Coronavirus Diary (56): Parks and Privilege in New Jersey

About two weeks ago, we had a discussion here about New Jersey’s decision (Executive Order 118) to close its state and county parks, leaving municipalities the discretion to keep their parks open. The rationale for the order was that given the option to use the parks, some people will, but many people will not, observe physical distancing norms.

Those who don’t create an enforcement problem for the enforcement authorities. Much of the enforcement in parks is farmed out to parks personnel who aren’t police officers, and therefore lack powers of seizure. In other words, the personnel in question have no legal authority to force anyone to do anything. Faced with extremely non-compliant, non-cooperative, threatening, or dangerous individuals, parks personnel have no choice but to call the police for assistance. The police themselves are stretched thin, and some state parks are at a significant distance from police stations. It can also be a confusing task to find someone inside a state park. Locations are vague, and GPS often doesn’t work. Beyond this, it simply takes time for the police to arrive. By the time the police get to a park where such an altercation may have taken place, a semi-intelligent suspect will long since have left the scene.

To permit people to defy  distancing norms with impunity is to increase the probability of defiance, and so, to increase the probability of another spike in infections, undoing all of the painstaking gains we’ve managed to make in the New York-New Jersey area. To do that is to increase the probability of hospitalizations and death. Even past the peak of the “surge,” New Jersey’s hospital resources are still stretched thin; there’s a huge backlog of urgent but non-emergent, non-COVID cases waiting to be done. (I’m told that some Jersey hospitals, like St Barnabas in Livingston, have started such cases as of May 4th, but I haven’t confirmed it. Just to be clear: I regard this as first priority when it comes to re-opening.)

People evading the preceding facts are in an ideologically-inspired state of denial. Many of them are libertarians who believe, dogmatically, that state closures of anything are immoral under any circumstances, and feel free to demand that the state re-open anything it’s closed regardless of the expected consequences. These people deploy the same grab-bag of rhetorical techniques, all of them red herrings designed to draw attention away from a few salient facts: social distancing is a moral and epidemiological imperative during this pandemic; left to their own devices, too many people will fail voluntarily to follow distancing norms to the degree required to keep infection rates down; since they won’t, the norms need to be enforced; when enforced, however mildly, the act of enforcement can be predicted to elicit push-back; the authorities need to respond firmly and proportionately to push-back, being ready in the extreme case to use lethal force against those who deploy it first.*

As of this past Saturday, the state and county parks (and golf courses) in New Jersey have been re-opened. In re-opening them, the governor pleaded with people to observe norms of social distancing, describing the re-opening as a test of their willingness to do so. It appears that they mostly have, but I had to laugh at this:

The governor said park personnel and state and local police will provide reports to the state. Meanwhile, state Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Catherine McCabe will patrol parks Saturday to survey the situation, her office said.

“If we hear minimal reports of knucklehead behavior at our parks, and we see the metrics we need to meet being met over the next couple of days and weeks, that we know you all have taken to heart your responsibility,” Murphy said Saturday.

“Frankly, knowing New Jerseyans, this is what we should expect,” he continued. “We are smart, we have all followed best practices, and together we are flattening the curves, and we are making progress.”

The governor is, of necessity, a generous man when it comes to describing the people of this state. He knows that he can’t openly insult the people whose votes he wants for re-election, even when insults might turn out to be truer to the mark. “Frankly, knowing New Jerseyans…” is not a sentence I would ever want to be in the position of having to complete for public consumption. But I’m willing to accept his generous assessment for now.

You can, however, always rely on me to look at the darker side of any cheerful story. Consider what actually happened this weekend in the state and county parks after one day of re-opening. Eight parks were overrun. (See the list below the post.) Others not mentioned on the official list were closed for overcrowding. I’ve been to six of these parks myself. They’re not small places, so we’re not talking about small crowds.

No bathroom facilities were available. Do you really think everyone held it in? I don’t. Sorry to be indelicate, but where did all that shit go? And the dirty diapers? The used toilet paper? Who had to clean all that up–a bunch of economists from AIER? I can see Jeff Tucker and Phil Magness stooping to a lot of things, but not that. Can you really see Jason Brennan and his ten most loyal followers on Discus cleaning shit up in a state park? Don’t bet on it. On the other hand, what would have happened if they’d opened the restrooms? It’s a dirty enough job under ordinary circumstances. But how’d you like to clean it during a pandemic? How’d you like to use it during a pandemic?

“No picnicking.” It’s not clear what counts as a “picnic,” and you can be sure that New Jerseyans will, so to speak, pick at the definition. Do you really think the average Jerseyan can go a whole two hours without snacks and treats? NJTV News reported that some didn’t. Creature comforts are a categorical imperative in this state. Who cleans up after people are done? Who issues the cleaners PPE? What if no one issues them PPE? What if there is no PPE? What if the virus gets past the PPE? I wonder how many people at AIER or BHL have ever cleaned hazardous waste without PPE. I have. I went out of my way to do it for a mere summer, just to see what it was like. It’s a miracle I don’t have hepatitis (but I don’t). At any rate, the experience taught me to go out and get my hepatitis vaccinations (A and B, anyway). It taught me some other things, too.

People understandably happy at the park openings have conveniently decided to bypass such issues. They’re the kinds of issues that people entranced by the wonders of “the free market” tend not to think of. Markets equilibrating cleanly on the pages of a textbook don’t indicate what it’s like to have to pick up someone’s COVID-positive shit sandwich and dispose of it without PPE–working for minimum wage, with nothing but an Obamacare health plan to back you up during a pandemic, with $1,000 in the bank, $1,000+ rent coming due, and thousands of dollars of debt. Spend more time with shit, piss, blood, and disease, and it all becomes crystal clear in a way that it doesn’t simply by assiduous reading of the collected works of Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, and Milton Friedman (or Jeff Tucker, Jason Brennan, and Phil Magness). There’s a reason why academics don’t list “shit, piss, blood, and disease disposal” as AOCs on their CVs. They might reflect on the experiences of some who could.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m happy that the parks are open again, sincerely so. At some point, I’ll probably make my own way over to Bulls Island, Hacklebarney, or Round Valley and spend some quality time there. Come to think of it, I’m meeting a friend in a park later today. Guess what we intend to talk about.

The life versus livelihood dilemma is a difficult one with no simple or easy answers. But one big problem with the way it’s been discussed is the conflation of genuine issues of livelihood with a very vague, handwaving, and self-indulgent conception of well-being that verges on frivolity. No one can pretend that they need to go to a state or county park “because their livelihood depends on it,” or because if they don’t, they won’t be able to “put food on the table for their family.”

It’s one thing to insist that municipal parks stay open so that families with children can have somewhere to work off their energies. But when we reach arguments of this nature (see video below), we reach a kind of sinister reductio ad absurdum beyond which it’s hard to imagine anyone could go. This person is making the case for opening the schools, but he might as well have been making the case for opening the parks.

I don’t have any respect for this, or the uses being made of it. This father is exploiting his child’s suicide as well as his other childrens’ reactions to it, as well as his neighbors’ attempts to help, in order to send the message that if only his son had been in school, the son would never have committed suicide. The father admits that the claim is unprovable and unknowable, but that doesn’t deter him from using it to blackmail everyone watching. His viewers, taking his lead, have begun to use the video as an argument for indiscriminate opening up.

The argument here is not that they’re losing their jobs or their homes. It’s not that they’re hungry, and can’t get food because of the lockdown. It’s not that they’re ill, and can’t get medical care. It’s not that they have non-COVID medical conditions and have been waiting patiently for the hospitals to start admitting them or doing outpatient procedures. It’s that their expansive middle class homes are veritable prisons, that their manicured lawns are insufficient lebensraum, and that if they can’t open stuff up that puts other people at risk, why, they will just go completely crazy, and start killing themselves. Then they will blame those deaths on those who counseled caution in the middle of a pandemic. And won’t we be sorry.

From denying the seriousness of COVID-19 because it only killed old people, we’ve now reached the equal and opposite absurdity of denying the need for quarantine measures because quarantines kill kids. How? By inducing them to play video games, break their computer monitors, and commit suicide, supposedly a network effect of the COVID-19 “lockdown.” If death weren’t involved in this case, the claim would induce laughter. Add death to the equation, and it becomes hard to know how to respond to the video except to shake one’s head in disbelief, and realize that there is no bottom to this sick, sad country.

Yet another belaboring of the obvious: the people who use state and county parks are largely upper middle class people with access to cars, who have the leisure to take some time off and unwind in nice weather. In New Jersey, at least, most state and county parkland is located in the state’s northern, western, and south eastern counties, away from urban population centers, and inaccessible by mass transit. The people who “need” them the most–urban dwellers–are precisely the people who have the most trouble getting to them.

It’s not as though the people clamoring for the opening of state and county parks are clamoring for the right, much less the obligation, to shuttle the children of Newark, East Orange, Irvington, Paterson, or Trenton to them. Naturally, those are the kids with the highest incidence of COVID-19, who live in places with the greatest population densities, and who (consequently) face the most intense mental health challenges. If we should be opening the schools, and opening the parks, and can ease back into business as usual, what could go wrong with having a couple of urban kids in your SUV as you make your way to your favorite state park? I mean, kids can’t die from COVID-19. So let a thousand shuttle services bloom.

I find it grimly ironic that now that we’re all confined to our homes, it’s belatedly occurred to the upper-middle class residents of this state that, why, people need space, don’t they? Yes, they do. That’s why the state’s zoning policies give some people space at the expense of others, and have done so since time immemorial, without inspiring anything like the outrage we’re now seeing from the outraged.

Methods of land acquisition in this state are almost deliberately designed to function as a form of exclusionary zoning adverse to urban apartment dwellers. That’s been the case for decades. If we were really serious about the “livelihood” issue, we might consider abolishing or at least reducing the size of the state and county parks, considering the fact that their existence reduces the supply of land available for housing, and thereby pushes up the price of housing across the state. In that case, urban dwellers would be able to afford housing in less population-dense regions of the state. And then, believe it or not, they would be closer to where most of the state and county parks are.

Housing advocates have been making this very point since the Mt. Laurel decision, decades ago. The reaction of New Jersey’s suburban population? Rage. Now we’ve managed across the state to replicate an approximation of the conditions that Mt. Laurel was intended to alleviate. What is their reaction? Rage. Maybe we should explore the hypothesis that the condition behind this rage is not a thirst for justice but an appetite for the satisfaction of entitlement, one that knows no limits, and will stop at none. There are precedents for what happens when no limits are set. None are observed.

In conducting the “re-open” debate, let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that undefined, open-ended “mental health needs” are so overwhelming a consideration that they somehow weigh in the balance alongside infection rates, hospitalization rates, death rates, use of intensive or critical care resources, strain on first responders, or strain on the medical system that slows down the rate at which the non-COVID case load can be addressed. A state or nation that treats some people’s recreation as being morally on par with other people’s death-by-suffocation, or excruciating pain and suffering, or week in the hospital, etc. is not the “freedom loving” country it professes itself to be, but a population of psychopaths striking empty postures about “freedom” in order to rationalize outright sadism. People have “mental health needs,” to be sure. But if we let “mental health needs” become a kind of code word for “all encompassing sense of entitlement that demands immediate satisfaction,” we’re emptying “mental health needs” of determinate meaning, and setting ourselves up for mass death.

It would be one thing if we were talking about one person’s job, or income, or business as against another person’s health. Life versus livelihood is admittedly a tough call. But distinguish that trade-off from false substitutes for it. The life/livelihood trade-off is not the same as asking whether upper middle class people, bored with life in or at their spacious, well-equipped homes, should be permitted to overrun the state and county parks, strew the place with garbage, throw their dirty diapers around, spread disease, and then start fights with the underpaid or short-staffed personnel who have to deal with their myopic, truculent behavior.  If that sounds ungenerous, maybe that’s because you’re missing how ungenerous the people in question are being to the people who have clean up the messes they make.

Don’t misunderstand me. To repeat: I’m glad the parks are open. To repeat: I’m going to one today. But we have to stop equating every opening with every other, or every argument for opening with every other. Like should be compared with like, not with the obviously incongruous.

Opening the hospitals to the backlog of non-COVID cases is not on par with opening the K-12 schools so that the kids can have their prom. Opening businesses back up to stave off economic collapse is not on par with starting up sports events because Ashley and Chad have just got to get back to lacrosse at some point, and enough is enough already with this COVID-19 thing. Opening up the parks is fine now that R<1 in New Jersey,** but if we get a spike that drives up infection rates, closing them will not be a tragedy on par with the loss of our hard-won epidemiological gains so far. All of this should be obvious, but apparently, nothing is obvious any more.

A sense of entitlement is closely allied with a loss of moral proportion. A country in the grips of the one sets itself up to be in the grips of the other. This would be bad enough at any time. Under present conditions, it’s a recipe for further disaster, followed by further rationalizations for disaster, followed by further numbness to the phenomenon of disaster. My fear is that the people paying the price already know that. And the people imposing the price will never figure it out.

*I’ll respond to the red herrings themselves in a separate post, including Phil Magness’s recent Facebook post to the effect that any case for enforcement is ipso facto a defense of police malfeasance.

**I had earlier, in an amusing Freudian slip, written “R<0.” Thanks to Ray Raad for spotting the error.

Thanks to Susan Gordon for some of the links I’ve used, and for helpful input. No implication intended that she agrees or disagrees with anything I’ve said here. 

Division of Parks and Forestry Unsubscribe

7:49 AM (6 hours ago)

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In order to KEEP PARKS OPEN and all visitors a safe distance from one another ⚠️ visit close to home, ⚠️ mask up, and ⚠️ make your stay short.

🚨 Barnegat Lighthouse State Park
🚨 Bulls Island Recreation Area
🚨 Delaware & Raritan Canal State Park
🚨 Hacklebarney State Park
🚨 Round Valley Recreation Area
🚨 Wharton State Forest
🚨 Wawayanda State Park
🚨 Worthington State Forest


Learn social distancing tips in our video:

Learn more about COVID-19 in New Jersey:

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15 thoughts on “Coronavirus Diary (56): Parks and Privilege in New Jersey

  1. I have in fact had jobs cleaning other people’s trash, washing other people’s dirty dishes, washing floors, and cleaning dirty bathrooms covered in filth. Have you?


    • I had to read your comment a few times to grasp that it’s asking just as stupid a question as I thought it was on first reading.

      In the original post, I say:

      I wonder how many people at AIER or BHL have ever cleaned hazardous waste without PPE. I have. I went out of my way to do it for a mere summer, just to see what it was like.

      In the original post, the last sentence is hyperlinked. If you click the link, it goes to a job description, “Environmental Services Aide I,” at what used to be called Overlook Hospital. That was the job I held at Overlook. Here is the job description:

      Overlook Medical Center, a member of Atlantic Health System, is seeking a Per Diem Environmental Aide. Required hours are 7:30am- 3:30pm, including every other weekend.

      The successful candidate will be responsible for the following functions:
      • General cleaning, empty trash, high/low dusting, mop floors, sanitize all furniture inpatient rooms, clean commode, clean bathrooms and discard debris, remove soiled linen and replace with fresh linen in patient rooms.


      • HS diploma or GED equivalent required or will obtain within 2 years of employment.

      • Qualified candidates must be able to read, write, and speak English, solid work history, prior institutional housekeeping experience preferred.
      • Prior floor care experience is a plus.

      No, I didn’t wash any dishes. That was a different department. Not mentioned in my job description is the fact that I hauled bags of blood, shit, and urine and threw them into a furnace for days on end without PPE.

      I’m sure you’re more interested in the reference to you, as you often are. When I said this,

      Can you really see Jason Brennan and his ten most loyal followers on Discus cleaning shit up in a state park? Don’t bet on it.

      the question was deliberately posed so as to refer to the immediate future. Can you see him doing it? I wouldn’t bet on it (in the future). My point was, this is not a future you have to regard as a live one. It’s a future I have to regard as a live one. You have a chaired position with tenure. I have an at-will position at an institution that’s terminated 24 of its faculty and furloughed (at last count) 31 of its staff–setting aside the two people terminated by death via COVID-19. This is why, when people go on about my insensitivity to the economic side of life–as people at AIER tend to do–I tend to be unimpressed. The supposed horrors they’re conjuring up–lost jobs, lost income, etc.–are the circumstances I’m more likely to face than they are.

      So far, you’ve done a shit job of reading, and said nothing of substance. Great work if you can get it.


      • I didn’t read your entire rant. I just saw you asking the bizarre question. I was wondering you were classist in addition to racist, as we established last week.

        Are you planning to start cleaning up diapers and poop in the parks soon, if you lose your at-will job? If not, why ask if I am? Also, can you answer in a couple short sentences rather than a long-winded rant?

        Liked by 1 person

        • In other words, you saw your own name, fixated on it, didn’t bother to read the rest, made an incautious comment that turned out to be false, and are now trying to stage a comeback. Long on bravado, short on rebuttal. For a person of your intelligence and talent, you really are one stupid motherfucker. But keep at it, Jason. The more you write, the more it shows.


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      • Actually, I see a couple of sources; maybe these are the ones you had in mind. I don’t have time to wade through this now, so I’m just copying and pasting it without passing judgment one way or another. I’ll take a look when I have the time. Honestly, Tucker’s writing is so transparently idiotic, and makes so strenuous an effort to evade the obvious, that I almost don’t care whether he wrote Ron Paul’s newsletter articles. The pieces he wrote for AIER’s Coronavirus and Economic Crisis book are so embarrassingly bad that you’d almost have thought they were fabricated by his worst critics.

        It’s amazing that with colleagues like this, people like Brennan and Magness have the nerve to go around attacking the 1619 Project, or Nancy MacLean, or Neil Ferguson, or the New England Journal of Medicine, or whatever hits the spot on a given day. Meanwhile, they operate without qualms within a milieu inhabited by cranks and frauds like Jeff Tucker. Magness has a Facebook post in which he advises his trusted in-group colleagues to “socially distance” from me. I sincerely hope they do.

        Wolf Blitzer in The Economist:

        While his statements sometimes leave the impression that Mr Paul simply licensed his name to people with whom he had little contact, there is much evidence to the contrary. The newsletters that appeared under his name were published by M&M Graphics and Advertising, a company run by Mr Paul’s longtime congressional campaign manager Mark Elam—which Mr Elam himself confirms. And according to numerous veterans of the libertarian movement, it was an open secret during the late-80s and early-90s who was ghostwriting the portions of Mr Paul’s newsletters not penned by the congressman himself: Lew Rockwell, founder of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, and members of his staff, among them Jeffrey Tucker, now editorial vice president of the Institute.

        Mr Rockwell denied authorship to Jamie Kirchick, the reporter whose New Republic article published earlier this week reignited controversy over the newsletters. But both Mr Rockwell (who attacked the New Republic article on his site) and Mr Tucker refused to discuss the matter with Democracy in America. (“Look at,” Mr Tucker told me, “I’m willing to take any responsibility for anything up there, OK?”) According to Wirkman Virkkala, formerly the managing editor of the libertarian monthly Liberty, the racist and survivalist elements that appeared in the newsletter were part of a deliberate “paleolibertarian” strategy, “a last gasp effort to try class hatred after the miserable showing of Ron Paul’s 1988 presidential effort.” It is impossible now to prove individual authorship of any particular item in the newsletter, but it is equally impossible to believe that Mr Rockwell did not know of and approve what was going into the newsletter.


        • Yes, the racist frat boy crank vibe seems to follow Tucker into every organization that employs him. (Ryan McMaken, who has Tucker’s old job at the Mises Institute, has done tremendous work cleaning up Tucker’s mess, by the way.) Tucker also co-founded the League of the South, a white supremacist organization that advocates secession from the US.

          There no wisdom coming out of AIER these days, that’s for sure.

          Liked by 1 person

          • So much of the libertarian movement is a freak show. I had to exit it, as much out of ideological disagreement as to escape the people in it. Obviously, many exceptions to the rule, but plenty to confirm the rule, as well.

            Liked by 1 person

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  4. Gee, there’s a surprise (ht: Jackie Hadel):

    Would you trust your life to people who can’t even pick up their own trash? Make sure to look at photos of the PPE worn by the people picking up the trash. If the virus is on that trash, and you shake the trash around, the virus is going to fly up into the air around you. The more you do this, the more it’ll happen. If it’s hot out, and you get lax with the half-assed PPE you’re wearing, you’re increasing the probability of infection. It’ll be five days before you feel any symptoms, if you do. By that time, you’ll have infected–who knows?–between 3 and 9 people, who will have infected a bunch more. If the mortality rate is just 1%, somewhere down the line, and not too far down the line, someone will end up dead. At the very least, someone will end up in the hospital. But hell, the beaches are open, and that’s what matters, right? A bunch of pale people got a tan.

    Hearken to the sage words of Jeff Tucker, Editorial Director of the American Institute for Economic Research, and colleague of Phil Magness and Jason Brennan:

    So long as people feel that essential needs can be met, they maintain civility and morality (which is always a casualty in panics), giving us all a much greater chance of getting through this (Jeffrey Tucker, “Celebrate the Heroes Who Stay Open,” Coronavirus and Economic Crisis, p. 121).

    Well, many of the people lounging about on the beach or in a county or state park are probably getting their essential needs met. Is it civil or morally upright of them to litter? Doesn’t appear that way. So should we exchange the “maintain civility” thesis for the “blame it on the tragedy of the commons” thesis on an ad hoc basis? Presumably, if we privatized the beaches, no one would ever litter. Of course, if we privatized the beaches, then depending on the owners’ decisions and how liability rules were written, they might well be closed indefinitely, and respect for property rights would oblige us to keep them that way. But hey, the free market’s always got the answers.

    More Tucker wisdom, same essay, talking about how great it is that you can still get Domino’s Pizza during a pandemic:

    And so far as I can tell, all the employees and certainly the customers in these places are happy for the opportunity to serve (p. 121).

    Just how far is “so far as I can tell”? Did he ask any of the people making or delivering the pizzas whether they were happy with the PPE they were getting, or felt safe behind the counter, making up that cardboard crap that Domino’s calls “pizza”? I did. The answer to both questions is “no”: they don’t have adequate PPE, and don’t feel safe. They aren’t “happy.” That’s why essential workers are staging walk offs and strikes. Ain’t no fun waiting around to be a coronavirus millionaire.

    I get why Tucker is more certain about the customers, though. Customers are happy because someone else is bearing the risks for them, they don’t have to cook, and they’re stuffing their faces. Again I don’t see Jeff Tucker making pizzas for Domino’s any time soon. Think of the opportunity costs in happiness foregone! People like Tucker are perfectly content to shoot their mouths off about the risks that other people are supposed to bear, and the work that other people are going to do. As for doing it, or even looking carefully at what it’s like to do it, forget it.

    I’m asking a couple of pizza delivery drivers and restaurant workers I know to contribute essays to my COVID-19 Narrative Project. Suffice it to say that a different picture will emerge than the happy-pappy bullshit being served up by the likes of Tucker. I’ve done food service work myself. The bullshit of food service employees “happy” to make food in close quarters during a pandemic is only too apparent to anyone who has.


  5. I would say that I “scooped” the mainstream press, but that may call the wrong associations to mind. Seriously, though, what did they expect? Shit happens.

    The second weekend of New Jersey’s county and state parks being reopened after weeks of coronavirus closures was met with an unexpectedly foul problem as visitors left urine-filled bottles and feces behind, officials said Monday.

    “There is a zero tolerance for that,” Col. Patrick Callahan, the superintendent of the New Jersey State Police, said at the daily coronavirus press conference in Trenton. He said he received an “uptick” in those reports from Park Police officials after Mother’s Day weekend.


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