It’s been a while since I have done a commentary on current events. The coronavirus is not only deadly it is all consuming. There is almost nothing else to report on in the news except the latest on the Coronavirus and how it impacts the various aspects of our lives. Except that North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un has been missing for two weeks (perhaps securing-in-place from Coronavirus?). Except that the Chinese Navy sunk a Vietnamese fishing trawler for venturing into the South China Sea (perhaps taking advantage of the absent aircraft carrier Teddy Roosevelt due to a COVID-19 outbreak on the ship?).
In my commentaries I try to discuss current events on how they relate to America’s Founding Principles. But the deadly disease stalking our country and the rest of the world, is not affected by principle. It doesn’t care about ideologies or constitutions. We are at war and our country is on a war footing. And when a country is on a war footing principles go out the window.
The Coronavirus infection rates has begun to slow down. The curve is flattening. And the states, prodded by President Trump, are beginning to ease the restrictions that have kept many people sheltering in their homes. Economic and social activity will pick up but people are asking the question, “when will we return to normal?” The answer is: we won’t.
At least not right away. Not until the memory of this fatal pandemic has faded away. Our grandparents that survived the Great Depression were changed. They became the Greatest Generation because they knew that if they could survive the Great Depression, they could survive anything. Even Hitler and Hirohito.
Will the survivors of the Great Coronavirus Pandemic be the next Greatest Generation? Or will they be cowed and fearful? Will they turn their backs on the rest of the world and hunker down to protect themselves from the real or imagined dangers that abound in the world?
America had already begun to step down from its role as leader of the free world before this pandemic struck. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, America was at the pinnacle of its strength and prestige as the world’s sole superpower. And for a while it appeared that the world was becoming a better place as more and more countries democratized and joined wholeheartedly in the community of nations. But slowly, America’s prestige and power dissipated. President Clinton was spooked by a disastrous intervention in Somalia. While a strong reaction against the Taliban and Al-Qaida were justified after 9-11, President Bush’s invasion of Iraq was a strategic blunder. Apparently, President Obama was the only person who thought that leading from behind was actually leading. And President Trump’s America First strategy is becoming an America Alone strategy.
America needs to retake the leadership role that it has abandoned. Not just for America but for the sake of the world. But America can only do this if the American people fully support the reassertion of leadership. The transition from pandemic to its aftermath is therefore critical for the people of the United States and also for the entire world. How we do it will be as important as what we do. Aha! Here is where principles come back into the picture.
Many people on the left and right will try and use the opportunity the pandemic crisis creates to remake America into something new and different. The left will point out that it took government power to defeat the pandemic and save the economy. They will want to extend and expand the emergency measures that helped us survive this crisis. There is already talk of instituting a Universal Basic Income to replace the cash payments doled out at the height of the lockdown. The left will point to the massive deficit spending and the lack of inflation as proof of the viability of the Modern Monetary Theory (a controversial theory that the government can create all the money it wants without consequence). They will point out the fact that minorities and the poor suffered more from the pandemic as a reason to further increase wealth redistribution.
On the other side of the aisle the right will assert the need to reduce taxes or create tax holidays in order to spur the recovery of the economy. They will highlight the need to shorten supply lines and bring back domestic production through high tariffs on friends and foes alike. They will show that cutting regulatory red tape sped the development of new treatments for COVID-19.
But these are only extensions and expansions of the same policies that made the United States vulnerable to crises in the first place. Emergency measures are just that. They are necessary during the emergency but are not sustainable in the long run.
If you break a leg in an accident you don’t get up the next day and run a marathon. You need therapy to get you through the crisis and then slowly begin your training to get your body back into shape for a long race. The coronavirus pandemic has been an accident for the United States and, indeed, for the whole world. The United States will have to go through a period of intensive therapy before we begin training to reassume our previous status. The problem is that we were not fit to run a long race before the pandemic. We were weak, flabby couch-potatoes that got out of breath walking to the fridge for a beer. We don’t just need intensive therapy followed by a rigorous training regime. We need a change in attitude. More than that. We need to redefine our goals, as a nation and as a people.
I am sure the doctors will learn a lot from this crisis to help prepare for the next pandemic. But there are some things I learned as a non-doctor from this crisis. One, the next crisis may not be a pandemic so what the doctors have learned, while valuable, may not be of any help. And two, the Coronavirus was deadly, but it was especially deadly to those people with another health condition or compromised immune system (in New York state 89.2% of fatalities were associated with at least one of these so-called comorbidities).
We do not know what the next black swan will be- if we did it wouldn’t be a black swan. It is, as former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said, an unknown unknown. It could be another pandemic. But it could also be a great power war, another financial meltdown, a great solar flare, the Yellowstone super-volcano, a giant meteor or the zombie apocalypse. We need to be prepared for anything.
Whatever the next crisis is, the United States will be at risk because it also suffers from a number of existential comorbidity factors. These include enormous public debt, debilitated military, sclerotic bureaucracy and a gridlocked legislative process. We cannot be on a continuous war footing; it would create too many social and economic distortions. But there is a lot that we can do to reduce the comorbidity factors that put the nation at greater risk.
Sorry righties, it will mean higher taxes to get the country’s finances back in shape. Sorry lefties, it will mean cutting back on redistribution and welfare benefits to affordable levels. But we can do this. It will not be easy, but the easy thing is often a false hope. The right thing is often very hard. It has taken us a generation to get us into our current state of affairs and us baby boomers must take much of the blame. The post-pandemic generations will have to take on this burden much as the survivors of the Great Depression did. Let’s hope that they can be the next Greatest Generation.