What we need to do right now is pretty straight-forward: stay home, push our government to provide the protective gear for our healthcare workers, build capacity to treat patients and a safety net for all the displaced workers. Aside from that, we should be thinking about what happens when the pandemic is over. With social, political, and economic norms thrown into complete disarray, I think we should have the imagination to see this as a real paradigm-changing opportunity.
Pete Buttegieg said some months ago that people just wanted to fix things, not foment a revolution. That was before the pandemic. Think of the pandemic as your dad pushing you into the deep end of the pool when you weren’t quite sure that you could dive in and survive. Of course, the pandemic has more dire implications than your dad had in mind—many of us will not make it to the other side. But if it wasn’t for the mortal threat, we wouldn’t be doing all the things that we never would have imagined we’d be doing a month ago.
When this is over, at the very least, many of us will continue to work at home, many will continue to walk and ride bikes, far fewer will be booking flights and cruises. There appears to be a national boom in home gardening. My wife found that many of the major seed companies are no longer even taking orders. Similar runs on chickens and other farm animals. We may think that hoarding toilet paper is pretty pathetic, but investing in home-grown food is a sound decision. There are hopeful signs that a lot more people understand that we really are all in this together, that what happens to the most vulnerable of us really will impact all of us. And last but not least, we have all come to understand that human civilization is actually quite frail and utterly dependent on the beneficence of nature. These are all healthy realizations as we face the multiple crises of climate, inequality, xenophobia, and the violence of dominance in our society.
Along with change, we can expect that a lot of jobs will be permanently erased. Right off, we can see that a lot of people in the transport and hospitality sectors will suffer losses. If we take this opportunity to advance publicly financed healthcare, college, and banking, and push to transform our energy sector to renewables, we will have a lot more stranded workers. The consensus now developing is that we are headed for a major depression. It’s a good thing that we have previously experienced this, because we know how to get out of it.
It’s a good thing we had Franklin Roosevelt then because it appears that we won’t be electing our own FDR. His answer then was the New Deal. From the New Deal we got the FDIC (savings insurance) and Social Security. We also got a hefty investment in infrastructure from hydropower (Hoover Dam for one) and grid expansion (Tennessee Valley Authority) to roads and bridges, support for farms and industry, and the trails and park improvements of the CCC and WPA. The important thing is that people were put back to work on solid investments in public infrastructure, and financial safety nets were put in place.|
Today, we have a Green New Deal proposed by progressive Democrats. Before the pandemic, it was opposed by Republicans and Democratic leadership because it will be financed by taxes on the wealthy and on borrowed money. Also, many oxen will be gored in the process, i.e., the fossil fuel industry, the insurance industry, the banking industry, and many others. Post pandemic, a lot of those people are already out of work. Maybe 35 million people will lose their employer-provided health insurance. Seventy percent of Americans get their health insurance through their employer, and it took a pandemic for us to see the weakness in this system. We are in a state of flux. Now is the time to change course.
We know that the 15 years of deficit spending during the New Deal and WWII Era created a prosperous post war economy that lasted into the 1970’s. We today are similarly presented with a huge workload of infrastructure renewal and transition. We will also have a huge workforce recently out of work. How is this anything other than a wonderful coincidence? There is every likelihood that a person that was laid off of a job in the old economy will find a better one in the new economy.
The mistake that deficit hawks make is in thinking of money as wealth. It isn’t wealth. It is the grease that gets people working and spreads the fruits of that labor across the entire population. In the end, the wealth is in a transformed infrastructure, a secure, productive and prosperous workforce, and a peaceful world, and it will pay off that original loan many times over. The Covid 19 pandemic may prove to be the catalyst that brought us the world we needed. Let’s see that it does.