March 31, 2020

Signs of cracks in political and economic reactions to COVID-19 are starting to show.

Governments all over the world are cracking down on civil rights, undermining democracy. It’s happening in this country as well.

Authorities threaten to arrest people outside their homes or meeting in public with others in Chicago and Washington DC.

These harsh reactions to COVID-19 are blatant violations of First Amendment guarantees of assembly vital to the survival of democracy. This is especially troubling in an era when democracy is under attack from authoritarian regimes around the world.

During this time of hard charging legislation to get our economy under control while we shut down businesses, dissent and questioning can’t be forgotten.

There is some good news in this area…

…Questions about how “furloughing” affects unemployment benefits and tax liabilities are being aired.

There is also some pushback against the wastes and expense of continued relief and stimulus legislation. Federal Reserve “cushioning” of economic ups and downs since the 2008 catastrophe has been questioned by notable economists like  Mohamed A. El-Erian,   Kwasi Kwarteng and Rana Foroohar.

The increased power of tech giants is also becoming a concern. The face of Big Brother after COVID-19 might look like Facebook, Amazon and Google.

In lockdown in our own homes under threat of arrest is a good time to review principles of liberal democracy. Jonah Goldberg, Edward Luce and Steven Pinker have recently weighed in. We have the time. Put it to good use. Add your informed voice to the debates that are sure to come after the COVID-19 panic recedes.

Companies have moved to telecommuting as a way to continue operating under lockdown. Trading expensive and time-consuming commuting for working from home is getting a boost from the COVID-19 crisis.

Online communications software is booming because so many people are now working from home.

Businesses have always been cool to remote work because they can’t monitor employees. There is an understandable need to monitor the work habits of off-site employees.

That’s why sales of telecommuting monitoring software – that is, spyware – is also booming.

Workers now telecommuting “will be subject to disciplinary action, up to and including termination” if their keystrokes, web activity and screenshots aren’t up to snuff. That’s what  CEO Gregory Garrabrants is telling Axos Financial Inc employees in a recent email.

Monitoring housebound employees might be a growth pain on the path to a more sophisticated gig economy.

It’s a step forward into the 21st century. 

Widespread home-based work would put a dent in the expense of child care, carbon emissions and the loss of time and productivity that commuting and car ownership sucks up.

But there are challenges…

…Not everyone is onboard with the digital economy. Part of that has to do with the failure of primary education.

Most public schools in the United States are on extended closure.

Students are not enthusiastic about online learning. Los Angeles schools have lost track of 15,000 students.

While educators are blaming everything they can – parents, inequality, racial prejudice – the bottom line is that public education is great at punishment and authoritarianism but lousy at engaging students.

Remember how saying “Bong hits for Jesus” was so disruptive schools the Frist Amendment does not apply?

Maybe the enforced move to online learning will force public schools to confront their need for control and join higher education in figuring out how to deliver Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS).

The take way from all this mixed news is that big changes are on the horizon.

We all have a duty to make sure those changes push the ideals of open societies and liberal democracy. A dystopian future is a very real possibility if we fail in that obligation.

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