Consumer action trumps regulatory re-openings, protestors

The marketplace reality is sinking in that the re-opening of the economy has less to do with regulators at the local, state and federal levels than it has to do with customers.

Leaders of The Historic West Bend Theatre, now known as “The Bend,” shut down March 15, the day after its grand opening. Now they are watching signals from all over the country to decide when to re-open. The few theaters that have re-opened in states like Texas are seeing only a handful of customers come through their doors.

That is the case even with extraordinary precautions and protections taken by theater operators. Few want to go through TSA-type lines to watch a movie with a bunch of other people nearby.

Bottom line: The recovery will be more bottom-up than top-down. President Trump can’t order the airlines to start flying routes like they did before the Ides of March. Gov. Evers can’t order people to start buying cars. Washington County Executive Josh Schoemann can’t order closed businesses to re-open.

The voters have given these anointed leaders the power to shut things down, but they lack the power to make the economy and society hum again. In an economy that is 70% driven by consumers, only consumers can re-energize the economy.

Ironically, the handfuls of protesters around the country make also no difference on the pace of recovery. They can scream and shout, but 80% of Americans are leery of re-opening too quickly. They will be cautious about congregating and spending. They will not be moved by loud mouths.

Even the extent of government shut-down powers is being tested in the courts. It will be tested again this fall when voters assess whether our elective leaders reacted in proportion to the health and economic threats or over-reacted.

There is a theory in marketplace decisions that the wisdom of the crowds is more far-sighted and more important to outcomes than the insights of very smart people. That will surely play out as individual Americans decide how much risk they want to take in their decisions about moving around, going to work and buying things.

Italy, the country hardest hit by coronavirus, has just allowed manufacturing to resume. But how long they stay fully open will depend not on the government or on corporate executives. That will depend on car buyers and non-buyers.

Many manufacturers are up and running in Wisconsin and other states, often at half-speed. Most are adopting rigorous measures to keep their people well. They know that one sick employee can knock out a vital section or department of a factory by infecting or quarantining others. Contagion sets in. That’s what happened in the closure of meat packing plants in Green Bay.

For many reasons, no manager wants that. The best antidote is for individual workers to be uber-responsible and stay away from work if they feel at all sick or see any symptoms. Again, ground level decisions by a broad majority of responsible Americans will far out-weigh the policing impacts of regulators
Smart Wisconsin employers have adapted their attendance and sick pay policies to make such absences the right thing to do. You are not a hero if you come to work not feeling well. Further, production orders are off, so voluntary reductions in work forces are welcome.

In my view, it’s a good thing that re-opening decisions have been decentralized to local government, where politicians have a feel for what is going on at the ground level. And it’s a good thing that the wisdom of the crowds will decide what’s right or not right about re-opening.

We are engaged in a kind of warfare, with a very different kind of enemy. It’s always the troops that fight and win wars, not so much the generals. They do need help from our scientists, corporations and governments, who mostly have sped into action.

Good leadership, which largely was missing prior to the epidemic, always helps.

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