Burdett Loomis: Taking stock and looking forward
Sometimes politics meets the personal, head on. This is one of those times. On June 14, I turned 75. On June 22, Michel and I celebrate our 52nd wedding anniversary. Forty-one years ago this month, we moved to Kansas, and one year after that, our son was born. Happy 40th, Dakota.
Ordinarily, such a grouping of personal mileposts would lead to reminiscence and reflection. But these are no ordinary times. The conjunction of the coronavirus pandemic, our immense economic dislocation and the sweeping protests over racial injustice have rendered reminiscing insignificant, if not irrelevant.
These historic circumstances do require powerful short-term responses. Governors and mayors must cope with diminishing resources and overwhelming policy requirements. Moreover, the crises produce simultaneous, contradictory demands on citizens and leaders.
Leaders need to assess how best to use scarce resources, while ordinary people must weigh the desire to protest or shop against the need to remain safe from COVID-19.
Short-term crisis policies almost always constitute reactions, but our long-term responses can offer important and dramatic opportunities. Indeed, Kansas policy-makers should heed Winston Churchill’s axiom that one should “never let a good crisis go to waste.” This is especially true when we can benefit from the natural experiments that crises offer.
In emerging from our confluence of crises, at least four policy assessments should flow from our experiences.
First, expand Medicaid. Here, the pandemic, surging unemployment, and differential racial treatment come together to dramatically demonstrate this need. Even for those with jobs, losing health insurance is one economic jolt away. Moreover, COVID-19 has not been an equal opportunity killer, with African-Americans and Hispanics disproportionately affected, as always.
Second, shore up public health agencies. In terms of overall bang for the buck, improving the public health system is one of our best investments, in that day-to-day operations provide many benefits, such as vaccinations and flu shots, while also increasing readiness for emergencies. Careful assessments of successes and failures over the past few months could pay major dividends.
Third, use the experience of the state and its counties to address criminal justice reforms. One notable natural experiment is occurring in Douglas County, where a controversial jail expansion proposal is being tested by the extensive release of prisoners into the community, apparently with no adverse effects.
The county commission, which approved the expansion, might well reconsider. Meanwhile, the state could have released more non-violent and short-term prisoners to avoid COVID-19 infections, but it acted meekly. Still, it should learn from other states as well as Kansas counties.
Finally, the state’s university system has experienced, and will continue to experience, its greatest challenges to funding, enrollment and human resources since the 1960s.
Kansas universities and colleges were already facing serious problems, due to flat or declining student-age populations and the loss of many full-pay international students. But the pandemic and economic challenges greatly exacerbate those problems, with funding declines from many sources — the state, tuition, athletics — pushing administrators to reshape higher education at breakneck speed. They need to turn short-term responses into long-term visions, as higher education shrinks.
After 75 years, I’d love to just reflect, but our challenges are so great and our opportunities so many that I’m happy to look ahead — anxious, to be sure — but more with hope than despair.
Burdett Loomis is an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Kansas. He can be reached at email@example.com.