Coronavirus has brought tragedy to families and havoc to communities. In the long run, can the crisis make us healthier in body, spirit and economic well-being? Or will it heighten all that’s wrong with the world?
I’ve been thinking about where we’re headed as a state and nation and world five years out. Funny thing, the future came to mind just now when you called to tell me about the latest protest at the governor’s mansion. Sheesh, people are dying in a contagious bio-Armageddon, never a great sign to begin with. Now we have horn-honkers wailing like toddlers to make everything go back the way it was. Damn the mortal risk to millions, damn community values. Looking ahead, we’re hopelessly cleaved.
But no. To me these annoying blowbackers point, ironically, to a better world coming out of this mess. When a stable normal arrives, we’ll all have a sharp appreciation for the glue that holds us together. We’ll never again take for granted the simple act of buying an apple at the farmers market or seeing George Clinton at Toad’s one more time before he dies, not to mention hugging our own grown kids.
That’s worth something as a building block for the 2020s in the same way that our parents came out of World War II valuing freedom — and built the world we live in. Overcoming fear, sharing sacrifice, spending trillions of dollars to defeat an enemy, all that tends to unify us in a way that sparks the national spirit and the economy. Those reopen-the-state rallies are small and their message isn’t the stuff of the culture wars that divides us, like race and immigration and guns. Their point is, we need small businesses and public life.
We all agree on that point, and so in a weird sense we’re pulling together. That’s a great sign for the future.
Stable normal? Social glue? Unify? Are you and I both watching the same movie? (And let’s be honest: neither one of us was ever a world-class hugger.) For that matter, aren’t there — at minimum — two sets of Americans watching the same movie in very different states of mind? There is so much we don’t know about the American scene, 3 to 5 years out, and one of those unknowns is whether “American scene” will even be a thing.
The odds of secession are higher than they’ve been in 150 years, even to the point of states organizing into regional satellites. George Costanza said the key to a successful loving relationship is for each person to secretly think they’re getting a way better deal. Presumably the reverse of that is the road to divorce. We’re even starting to have “the talk.” Last week Trump, McConnell and Florida’s Rick Scott complained about bailing out poorly run blue states, Andrew Cuomo and Chris Murphy fired back about which states take money from the federal till and which ones put it in.
You better sit down, kids. The virus didn’t unite us. It showed us how different we are. P.S. Speaking of “stable normal,” do you suppose that when Trump claimed to be a stable genius, he meant the kind of genius who works in a stable, shoveling horsesh ... Never mind.
I agree it looks bad now with Trump and McConnell pushing the blue states to the brink on federal aid. Don’t worry, that’s just one passing regime. Since when in all the years we’ve worked together have you seen disgruntled political factions as a sign of apocalypse?
You’re big on 1,000 voices, right? Look what’s happening with the seven northeast states creating a rational plan to reopen. That’s making the best of a lousy hand and it’s a model for the future. If this nation has a weakness, it’s a naïve belief in its own power to keep regenerating itself. All empires run out of steam sooner or later. And Trump’s divisiveness points toward America’s demise. But not yet, and not because of this crisis.
We may well come out of this with something like the New Deal of the ‘30s or the 60s Great Society. That’s what Yale economist and Nobel laureate Robert Shiller suggested a few weeks ago: Narratives of community values and survival could lead to a friendlier society with less income inequality, maybe even driven by federal policies to spread the wealth. We’re seeing it now in the checks for everyone and the bailout for small business. Flawed as that program has been, it’s helping.
George Costanza? How about a lesson from that earlier TV comedy sidekick, Ed Norton from the Honeymooners. After a roller skating meltdown, the obese Ralph Kramden was humiliated and angry. Norton – Art Carney, from Connecticut – just started laughing. Ralph, Ed, Trixie and Alice all cracked up and shouted out long-ago youthful moments as a roadmap for growing older. Coronavirus can send the nation in that direction.
You really mean it? My 45-year-old E.F. Schumacher dream of an equitable, sustainable world economy based on the inherent worth of every human being is finally coming true? And all it took was a global pandemic? Huzzah! No, save that for the next rube who rolls off the hay wagon.
This looks a lot like another American Revolution where the power and resources remain, when the gunsmoke clears, in the hands of a slightly rearranged group of plutocrats. Look at the evidence. Start with the colossal disconnect and hubris of the big players who lined up for (and got!) the unforgivable forgivable loans nominally aimed and mom and pop small businesses. It wasn’t just Ruth’s Chris and the Lakers. IDT Corp. (the Howard Jonas telcom) got $10 million, Legacy Housing Corp (manufacturer of doublewides and oilfield work force living units) got $6.7 million, AutoNation (a chain of dealerships with $21 billion in annual revenue) got $77 million! Yes, they’re giving it back. They heard the roll of the tumbrels and the whack of hammers building gallows.
Mom and pop? Fuhgetabowdem. Jeff Bezos is now worth an extra $25 billion. Disney furloughed 100,000 workers. Their top two executive took minor (for them) salary haircuts but left their far more colossal bonus packages intact. Stock prices are booming for Walmart, Amazon, Home Depot, Costco, Dollar Stores. Mom and pop? A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found the median business has a month’s cash on hand and $10,000 in monthly expenses. There’s a fair chance that more small businesses don’t survive than do.
Art Carney? You got the wrong Connecticut guy. Try Jeremiah Wadsworth, one of the many fatcats who got fatter during and after the Revolution.
We missed St. Patrick’s Day but the parade of horribles marches apace and I’m in lockstep with you on the facts, as always. My own favorite from the small-business loan debacle is Trevor Milton, billionaire founder of Nikola Motor Co., a maker of fuel-cell trucks. He’s keeping his $4 million and feels no guilt about denying a lifeline for Mom & Pop shops because, he told CNBC, he’s been at rock-bottom. “I even sold all my guns, everything.” Had to sell his guns!
Nasty as they are, these worst-cases prove abuse, not decline in the coming years. Likewise, George Packer’s dark essay in The Atlantic this week, “We Are Living in a Failed State,” shows how Trump exploited a weak nation and crippled its government in crisis. Tragic, yes, but a backdrop, not a forecast. In the coronavirus response, we germinate a new attitude based on appreciation for what we have. We won’t end corruption and we won’t live the transcendental ideals of Thoreau’s and Emerson’s innocent America. We will move slightly in a better direction.
Speaking of fuel cells, one of the larger publicly traded companies to collect a forgivable small-business loan was Danbury’s FuelCell Energy, $6.5 million. Abuse? Tell that to the 300 Connecticut employees still on the payroll who make a futurist technology of clean power generation.
And let’s turn to health, holistic health. Can’t this crisis make us more aware of the spiritual link between our bodies and our world, in a way that would make Emerson proud – and help more people reach good health? In the next five years we’re going to have more health tools for regular people and now we have a touchstone to use them.
Speaking of taking care of our bodies, why do you keep sending me things at 2:38 a.m.? When do you sleep? In the uncannily prescient movie “Contagion,” Jude Law plays an internet huckster getting people riled up about a “suppressed” pandemic cure derived from forsythia. This is the problem with health and holism. We already had a growing contingent of people questioning something as basic as measles vaccines. Panic and pandemic will only further derange the deranged, and when it becomes imperative that we all get flu shots and COVID vaccine, what’s compliance going to look like?
The rest of population is gaining weight and drinking more. (Actual Forbes headline from April 11: “During Self-Isolation, More People Show Online Interest In Alcohol Than Healthcare”). You are an exception, biking to cover stories and playing aerobic Frisbee games more suitable for dogs. Meanwhile, we’re still stuck with the worst possible healthcare system.
One massive impediment to anticipating pandemics and developing cures is that it doesn’t map well onto profits and earnings. The big companies prefer pills that you take every day for your blood pressure or acid reflux. It’s tough to get a conversation going about a drug that immunizes a person in one shot and harder still if it’s a disease that isn’t present yet in the community. I’m just not persuaded that everything will be different, even after the body blow delivered to the very sector of healthcare.
Yes, it might be a wakeup call or, more likely, fuel the McConnell argument for eviscerating Medicare and Medicaid — two systems that really do work pretty well — based on the argument that we can’t afford them. Now, I have to go outside and look at the forsythia. They seem especially lovely this spring.
You’re right that the medical entitlements are under attack and we can throw Obamacare into that mix too. But don’t worry so much. We’ll have a lot more people over 70 in a decade — like two columnists I know — and old people vote. In ten years we’ll be closer to universal health care than we are now. Coronavirus is a model for that, with many states requiring no-add-on coverage. You’ve always said we can’t keep building onto a crappy private health system, like we talked about on your WNPR radio show with the Kaiser Health News editor.
Plus, in three years we’re going to wake up and say, wait a minute, we borrowed $4 trillion to get out of this hole and paying it back isn’t so hard. It’s like the Marshall Plan after WWII — we can borrow and spend a gazillion dollars as long as U.S. output keeps rolling along and other countries want to buy all that debt. That raises the stickiest problem for progress, the breakdown of global trade and cooperation. But even there, as Ray Dalio says in his new book, “The Changing World Order,” we’re more self-sufficient but we’re as interconnected as ever heading into the next decade.
The game is to use coronavirus to realize the enemy is not each other, and that the goal of a good life is deeper than consumption.
“If you don’t have a wristband, you don’t get through the door.” That was the refrain of one of Paul Simon’s most recent songs, and I think it’s also part of our future. I re-watched “Contagion” last night. You may recall that, near the end, people wore government-issued wristbands with QR codes to verify their status as immunized or naturally immune.
As we’re heading toward press time, the University of Minnesota group is saying the disease will be around for two more years – essentially until 2/3 of the world has the right color wristband. If we can’t globalize that process, it will affect travel. What if the EU doesn’t accept our certification process; or what if, as is likely, we don’t accept China’s? You might need a wristband to go to a restaurant or a museum or a gym. Or school. The people at the trailing end of this process will be on the wrong level of a caste system.
And then there’s money. A restaurant or an airplane permanently operating at 2/3 of its former capacity will have to charge higher prices. The level of preventive medical care you’re received – often a byproduct of your income and status – will determine your access to a wide range of other services and pursuits. It won’t be limited to COVID19. In the next 3 to 5 years there will be a renewed push toward panviral treatments and vaccines, the viral equivalent of broad-spectrum antibiotics, but much harder to develop. And will these super-medicines be available to everyone or just to the “haves?” Will there be genetic discrimination against people who don’t have powerful immune systems?
In the years ahead, the world will try to plan better. I hope, on their panels of biotech and policy experts, they include a few pure imaginers. In a 2015 short story called “So Much Cooking,” Naomi Kritzer imagines a pandemic in which people are confined at home, obsessing about food availability and bread-baking. In “Contagion” (2011) the character played by Laurence Fishburne uses the term “social distancing.” The 2007 film “I Am Legend” contains a toilet paper hoarding scene. In “Sapiens – a Brief History of Humankind,” Yuval Noah Harari writes about the ability to believe in abstractions, to operate collectively based on an un-seeable concept, as one of the distinguishing features of our species.
Even as I despair of our reality, I allow myself to hope, a little bit, on behalf of an animal that can imagine. Be well, old friend.
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