Georgia, by contrast, Kemp was late to the shutdown game, and when he arrived, he seemed only to want to tap the brakes on his state’s economy gently. Rather than go draconian and shut down everything in sight, he left most businesses open as long as they followed a set of guidelines designed to mitigate the spread of the virus. He left golf courses and landscaping businesses open, and when he issued orders two weeks ago to allow owners to reopen nail and hair salons, gyms, massage parlors, and the like, he explained that he chose to reopen those particular businesses because, in his words, “those are the ones that are closed.” Not surprisingly, as of Friday, fewer than 3,000 had signed a petition to recall Kemp.
As of Friday, Georgia had 25,444 confirmed cases (only 62% of Michigan’s caseload) and 1,121 deaths (just 30% of Michigan’s death toll).
What’s interesting about the experiment is that Whitmer’s actions mandate action (or inaction) on the part of individuals — “thou shalt not travel” — whereas Kemp’s actions will allow individuals to do what they want. If they want to go back to work, they may. If they want to go to a hair salon, they may. But if they do not want to go, they are not required to.
Kemp’s approach, in other words, grants individual liberty while Whitmer’s takes it away.
At this moment, Georgia and Michigan are competing with one another and with the other 48 states. In the short term, governors are looking at their colleagues to see who’s got the most sensible plan going forward. In the long term, the competition is the same — except the stakes are citizens themselves as they look around and make decisions on where to live.
It’s still too early in the experiment to draw any hard and fast conclusions. But I’m betting that when all is said and done, Kemp’s model will prove more attractive to more people.